Sex on screens captures but two senses, but meat bodies are blessed with five—if not six! Here, the interplay of sex, sense and visual culture is the hot topic of discussion of a diverse group of artists and practitioners—including pornstar Vex Ashley; scent archivist Sissel Tolaas; erotic fiction publisher Badlands Unlimited; sex-ed instructors Ana Cecilia Alvarez and Victoria Campbell; and LA-based artist Petra Cortright, whose latest gallery show involved larger-than-life-size digital strippers.
Fiona Duncan: A quick game of association to start. Foreplay, if you will. Could you tell me what word, image or idea springs to mind when I say “sex and art”?
Vex Ashley: Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin. Sex as anxiety, as a weapon, or as a narrative, not often about sex itself.
Victoria Campbell of SEX-ED: The feeling is mutual.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez of SEX-ED: Wet paint.
Badlands Unlimited: Magic Mike 1 and 2.
FD: How about “sensuality and art”?
Petra Cortright: I think of those Indian Kama Sutra paintings, haha.
VA: Making— physicality—tactile or bodily materials.
VC: The scientist, the neurotic, the ascetic, the autist.
BU: Claude Calhun.
FD: “Sex and the Internet”?
VA: Technodildonics, porn.
VC: Entrepreneurial solutions to the crisis of connection.
PC: porn >:)
FD: “Art and the Internet”?
PC: Uhhh like somebody’s Google image search of “Picasso.”
“In the beginning was actually not the word, but the smell.”
FD: “Sensuality and the internet”?
VC: How to be sensitive to details, to organize tasks, to mediate conflict. How to negotiate attention span over a spectrum of relationships and sustain a productive relationship between being and being in touch.
ACA: In other words, writing a good e-mail!
VC: Is this a casting couch?
ACA: Do you want it to be?
FD: What do you think, Sissel?
Sissel Tolaas: The world we live in is driven by “LOOK! HE, SHE, IT, LOOK!” Our society and culture have traditionally been dominated by the visual, but vision clearly distances us from the objects we see. As long as we primarily operate using our eyes to understand sex and the world, art, as well as Internet, is very successful. But healthy humans are equipped with hardware (the body) and five senses. These tools are there for free, but they need to be consciously trained and used. It is like if you do not train your muscles, they stop functioning. So it is with the senses. 31% of communication is rational, the rest is emotional. We better start. Even sex will get back on track again.
FD: I’m happy you brought up the predominance of the visual, Sissel. I wanted to ask about that next. Does everyone agree that contemporary human culture is dominated by the visual? Why or why not?
PC: Yes, I think technology has pushed things even more towards the visual. Think of all the screens now involved in daily life: what they display signifies access and information, and designates a level of wealth via the ability to communicate with the world. It’s all visual at this point. That’s definitely the biggest thing for me. Especially in making digital work, I don’t necessarily have the luxury of using things like touch or smell, so I rely heavily on the visual world. In sourcing material for any of my work, images that already exist on the Internet or in software hugely influence the execution of my ideas. Whatever message, mood, or function they’re designed to carry, I’m in a constant conversation with images that have already been constructed.
BU: No. Contemporary human culture is dominated by social inequalities and regressive, barbaric notions of sexuality that in part justify those inequalities.
VA: I think our culture has always been dominated by visual information, but it’s our ability to produce, share and distribute visual culture that’s vastly expanded in recent years. Seeing something is taken as truth. It’s like the only full experience is in seeing—and in being seen to have seen. Like, as a kid, hearing two people having sex in the hotel room next door would probably be laughed off by your parents, but the idea of being there actually seeing it would be considered inherently damaging. So there’s a sensual hierarchy, with sight being at the top.
ST: In the beginning was actually not the word, but rather the smell. Chemical detection was the communication tool used by the first bacteria appearing on earth for food and reproduction. Smells are used constantly, consciously or subconsciously, for communication among plants, animals and human beings alike. I believe that smells are a crucial component in the definition, understanding of, and orientation to an environment. Smells surround us all the time. But we live in a world that is sanitized for our protection, and because all smells cannot be pleasant, the consequences could be that we will have none at all! By contrast, smells surround, penetrate the body and permeate the immediate environment, and thus one’s response to smells is much more likely to involve strong effect. Humans have more than 400 scent receptors (ten times more than the next kind of brain receptors, and almost 100 times more diverse than the receptors for vision), and with a direct connection to our amygdala and hippocampus (in two synapses only). Our brain is uniquely wired from childhood to perceive smells. We breathe up to 24,000 times a day and move 12.5 cubic meters of air. With every breath we take, smell molecules flood through our bodies. Even when we sleep, we smell. These facts tell it all! Historical, sociological, and religious reasons have pulled the contemporary human being into almost ignoring more than one per cent of his genes! Only education can revive these hidden capacities.
FD: What effect does visuality’s dominance have on your life and work? Do you feel a lack of any of the other senses?
BU: Yes, we feel an utter lack of common sense.
ACA: Sometimes taking a picture feels like sad masturbation. Like just lazily scratching a perpetual itch—it’s a default. Even though I am working to create more content, it doesn’t feel generative. It feels excessive: more data, more data, more data. Then again, images are my talismans, my spirits, the voices I hear in my head. That Kahlo painting, the heartbroken glint in Marilyn’s eyes, my mother’s half smile. They are my mirrors. I have this recurring fantasy/nightmare: I stand in a hall of mirrors, my likeness, multiplicitous and overcrowding, overwhelms me. I can no longer separate my reflection from my flesh.
VA: Recording sex visually has the same difficulties as any image-making, in that it always feels like a way to create a fictional narrative rather than true documentation. Taking something that’s so tied to a sensual bodily experience and then limiting it to just sight and sound is always going to strip some of the intensity. I often think that why so much of traditional porn falls flat for me is that the explicitly visual is often the only focus. The lighting and presentation is used to be completely descriptive immediately, with all the explicit visual information at once, so it becomes an overload. That kind of thing shorts my interest really quickly. In our work with Four Chambers, we try to communicate the sensation of touch in a visual way. Looking at skin and the tactility of bodies is a big focus when we’re filming. I think often “sensual porn” sounds like it’s going to be romantic—porn for women, Mills & Boon-esque erotica, blah-blah—when actually I think the most successful work about sex is about communicating the sheer intensity of sensation.
“Technology has pushed things towards the visual.”
FD: I’m curious what people think about artist Ann Hirsch’s assertion that, “Whenever you put your body online, in some way you are in conversation with porn.” Do you agree, disagree? Are bodies online necessarily sexual? Is the Internet gaze sexual?
PC: I agree. It’s hard to think of an instance where that is not the case. The Internet is what, 99% porn? Porn drives a lot of technology forward—streaming video, HD resolution video, etc. If you think about it, the porn industry paved the way so that you could Skype or FaceTime with grandma in HD pretty seamlessly. So yes, I agree with Ann. I even try to find ways myself to put my image online, but it doesn’t matter how sad I look, or how fucked up, how weird, etc. There is always going to be some remark from someone that is sexual, even if it’s simply to say that I look “pretty.”
I don’t think I’ve ever posted a video successfully without getting a suggestive comment, but it doesn’t anger me. It’s just kind of like, “huhhh…” Like I’m stumped. It’s like a level in a video game that you just can’t beat. I’m in this body of a woman, and there is just a level that I can’t beat using my own “image” or something. I can’t figure out how to post a video as a person—it has to be a video posted by a woman, with a woman’s body. It seems that men can put their body online and remain “people,” even if they are drawing attention to their body or gender as a point of conversation. That really seems to define everything about the videos that I make: that I’m a woman. Even though some of them are quite boring, and in most of them I’m definitely not doing anything sexual or trying to elicit a sexual response, they will still get that response regardless. The Internet is a consumptive place. Watching a woman do anything online is still watching a woman online, and that is always in conversation with porn.
VC: If photography is the “go-for-broke” game of history, the Internet is the casino. To put Hirsch’s hypothesis to the test, we can start at her Wiki page and count the number of links it takes us to get to pornography. We can then compare this to the number of hyperlinks from Ann Hirsch’s page to the Public Enemy (Band) page, then the number of hyperlinks from Public Enemy (Band) to Caitlyn Jenner. The average is about seven hyperlinks. Beginning from a random page, we’re eight clicks away from pornography and seven clicks from Public Enemy. Therefore, the probability of anyone’s body online being relevant to pornography is around seven hyperlinks. Pornography is the democratization of the male gaze. It offers up a phantom phallus, a universalized prosthetic to be consumed by everyone, regardless of gender or genitalia. As with any form of representation, porn doesn’t fully exclude anyone, but a part of everyone will necessarily be excluded. My body has as little to do with porn as it does with any other representation that might claim it, just as Public Enemy has little to do with Elkhorn City, Kentucky, despite being only seven links away from it. The flaw in Hirsch’s statement isn’t that relativity on the Internet is totally arbitrary—this is the gamble, after all—but rather the implication that a body can be offline at all. We are always online; we are always at work; we are all Caitlyn Jenner. We are all power couples of gaze and screen, fertility and impotence, production and reproduction, pornography and feminism, cold war and soft skill. The Internet is “sexual” to the extent that sex is a protocol, our bodies are an interface, and our data is a reproductive force. My question back to you all is: Adderall or Viagra?
ACA: Viagra! Adderall alienates. It divorces your attention from attention to your body: you forget to eat, forget to sleep. Viagra just pumps your fucking blood. To your cock.
VA: I want to try Viagra, a lot. I was talking about it recently. In my head it’d be a similar sensation to putting on a strap on. Watching porn on Viagra sounds like a good exercise in performative male-gazing.
“It’s about communicating the sheer intensity of sensation.”
FD: Petra, you just had a show open titled “Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola,” in which digital images of strippers, captured from the PC program Virtuagirl, are collaged into various wild environments atop green screens and projected on a super-scale. You must have spent a lot of time looking at these women. I’m wondering what kind of relationship you developed with them. Did you extrapolate character traits from their looping movements? Did they become more than bodies on screens?
PC: I find myself naming them—not necessarily what their name is in the program, but a name that I might name a daughter, or a pet, or something. It’s abstract, though, and it’s almost like what I name them in my head, I wouldn’t even want to tell somebody out loud. It would break the relationship somehow. It gets complicated with the girls. I worry about what I’m doing with them, or what my intentions are, and even if I should be working with them at all. But I’m fascinated with them on a deep level. I definitely extrapolate their personalities a bit, and try to amplify what I feel should be coming through. I feel like I know them, but I’m constantly confused by who it is I feel I know. I don’t know anything about the real women who are the models for the program. I’ve heard a few people mention that they are actual porn stars. But what happens to them once they’re in the program, after they have been virtualized, changes them. Within the program you can change their size, so they can be really itty bitty, or they can be more lifelike. You can pick them up and move them to a different spot on the desktop. You can decide who or what they appear alongside.
FD: Ana and Victoria, I understand your SEX-ED course was created in part as a response to digital culture, as a way to get people together IRL. What intimacies do you think were facilitated by the live-bodies-in-one-room setting?
VC: In SEX-ED, the bodies were too much. There were too many bodies, too little space. The formality of the classroom setting made it hard for people to feel comfortable even sitting on the floor. The relationship we had to the class as teachers, or simply as people presenting information, made interacting with bodies in space incredibly difficult. And the more bodies there were—over 60 at one point—the more pressure I felt to perform. I think the class would be cool as an online course, with the requirement that all enrolled be fucking IRL, and then figuring it out over some kind of message board situation.
ACA: SEX-ED’s final assignment is to plan an orgy. Outside of any value judgment about which mediated interaction is most desirable, the fact remains that it’s so much harder to get bodies together. Online, all you need is an avatar and an URL. IRL, you need to find space (and not just any space—we’re talking about finding space in Brooklyn); you need to find a time that accommodates many, but not too many. Our urban space is siphoned and split to keep people in the same class and in the same space; it’s more challenging to find spaces to meet that are accessible to most (but not all), that accommodate our handicaps. The rewards digital interactions offer—chief among them, accessibility—also make the challenge of IRL intimacy, to me, all the more sexy.
Petra Cortright (American, b. 1986) is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. She is represented by Foxy Production, New York.
Sissel Tolaas (Norwegian, b. 1963) is the founder of the Re_Search Lab, a station designed to facilitate dialogues between a range of experts on scent and communication.
Vex Ashley (British, b. 1989) is a webcam and porn performer, producer and creator with the independent pornography project Four Chambers.
Paul Chan (American, b. 1973) founded Badlands Unlimited in 2010. Their most recent series, New Lovers (2015,) is devoted to publishing emerging writers and artists working in the genre of erotica.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez (Mexican, b. 1991) and Victoria Campbell (American, b. 1989) program SEX-ED as a weekly lab dedicated to sexuality, intimacy, affect, and play at Bruce High Quality Foundation University.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez and Victoria Cambell
Petra Cortright, cropped_masked_final, 2015 (film still)
Vex Ashley, Four Chambers, Cell II, 2014
Paul Chan, Badlands Unlimited, New Lovers series