Keith Hennessy (in dialogue with Tessa Wills)

Image above: Keith Hennessy in piece Almost, Keith Hennessy & Jassem Hindi, Sophiensaele (Berlin), 2011.

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.

848 Community Space: queer, sex, performance in 1990s San Francisco

848 was an artist-run, collective art space and home in San Francisco. Inspired by Tim Miller and Linda Burnham at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, I went to an Alternate ROOTS gathering at the site of the original Black Mountain College in the summer of ‘91. I met people who were fusing community-based art-making with social justice work, devising original works for the stage across genres, and having a very developed conversation on race that I wasn’t having in San Francisco. That fall, some friends moved out of a funky, second floor, commercial space on Divisadero Street. In Nov 1991, Michael “Med-O” Whitson, Todd Eugene and I adopted the space and its name. In a windowless 1100 sq ft studio, with moveable risers that seated fewer than 50 people, we hosted a weekly Contact Improvisation jam and hundreds of performances, concerts, exhibitions, and parties emerging as a vibrant site for cultural experimentation. Very early on it became a sex radical space, which organized safe-sex parties and safer-sex education inspired by sex-positive feminism, pagan ritual, and AIDS and queer activism. Todd moved out within the first year and Jess Curtis moved in. With Jess and others, I lived at 848 for 10 years, on and off, but mostly on. During my last five years at 848, approximately 10,000 people a year came through the space.



(from: More Out Than In, Notes on Sex, Art, and Community, a 1995 collection of essays about 848 edited by Rachel Kaplan and Keith Hennessy(1).)

When the three founders of 848 (Med-O, Todd Eugene, and myself) first met, I was very clear that I wanted our new space to include sex events within the spiritual artist activist weave. Specifically, [pullquote align = ‘right’]I wanted a place to hold experiential, naked, queer workshops and rituals focussed on sexual healing. [/pullquote]The previous year, Jack Davis and I had started Phallic/Image, a ‘school’ for trainings in safer sex, creativity and spirituality for queer men. Inspired by the work of Joe Kramer and Body Electric, we decided to offer low cost, pagan-based events that affirmed gay sex. As the faggot liberationist, goddess honoring, anarchist grandchildren of Wilhelm Reich, Emma Goldman, Betty Dodson, Walt Whitman and The Living Theater, we wanted nothing less than the abolition of sex shame, HIV ignorance, homophobia, male rigidity, rape and sexual violence, and closeted love. Our work emerged from the common field nurtured by feminism, body and earth based spiritualities, gay lib, contemporary art movements, radical environmentalism and anti-racist/civil rights organizing. We were leftist community organizers offering group sex and intimacy in a ritual setting. And we discovered that there was a shortage of places to do this work.{…} Thus the first “sex events” at 848 were born.


In 848’s Fall ‘94 calendar, Med-O and I wrote, “We’ve provided an essential public space for several micro-communities, including those that operate at the queer edges of society, dance-based performers, body-based women visual artists, and more. What next? We want a bigger gallery/theater, with room for more people to live in community. We want to be an evolving resource for artists creatively manipulating hard core political issues that make the city hell to live in. We know that sexual liberation sells more tickets and gets more press than class war activism. We dance in this schism and get as subversive as necessary to pollinate both fields with the wisdom of the other. Aware of the incessant violence in all directions, we look for work that makes life worth living”


Pioneering Fusions of Sex & Art at 848 Community Space (1991-2005)


SF has always been a hotspot for sexual libertines. It’s a port town. It’s a home base for prostitutes and returning soldiers. It’s a pioneer town. We have streets named after hookers and brothel owners. It’s about Beats and Hippies and social and political dissidents. It’s about people escaping mainstreams established by New England puritans. SF has been a magnet for US and international LGBT refugees for generations.


Then AIDS.


SF was hit hard, becoming an epicenter of both the pandemic and the activist-artistic mobilization it inspired. Most of the sex activity at 848 in the early 90s was a direct response to AIDS. We were forced to rethink sex and the relationship of gay sex to community. The Queen of Heaven parties (2) and many other sex positive happenings were framed as safer sex events. [pullquote align =  ‘right’]The court ordered closing of SF bathhouses in 1984 was a homophobic response to AIDS[/pullquote]; an opportunity for closed minded and homophobic citizens to backlash and scapegoat gay men for having pleasure palaces. The defence of the safer sex party in this historical context was that people in public, having sex in front of friends and strangers, would be more likely to follow the new community ethic of using condoms. All of the sex or play parties at 848 had some kind of monitor or host that made condoms and lube readily available, as well as gloves, saran wrap for eating pussy and ass, and a generally convivial environment for changing our sex habits and behaviors.


The people who led sex events or rituals at 848 were also artists: dancers, performance artists, writers and visual artists. These artist-sexpert-organizers included Carol Queen and Robert Lawrence, Jack Davis and myself, Ann Rosencranz, Jess Curtis, Matthew Simmons (aka Peggy L’eggs), Patrick Califia (3), the folks from Black Leather Wings (4), Mark I Chester and others. The people engaged in radical sex practices, whether they were gay or not, were heavily impacted by AIDS – by friends getting sick, by the activism, by the work to re-imagine sexual community. In queer scenes no one was untouched, no one was unmoved. Artists and dancers have always been a part of communities where sexual experimentation, faggotry and non-heteronormative sexual relations and practices have been celebrated or explored. A disproportionate number of male dancers are gay and bisexual, so the dance community was deeply implicated in the struggle with AIDS and the efforts to reclaim visibility, solidarity, and pride during the sex wars of the 80s.


The styles, genres and political tactics of performance that happened at 848 were influenced not only by contact improvisation and the experimental wing of the contemporary dance scene, but also by feminist and queer performance, the experimental drag scene, and visual art by radical lesbians, gays, transfolk, bisexuals, poly and leather folk.


In the early 90s in the Bay Area, a super vibrant feminist and dyke scene blossomed in both the dance and queer performance scenes. Young feminists had come of age during the sex wars of the 80s, their [pullquote]politics formed in the conflicts between sex positive and sex worker positive feminists and the feminists who prioritized a radical critique of rape culture and anti-pornography[/pullquote]. Among these young women who organized and/or performed at events at 848 were Stanya Kahn, Stephanie Maher & Kathleen Hermesdorf, Kneejerk, The Femme Show (which was followed by the Butch and Switch group shows), Madrone aka Kim Jack, Lisi DeHaas, Pearl Ubungen, and Miriam Kronberg. Miriam was central in creating the women’s performance space LunaSea, one of several spaces whose founding was inspired by 848 (5).


There is a crucial history of bisexual leadership in sex liberation and sex worker activism in SF that is rarely acknowledged. From BiPol (6), Society of Janus (7), and COYOTE (8) in the 70s, to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Human Sexuality, and most specifically their training for the SF Sex Info call line, there have been countless bisexuals who have been key to sex worker, BDSM, LGBT, feminist and queer art, healing, and organizing. Many of these people came through 848, producing events, telling their stories through performance, having sex, making videos, attending visual and performance art events.


Queer and sexual cultures, at least in the Bay Area, seemed more engaged with dancers and dance performance than with theater. It’s a common observation that dance, sexuality, and gender are grounded in bodily performance and experience. Also dance tends towards more porous borders than theater – or maybe that’s just how I’ve experienced it in San Francisco. And I mean more porous borders with performance art, experimental theater, burlesque and erotic performance. Dance is mythically linked with sex work: strippers, sexy dancing, belly dancing, skirt dancers, dancers as escorts, the revealed legs of women in tights dancing men’s roles in Ballet…going as far back as our fantastical and orientalist imagining of ancient temple dancing. [pullquote align = ‘right’]Dancing is a form of sexual and erotic performance[/pullquote]. Feminist and queer performance pushed the limits of nudity and sexual imagery in art, revealing a mutual influence between dance, body-based performance and radical sex cultures.


In Bay Area performance history, nudity is “natural”, what dance theorist André Lepecki referred to as a “utopic project” (9), more under the influence of Isadora Duncan and Anna Halprin. This contrasts with the more confrontational nudity in New York of The Living Theater and Richard Schechner’s ‘Dionysus’ in 69. Even the softcore “O Calcutta” by Kenneth Tynan which opened Off-Broadway in 1969 was more prurient sexy than Halprin’s 1965 “Parades and Changes” in which the dancers dressed and undressed repeatedly. Nudity in Bay Area performance in the 90s was influenced as much by a post-Halprin, Bay Area casualness as by the shock tactics typical of some feminist and queer performance. At 848, nudity and sexual imagery in visual art and performance were both frequent and contested.



(from More Out Than In, 1995)

The body. The body. The body. It’s only a body. My god, it’s a body! The dance comes from the body. The dance comes through the body. The personal body. The animal body. The collective body. The earth body. The universal body. The specific body. Great and not-so-great artists have by stripping the body, exposing the body, studying the body forever. Etienne Decroux, the great teacher of corporeal mime, had his students rehearse in loin cloths before there was any conversation about sexual revolution. From Michelangelo to Anna Halprin, The Living Theater and Pilobolus we’ve been given the naked body as form, as objet d’art, as subject, as being, as beautiful reflection, as perfection, as human, as goddess.


I believe that contemporary performance audiences are much more concerned about formal experiments in the theater, e.g performers entering the audience, shows with no conceivable structure, improvisation and/or audience participation, than with nudity on stage. Yet presenters repeatedly put warnings on the door where i perform alerting the potential audience to ‘mature themes and nudity’. Recently at a gig produced by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis I added ‘and lots of improvisation’ to the warnings in the lobby.


When Jack Davis and I started the Phallic/Image events there were very few spaces that wanted to host this work. For political events at that time we frequented the Women’s Building (a women owned and operated community centre) but they, understandably, didn’t want to host a naked men’s cock worship event. We ended up in dance studios because that’s where I had connections. When we started 848 I asserted to my two hetero male collaborators that the space had to be available to my workshops with Jack and other sexual healing or erotic arts events. As West Coast anarchists, this was a non-issue. As soon as various people in the sex community found out that the space was available and cheap, we had many requests. Our relationships to many sex and body pioneers came from simply opening the doors.


As I recall it, the radical sex folks found me more than I found them. They came to performances and attended workshops. Affinities flowed. In 1985 I was invited into a life-changing collaborative project with Sara Shelton Mann. The result was a punk-influenced dance about love, gender, and violence called ‘Evol’, which revitalized Sara’s company Contraband. The first review about ‘Evol’ was by Mark I Chester in the gay (men’s) paper, Bay Area Reporter. Besides being an occasional art critic Chester was, and still is, a noted photographer who documents the underground BDSM scene in San Francisco. And then some of the first fans and supporters of my solo performance (starting with Saliva in 1988) were from the leather scene. They weren’t the gay sweater clones who were too afraid to come to an illegal, under a SOMA freeway performance where [pullquote align = ‘right’]I smeared myself in audience spit and danced in a black jockstrap, boots, and a leather jacket [/pullquote]painted with Dead Animal Skin on the back. Internationally recognized Kink educator, Cleo Dubois was with Mark Chester at the initial Contraband performances. She took performance workshops at 848 and then performed there both solo and with her partner Fakir Musafar, the father of the modern primitive movement. Carol Queen and Fakir were very quick to rent 848 for their sex/ritual/fetish events following the visibility of the gay men’s sex/intimacy workshops that I facilitated with Jack Davis. Carol, with her partner Robert Lawrence, was already hosting sex parties, within a context of pangender and poly organizing that had historic roots in SF bisexual community and activism. Their Queen of Heaven parties moved to 848 around 1992 or 93. Mark, Carol, Jack, Cleo and Fakir were all connected through underground BDSM, public sex party, and Radical Faerie scenes. Their involvement in the space as both artists and sex event organizers were instrumental in 848’s reputation as a site for community-based experiments in both radical sex and contemporary art and performance.[pullquote] I felt recognized as a fellow freak or outsider, someone wanting to live at the extremes of bodily and social experience,[/pullquote] even if my primary practice wasn’t in a sexual context but a theatrical dance and performance context.




Methodology: four stories moving between sex and art 

There were some key practices and experiences to which many of us were first exposed in group sexual healing contexts that had direct impact on our dancing and performance making. These included intense breathwork,the de-privatizing of sexual or intimate bodily experience, and the expansion or unmaking of bodily limitation, e.g., recontextualizing endurance, pain, ecstasy, and social relations. Crediting the development of artistic and social practices, like all history making, involves a network of personal narratives and positioned perspectives. Here are a few stories:



Joe Kramer is a sexual healing pioneer, the founder of The Body Electric School, and responsible for professionalizing and legalizing sexological bodywork. Kramer adapted Leonard Orr‘s Rebirthing-breathwork to his “Taoist” Erotic Massage. There was a resonance with Rebirthing to Stan Grof’s Holotropic breathwork which was introduced by Neil MacLean to my community of friends in DIY healing rituals. In both of these breath practices there is a ‘breather’ and a support person who may or may not engage physically with the breather. [pullquote]I have adapted these consciousness shifting and ecstasy-instigating breath practices into a para-theatrical improvisation ritual[/pullquote] in which a group assumes both roles of client/healer or breather/sitter with everyone breathing and everyone looking out for everyone. Full connected breath, trying to overdose on oxygen, for one hour or more, with dynamic music playing…while dancing, jumping, pushing, running, hugging, spinning, holding… This ritual is part of a series of exercises and events that constitute Potential Shamanic Action, a five-day laboratory for dancers and performers that I have taught in various contexts, mostly in Europe, since 2007.



Wanting to nurture mutual influence between sexual healing and contemporary dance scenes, Jess Curtis & Stephanie Maher developed Bonesex, a series of exercises rooted in Contact Improvisation and somatic dance practices. The work, which included clothing optional dancing, involved a rigorous, experiential study of touch and sensation, or what Curtis refers to as “the physics of sensual pleasure.” Jess has continued to develop this work at Felix Ruckert’s space Schwelle 7 in Berlin as well as in the nomadic Touch & Play Festival instigated by Daniel Hayes. The recent programming at Schwelle 7 and Touch & Play are very much resonant with the sex and art, dance and BDSM, experiments at 848 in the 90s. In a 2011 promotion, Curtis writes that the Bonesex workshop is intended to “[pullquote align=’left’]Develop tools to allow your sexual body to safely inform all of your dancing.” [/pullquote]





After an experience with flogging at The Body Electric School in the early 90s, I developed an exercise that I continue to explore in dance workshops and laboratories for creating new performance. In a three-on-one whole body hitting score, participants start with light tapping and escalate to hard slaps. Like a gradual, or graduated flogging session, the slow start helps both to trigger endorphins (useful when the “pain” increases) and to deconstruct the emotional or psychological implications of hitting and being hit. In a BDSM context, the exercise would be considered light, an introduction. For others unfamiliar with negotiated pain or power play, the escalating intensity of the slaps is provocative and generative on many levels. One person’s experience might focus on whole body sensation while another is pushed to personal limits of intimacy, pain, or fear. Memory of previous violence or fear of violence can be triggered. The exercise becomes an opportunity to teach or utilize tools for sensing, moving and grounding energy. [pullquote align=’right’]Overlapping certain shamanic or contemplative practice with SM practices, I use the exercise to recontextualize pain and intense bodily experience[/pullquote], as well as to magnify blood and energy flow throughout the body (and by body I mean whole bodymindetc).




The Oil Action, which I first encountered at Touch & Play (Berlin, Schwelle 7, 2010), has become an ongoing practice among some of friends and dance colleagues in the Bay Area. Also, the Oil Action, as performance and ritual research, directly influenced my recent project Turbulence (a dance about the economy). Naked, eyes closed, and covered in warm coconut oil, we writhe and tumble, sliding into an altered social relationship that challenges the normative economies of lover, family, community, and culture. Participants report experiences of not knowing where their body ended and another’s began, or not knowing what part of another’s body was touching them, or how many bodies, or how much time had passed, or where one was in a room, or how good it can feel to not know anything except warmth, moisture, and contact, or how lonely one felt while anonymous in a mass. The practice stimulates physical and conceptual experimentation, as well as inspiring community and friendship.


I started teaching for Body Electric in 1989, during the peak decade of AIDS before protease inhibitors. I joined a community of gay and bi men actively surviving the AIDS pandemic while trying to re-imagine male-male sexuality as healing. My work at Body Electric combined whatever I was doing and learning with Contraband, at 848, with the feminist pagans at ReClaiming, and among my artist and anarchist circles of friends, with the gay sexual healing practices developed by Joe Kramer and the teachers he curated. I was always looking for ways to bring the personal healing work into a more ritual and social change context, to politicize group practice as social movement. Following my experiences, several of my friends decided to participate in Body Electric’s sexual healing trainings. This included women and hetero-ish men once BE started offering workshops outside of gay male exclusive contexts. Most of these friends then instigated their own events at 848, furthering a cross-pollination of people and practices between 848’s more artist-centered culture and Body Electric’s approach to queer sexual healing, pleasure, and liberation.


Some of us took courses or attended rituals that others developed while many of us created our own practices and contexts. For some of us the overlap of sex and art practices and communities is a life-long project. For others, it was more of a phase or an intense period when 848 sex events, AIDS-influenced safer sex parties and sexual healings, Body Electric, Queen of Heaven, Radical Faeries, Black Leather Wings, and Annie Sprinkle were collectively creating a more saturated sex/art scene than most of us experience in our daily lives today.


These stories remind me of the ongoing influence of Wilhelm Reich’s proposal that free bodies must be sexually free. It was first with Reich, and then re-imagined through feminism and gay liberation, that I learned to recognized the politics of sexual oppression, to recognize that how people’s sexuality is controlled (limited, named, surveilled, punished) will directly influence their political voice, or subjectivity. Frank Wilderson (Incognegro, 2010) (10) complicates this understanding of sexual or bodily freedom by indicting sexual liberation’s embodiment of white privilege and white supremacy. The always unfinished projects of liberation challenge Reich’s theories but do not completely dismiss them. [pullquote]How is sexual repression linked to spiritual repression linked to political repression?[/pullquote] How can some people’s liberation depend on others’ oppression or is it true that until we’re all free, no one is free? Queers and feminists of color, in fields ranging from sex work to academic research, political organizing, burlesque and performance art, have consistently labored in the cross-hairs of optimism and pessimism that mark the naked body in public. For over a decade, artists and teachers at 848, experimented with queer and feminist performance, public intimacy, experimental dance, and communal celebrations as part of a larger utopian project to host a liberated space, however imperfect or temporal or invisible.


[pullquote align=’right’]848 was a thriving site in the queer zeitgeist of the early 90s[/pullquote], hosting the emergence of artists from previously underground communities, including BDSM practitioners, sex workers, transgender men, femme dykes, and bisexuals, among other burgeoning communities activated by internet organizing, a new queer cinema, third wave feminism, and AIDS activism. Because the space was so cheap to rent and easy to use, and because many of these emerging communities or social contexts did not have social centers of their own, 848 hosted countless queer and sex radical organizers who curated events far beyond the imaginations of the core artist collective at 848. These performance events, especially the group shows in which several short performances were featured in a single evening, were witness to unpredictable genre and community blurring. BDSM practitioners “came out” with intense images and actions that referenced both body art and identity politics narratives. Many an individual artist and ensemble created their first performance works at 848. And many an established artist shifted their practice to create works for events specifically themed around sex, gender, and sexuality. Choreographers experimented with play piercing and flogging, dominatrixes experimented with personal narratives, rape survivors wrote monologues about sexual healing, improv jazz musicians got naked, drag queens MC’d for non-queer events, heterosexuals created queer performance, kink writers moved from reading their work to adding elements of sensual and sexual performance…



There were two events in particular that blew apart our perceptions of what could happen at the intersections of queer, art, sex, ritual, community, and performance. The first did not happen at 848 but its influence traveled north from Los Angeles in the bodies and experiences of several Bay Area participants. “Rites of Ecstasy and Transformation” at Highways in Santa Monica, was curated by Doug Sadownick. The weekend festival brought together SM performers from Club Fuck, modern primitive ritualists, and performance artists from both LA and San Francisco. Ron Athey and friends performed ritualized piercing and bleeding for the first time outside of a nightclub. Jess Curtis and Jules Beckman participated as dancer and drummer in a communal ball dance hosted by Fakir Musafar in collaboration with his partner Cleo Dubois and members of the Black Leather Wings community. The ball dance is based in part on a ritual practice in Savite Hindu culture during which metal balls or limes are sewn to the skin of the participants who dance into a pain-transmuting endurance trance. One of several performers at the festival, I climbed into the rafters of the low-ceiling warehouse theater wearing only a jock, a climbing harness, and some boots. Referencing Schneeman’s “Interior Scroll,” I read a text pulled from (a condom inside) my ass as I floated, suspended above the audience. [pullquote]The encounters between body art, post colonial ritual, community practice, and queer performance set an example[/pullquote] and provoked a series of questions, which continued to engage many of us for several years.


The second legendary event worth mentioning here was Loren Cameron’s photo exhibit “Our Vision, Our Voices: Transsexual Portraits and Nudes” in 1994. Recognizing that transgender bodies were primarily documented by cis-gender (non-trans) fetishists, whether sexual or medical, Cameron dedicated several years to documenting his own and other trans people’s bodies and lives. When no other gallery in San Francisco would present the work, Cameron came to 848 and self-produced the exhibit, buying the track lighting that shifted 848 from an empty room with good intentions to an actual gallery. The opening featured readings and performances by acclaimed gender outlaw Kate Bornstein, leading trans advocate Jamison Green (of FTM International), among others. When over 200 people showed up, we jammed more than 100 into the space while another 100 waited patiently on the sidewalk for nearly 90 minutes, cued down the block, and then the entire program was repeated for this second audience. The mood was electric. Most of us – cis and trans – had never been in the presence of this many transgender people at one time. The show was reviewed in The New Yorker which brought it national acclaim but it also revealed the emerging power of the internet in shifting public discourse and visibility for marginalized communities, identities and bodily practices. Cameron’s work was expanded into a second exhibit at 848 in 1995, that was eventually published by Cleis in 1996 as “Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits.” David Harrison‘s ground breaking performance “FTM” also premiered at 848 in 1994, part of the ground swell of trans male cultural production, activism, and social networking that marked the mid-90s. That my partners at 848 (Curtis & Whitson) were hetero men (influenced by hippy anarchist queer feminist ethics) will probably not register in any queer or trans histories but [pullquote]I think it was no accident that a space marked as gay or lesbian was not where trans male artists first found, if not a home, then a space to take over[/pullquote]. In San Francisco that space was 848 (11).





Research: Dance, Intimacy, Pleasure, Culture


Dancing at 848 had two primary influences, Contact Improvisation and Contraband. 848 hosted a weekly CI jam started by Stephane Maher in 1993 or 94. That jam continues on Tuesdays at CounterPULSE 20 years later. Contact Improvisation, as instigated by Steve Paxton in the early 70s and developed in collective and community contexts since then, is primarily a duet dance, in which dancers improvise around an ever-shifting point of contact between their two bodies. It is necessarily intimate and close, involving deep bodily listening (or physical awareness) to self and partner. More horizontal and circular than vertical,[pullquote align = ‘right’] the dancing-by-touching in CI challenges hierarchies and meanings of bodily value[/pullquote], i.e., head rolling across thigh as dancers yield to gravity, or shoulder pushing into butt as one dancer lifts another. Despite Paxton’s insistence to focus on physics rather than biology as a way to decenter or unfocus the potential sexuality of dancing, many of us have learned more about intimate touch through CI than from our romantic and sexual partners. For some of us, CI is a postmodern approach towards enhanced intimacy, unrestricted by Modernity’s heteronormativity. The emerging sexual healing scenes that emerged at 848 during the first decade of AIDS offered a place to share this queer sensibility, to crossover from the CI subculture to the radical sex subculture. The CI jams at 848, and in the Bay Area in the 90s, were non-static, research-based, sites for experimentation. In addition to working on physical feats and sensitivity, we used CI as a ground for considering sex and intimacy, political subjectivity, spiritual and contemplative practice, healthy anatomy and biology, therapeutic potentials, feminism, white privilege and exclusivity, notions of community, resistance to mainstream culture.


The Contraband influence was grounded in the pioneering work of choreographer and researcher Sara Shelton Mann and then extended by other members of the company who were actively teaching and performing in the 90s especially Kim Epifano, Julie Kane, Jules Beckman, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Shannon McMurchy, and 848 co-directors and residents Jess Curtis and Keith Hennessy. Mann’s work combined modern dance, release techniques and somatic practices, CI and other forms of dance improvisation, talking, objects, drawing, engaged collaborations with musicians and visual artists, and psycho-spiritual practices. Mann introduced at least three generations of Bay Area dancers to various kinds of meditation and mind-body-spirit-energy practices for which she has a voracious appetite, learning from one Qigong master to the next new age healer to the next explorer of consciousness. At 848, an encounter between dance and sexual healing practices revealed a wide open field of possibilities for making performance.


An enormous number of dancers were active at 848, and much of the richness of the space was generated by its inclusivity, or lack of exclusivity. The space was simultaneously cliquey, suggesting a home base for a particular group of friends, but also radically accessible as the cheapest theater in San Francisco. Outside of the previously mentioned influences that impacted the dance culture at 848 were Pearl Ubungen, Robert Henry Johnson, Osseus Labyrint, OnSite Dance Company, Rick Darnell & The High Risk Group, Zeltzman & Coburn and many others.



More Out Than In: Points of Contention

In 1995, Rachel Kaplan and I decided to publish a zine to make public the gossipy debate about the intersections of sex and art at 848 Community Space. We wanted to challenge the critiques that seemed sex negative or that implied that artistic research and production was being trumped by sex programming. As well, we wanted to give voice to the complaints by inviting a more formal articulation and accountability that published writing offers. We received so many texts that we decided to publish a book, one of four small press projects released by our own Abundant Fuck Publications. The title More Out Than In reflected a common sentiment around issues of community and clique, as well as being a joke about how much sex really happened at the space.


The following section introduces four points of contention internal to the organizing collective and among the larger community of artists and sex educators who used the space. Quotes are from my 1995 essay in More Out Than In. My intention with that essay was both to respond to criticism as well as to situate criticism within a larger struggle of community-based arts organizing and the tensions between DIY grassroots and non-profit institutions.


The 848 calendar: our public face

848’s monthly calendar would list performances, exhibitions, the weekly Contact jam, and various sex/intimacy events. The latter distinguished the space from all other art spaces and could be quite provocative. Clothing optional and assertively gay or queer, these events shifted how the dance and other art events at the space were perceived. Frequently the art on the walls, which stayed up during performances and jams as part of an integrated gallery experience, featured naked bodies or sexual themes. There was an ongoing friction about the sexual explicitness of the space, which prompted an ongoing question about how much to share with a broader public through the calendar. “Though the ratio of sex specific programming at 848 has increased in the past three years, i noted, as well that the overall volume of programming has increased considerably. {…} I’m often afraid to show the calendar because of the prevalence of sex related events. I’m afraid of freaking people out. {…} sometimes it’s weird enough having a septum ring when I enter cross cultural dialogue, let alone try to convince foundations to fund us. The irony is that the calendar got more sexually explicit after we received our first grant from the SF Art Commission. Who wants to be the next poster child for perversion paraded before an economically terrified populace? Not me.”


Perceiving BDSM

Artists and audiences who had no connection to the sex events were troubled that BDSM was even happening in the space. (…) At the Queen of Heaven parties, we began to stage the downstairs (a squatted storefront) as the SM space – separating it from the general sex play area.

BDSM is hugely misunderstood by most non-practitioners and it provides a vibrant screen for all kinds of traumatic projection. Additionally, there are folks who have either participated in or studied BDSM but disapprove. Some disapprove of the physical and relational practices and others are confronted by BDSM’s representations of sexism, violence, and torture. At 848 we bragged that anything could happen. For $100 a night we handed the keys to the space to almost anyone. The NEA censorship battles of the late 80s and early 90s implicated queer and feminist performance (NEA four), BDSM (Mapplethorpe), AIDS activism, and religious critique (Serrano, Wojnarowicz) (12). No one in the 848 collective was active in or identified with BDSM scenes when we started the space, but we knew which side of history we wanted to be on with regards to censorship, whether sexual or artistic. Several writers in More Out Than In shared their pro, con, and ambivalent positions on BDSM and this public airing softened the conflict for many of the key critics.


Funding (money for sex not for art)

One of the rumors about 848 was that grant money intended for artistic programming was subsidizing sex events. The opposite was more true, that money raised through sex events subsidized artistic programming. And of course, much of the 848 programming blurred the distinctions between art and sex. 848 regularly presented (or rented out to) sex and sexuality themed performances and exhibitions, as well as art themed events for queer and sex-identified communities including sex workers, BDSM communities, and Radical Faeries. “Whether or not we were spending grant money that came to support arts programming on sex events (we weren’t, and in fact sex events raised money that supported general infrastructure (rent, utilities…)”


Sex versus Race and Class, the challenge with intersection

The core organizers at 848 were mostly white, raised in mostly white contexts. Michael Whitson, whose grandfather is Choctaw, was the only non-white member of the core collective. Raised in mostly white, working to middle class communities in small town Washington, he was hesitant to foreground his native ancestry especially if it was perceived as an effort to deny his white appearance and privilege. Like most progressive white artist collectives in the 90s we made considerable effort at outreach to artists of color. These efforts were sometimes successful for a single event and we did establish a few ongoing relationships with artists and curators of color. Generally, however, it was difficult to get past tokenism and temporary multiculturalism. Sadly, most of our white constituency didn’t notice, while most people of color considered 848 to be a white space. As organizers we lamented “…the lack of race/class activism or awareness within the mostly white sex lib scenes, or the sex events being more focused on personal pleasure than social change…” This lament was challenged by white queers including Jack Davis who wrote in More Out Than In, “I do not have the privilege of thinking that my sexuality is not political” and “being publicly queer is political.”



Sustainable threads: from then to now

Of the many ways we might consider the current moment, one is a historical thread of feminist, queer and sex/erotic art that extends from the celebratory breakthroughs of the late 70s, coming of age during the political intensity of the AIDS era, and arriving in the new millennium sanctioned by both academia and (limited) foundation funding. Pre-dating 848 by a decade, the mere presence of a noted porn star, Annie Sprinkle, in a “reputable” art or performance space was a provocation. Obviously there has been some movement, change, progress, and drift…


I recognize sustainable threads from 848’s more radical experimentation to some of the activities at CounterPULSE (13) and in the ongoing local ecology that includes a wide range of queer performance tactics, cliques and contexts (including ‘THIS IS WHAT I WANT’). CounterPULSE is clearly not 848, and the de-privatizing of sex and sexual healing is not on their agenda. But in 2011-12 CounterPULSE hosted several artists working at the intersection of queer sex and art including: post-colonial burlesque artist Xandra Ibarra, extensive nudity and onstage pissing in my own project Turbulence (a dance about the economy), Seth Eisen’s portrait of queer pioneer and pornographer Sam Steward, and appearances by sex-ecologist-artists Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens. The images and actions of these artists have both visible and invisible threads linking them to a previous generation when queer sex and live art were more actively scrutinized, questioned, punished, or hidden. In comparison with these recent projects, the often amateurish efforts at 848 were groundbreaking in setting a context for many of today’s artists.


The tactics of identity based and intersectional queer performance that are staples of the annual National Queer Arts Fest have traceable roots to the performers at 848’s frequent group shows in the 90s. THIS IS WHAT I WANT  is kin, like a younger sibling or cousin, to the many sex and desire-themed group shows at 848. This is less about praising 848 as it is an attempt to recognize the larger movement that happened in performance during the 90s, under the influence of queer uprising, the cultural response to AIDS, and the shifting tides in the feminist sex wars. Nationally, 848 was one space among many, with a particular San Francisco flair with regards to sexual and identity politics, where dance and performance experimentation thrived and culture was renewed. Influential mid-career artists, including Jess Curtis and myself who lived, researched, taught, and performed at 848 for over a decade, continue to be influenced by the current generation of Bay Area artists, in a kind of generational feedback loop that is both generative and frictive.


848 was a laboratory for experiments in staging desire, for coming out as sexual agents, for using our personal relationships as impetus for choreographic action, for exhibiting and viewing naked bodies as provocation, healing, activism, and delight. We picked up some threads from the pioneers of sex and art that preceded us. We gave it our best shot. We left a lot of work undone. And some of that work is now being picked up, remixed, re-searched and updated.




(1) Kaplan, Rachel and Keith Hennessy, eds. More Out Than In, Notes on Sex, Art, and Community. Abundant Fuck Publications: San Francisco. 1995

(2) Queen of Heaven was a safer-sex party/orgy/ritual for all genders and (most) desires. Organized by Carol Queen & Robert Lawrence in 1991. For more information read Carol’s Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, Cleis, 1997, 2002.

(3) Patrick Califia published several books influential to radical sex communities in the 80s/90s under the name Pat Califia.

(4) “Black Leather Wings is a group of people who since 1989 have built an ongoing community around exploration of body, BDSM, body based rituals, sex, sensation and laughter together as they grow old” -Neon Weiss, long term BLW member.

(5) Spaces modeled on or inspired by 848: Cellspace (neighborhood art and culture space, live/work artist collective), LunaSea (queer women’s performance space), Center for Sex and Culture (library, archive, exhibition and performance space founded by Carol Queen & Robert Lawrence), Mission Control (a poly gendered sex party venue), K77’s movement studio and weekly jam in Berlin…

(6) Bi-Pol is a bisexual feminist political action group founded in 1983 Named after Reich’s Sex-Pol.

(7) Society of Janus (founded 1974 by Cynthia Slater and Larry Olson) – Advocating visibility and rights for BDSM practitioners with a focus on building community through trainings and social events.

(8) COYOTE (founded by Margo St James 1974) or “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics” – American Sex worker run sex worker activist organization

(9) Lepecki, André. Skin, Body and Presence in European Choreography. TDR 43.4 (1999) 129-140.

(10) Wilderson, Frank B. III. Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid. South End Press: Boston. 2008.

(11) Founded in 1991 by Michael “Med-O” Whitson, Todd Eugene and Keith Hennessy but co-directed for most of its history by Michael “Med-O” Whitson, Jess Curtis, and Keith Hennessy, with additional collective members or ongoing curators at various times including K. Ruby, Jack Davis, Tanya Calamoneri, Tracy Vogel, Tara Brandel.

(12) National Endowment for the Arts. The outcome of the censorship battles around the NEA four, Mapplethorpe, Serrano et al was an end to funding of individual artists by the federal government. This policy continues today.

(13) CounterPULSE was founded in 2005 by a transitional collective that included original members of the 848 collective (Whitson, Hennessy), Chris Carlsson of ShapingSF, as well as Jessica Robinson Love, Sonya Smith and Ali Woolwich. Under the artistic direction of Jessica Robinson Love, CounterPULSE has become a thriving mid-level non-profit producing more queer and cutting edge dance and performance than any venue in SF. Their current mission statement opens with “CounterPULSE provides space and resources for emerging artists and cultural innovators, serving as an incubator for the creation of socially relevant, community-based art and culture.”

Republished with permission at http://tessawills.com/848-performance-sex-1990s-san-francisco-keith-hennessy/. Originally published in George, Doran, Hargreaves, Martin, Shaw, Thom and Wills, Tessa eds. Dance Theatre Journal 25.2. London: Laban, 2013. Print.







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