CHARGE: Sex Work in Participatory Performance
This is an article reprinted from Dance Theatre Journal: Special Edition on Sex and Performance, an academic but user friendly publication by the Laban Centre in London, which Tessa Wills co-edited with Doran George in 2013. We used the festival THIS IS WHAT I WANT as a lens through which to reveal the field of the intersection between radical sexual practice and radical performance practice in the Bay Area, and our work. Read the other articles here.
Desire invites motion – it’s the thing that takes you off balance. Like the Alexander technique skull weighted (im)perfectly on the skeleton to be always out of balance; inviting you to fall forward. What we desire has personal, social, and legal implications; desire has a complex relationship to cultural permissions, identity and sexual silencing. When it’s real, it’s often a risk. And risks are seductive. They bring both vulnerability and potential for expansion (rupture, reflection, change) into the performance scenario. They could also have made the piece I’m going to tell you about a disaster. The particular blurring of personal and professional that happens in this festival meant that there was a lot on the line for us all (socially, legally, professionally). It was a particularly scary piece to make.
The piece I’m going to tell you about addressed the festival’s intersection of economy, desire and performance through sex work. At the heart of the experiential performance I facilitated was a one on one hands on exchange with a sex worker. The piece was called This Is What YOU Want. The pieces play on the festival name (THIS IS WHAT I WANT) was powerful, but eventually got confusing. So now, after the fact, we call it CHARGE. This article unpacks how CHARGE uses risk methodically as a theme and a tool to create an ‘trembling’ aesthetic. The aesthetic is fuelled by social dynamics and inspired by economies of desire.
Coming up for you is a description of the performance and an analysis of the spectrum of risks: political, social and artistic, of CHARGE.
Desire as a Presence
As an artist, I explore the aesthetic of people speaking their desires. I posit desire as a presence in the moment its spoken, not as a lack.
I invited sex workers to be performers in one-on-one exchanges with audience members based around the audience members’ desires. These are not sex work sessions per se, but more open-ended. The piece hinges on the professional ability of the sex workers to work performatively with personas, and to communicate clearly when they negotiate sexual acts.
The sex worker identity was re-oriented from being a service-based provider into a more complex relationship with their clients’ desires. They were conceived of as ‘Chargers’ to ‘Charge’ the desire of the audience member.
To Charge: to reflect, empower, advise, meet the person’s desire. To receive their desire. To ‘get it.’ To be with it in action. To witness and acknowledge them saying it.
A Charger: one who charges. In this context, a professional sex worker.
TT Baum, an artist and ‘Sacred Intimate’(1) was the director. Baum’s professional experience both in the art world and the professional sex work world made him both creative and experienced for the job. Together, we gathered a leadership team including: Sadie Lune, Carol Queen, and Dr. Liam ‘Captain’ Snowdon, to develop the work into an installation with a final cast of 23.
CHARGE has these performers: ‘Host’ (makes your appointment), 4 ‘Receptionists’ (who do intake and match you with a Charger), ‘Captain’ (orients you in an installation space before you enter the charging room), 9 ‘Chargers’ (who ‘charge’ your desire) and 8 ‘Pages’ (who keep the audience moving through the piece).
When audience members sign up for the piece they are assigned a specific ‘appointment’ during the six-hour duration of the show. When they arrive at their allotted time, the host (performed by Rachael Dichter) entertains them. A video showcases each Charger talking for about five minutes about their philosophy of desire. We learn their unique perspective on how it operates as a force in our culture and our economy.
The ‘Receptionists’ in the next stage of the experience are four performers: ‘Ms. Ginger’ (gentle friendly glam mother played by Cayenne), ‘Jane Horn’ (precise dominant secretary), ‘Mariane’ (social worker, played by Annie Danger), and ‘Dance Of Melting Icicles (DOMI)’ (keen magical alternative leader, played by Ian Waisler). They call each audience member from the foyer and do an individual intake process for about 15 minutes. Using information from a form and conversation, they make the all important match between the audience member and the Charger.
The participant is escorted to the next stage of the experience, the ‘Midas room.’ The Midas room is an interactive installation for the audience to explore. It’s a small space and embodies the mixture of boredom and potential that a waiting room holds. ‘Captain’ (Played by Liam ‘Captain’ Snowden) hosts the space in a white suit, his character is related to the man from ‘Fantasy island’. He converses with the audience members as they come through, occasionally disengaging from the immediate social experience, breaking out into loud claims (sometimes farcical or dated) and philosophies of desire, whilst gazing into the distance. The rest of the installation incorporates the Chargers’ video, and the space, half transformed with gold (dust and footprints), as if the mythical King Midas has passed through. The audience can see themselves reflected in the golden surfaces.
The Page (played by Fenix Walker) brings the audience member into the next space to meet the Charger.
A soundscape of sampled conversation and mandolins thrumming like fluttering wings thickens the atmosphere.
The Chargers’ spaces are a series of 9 ‘pods,’ separated by rich-coloured sheer fabrics. Some pods have mattresses or chairs. Some are decorated with lights and props. The Page leads the audience member past pods with other activities where other people are intensively engaged with their Charger. There is a mermaid singing and charming her audience, someone in a judo suit holds audience members in headlocks until they tap out, people are deep in conversation. The room is filled with diverse combinations of gender. Someone is engaging the psoas muscles with their audience member by doing squats. Many more things are happening. There is laughter, the room feels warm and charged up, and fresh air flows through.
Fenix, the page, continues to lead the audience member to the booth where they meet their Charger.
The next twenty minutes with a Charger could include anything from gentle or deeper touch to discussion to awkward attempts and failure at intimacy. The Charger often invites the audience member to do something physical. From that engaged embodiment, the audience is invited to speak their desire. The next fifteen minutes are co-created. What do you imagine could happen?
As the session closes, one of the pages (played by Viena, Neon Weiss, Jed Burnham, Michael Grohall, Virgil Taylor, Robin Janz and Coco Toland) escorts them into the final part of the piece, a seated area with low light. The soundscape continues. There is no performance in this final room. The audience can stay as long as they like (about 20 minutes typically). The pages would also be on hand for conversation and direction throughout the piece.
The entire experience takes roughly an hour. Eighty people came through over five hours. Three people went through twice. The ticket cost $15.
OH THE RISKS!
There were so many reasons why this piece was risky to make and participate in. I break them into spectrums.
Political/economic risk: Direct risks within our legal structure, and within what’s acceptable in both our immediate and broader communities in terms of representing sex work and sex workers in the public realm.
Social risk: Then there are social issues and a deep fear that people will take advantage of each other in their vulnerability.
Artistic risk: It’s an aesthetic itself of risk, and the way that risk is fuelled is through interpersonal dynamics. That expands the normal ideas of what constitutes the avant garde. It’s a challenge to The Academy. This poses a risk to the legacy of the work.
THE POLITICAL RISKS
Legal: The Chargers: not/Representing sex work.
CHARGE embodies existing truths about sex work in the actual interactions rather than by representing the issues explicitly as a performance text.
Choosing to call the sex workers ‘Chargers’ drew criticism from some grassroots sex worker activists, who felt we were disempowering sex workers by not publicly naming them. Is this a piece which positively represents sex workers in the world? they asked. If so, why would we not name the sex workers as such in the publicity?
The piece does not aim to directly articulate sex worker rights and empowerment, but rather embodies positive attitudes towards sex workers as a political act. Our choice not use the term ‘sex worker’ meant that the culturally fraught idea of ‘sex work’ was less dominant in interactions between the performers and the audience. However, the struggle around representation of sex workers in the piece continues as I grapple with the idea of touring. What would this piece look like in communities without a developed discourse on sex worker rights?
In the US, it’s illegal to sell sex or to provide a venue where prostitutes can make money. However, we the festival directly hired the performers, rather than the audience members paying them. Therefore, the festival is not selling sex. This is not a semantic loophole: the piece is not based around servicing the audience’s desires, but the ‘charging’ of them.
Ethically speaking, feminist arguments against sex work being inherently exploitative (which have their place) didn’t apply. The people in this piece have consciously chosen the profession as a vocation, and generally take a post-porn feminist(2) stance on their occupation. The Chargers embody diverse genders, so we are not presenting sex work as a story about objectifying women. It’s more complicated than that in this piece (as it is, in fact, in the world in which sex workers operate).
The word ‘Charger’ helped us get to the heart of what this piece is about, and simultaneously facilitated space to reconsider views around prostitution. In this instance, the performers are no more exploited than any other kind of theatre work.
The Economy, sex workers and desire.
As the ‘oldest profession,’ the relationship of sex work to money speaks to something at the heart of the economy, and something of the power relationship between ‘men’ and ‘women’.
We wonder whether men and women (and the rest of us) may have lost contact with our integral desires in the pervasive (capitalist) status quo that circumscribes dynamics of desire.
By fostering (audience) embodiment rather than staging representation, CHARGE emphasises subjective, felt desire. This contrasts with the dominant capitalist experience of having desire (un)met by objects or people outside of us. Economic fetishisation is a term which Marx coined in 18673 (before Binet extended fetishisation to sex in 1887-(4)). It refers to the compulsion to purchase an object in order to ‘make your life complete.’ This is the force at the heart of advertising: a process that exploits us financially by manipulating our desires. Can the performance of subjective embodied sexuality combat that exploitation?
Subjective embodied sexuality manifests the relationship between desire and the economy in our private bodies. Then the relationship becomes our own personal experience to direct or investigate. Integral desire as a force can confound economic exploitation.
What’s it like for you, theatre goer, ticket buyer, human desire haver, person who is advertised to, to be asked what you really want? The performers in CHARGE are as vulnerable and as powerful as you are when you answer that question… or maybe as you want to be. I write text for whores’ websites sometimes. I’m going to make a paradigm shift to illustrate work vis-a-vis the political economy, rather than explaining financial/cultural philosophy. See how this lands in your body. If I was going to persuade you to purchase a ticket, I’d coyly say: I can see you’re savvy, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. We both know this piece can be fun, the risks exhilarating, and the experience and of immediate personal benefit to you. Come to the show, it matters to me that you’re there. What makes this sort of participatory theatre inviting to you?
Yes, I am the ethical pimp for CHARGE. I understand you and why you are interested in the work. I’m playing with the idea of bringing it to London, and this is why you should be interested:
1) Your desire is so intense!
If you come to CHARGE, we will LOVE your desire. What is your desire like when it’s at its most intense? We value you in your moment of deepest and most vulnerable expression. What is it worth to feel that?
2) Your desire is super unique and valuable!
Ever get the impression what you want is less important or valuable than what your sexual partner wants? (Women, I think I see some of you nodding!) Yawn at the tyranny of ‘cultural norms,’ get what’s really valuable bubbling up inside of you, powerful and ready to go. Who are you when your desire is worth everything? I want to know you.
3) It’s such a bargain
Let’s be real, it’s the cheapest you will ever get a professional exchange with a vocation-level and self-actualised sex worker. The actual cost of the ticket price per audience member was $551.65 (including funding, donations, space hire, materials and what all the professionals normally charge). The price of the ticket was $15. Would I lie? You’re getting an absolute bargain!
The truth is, you should do whatever you can to be a part of this life changing theatre piece which might just meet your deepest desires. It’s too important to miss. If I could inspire you to experience one piece in your life, I would go all out to get you to CHARGE. Without a doubt, this experience would be it.
If that doesn’t sell it to you, then… I miss you, but… does the process of reading these questions stir up implications in your body? Feelings? Numbness?
The piece is hard to fund, hard to make work financially, and that could be because of its risky relationship to politics and capitalism. And it was the most successful piece in the festival economically in 2012. That’s mostly because I was pimping tickets: literally marching people to the ticket office.
CHARGE dances provocatively in political economic risk. It’s politically ‘post porn feminist’ and ‘pro sex worker’. The risks do not sabotage the work; they are the work. The experience of the piece provokes links between desire and the economy in ways that make the possibility of reducing economic exploitation within the grasp of our minds and bodies.
THE SOCIAL RISKS
This piece is fuelled by human interaction. The work uses social risk to destabilise the performance environment and make everyone vulnerable. The social aspect of the piece creates the aesthetic of the work.
Sexuality and desire is perceived by our culture as threatening. Perhaps it is, or perhaps that very belief makes it so. It felt perilous to bring embodied sexuality to a performance with audience desire at its heart. People are vulnerable and might not take care of each other interpersonally. There are concerns about where the power and responsibility lies within a theatre that rests on private exchanges. There is a fluid approach to gender/sexual identity that this queer format embraces, which can bring up fear. Then there is the risk of a social misconnection that feels like a waste. What’s the use of a piece that relies on personal input for content, but results in meaningless interpersonal connections? It may offer nothing of benefit to either the audience or the performers, at (great) effort, exploitation and cost to both.
Frequently when we shared our work in progress, our collaborators and community expressed great fears. It was suggested at one point that we build in physical space traumatised audience members, which critics were certain there would be a need for. There was also fear for the safety of the performers’ safety (attack or exploitation). None of these things happened in the performance due to the context, people involved, careful structure of the work, and luck.
Despite the risk we and our colleagues anticipated, in practice, the level of vulnerability was inspiring. Three chargers shared the following:
‘It was profound; the intensely deep interactions that I was able to create, the space that I was able to hold for people who really wanted to go deep.’ – Pele
‘Many clients seemed blissed out. They got what I call Buddha face, faintly smiling, eternally yielding. That’s worth more than any words.’ – Philip
‘I loved working with all kinds of people who don’t usually access sex work and sometimes having incredibly powerful connections and permissions to go deep into them in just 20 minutes. I loved caning the shy femme pretty boy who had never had BDSM out of a romantic relationship and lying with the tenderhearted, vulnerable young bear and covering him in kisses. DREAMY’. – Sadie Lune
The piece inspired surprising levels of intimacy and surrender from the audience.
The socio-political risks mean that the entire performance environment was charged up. It felt like a trembling potentiality. And there is the aesthetic heart of the work.
A lot of the transformative value to the piece is personal or interpersonal. The social exchange may be the driving force for the aesthetic experience people take home.
THE ARTISTIC RISKS: We confused the critics
There are aspects of this piece that make it ‘community art’ or ‘social practice’. These move the audience experience out of the realm of abstract aesthetics. While not didactic, the piece can be critically located as having a social agenda around the politics of sex work, specifically its normalisation and celebration. The majority of performers professionals but not trained theatre makers, and require skilful orientation to be able to participate.
Motivated by community, I worked contextually, knowing the sociopolitical objectives and dynamics of the CSC, the audience who would come to the performance, and the sex workers. The success of the piece in this context is because I have critical community artist skills, ‘based in part on [the] capacity to listen, openly and actively, and to organize scenarios that maximize the collective creative potential of a given constituency or site.’ 5
However, unlike traditional community theatre/ social practice, CHARGE remains in the selfish legacy of experimental participatory practice, as it takes little to no responsibility for the audiences reactions and experiences in the work.
CHARGE isn’t accountable for audience experiences including: fulfilment of desire, hearing personal stories, content of audiences desire, or personal transformation through the work. The piece is focussed on the aesthetics of risk alone. This is distinct from classic community art or social practice, where personal development and transformation of the participant is tracked as part of the value assessment of the work. So we take less responsibility for participant experience then in straight social practice. Despite using social practice techniques, and being socially fuelled, this piece is not accountable enough to be in the category of social practice.
The critics and Academy were confused. The performance offered no singularly viewed objectively critique-able experience to organise assessment around. Add to that that the piece does not preclude personal development and has a whiff of ideology, and ‘The Academy’ throws its hands up. Critics and colleagues recategorise the piece for me as ‘community art or personal development’.
Apparently there are risks you can take in avant garde art, and risks that you cannot without confusing the critics.
If you move out of art for art’s sake, and it becomes art for desire, or sexuality’s (or anything else’s) sake, an argument goes, then it is no longer art (ibid) in terms of performance discipline. It becomes community art or therapeutic art, or something with a similar disclaimer. Less noble.
Is CHARGE abstract enough to remain noble, asks the cultural critique?
I’m not sure that it is. I love that it has the potential for personal development. And, of course, Bollocks to the Academy. And this piece still sits conceptually squarely in the heritage of performance and experimental theatre.
CHARGE‘s interplay between provoking risk and taking responsibility is less intense than in community art practice, and more intense than in high art: The piece methodically uses risk to destabilise the performance experience, disrupting audience’s everyday relationship to desire. We invite vulnerability to which we are responsive, but not responsible. We manufacture ‘trembling potentiality’, and use this vulnerability to rupture audience’s sense of entitlement or lack of entitlement to erotic expression. To unravel assumptions into a fertile mess. In the breath, the pause that comes with the fracture, the aesthetic experience of being in a room of stating desire is revealed. An opportunity to know desire as a force through aesthetics. The way the piece instigates reflection, which eventually lands in aesthetic, is something that feels easily read in an art context. There is an existing home, a history, and a canon in art context that supports such methodology (ibid).
Through this piece, another relationships to risk/community involvement/staging personhood evolves at the bleeding edge of performance. Post ‘queer failure’ CHARGE operates in a fear inclusive, responsive, but not responsible paradigm. That, in itself, brings an aesthetic tremor to the work; the tremor that comes from speaking your real desire. When it’s real, it’s often a risk.
‘This is what YOU want[CHARGE] is a terrifying and empowering piece of unfettered experimentation. It matters. Show it further, wider…moremoremore’- Audience member.
‘WE ARE STANDING AND APPLAUDING. Cheering. Whooping and a hollering. Magnificent performance art/life experiment. WOW. We had such a great experience. Definitely got charged – in ALL chakras. Thank you so much for the delicious erotic life-art-dream. This was our idea of a really good time. And great art to boot.’ – Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens
‘You people are the revolution.’ – Captain
‘Long live queer whoretopia’ – Ian Waisler
Thanks to: TT Baum, Doran George, Ernesto Soppranni, Rachael Dichter, Carol Queen, Robert Lawrence, Rob Avilla, Harold Burns, Sadie Lune, Daniel Redman, Keith Hennassy, Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens, Elizabeth Cooper, the entire cast, all the people who gave time and feedback in the research process, and the intrepid audience, and, as always, Sammy C.
Kester, Grant, H. 2004: Conversation pieces: Community and communication in modern art. University of California Press.
Morin, Jack: The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Passion and Fulfillment, 1995 Harper Collins
Illioch, Reubin 1990.: Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
Streetsoul Dance organisation
1. Term developed by Joseph Kramer through the Body Electric School to refer to a professional hands on therapist who works to help clients heal and explore their sexuality. Sacred Intimates often have a spiritual aspect to their work and consider it a calling. Example
2. The term ‘post-porn feminism’ (or sometimes pro-sex feminism) is the name given to an argument advanced by pro-sex work feminists such as Carol Queen, Carol Leigh, Margo St. James, Pat Califa, Jill Nagle and Annie Sprinkle. They key ideas build on sex positivism and pro ‘slut’ identity, validating prostitution as a profession that sometimes brings economic and sexual liberation. This liberation can result in the empowerment of women within patriarchal society. For more information start with Sprinkle, A 1998; Annie Sprinkle’s Post Porn Modernist : my 25 years as a multimedia whore. Cleis Press, and Nagle, J (ed) (1997): Whores and other feminists
3. Marx, K (1867) Capital Volume 1: A critique of political economy, Verlag von Otto Meisner
4. Binet, A (1887) Le fÈtichisme dans l’amour: la vie psy chique des micro-organismes, l’intensitÈ des images mentales, etc, Revue philosophique
5. Kester 2004:25-27 (Kester, Grant, H. 2004: Conversation pieces: Community and communication in modern art. University of California Press.)
Republished with permission. Originally published in George, Doran, Hargreaves, Martin, Shaw, Thom and Wills, Tessa eds. Dance Theatre Journal 25.2. London: Laban, 2013. Print.