Editorial: Desire as a Force

photo by Pat Mazzera

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.

THIS IS WHAT I WANT 2014: Desire and The Gaze runs between the 1st and the 21st of June in San Francisco, London, and Bristol. After seven months of articles about the work being released and formatted online, and on the festivals 5th birthday, Tessa Wills reviews the themes and the scene.

THIS IS WHAT I WANT (TIWIW) is a five year old annual performance festival about desire, based in San Francisco. I performed in year two of the festival (2011) and served as artistic director for years three, four and five. Between the festival, editing Dance Theatre Journal about the festival, and other live events and performances stemming from the festival, I’m becoming aware of the resonances of the TIWIW ideas beyond the festival events. I see it as a curated field of thought and activity emerging at a specific intersection of sexuality and performance. This issue of Dance Theatre Journal is dedicated to that field, through the lens of the festival.

Practicing in this field, I’ve come to believe that to say what you want can be a formational (and vulnerable) act. [pullquote]Desire has a relationship to identity in private and public that has both personal and social significance.[/pullquote] It can confound expectations (both your own and others’) as it creates new ones: undoing, writing and rewriting assumptions on many levels. It is an activity motivated with promise, passion and necessity. And when it is real, it is often a risk.

I have been in the practice of asking what it is that I want, or what it is that you, or we want, for the last three years. (An aside: I recommend it as a practice.) As an artist, I am drawn to investigate, reveal, and evaluate the process of saying what you want. I began with my piece ‘After Pâquerette’ (2011), made with Harold Burns. In this piece, audience members stated their desires into a microphone that translated the statements into electric signals that then travelled up our asses through buttplugs. We couldn’t hear the content of the statement, but we could feel its charge. Next, I explored desire through my piece ‘CHARGE’ (previously titled: This is what [YOU] want) (2012), a participatory installation culminating in an invitation to state what you want in a (one on one, hands-on) experience with a sex worker.


Through these investigations, amongst other things, I have found:

  • When a person communicates desires (especially deep ones) they engage in the dynamic construction of identity.

  • If the person speaking expects to have their desire granted, it is a very different experience (to watch or feel) than if they do not. This brings the idea of privilege into play – some people are used to getting what they ask for, and some people are used to being asked for things by others.


The contributions to the journal are introduced below. For the purposes of illuminating the defining questions that come up consistently in the field around TIWIW, I have categorized them under thematic threads I see as curator. These are the articles already released, or coming.


Considering desire as a socio-political force

(What ways does desire intersect with the economy? Does integral desire confound capitalism? How does privilege effect our experience of desire? How can we manage the significance of our bodies and the values that are projected into/away from them?)

 Chase Joynt offers his ‘Man Lib’ (a version of a ‘Mad Lib’ – American word game); in a format you can play through the journal, where the connection between names and actions disintegrates into fun surreal crisp reflection of the power of naming body parts. Monique Jenkinson (AKA Fauxnique) writes about how ‘The Gays’ taught her to love the gaze, and tells us what its like being a faux queen and performer in San Francisco. Diamanda Kallas is a ‘drag queen monster’ who contributed a self portrait series representing the height of the fresh wave of drag in San Francisco and how it intersects with raw identity. I, Tessa Wills, let you know more about how ‘CHARGE’ (previously known as ‘This Is What [YOU] Want’); (a piece I made with sex workers) turned out.

Rupturing the line between private and public in performance

(Where is a generative space between internal and external worlds in these performances? What happens if we disrupt these private and public boundaries, or stage the disruption of them?)

Rafael Esparza’s images and artist text in the journal reference his work in TIWIW, which reflected upon his negotiation of his Mexican cultural heritage of dominant Machismo and his queerness. Eve Minax is a hands on domina and kink educator with a theatre background who performed in ‘CHARGE.’ She writes about her role in society: psychic waste management for the masses through private theater. Mica Sigourney’s performance ‘all this love…’ was ‘reverse prostitution’ where he tried to sell dates with himself to the audience. In a piece I wrote with Mica, I reveal my complicated relationship with him as someone who hoped for a date (customer) and someone who presented him (artistic director / pimp of sorts).

Investigating radical sex as fertilization of/inspiration for/sustenance of the (performative) body

(How do radical sex practices fertilize and inspire radical performance?)

Annie Danger, A fierce, ravenous trans women from New Mexico living in the Bay Area 12 years strong shares about the classic TIWIW piece from 2011: ‘The Great Church of the  Holy Fuck’; an unexpectedly moving queer ‘mass’ (“more of a *heft* really…”) about the transformative power of sweet, sweet sex. Sara Kraft shares her 2012 festival piece ‘The Truth ++,’ about relationships with yourself, with other, and with anything, reflecting on how straight desire fits into a queer festival.

Contextualising history/geography

(What is the history of the intersection of radical sex and radical performance in the Bay Area? What are comparative scenes in other places?)

Keith Hennessy traces a history of sex and performance in the Bay Area, especially through the history of the 848 Community Space. Enjoy Annie Sprinkle, the godmother of sex and performance in the Bay Area, getting revelatory about her history and inspirations. Carol Queen introduces us to the Center for Sex and Culture, which she runs, and writes about the festival symposium, where generations of sex pioneers and artists were in dialogue. Dino Dinko, an LA curator, contextualises West Coast performance. Jesse Hewit tells his history of the festival. Felix Ruckert writes about his experience of creating the training and presentation space “Schwelle 7” in Berlin.


Before I leave you to find your way through the journal, I also offer you two insights I gained from the precious process of recording oral histories of the intersection of radical sex and radical performance.

Firstly, I want to shine a light on how queering radical sex has historically fertilized this avant garde performance field. I love the mythical stories of when cis gendered sex positive women, searching for a place for exploration (perhaps having had their pro sex/pro porn activities excluded from many spaces by radical feminists in that moment) became involved with gay male sex scenes. Many [pullquote]community elders mythologize a moment when female identified people knocked loudly on the bathhouse/club doors and demanded to be let in.[/pullquote] Annie SprinkleCleo DuboisCarol QueenBarbara Carellas and other sex pioneers all have powerful versions of this same story.


Simultaneously, practices such as holotropic breathwork, tantra, and piercing clearly influence this performance world. [pullquote align = ‘right’]There is a link between the queering of the gay bathhouse and an understanding of desire and sexuality as a force applicable in many contexts. [/pullquote]The insistent knock on the bathhouse door fertilized an expansion of understanding of radical sex.  As well as celebrating these practices as a marker and affirmation of Gay Male experience, the practices became widely understood as human somatic experiences that were widely relevant and applicable to diverse fields by pioneering bodies. And so we find an emergence of the influence of sexual somatics in this performance scene.


Secondly, a note about the current nature of the field itself: it has become clear that our current performance context is emerging, fragmented from a post-plague retreat that happened at the end of the 90s. This is the post “cocktail” generation, where the AIDS epidemic and its demands on the queer and sex community as a unit are ever present but more manageable. The performance scene became quieter at the end of the 90s when the community retreated to lick its wounds from the ravage of the years when there was less effective drug therapy for AIDS.  Ten years after that post AIDS retreat, benefitting from a thrashed out history of playing with sex, [pullquote]fresh queer experimental work is now incubating at the intersection of sexuality and performance.[/pullquote] Our culture is the dazed ‘post cocktail’ generation. We are working with established cultural freedoms and celebrations. Staging sex or sexuality as an end in itself or as a political revelation is not the main drive of this particular subcultures work.  [pullquote align = ‘right’]We are not necessarily working with sexuality as a force that craves liberation[/pullquote], because to some extent that is achieved. Perhaps we don’t all believe sex is a positive force. While I am not documenting a unified scene (there is no cohesive lineage here) in our contemporary moment, THIS IS WHAT I WANT crystallizes something of unique Bay Area ideology and sophistication around sexuality and somatics.

Hearing that this is the final edition of DTJ, I have reflected on my relationship with the journal over the years. I started reading DTJ at the age of 16, when I came to London for the Laban school summer dance program. [pullquote]Reading about DV8 Physical Theatre in between classes, I understood I could cut a life path for the risky work I wanted to make[/pullquote]. The journal stayed with me through university. For example, I found information on Bausch and German Expressionist dance theater for my thesis at Birmingham University. Then, throughout my postgraduate training at P.A.R.T.S. and at Middlesex University, and in my professional life as an experimental dance and performance maker, the journal kept me in touch with bleeding edge dance in the UK. It scratched my itch for experimental work, adding institutional weight to activities gleefully doomed to failure (guest editorials which set out to trash the publication, for example). It feels fitting then, with respect to the journals heritage, and the way its commitment to the bleeding edge informed my cultural life, to dedicate this final journal to TIWIW. [pullquote align = ‘right’]The work we offer you through this festival is messy, and fierce[/pullquote]. It takes lots of risks and doesn’t promise success. That process is relentlessly alluring to watch and to be in. A privilege to be a part of. Thanks to everyone who has come together to make this field.

I’m envisioning producing these pieces and the festival itself in London. This journal will probably facilitate that because its like a big fat postcard from San Francisco: “Wish you were here!” Or, do you wish we were there? Let me know what you think.

All bests from your faithful co-editor of the grand finale of Dance Theatre Journal,

Tessa Wills


Republished with permission at http://tessawills.com/editorial-desire-as-a-force/. Originally published in George, Doran, Hargreaves, Martin, Shaw, Thom and Wills, Tessa eds. Dance Theatre Journal 25.2. London: Laban, 2013. Print.