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Cocktails and Closed-Circuit Flirting

Phones and voyeuristic cameras are just part of the dating and schmoozing rituals at a Manhattan bar.

January 13, 2002|LAUREN SANDLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Perhaps if they were young, hip and single today, Manhattan's Remote Lounge is where Stanley Kubrick and Michel Foucault would go scouting for dates.

The latest addition to the recently and frequently titled "post-apocalyptic" dating culture has arrived on the Bowery--a beacon for exhibitionists, voyeurs, post-modernists and sci-fi geeks alike.

Occupying what was once an electrical supply store, Remote Lounge is its own electrical wonder. Tables at the bar each have two video cameras trained on them, and tableside monitors enable patrons to watch what's happening on any of nearly 70 closed-circuit channels. By tuning the monitor to a channel, viewers gain access to the camera feeding that channel, shifting its gaze with one of the joysticks mounted conveniently at cocktail level. The bar's cameras survey every angle of space--including the sink behind the bar and the street outside. Telephone handsets at each table enable patrons to call other tables throughout the bar.

"The general public has been promised this type of future for the last 50 years, and no one before has been able to deliver on it in an accessible, public way," says partner Leo Fernekes, a self-described voyeur and exhibitionist. The bar certainly does match up with what the future looked like to people in bygone eras. The bar is a cavern of chrome, and its only decorations are rows of endlessly flickering video monitors and a throng of camera-aware, cocktail-clutching patrons. It would- n't be entirely shocking to see Roddy Doyle in a gorilla suit caught on camera at one of the orange and gray vinyl banquettes.

That's in part because the entire experience of Remote Lounge is so surreal. More than simply a technological breakthrough in trolling for dates, it's a bizarre amalgamation of intimacy and detachment. The cameras allow anonymous, controlled access to crevices and curves of the human anatomy most people would be slapped for ogling, but at Remote Lounge, patrons can publicly scope in privacy. A visitor can have telephone conversations with someone behind a partition less than a foot away, never being quite sure where that person might be in the bar. And patrons can intimately witness mating rituals that are rare to find outside the terrain of late-night HBO or a Desmond Morris documentary.

This aspect is a sexual anthropologist's dream and seemingly the greatest pleasure of the lounge's crowd. On a recent night, one patron, Rashid, noticed a particularly intense flirtation developing on camera near the bar. "Go to channel four! Everybody, channel four!" he yelled, jumping up and spreading the word to each table. Immediately, most of the bar's 100 monitors showed the pair's first kiss in black-and-white close-up to the spontaneous cheers and comments of the rapt crowd. "It's totally creepy," says Kate, who came to the bar out of curiosity one night after calling off a romance. She's a 29-year-old writer whose cat-eye glasses and plunging neckline are popular on the monitors this night. Each glimpse of her image on screen produces a visible shudder. "This brings out all of my shyness. It's like I'm in my nightmare."

Remote Lounge partner Ron Stratton, a former East Village bartender, scoffs at the notion that this is different from what people do in lower-tech bars every night. "There's nothing all that different here behaviorally," he says. "Our concept of voyeurism is very much along the lines of a normal bar. People are constantly checking each other out anyway."

He admits, though, that the scoping is intensified by the Lounge's surveillance paraphernalia. And many people at the bar this night clearly enjoy the effect.

"I love it--but then I'm an actress, so I love the camera anywhere," says 23-year-old Molly. "Give 'em a show, baby!" she yells at the monitor, which is currently locked on the image of a midriff-baring friend.

For the record, Molly's friend--also an actress--seems to be eating up the attention. As do many of the female faces (and other body parts) that flash from monitor to monitor.

While the men here are obviously enjoying the view, many women who would ordinarily scorn such overt ogling without the high-tech conduits undo one more button and apply lip-gloss for the camera, on camera.

"In this environment women are much more empowered to make spectacles of themselves and flirt in a more outrageous manner," says co-owner Fernekes--more a student of New York club culture than of women's studies. "It's a radically different concept," he says, which he predicts will be the "beginning of a whole new social movement."

Around midnight, a long-haired man dressed in requisite all-black, sidles up to writer Kate for a rare moment of face-to-face human interaction. His parting words are the ultimate post-modern pickup line, suggesting, as Fernekes says, "the future has arrived."

"Find me on screen later," he says with a smirk.

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