Initially all written by Bartlett, the questions in ‘Excuse Me, Would You Mind If I Asked You a Few Personal Questions About Sex?’ are replaced, one by one, by a question posed by one of the visitors. “Question 25” of the questionnaire invites participants to ask whatever they want and, each week, Bartlett chooses a question to replace one of his own. This weekend, the questionnaire will be completely made up of public questions.
What was the motivation behind the sex survey?
I was asked to make this piece especially for this exhibition, and I jumped at the chance, because I think knowing the history of sex – and the struggles around the politics of sex – is a vital part of both living in the present and fighting for a less screwed-up future. As a gay man who came out in the late 1970's, I have every reason to know how complex - and important – sex is in British society, both in itself and as a way of forcing the lid off conservative attitudes and lives.
What are you going to do with the findings?
Every single survey that was completed is going to be archived in the library at the Wellcome, so anybody can access it as a resource for future research into sexual politics and practices.
Do you think we are seeing a dramatic change in the way we are interpreting and defining sex now?
I think the digital age is changing the way young people encounter sex on a massive scale; porn has been available for years, but now it is a deluge, and mostly, it is very unhealthy – misogynistic, violent, role-normative. And on the other hand, gay liberation has won incredible civil and cultural liberties in the UK at least; feminism is an unending inspiration and a challenge; contraception and health education may be imperfect but they are incomparably better than they were a hundred years ago; trans awareness and consent awareness are really making headway right now. So we need to keep on trusting in our own abilities to win the sexual freedoms we want.
The survey has been incredibly popular. How did you manage to target it at everyone, regardless of how much they know about sex and how confident they are in their sex lives?
I'm an artist. It was my job to make something that would intrigue and empower people to confide – and I did it. But it wasn't that hard. People love to talk about sex if you give them the chance.
Words Tyro Heath and all images © Wellcome Collection