Forget Provocation Let’s Have Sex

Forget Provocation Let’s Have Sex

Editorial by Doran George

This is an article reprinted from Dance Theatre Journal: Special Edition on Sex and Performancean 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.

It’s 1999 in San Francisco’s Mission district. I’m in a large saloon with characteristic three quarter, slatted swinging doors at the entrance. A woman with neat bobbed hair, wearing nothing but glasses, high-heels, and a small open cape speaks into a microphone on a dirty stage. As she introduces the sex-worker rights fundraiser I’m attending, her vocal earnestness, intensity, and self-effacing humor amplify her appearance as a naked librarian. Nude dancing hippies remind me of the invitation to ‘come naked and get in free.’ Behind the librarian a film plays of people first being penetrated then chased by pigs, and subsequently the screen fills with penises being bar-b-queued. This Wild West scene is the city’s sex radical culture also known as sex positive, or radical pleasure community. From my balcony perch I find I’m practicing sexual voyeurism. There is none of the usual spatial and ideological safety of conventional spectatorship to be had here.

The focus for this last issue of Dance Theatre Journal is a small community of artists who have been influenced by, and in turn affected, radical sex. Such subject matter for the journal’s swansong is by accident rather than design. Yet the conspicuous contextual specificity of an arts community thousands of miles from the British home of the publication is more fitting than it may at first seem for DTJ‘s final performance. My co-editor Tessa Wills and I use the young vibrant festival THIS IS WHAT I WANT as an exploratory lens on San Francisco’s sex/art community. Artists who started the event align themselves with the local lineage that emerged in the interstices between experimental dance and the kind of ‘radical sex’ embodied in the sex-worker rights fundraiser. Artists are poorly funded, and their work is often rarefied, and usually does not travel or translate beyond their local community. Yet the ‘Bay Area,’ which is how the collection of cities that include and are adjacent to San Francisco is known, has historically been a petri dish for the synthesis of sexual identities, practices and lifestyles that were marginalised in other locations. The licentious culture attracts artists unable to develop their work elsewhere, which draws attention to cultural limitations in other contexts. I am a transplant from London living in Los Angeles with a good knowledge of New York. Compared to these other larger cities San Francisco seems to boast greater volume and breadth of performance that embraces sex, as well as sophistication in the attendant discourse. Bay Area sex/art culture is rich with contestation over the significance of terms, histories and practices. My editorial and the content of the journal do not comprehensively represent or provide an authoritative version of the scene. Rather this issue of DTJ is intended to introduce some aspects of sex/art culture while stimulating the question of how arts practice is affected by cultural and material historical conditions in its context.

I have included personal experience in the editorial to help frame what I think the content of artists musings’ have to offer British dancers. My perspective on conditions affecting London performance making has changed as I have become familiar with the Bay Area sex/art community. An independent culture of critical sexual practice is now essential for art that resists conventional paradigms of sex and gender because the state and commercial interests have appropriated strategies of critique. The provocative potential of the erotic has increasingly been exploited in the arts since the late 20th Century, and exclusion of participatory sexual practice is evidence of the institutionalisation and commercialisation of queer, transgender, feminist and other critical arts. In contexts where state funding exists, some artists are required to establish their marginal credentials while at the same time justifying their work in terms that meet the demands of public money. The history of Phoenix Dance Company narrated by Christy Adair teaches important lessons in the problems of state funding. Aesthetics that tied the company to its local community and emerged through a collective organisation were displaced by the Arts Council’s agendas of reflecting racial diversity within its own pre-existing values of good concert dance and effective company structure.1 Marginal sexual and gender communities need to consider how state support not only enables but also circumscribes the work we make. Western governments have time and again usurped artists’ practice to establish themselves as the global vanguard of democratic freedom committed to emancipation2. The art market has been equally hungry to prosper from the creative labor of marginal subjects as is evident in the way that artists’ images of alternative sexual communities have entered its realm. Important critical attention has been given to the way in which photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Del La Grace Volcanoe, Cathie Opie, and Nan Goldin have used aesthetics to navigate the perils of potential exploitation by bourgeois purses and gazes.3 Yet less focus has been brought to how ‘rank and file’ queer, feminist and transgender communities use or respond to such attention.

There is an illusion that unconventional sexual practice has entered the mainstream, which further exacerbates the critical importance of aesthetics in independent sex/art communities as oppose those sanctioned by the state or art market.

Jack Halberstam argues that Lady Gaga represents a new feminism, while red PVC spike-heels are in every shoe store in middle England, and kinky images advertise all kinds of product. However, to the degree that alternative sexual practice is appropriated by consumer capitalism, radical sex aesthetics are severed from critique. For example, the commercialisation of sado-masochism has meant that patriarchal ideals of heterosexual gender have replaced carefully crafted cultures in which practitioners critically consider the way that they are embodying interpersonal power relationships. In the appropriation of such imagery, women have again found themselves represented as the sexual spectacle for a heterosexual male gaze. Performance and dance can resist dominant ideas about how desire, attraction and relationship can be conducted through the body. Yet to do so it has to be based upon practices that are painstakingly developed by independent communities which denaturalise and re-signify conventional sexuality. When radical sex is drawn upon for provocation that is severed from the context in which it develops, shock value or the illusion of diversity overrides meaning that sustains marginal communities. When sex radicalism is reduced to servicing the state, the art market, and consumerism, institutional and commercial ethics displace critical community values.

It is the role of participation in the Bay Area sex/art community that makes the local scene both exceptional and instructive. Performance and dance that are intertwined with radical sex draw upon the insight that conventional sexual practice is socially sanctioned within particular relationship models, in certain spaces, and constrained within narrow ideas of behaviour. Sex radicals propose that sex can be a site at which spirituality, communion, personal development, and progressive politics can be practiced, all of which they argue has been evacuated from the sanitised, sentimentalised version of copulation enshrined by mainstream society. The various values with which sex is invested is for practitioners a political maneuver in which sex is re-signified away from conservative values, including the commercialisation of desire. The development of alternative sexual practice has depended upon local independent economies in which bodily ideals have been synthesised that critique dominant culture. Information about different ways to practice sex and organise relationships has been gathered, shared and debated. The radical pleasure community insists that culture must be forged through novel practices unconstrained by cynicism, dominant morality, and capitalist modes of value exchange. For example, radical sex practitioners and associated artists have used ritual to ensure the cultivation of community values. Audiences are often drawn into participation through the requirement to contribute to the performance, which procures a certain reverence. By creating involvement, ritual can resist the neo-liberal consuming gaze and predatory subjectivity that usurps alternative sexual practice for political, cultural and economic capital.

San Francisco is not alone in hosting a scene that challenges the separation of sexual practice and performance, and difficulties that Bay Area artists have encountered speak to a similar negotiation of sex elsewhere. Even in the city that is world famous for social latitude about gender and desire, participatory art that embraces radical pleasure has not been unilaterally welcome. From its beginnings in 1991, San Francisco’s 848 Space was brought under scrutiny for its mission of exploring community, sex, and art. The collective who started the center initially did not apply for grants as a way to test if there really was a milieu interested in their aims. Nevertheless, 848′s pioneers soon heard that people were expressing dismay because they assumed the centre was receiving public money to engage in erotic play, which was broadly considered an inappropriate waste. Even in the last decade of the 20th century in a world Mecca for sexual experimentation, explicit association with erotic play of the work at 848 meant that the centre fell outside of what many considered to be proper to artistic investigation. The centre was targeted for its refusal to translate sexual aesthetics away from participatory practice into a supposedly universal performance form that meets the demands of spectatorship determined by the state, and art institution. Space dedicated to exploration in the face of censor has been crucial to the growth of Bay Area radical pleasure art praxis. What the sex/art community will tell you is that in order to challenge ‘sex negative’ culture, it is not enough to talk about, represent, or even witness sexual practice as performance, but that the opportunity to participate has to be on the table.

 Mica Sigourney made this part of his 2012 This Is What I Want performance “all this love…’ when he tried to persuade the audience to have sex with him who had not previously nor wanted to. He separated out the ‘unwilling audience’ and offered them gradually increasing amounts of his honorarium for doing the show. Mica’s work as a whole, including the theatrical gesture and subsequent sexual liaisons, depended upon shared understandings about sex.

The Bay Area provides a model of a conscious community of sexual practice that includes artmakers and audience. Sharing information is an essential part of sustaining a sex/art context because critical culture depends upon practices that move against the supposedly natural and private nature of sex. Substantial research is yet to be done on the way that national and local context has impacted the interface between sex and art, and how transnational flows of practice and discourse reflect and produce those distinctions. My interest in the development of such scholarship has been piqued as I have found myself straddling London and other cities. Artists in London and New York certainly work with the body as a site of sexual pleasure in ways that exceed theatrical provocation despite a historical lack of spaces that show the same dedication to exploring sex and art as those in the Bay Area. Yet in an exchange I recently had with a London artist/scholar about a community sex event, my attention was drawn to the way that shared understanding needs to be in place for a group of artists (let alone audience) to get into a room together and work with erotic practice. While he was visiting LA, I invited my colleague to join a Body Electric gathering, which involves naked erotic ritual. Trying to circumnavigate my embarrassment, I joked about the work sounding very ‘Californian.’ He heartily agreed and we left the subject. The Bay Area radical sex culture offers intellectual, emotional, and methodological resources in which such embarrassment probably would have been less of an issue. Furthermore, exploration in San Francisco is supported by an ethics in which practitioners’ wellbeing is as important as critique of conventional attitudes about sex, which are both more highly valued than success determined in art institutions or the market. There is a presumption that in order to challenge social conventions, practitioners will likely have to be engaged in a process of selfinterrogation or personal development. Artists presenting in the art sector still compete for funding, as well as bemoan the lack thereof, and wellbeing in sex positive culture exists beyond San Francisco such as the Zurich Body Electric School. Yet the heritage of a Bay Area independent sex/art community furnishes local artists with shared praxis in which erotic exchange in studio work has a place.

The ethics of the Body Electric School are a prime example of what supports Bay Area sex-art practices. Joseph Kramer developed the approach in the 1970s by resituating erotic exchange from private relationship to community fellowship, and creating more inclusive communities of sexualised bodies. The work became important for men infected with AIDS in the 1980s, who Kramer taught to sexually honor each other despite some of them having lesions or being emaciated. His approach combines Taoist and Tantric ideas with massage, breathing techniques, and interpersonal psychological revelation, to create emotional safety. In the AIDS crisis Body Electric resisted the idea that sick and dying bodies are untouchable, or have no right to desire. Kramer’s work influenced San Francisco’s sex/art scene through Keith Hennessey, for example, who introduced the insights to chaste dance practices such as contact improvisation, in which students are generally taught to focus away from erotic feelings by emphasising the mechanics of motion. At 848 Center, sexual feelings were invited in the naked practice of the duet form, and such exploration has mean the local development other practices as well as the welcome embrace of practices from other locales such as Oil Action, an image of which is on the cover of this journal. Hennessey and Kramer co-taught, bringing their shared interests together: late 20th Century ‘Somatic’ contemporary dance found parallels with radical pleasure in their mutual focus on physical sensation, collective organisation, and the borrowing of ‘Eastern’ philosophy for concepts of the body.

Praxes that are central to Bay Area radical sex enable THIS IS WHAT I WANT artists to rigorously interrogate the sexual body. The Body Electric resignification of infected bodies, and its wider implication for physical ideals, desire, and pleasure is a good example. Dossie Easton also contributed important discourse to the Bay Area sex/art community. She has authored several books aiming to inform about sustainable and healthy ways to cultivate radical pleasure. The Ethical Slut, for example, is a primer on polyamory, explaining how to ‘unlearn’ jealousy and resist moralising conventions of monogamy. In a related move festival artists have used nonmonogamy in contradictory ways to critique normative desire. They have argued that desire is irrevocable from capitalist systems of value, but also that the commercialisation of desire can be circumvented through non-monogamy. Easton joined Kramer for a symposium at This Is What I Want 2012 called Slow Sex and amongst other things talked with contributing artist Rafael Esparza about psychic self-care methods when using blood letting in performance. Easton’s ‘how-to’ approach is common within sex positive communities. For example, a slither of Carol Queen‘s major contribution is her workshop videos in which she trains the viewer in alternative practices that serve critical ends. Queen is the naked librarian I first encountered in 1999, and Bend Over Boyfriend is one of her many titles in which she instructs ladies on the art of penetrating men using a dildo. Annie Sprinkle has her own workshop video and has made the demystification of sex and particularly the female body a central trope of her performance work. For example, she combines pedagogic, aesthetic and critical aims in her ‘public cervix announcement’ by opening her vagina with a speculum and inviting the audience to view her cervix with a flashlight.

My suspicion is that a historical emphasis in U.K. dance on technical spectacle, and an aversion in British ‘Live Art’ toward any sniff of ‘personal development’ has prohibited the growth of a substantial community of artists working with sex.

Post-war U.K. concert dance established its validity on the basis of technical excellence, which is a history that has hankered experimentation.4 The artist led project X6 openly fought the dance establishment in the 1970s, yet its antecedent Chisenhale Dance Space continued to be marginalised for its process-based agenda. In the late 1990s I recoiled from proving training credentials when I was searching for strategies to choreograph transgendered subjects. Bound by the inherited ideals of existing dance techniques, the only possibility in concert dance seemed to be that of staging transgender as a transgression of conventional culture: ‘interesting’ content to dress the existing canon which would configure queer gender as a titillating object of spectacle, a provocation rather than a lived reality. Unknowingly, I shared the conviction with sex radicals that critical ideals must be cultivated and sustained within communities for whom they have meaning. A critical and embodied discourse of transgender in an artistic context began to emerge in London with The International Transgender Film and Video Festival in the late 1990s, and was picked up later by the festival Transfabulous. My conviction that there is political and aesthetic traction in the ideals of communities that are not defined by the dance establishment has fuelled my investment in making this issue of Dance Theatre Journal happen.

Distinct from dance and defining itself through experimental methodology, London Live Art seemed to revel in, rather than marginalise, difference. Reverberations of San Francisco’s scene have been felt in British Live Art not least through programmers embracing Annie Sprinkle. The first lady of ‘post-porn modernism’ calls Kramer her husband because of their collaborative development of alternative sexual practice, and Sprinkle promotes sex-worker rights, sexual autonomy for women, and the continuing exploration of sexual identity and practice. Artists who have been programmed and funded under the auspices of Live Art have explored alternative sexual practice as a performance methodology, and invited intimacy and audience participation through one-to-one performances for example. Yet central to the emergence of British Live Art was an administrative fight for legitimacy among funders and programmers of certain approaches to performance. Administrators wanted to win visibility and resources for marginalised artists, so they had to work within established ideas about good practice and borders were policed over what did and did not constitute Live Art. Experimental practices were argued to be ‘critical culture’ through ‘provocation’ in a way that is not dissimilar to the circumscription of London dance described above. Consequently some dominant voices within the milieu have been careful to distance Live Art from personal development in order to emphasise communicating with an audience, an idea with which funders and programmers are already familiar. Writing in an earlier issue of DTJ Theron Schmidt uses the term ‘No Man’s Land’ to define the place in which my work found itself when I insisted upon cultivating a participatory culture rather than staging a provocation.5 Despite the appetite for performance to which alternative sexual practice is essential, London Live Art ‘feels’ like context that is intolerant of the attendant demands of participation. I believe art is relevant beyond provocation in the cultivation of shared community practices and aesthetics, particularly for marginal subjects.This is why I’m invested in exchange between the writers and readers of this issue of DTJ.

 

Although San Francisco’s sex/art community provides a critical model for other metropolitan contexts, it is hankered by local problems that deserve reference lest I represent an uncritical celebration of the Bay Area. Situated on America’s Pacific-Rim, the sex/art community is too easily conceived of within a pioneer narrative in which old moral values are left behind in the move West. Friction produced by the rubbing of Californian tectonic plates is reflected in cultural tensions that define the Golden State. I was shocked when I first felt the Los Angeles pavement shake like a fairground cake-walk, but less surprised to discover that equal flux in West Coast culture arises from conflicting meanings attributed to the landmass. For many artists featured in this journal, the actual or figurative move West indeed tracks a pioneer narrative of the search for gold and freedom, which has been revised to have meaning for women, queers and trans folk breaking free from 19th Century European moral codes, and their reiteration in the late 20th Century by the Christian right.6 Yet artists who grew up as part of California’s enormous non-white population carry different associations for their home state. The West was once known as Mexico El Norde (Northern Mexico), yet the Chicano/a population is treated as if they were illegitimate immigrants. The longer history and contested position of Mexican Americans on the land collides with the pioneer narrative of white and other immigrants arriving in unchartered territory to create new lives, as does the even older Native American history which is all but eclipsed by the blonde image of the West Coast surfing myth. Chinese populations came later and suffered under harsh immigration laws while they were exploited for the creation of a railroad that opened the West to increasing development. The hoards of San Francisco’s Chinese prostitutes left behind the myth of the singsong girls who were chained to beds in Chinatown singing to potential customers on the streets, a memory that also collides with a pioneer narrative of sexual freedom for women.

Furthermore, as late as the 1960s, while hippies talked of ‘love and peace’ in San Francisco, adjacent Oakland was home to the Black Panthers who were more concerned with inequality between white and African Americans. So even while the radical pleasure community includes artists with a diversity of heritage and identity, the idea that sexual experimentation is a reconfiguration of pioneer ‘discovery’ erases complex racial and national discourses that cut across California.

 

Despite the complexity that attends the Bay Area sex/art community, what their culture refuses to let us forget is that when body is in the frame, the exclusion of sex takes special effort. Particularly in modern dance, labour has been invested for so long in cultivating a desexualised body that we no longer see what it takes to create chaste culture. 

Western theatrical chastity stretches at least as far back as the turn of the 19th Century when some artists established respectability by distancing their profession from the sex trade and the immorality with which it was associated. Isadora Duncan, for example, staged a 1900s body on which more flesh was revealed than in vaudeville, yet the upper middle classes celebrated her synthesis of a respectable ‘modern’ dance.7

Sex has often continued to function as either a threat to artistic value, or as a provocation against bourgeois cultural morality, which in both cases situates sex as outside of art. In an essay for this journal on her own artistic contribution to THIS IS WHAT I WANT 2012, we find that still in the 21st Century Tessa Wills is compelled to ask whether performance that invites the practice of sex can achieve the status of art. Her writing betrays both the history and the continuing circumscription of what constitutes artistic presentation, and the labour entailed in pushing against such foreclosure. Prudish praxis has been passed down for so long that, rather than the work of exclusion, we see the effort it takes for artists to embrace sex. Although deeply sad that this is the last issue of Dance Theatre Journal, I hope that at least the focus will lighten our collective load of sustaining unconscious chastity.

 

 

Perhaps an excursion into radical sex will open up some untapped libidinal resources providing energy to fuel a growing new chapter in British-based dance and performance discourse.

 

 

1 Adair, C. 2007 Dancing the Black Question: The Phoenix Phenomenon. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books
2 For example Clare Croft argues that the US Government funded international touring of Alvin Ailey dance company to allay fears about racial inequality within its borders at a time when African Americans were widely seen to be experiencing unfair treatemtn throughout the West. (Croft, C. 2010. Funding Footprints: US State Department Sponsorship of International Dance Tours, 1962-2009. Dissertation filed at the University of Texas.) State appropriation of artists’ practice is evident in other art forms. For example Serge Guilbaut describes how the US government went from hating abstract art to using it as a form of propaganda during the Cold War by touting it as a symbol of American freedom and individuality, in contrast to state-dictated art (How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.)
3 I am referring to writing that distinguishes the photography of queer subjects by the artists I have mentioned from lascivious documentation. An example is the essay by Richard Meyer: “Robert Mapplethorpe and the Discipline of Photography.” In The Lesbian and gay studies reader. Edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge. pp 360-381
4 Valerie Preston-Dunlop traces the history of British Post- War dance in her film The American Invasion 1962-1972. (2005. London: Dance Books.) She argues that concert dance was tied up with classical ballet because of the emphasis on technical excellence. Her assertions reverberate in Stephanie Jordan’s narration of the development of experimental choreography. In Striding Out: Aspects of Contemporary and New Dance in Britain, Jordan chronicles the way in which experimentation in the late 1960s in an emerging British modern dance, was quickly overshadowed by the establishment of large companies who recapitulated the drive for technical excellence. (1992. London: Dance Books.)
5 The project about which Schmidt writes was an exploration of performance practice as a vehicle for negotiating bereavement funded through Chisenhale Dance Space “interface” program. Sex and death are clearly different, yet the methodology of embracing personal change as part of a social, political and artistic process parallels strategies undertaken by Bay Area artists who overlap with radical pleasure communities. (Dance Theatre Journal 23 (1), 35-41).
6 In critical studies and culture, histories of white women and various gender and sexual dissidents have more recently been recuperated to displace the predominant image of the heterosexual male cowboy as the figure who discovered new possibilities in the West of the U.S. See for example the movie The Celluloid Closet. 7 Ann Daly articulates the way that Duncan established artistic respectability through distancing her work from Vaudville in her 1995 book: Done into dance: Isadora Duncan in America. (Bloomington: Indiana U. Press.)

Republished with permission at http://tessawills.com/forget-provocation-lets-have-sex/. Originally published in Hargreaves, Martin, Thom Shaw, Tessa Wills, and Doran George, eds. Dance Theatre Journal 25.2. London: Laban, 2013. Print.

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Tessa Wills is a live artist

and choreographer with a background in music. She is from England, trained in central Europe and now lives in San Francisco. Her work elevates flaws and wounds as portals, ways of staging humanity, and often integrates eroticism to charge the pieces, which happen primarily on stage and video. Aside from the relentless pull of desire, her current practice is inspired by Hermits and professional mourning.

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