michael j. morris


porn and performative productions of (inter)subjectivities: The Black Spark, etc.

I recently wrote a paper entitled “twincest/body fluids/fluid bodies.” It’s a bit of a performative paper that looks at video documentation of a performance piece entitled body shots by the duo twincest, comprised of Jiz Lee and Syd Blakovich (twincest is no longer in operation; they created work from 2005-2009); the paper also looks at a scene from Shine Louise Houston’s Crash Pad Series, Season 1, Episode 3, also starring Jiz Lee and Syd Blakovich. The paper looks at these performance projects for their potential as discursive spaces in which bodies are reconfigured (specifically beyond heterosexist or normative models of bodily significance), considering their permeability/penetrability, as well as their production of fluids (ejaculate, blood, etc.), as routes through which to consider the intersubjective potential of bodies. I also incorporate some writing about my experience as a conjoined twin, and how the body-that-does-not-stop-at-my-own-skin which I find to be inherent in the ontology of being a conjoined twin, might participate in the theoretical positions emerging from this analysis.
I hope to have a “web safe” version of the paper to share soon. It includes an experimental writing project of inhabiting multiple authorial voices simultaneously, reducing the gap between my voice and the voices of other scholars in the way that I am using their work. It is fundamentally plagiarism in its current form, thus can’t be posted. I’m working on finding another expression of this idea of transgression individual/discrete voices that is not a disservice to the scholars with which I’m working (Baitaille, Irigaray, some Kristeva, Linda Williams,  among others). There is also a possibility that the paper will be posted on the twincest site to live alongside the materials/performance it addresses. Which would be exciting.

This is not the first time I’ve written about porn (specifically queer porn). I even written about it here on this blog. I don’t want to be redundant here about my summaries about why I think analyses of porn might be significant contributions to the understandings of our culture, sex/sexualities, and bodies (see earlier posts). I don’t know how much of a research topic this is going to become in my writing and contributions to “the field” (which for me is something like “body-based performance”). But I do seem to be spending some time exploring down this rabbit hole (which reads kinkier than I intended it in this context . . .), and there’s another “porn phenomenon” that I’ve been wanting to consider in writing.

The Black Spark.

The Black Spark is a film/video-maker whose videos first began to appear on XTube in the fall of 2010. Other publications have recounted this history more specifically: OUT.com,  The Sword, and Boy Culture have all published interviews with Black Spark situated in accounts of the appearance and continued visibility of his work. I’ve considered situating anything I write about this project similarly, but in actuality I find a lot of what is said in these interviews to be extremely disconnected from how I experience the work. I find the artist’s insistence that what he is doing is “not porn” to be naive (which is fine; according to all accounts, he’s twenty). Erotic intensities can flow similarly in what is labeled “art” or “porn.” Pornographers like Madison Young have done exceptional work that questions and even collapses the lines between art, porn, and sex. Certainly there are dominant narratives in the porn industry from which the Black Spark wants to distance his work, but the same can be said (based on interviews) of the distance he is attempting to maintain between his work and the work of other artists with which his work might be associated. He presents this work as if it is his “real life,” and invokes certain [also dominant] narratives of “authenticity” and “realness” as the substance of the work, perhaps without engaging completely or reflexively with the complexity and politics of “the real,” or the actuality of the video camera and editing as systems of mediation, re-telling, re-making what it “real.”
[To be clear, I like this work. I hope to continue to see more of this work. And I hope that part of how the work evolves, beyond the “organic” process that Black Spark continues to describe, particularly in the incorporation of new players and characters as he meets new people interested in participating in the work, is a more critical understanding of what the work is beyond just the artist’s “real life,” the mythology of the Sparks, or making cool videos to songs that he finds meaningful. There is more going on in this work than just those things, and the “more” is what might make them really good.] Also, it isn’t that I have any need to argue that the work “is porn” or “is art;” rather, without making this the focus of anything I write about this work, I would suggest that there is value in recognizing that within the cultural (not to mention digital and virtual) landscape in which the Black Spark is situating his videos, he is already participating in frameworks associated with (and informed by) pornography, art, social media, etc. Those frameworks are not necessarily “inherent” in the work, but nor is the work entirely separable from the frames in which they are functioning. My suggestion is that rather than the artist or his audiences committing to positions of defining what the work “is,” we (and the work) might all benefit from recognizing these multiple frames, not simplifying or demonizing any of them (for instance, Black Spark in OUT: “It’s not porn — it’s my life. What you’re seeing is not a show I’m putting on. People need to know they’re seeing something real and the reality of it makes it art. There are no faked emotions. When people in my work look passionate or in love or deeply in lust, that’s all very genuine. Whereas in porn you put two people together and you’re paying them $500 to do a scene. Just because two people are having sex and you get to watch it, doesn’t make it porn.” This assumes SO MUCH: Yes, when you edit video material of you having sex for the purpose of presentation, and then post those edited videos on the web or share them in public viewings, what you’re doing is a show that you are putting on. The reality of anything is mediated, including the realities produced in porn–especially feminist and queer porn in which reality of desire, pleasure and feelings is an explicit goal of the work; and the equation of “reality” and “art” is a huge jump, especially because many art makers are engaged in their work precisely because of the artifice they can create. And for many people, by many definitions, getting to watch other people have sex on video is exactly what makes it porn. That isn’t all that it is, and that doesn’t make it less important. It’s just one registry in which the work can sit. And that seems to me a good thing.).
I think there are exciting possibilities for Black Spark’s work–possibilities opened by both the artist and the viewers recognizing that what the work “is” will always be a joint project between these two parties, not to mention the endless social and cultural frameworks in which that joint project is taking place–if we recognize that the work functions simultaneously in multiples registries of significance, and that “reality” gives it the potential to create and have effects in multiple areas of culture simultaneously. And that’s kind of cool.

In looking at the videos:
I started by looking at the video titled MoreTheKill.

There’s something to this first film about mythologizing daily life. The video begins with the inter-cutting of sex acts and what appears to be just life around an apartment. Mundane life and sex acts become transposed into the pastime of super heroes with super powers (lit with special effects); browsing gay porn becomes jerking off and fucking in public spaces (public, assuming the video rental place was public, but also public in the sense that it is now re-told through the web presentation of the work). I am struck by the discontinuity of time (this narrative is not sequenced chronologically, which, while not particularly exceptional in contemporary film/video media, does seem to heighten the sense of transforming “real life” into mythology and fantasy, where the normal rules of life no longer apply). The temporal discontinuity of the video also reminds me of how Linda Williams describes early pornographic videos that were sometimes just montages of sex acts, not necessarily building to climax or cum shots, and not necessarily sequenced in a linear fashion (this is one point at which I can read this video as in dialogue with the culture and history of porn, beyond the obvious connection of public displays of sexual behavior). The temporal distortion also recalls certain questions about queer temporalities raised by Elizabeth Freeman in Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, in which sexuality and sexual orientation or considered alongside their implicit compliance with or deviation from chrononormativities. I would suggest that the deviation linear time might be a small way that a much larger project–that of queer temporality–is at work in this video. There’s also an emphasis on social networking, in this video as well as others, and the whole web culture around Black Spark. This is in one sense perhaps just a reflection of our culture, but it is also unique in that these stories/images/sexual displays are not given as a mono-directional exchange, but are offered as an invitation for dialogue and communication. Alongside a visual tour of the performers’ bodies and sexual behaviors we are given email and facebook addresses. This adds a layer to what might otherwise be simple/recognizable citations of the roles of “porn performers” or “super-heroes”: whereas these figures are typically unreachable (unattainable?), here the artist is inviting the reach, inviting dialogue/exchange (this is fostered further on facebook and twitter, but my focus here is on the videos themselves).

I’m interested in the inter-cutting of the masked images, the images of sex acts, and the mixture of the two (having sex, wearing masks). There are so many ways to read this, of course, and the incorporation of the Eyes Wide Shut-esque white Venetian mask definitely inflects the content/context of the work. Regardless, here are some basic ideas that come out for me:
there is a relationship between sex (who we are when we have sex, how we have sex, etc.) and the “masks” that we wear. If I was to read for an easy “message,” I would say that there’s something here about sex adjusting or disrupting our masks, or even that sex unmasks us. I don’t think the video content is that simple, nor do I personally think that would necessarily be an accurate understanding of the personal effects/affects of sex. A baseline from which I can begin to offer one interpretation of the work is that the masks withhold a particular (privileged) facet of who a person is, namely, the face. The code name/alias functions as another kind of mask, withholding another particular (and privileged) facet of the person: the name. We are given access to other facets, namely the naked body and visual spectacle of sex in various forms and configurations. Bodies and sex function as revelations of the parts of a person often withheld in public culture (except perhaps in the frames of porn or art), and so these images might function as a kind of personal confession of these parts of (him)self. Juxtaposed with the mask images, however, and considering the highly produced condition through which these materials (bodies, sex) are being mediated (the videoing, the editing, the organization of these images alongside musical accompaniment, etc.), a question is raised about how these facets of identity also function as “masks” that withhold. Does a slab of chiseled abdominals become a signifier that obscures other aspects of who a person might be? Do particular sex acts (anal penetration, oral penetration, various positions and configurations, etc.) signify a person composed of social norms (to “bottom” means something in our culture, to “go down” on someone means something, “rimming” means something, etc.), and in doing so obscure other details of who that person might be? There’s a sense in which the limited range of personal dimensions offered in the video(s) functions itself as a mask. While these images are discussed by the artist as “real”—a personal journey, even—they are without extensive context; their (limited) context becomes the music, the masks, the settings, the code names. And, perhaps most interestingly, the kind of meta-web production/presence in which they are situated (email, facebook, twitter, tumblr, etc.). Certainly there are stories being told here, but they are only (selected) parts of the stories. These parts are about sex and bodies on display, and in such tellings, those parts of the story become foregrounded to stand in for the whole. Masks. Isolation (“No Spark wants to be alone …”) and connection (in the visual displays of sexual partnership, but also in the invitation for web-based social networking). And “sexual addiction” (one of the first phrases that scroll across the screen introducing us to the world of the artist is “I am Addicted to Sex”). [Without going too far down an adjacent tangent, I think there is something interesting about the fact that this figure/artist/work is characterized under the auspices of “sex addiction.” Annie Sprinkle, former porn star, among others, has written about the myth of sex addiction: http://anniesprinkle.org/writings/sex_addiction.html. I find the notion of “sex addiction” to be a product of a “sex negative” culture, and it is curious to read these videos as simultaneously a myth-making project, a celebration of (homosexual) sex, and simultaneously as a confession of failing to live up to the values of the culture (in classifying sex as an “addiction,” and thus inherently destructive in its excess). This would be an interesting thread to follow, exploring how the production of sexually explicit videos might simultaneously contribute to and counter a culture that views sex as inherently negative outside of certain socially constructed prescriptions.] This moment of “I am Addicted to Sex” frames the work in/as a mode of confession, and this for me recalls Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Volume I, in which Foucault traces a genealogical production of this modern notion of “sexuality,” specifically through the apparatus of “confession” in religious, medical, and psychological settings. Here again sex becomes a confession, and its meaningfulness is inflected/constructed in/as such a confession.
Some sub-stories: about how our lives are organized by music (our socialization includes the production of soundscores for our daily lives), and how the mundane can take on super importance.

Looking at the video Sunday Faith:

This video has a much more tender tone (mainly because of the music selections that include Imogen Heap, but also because of the insinuated focus on a central relationship), the alternating between partner sex and masturbating that is eventually revealed to also be partner sex (what is left to the viewer’s imagination is whether this is the same partner, or some other web-fuck-buddy situation. I feel as if both are suggested, the former by the text that alludes to a loving, trusting, “faithful til the end” relationship that is interspersed throughout the video, the latter by the constant insertion of email and facebook addresses inviting the viewer’s contact, the intense gazes into the camera (thus, into the gaze of the spectator), and the momentary glimpse of the three-way sex situation, indicating that this loving/trusting/faithful partnership is not monogamous. The latter may even go as far as to suggest that the viewer might become implicated into the scene, a kind of seduction into the possibility that to get in touch with the Black Spark by way of the constantly-advertised social media access points is to get involved with the kind of scene being presented). There’s a lovely play of language in the middle of the video, when the text on the screen reads “If you are interested in helping my project …” and we hear the person who at that point is being penetrated anally say “I have to stop . . .” and the text on the screen then reads “Support love.” What begins as what feels like a clumsy fund-raising pitch quickly turns intimate and even romantic, with the notion that project at hand is really “love.” Love here may be a euphemism, but it is yet another way that the viewer is invited into the project, the suggestion being that if you “support love,” then you are a part of what you are seeing. Although all the [early] videos include this textual push to establish contact by way of email and social media, this video in particular seduces me the most. It makes me as the viewer want to contact the Black Spark, because on multiple levels (the gaze, the text, the inclusion of the web-sex and three-way sex) that I am already a part of what I am watching, or that I could be if I wanted to.

Another reason I appreciate this particular video is that it begins with a cum shot. The cum shot is the money shot of porn (and most bad sex I’ve had). It is the climax, the “goal;” everything that comes before the cum shot is in preparation for it, rendering all other forms of sexual engagement as “foreplay,” only segues on the way to penetration and subsequent ejaculation. In this video, the cum shot is given first. It displaces what can easily become the fixed (fixated) goal of porn/sex, and in doing so, at least in part resignifies everything else that is shown afterwards. I as a viewer am freed to contemplate what else might be taking place or inspiring the sex acts that I am witnessing (love, for instance). Sex is no longer only something that leads to orgasm or ejaculation; the temporal manipulation creates the possibility for other stories to be told (again, this significance comes out for me directly because I am considering the work through the cultural framework of pornography. It is an example of why I am reluctant to abandon that frame as a way of considering Black Spark’s videos. Looking at them as porn—specifically the ways in which they deviate from the normative devices of mainstream porn—gives me access to a broader significance of how these re-presentations participate in the socio-cultural constructions of what and how sex takes on meaning).

I might add, one of my favorite videos thus far (aesthetically, but also because it shows the potential for switching roles between being penetrated/penetrating, which I think might be a difference in how I consider “queer sex” and “gay sex”) is Dance Inmyheartnow (can also be viewed at the link above). Perhaps at some point I will make the time to write about it and other videos.

That might be all I can write on the subject now.
Definitely worth keeping an eye on.
I hope to see Black Spark and/or some of his work when he comes through Columbus on 13-14 June (if I’m not in San Francisco doing a residency/conference that week; funding pending).

[I might suggest that the tour is yet one more avenue through which the work seems intensely centered on connecting with the viewer base/community surrounding the work]
Other useful links for Black Spark
http://blackspark.tumblr.com/

http://www.facebook.com/blacksparkfilm

http://twitter.com/#!/theblackspark

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3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

i thought the masks were more a nod to Cadinot’s classic <>

Comment by steve

Hi Steve,

I’m not overly familiar with Cadinot’s body of work, but I don’t see why that wouldn’t be a feasible reading. From what I’ve read of interviews with Black Spark, I get the sense that he is not particularly engaging directly/intentionally (derivation, homage, etc.) with any particular artist or pornographer’s work. But what I hope to have put out in my writing is the possibility to read this work for those cultural resonances (like Cadinot’s work) that are brought to it by its viewers, the cultural situation/reception in which it is being viewed (which will always be necessarily multiple).
So, yes. The work nods to Cadinot because that is part of how it is legible for you.
Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

-M

Comment by morrismichaelj

Your paper on Black Spark is scholastic and complex and a ‘page turner’ which i could not peel away from. I’d love to see a version wherein you cut everything, from sentence to syllable down by 2/3 and played with it more. Both would be fascinating ‘side by side’ so to speak. All the same, I appreciate your work and enjoyed my read greatly. … michael…austin, tx.

Comment by michael ganther




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