Arts & Culture

Raleigh’s ‘Public Displays’ exhibit puts art of kissing in the spotlight

'Public Displays' puts art of kissing in the spotlight

VIDEO: Marsha Gordon, an N.C. State film professor, inspired by Thomas Edison's 1896 film in which he filmed actors John Rice and May Irwin nuzzling and kissing for 19 seconds, decided to update it to the modern day. The result is “Public Displays
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VIDEO: Marsha Gordon, an N.C. State film professor, inspired by Thomas Edison's 1896 film in which he filmed actors John Rice and May Irwin nuzzling and kissing for 19 seconds, decided to update it to the modern day. The result is “Public Displays

Ushering the couple into the “Give Us a Kiss” booth at the front of downtown Raleigh’s Flanders Gallery, Marsha Gordon gave instructions on how to proceed with their on-camera kiss.

“It’s 19 seconds total,” Gordon said. “No audio, so no one will hear anything you say and you can do whatever. We just ask that you kiss at some point. We’ll give a five-second warning, so you can plan any sort of finale you want.”

Working as cameraman, Gordon’s husband, Louis Cherry, signaled that they were live, and the young couple began to kiss … and kiss … and kiss some more – quite passionately for the entire 19 seconds, except for an instant when the woman disengaged long enough to give a brief, sheepish grin.

Afterward, the couple smiled and laughed as they departed into the gallery to wait for their kissing video to appear on the wall. Cherry and Gordon laughed, too.

“The range you see is interesting,” Cherry said. “You get everything from very passionate like that to more familial, friendly. And some people are kind of embarrassed.”

A nod to Edison

This was opening night of “Public Displays,” which is billed as an interactive video installation and performance piece. The inspiration for it came from an 1896 film made by the renowned American inventor Thomas Edison, in which he filmed actors John Rice and May Irwin nuzzling and kissing for 19 seconds.

Gordon, an N.C. State film professor, decided to update Edison’s film to the modern day. “Public Displays” will ultimately combine three rounds of filming at Flanders to show an array of kisses, displayed on Flanders’ walls 12 at a time in black and white alongside Edison’s original. The last filming session with be 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Valentine’s Day.

During the Feb. 5 First Friday, a good-sized crowd packed the small Flanders gallery to do their on-camera kiss and then wait for it to show up on the wall. Processing from kiss to appearance took about 10 minutes, and people would stand around with their mobile phones at the ready to film the film of themselves. Meantime, there was also a “peepshow box” set up with a live feed in the kissing booth, through which people could watch what was going on there in real time.

Some 64 couples in all shapes, shades and sizes took part in round one – all sorts of combinations of male, female, races, ages and even species. More than one participant brought along a dog or two, for kisses and licks.

A few famous local faces appeared in the videos, too, most notably Avett Brothers cellist Joe Kwon – who took off his hat and hid behind it as he and his wife kissed. It made for interesting watching.

“Ultimately what we perceive about ourselves is not what everyone else sees,” said Lisa Barrie, watching her own kiss with her husband. “We have so much anxiousness about overdoing or underdoing or whatever, and that just doesn’t matter. There’s a schism between what we feel and what other people see. What’s between is vulnerability.”

‘What’s better than kissing?’

Onscreen kissing has a long history in film. Even though the original Edison kiss shown in “Public Displays” was the height of Victorian-era modesty, it was still moderately scandalous for its time.

“Just showing a woman’s ankle was breaking a boundary,” said Gordon. “We live in a world with very different boundaries now, obviously. What interested all of us is how onscreen kisses are so much a part of film history. Very few films don’t have any kissing at all, maybe a few chain-gang movies. So we’re bringing something from film history out into the world and allowing people to contribute to a new 21st-century form of media-making.”

For “Public Displays,” Gordon assembled a team with her architect husband Cherry (who also designed the kissing booth) and three librarians from N.C. State to process the shoots quickly enough to display them after just a few minutes. After the closing Valentine’s Day session, their handiwork will be on display at Flanders through late February.

Eventually, “Public Displays” might be online or even sold in some way. The protocols can be moved and replicated elsewhere, and they hope to repeat it in other places.

“I bet it would look really different wherever you went,” Gordon said.

One of the piece’s most moving kiss videos involves Linda Tripp-Corbin, who brought in a framed photograph of her late husband (who died from cancer six years ago) and kissed it.

“It was hard to do, but very meaningful,” Corbin said. “I thanked Marsha and Louis for letting me kiss my husband in public one more time – I kiss his picture at home all the time, in private.”

As Corbin spoke, a friend of hers came up from behind, gave her a hug and murmured in her ear, “That was awesome.”

After the embrace, Corbin laughed and took in the crowded room with a wave.

“This is fabulous,” she said. “What’s better than kissing?”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi


What: “Public Displays”

When: Filming 5-9 p.m. Sunday; on display through Feb. 27

Where: Flanders Gallery, 505 S. Blount St., Raleigh

Cost: Free (participants will also receive a free copy of their filmed kiss)

Details: 919-757-9533 or or