michael j. morris


Daily Writing Practice, Heavenly Spire, James Darling and Quinn Valentine

I was recently inspired/challenged by one of my faculty (Dr. Harmony Bench) to begin a daily writing practice as a method for not only developing as a writer, but also in preparation for the intensive writing I will be doing for my candidacy exams and dissertation. I will not post everything I write from this daily writing practice here on the blog, but what I wrote today is something I want to share:

I am enamored with Shine Louise Houston’s work, on both her Crash Pad Series project and on her more recent endeavor, HeavenlySpire.

“HeavenlySpire is a Shine Louise Houston creation for the purpose of masculine appreciation. HeavenlySpire focuses on masculine beauty and sexuality and how it manifests on different bodies. Following the same vision as Houston’s previous projects HeavelySpire focuses on capturing genuine pleasure with a unique cinematic style.” This work is personal and intimate in ways that is traditionally considered to be antithetical to pornography. The performers are introduced as people: they discuss themselves, their sexual predilections, their appreciations of their own bodies. They set a context of individual and aesthetic appreciation in which they then display their own bodies and sexual behaviors. In a sense, it functions as portraiture. This work functions as a kind of “docu-porn” (other work with which I am familiar that would fit into this category includes Madison Young’s Fluid series and Annie Sprinkle’s Linda/Les and Annie, the first FTM trans love story/sex film, in which the re-presentations of bodies/sex/sexuality/sexual behaviors operate within the framework of personal identities), and emphasizes what I consistently consider to be one of pornography’s potential virtues: a public archive of human sexual behavior, responsible for both the documentation, preservation, and re-presentation of bodies, sex acts, and sexual (inter)subjectivities, and for the production of sexual subjectivities in the virtual and actual experiences of the spectator of pornography. Porn records and produces the ways in which people perform and understand sex, and thus themselves as sexual subjects.

HeavenlySpire as an archive does something more: in the interview segments, the performers call attention to erogenous and erotogenic zones and surfaces that exceed genital sexuality. They call attention to their forearms, their eyes, their chests, their legs, their asses, their nipples, etc. They introduce themselves in their own languages, and we are then given access to some sense of how they consider themselves as sexual beings as we encounter their displays of their own sexuality. Heavenly Spire is also radical in its treatment of gender/sex (the two being perhaps not as discrete as they may seem): in these videos, we are introduced to cis-men and trans-men, those who identify outside of the gender/sex binary of man/male/woman/female. We are asked to consider bodies both within and outside of these binaries.

Last night I watched a video featuring James Darling and Quinn Valentine. It blew my mind. It is elegant and a little campy, and one of the most illuminating artifacts of human sexuality that I have encountered in a while (although I would say that the illumination of the range of human sexuality is a mission furthered actively by Shine Louise Houston, Madison Young, Courtney Trouble, and the plethora of directors, performers, and producers in the “queer porn” genre).

In the video, the boys introduce themselves, and James confesses that he’s been checking Quinn out for a while, online. Quinn says, “You had a picture of yourself in sparkle unicorn drag, and I couldn’t resist.” They laugh. James say, “Yeah, you were the most sparkly, femme cis-boy I’d ever met, and I was just enamored immediately.” They talk about the first time they hung out (a “really fun time” in James’ shower) as “the beginning of something amazing.” They talk about what they love doing to one another: James says that he loves fucking Quinn, that he’s really into Quinn’s cock, but that he really enjoys fucking Quinn in the ass, and the sounds Quinn makes when he’s cumming; Quinn talks about going down on James—“I could get lost in your junk for days …”—and holding James while he fucks him, feeling the movement of James’ muscles; James’ facial expression; his chest. The way they look at one another while they’re talking is the way that I look at someone when I am so moved by their beauty that I can no longer contain my desire to touch them.

The scene starts in black and white, both wearing bowties, Quinn wearing fairy wings, with white feathers falling and floating in the air around them. An old time-y piano song in playing in the background, and there’s something tender and nostalgic about the romance being staged.
The music fades out as the scene saturates to color.
These boys kiss long and hard, and the way that their lips press and linger is both calm and electric, a stillness full of activity.
I won’t go into a detailed description of the video (Buy a membership to HeavenlySpire to see the video. Support queer porn.). But I do want to give attention to one moment in their scene, the moment when James penetrates Quinn. A cis-guy being penetrated by a trans-guy is something that I have never seen re-presented in a pornographic archive. Having spent my week reading Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (for the third time), I can’t encounter this scene without recalling Butler’s discussion of “the phallus” as the imaginary position characterized by its own uninhabitability. The phallus is a position of privilege and power, considered to be the ultimate signifier, the form by which the intelligibility of objects and subjects are understood. It would be easy to read the phallus as symbol of the penis, and in doing so attribute this privileged position of power (and its form) to the position of male bodies in social economies. And yet the male position is characterized (for Freud and Lacan) by the fear of castration, the anxiety of losing the phallus, an anxiety that exposes the reality of the phallus having never been fully possessed to begin with. The phallus, then, is never fully attainable, always transferable. Butler even suggests that the phallus is the very principle of erotogenic transferability, the capacity for other bodies and other organs to take on the erotogenic potential ascribed to the phallus. When James Darling dons (what looks like) the Feeldoe dildo, taking it into himself as [part of] himself, and penetrating/fucking Quinn with it, my morphological registers are disrupted. I see both of their cocks, and both organs are taken out of this penetrative configuration. The dildo functions in a way that recalls some of what I’ve read of Beatriz Preciado’s philosophy of “dildonics” which substitutes the “dildo” for the “phallus,” casting this privileged signifier not only as a commodity, but one which can be exchanged, taken in/taken on, a prosthetic device in the construction (and deconstruction) of cyborg bodies (and in our post-human era, all bodies are cyborg bodies, always already composed of [biological, psychical, cultural, social, etc.] pieces and parts in machinic systems that we stabilize/treat as stable in our reference to their corporeal coherence. Cyborg is not a secondary/compromised position of bodies that are somehow less than whole; instead, it is a position that seeks to expose the never-whole/always-open-to-completion condition of all bodies, whether they be trans or cis, whatever their range of ability, etc. Elizabeth Grosz has also written intelligently about the inherent openness of biology to cultural inter-constitution). The significance of the penis (an idealized significance that might be considered consistent with the notion of the “phallus”) is here displaced from organic material and transferred into the synthetic. Bodies become denatured in a way they liberates them from the sexed specificity. Organs lose the clarity of their significance, and in becomes free to become more ambiguous surfaces of intensities (I’m here reaching towards an understanding and application of Deleuze, a theoretical frame to which I am attracted but with which I am only familiar in a fleeting way). This sex act reconfigures bodies, giving them significance that exceeds their normative boundaries, borders that it simultaneously displaces/disrupts.

When Quinn cums, I am drawn to the noises that he makes, having been told that those noises are part of what is hot to James. As Quinn cums on James’ chest, Quinn’s appreciation of that chest is part of what makes it hot. These bodies (bodies in general?) are not only remade by re-presentation of their sexual behavior; their sexual behavior is given [part of] its significance by the exposure of its personal meaning for the performers. Through this docu-porn format, I am offered new personal experiences and understandings of sex and bodies to inhabit in my spectatorship, and in my willingness to do so, I allow this information to participate in the materialization bodies, especially as they materialize in/as sex.

This is a rough first draft, but ideas that I wanted to share.



Sexecology: Making Love With the Earth, Sky and Sea

Ever since I returned from San Francisco a week ago, I have been hesitant to write about my experience of the work that I saw. There is so much to say . . . and yet with plans for writing a formal paper/article about Love Art Lab, the concept of “sexecology” and “ecosexuality,” and the integration of life and art in their work, for whatever reason, I have resisted authoring anything informal here. And yet on some level that is the purpose of this blog, to publish the creative process, the unfinished product, the journey that develops into that which I am making. I also think it would be helpful for me to get some of these ideas moving in a public arena, situate them in a larger context, and see how they grow in this space.

So, what follows are my relatively raw responses to this work.

What brought me to San Francisco was primarily the exhibit “Sexecology: Making Love With the Earth, Sky and Sea” being presented at Femina Potens Art Gallery. I was interested in this potential entry point into Love Art Lab’s work, how this exhibit invites the viewer into the ephemera of their performance work alongside new collaborative art objects (collages, prints, etc.). I also used this trip as an opportunity to meet Beth and Annie and interview them about their work. I left completely overwhelmed and saturated with new ideas, concepts, and considerations. I am currently in the process of transcribing the interview audio footage, so what I’m sharing here is primarily my response to the work itself:

It seems to be a show heavy in relationship to memory. A bulk of what is in the gallery is ephemera from the Green and Blue weddings: costumes, jewelry, photos, videos, paper ephemera, etc., as if walking through their wedding album(s). The large prints of the sea and sky also seem to reference that which previously occurred. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at photography the same again after reading Henry Sayre’s The Object of Performance. These photographs give me the opportunity to look and see with Beth’s eyes, her way of looking, seeing what she saw. They are even some photographs that describe “familiar” sky/sea-scapes (Louisiana clouds, for instance), but look at those scapes with the eyes of a sexecologist. The text in most of the collages references previous occurrences, memories, and descriptions of self in the past. This sense of history/memory is reinforced by the use of vintage images (photos and children’s book images). This is even further reinforced by the interactive element in the show, the visitor survey, asking first to rank one’s perception of the degree of one’s own ecosexuality, then asking for a re-telling of a memory that might be identified as eco-sexual.

It seems to be a large implication of the show that this [Sexecology? Ecosexuality?] is something that has existed for a while, something implemented in the past,  part of the personal histories of the artists, but also perhaps part of the landscape of our country. The retrospective quality of the work has a sense almost like “revisionist history,” retelling a history that went untold thus far.

Of course there is a sense in which any gallery show of objects might be perceived as a testimony of memory, a trace of actions, the implication of previous action. Yet I feel that this quality is fore-grounded by the materials of the show, the text, the images, etc.

I wonder to what degree sexuality might be considered a description of action . . . ways of relating between individuals via sex. Is sex an action or a dynamic or a state of being? What is the relationship between “sex” and “sexuality?” Suddenly Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter seems incredibly relevant to these questions. I may have to make an effort to get through that book, as a way of informing my relationship to this work, to Love Art Lab.

Another major “theme” in the show for me has to do with geography. The foundations for the collages being exhibited are “Geological Survey” maps. The specific states represented are: Kentucky, Indiana (three collages), Arkansas, and Florida. These all strike me as sexually conservative places. Part of the impetus for Love Art Lab was the anti-gay rights movement. To see descriptions and drawings and collages of ecosexuality on these “conservative” landscapes seems to be a political act . . . the relationship between the maps and the added elements seems to say, “It’s there if you look for it. Yes, even here, where sexuality is so narrowly understood/defined.” It’s a nice through-line to recognize in the work, to consider that this political impetus might still be present in this shift into “sexecology.”

Statistics from the Human Rights Campaign relating to the laws addressing sexuality in those states:

Kentucky: no marriage rights (constitutional prohibition), no adoption rights, hate crimes prohibited

Indiana: no marriage rights (restricted by law as man/woman), CAN jointly petition for adoption, no hate crime legislation

Arkansas: no marriage rights (constitutional prohibition), prohibited from adopting, no hate crimes legislation

Florida: no marriage rights (constitutional prohibition), prohibited from adopting, hate crimes prohibited

I think there is also a theme of sex(uality) as exchange: exchanging vows, pollination, bees and flowers and trees and honey and body, exchange from exterior to interior . . . again, exchange is an action. Is sex an action or a state of being? A form? I think in this work sex is all of these things, action of the body, morphology of the bodily, a way of interacting, maybe even a way of knowing? Sex as a way of knowing . . . more on this later.

At the heart of my inquiry into this work is the presence of the body and the implications that this work/perspective holds for perspectives of the body and body cultures. “Where is the body?” In the collages especially, there seems to be the implication that the body is everywhere. Correlations or similarities are drawn between images of the body and the imagistic descriptions of the various landscapes. Maybe there’s something being said about how we represent, and thus think about or recognize, geology or landscape? Or maybe there can be the choice to make these correlations? It seems to say that natural forms are sexy, maybe even that there is an interchangeable/transposisitonal quality to natural forms and the body? Does a delta imply a vagina? Do redwoods suggest phalluses? What might it mean to see the natural world as representations of the human body? When we look for “sexy” in nature, what are we looking for? Sensation? Resemblance to the human form? Fleshiness and wetness and hardness and opening and crevasses, etc.

I’m also thinking about the foundational perspective of my paper on Synchronous Objects, that the body is implicit in ways of understanding that emerge from our embodied condition. If part of how landscape, geology, and the natural world becomes relevant within our experience is its resemblance to the human form, then the body is implicit (perhaps) in the natural world.

What if our bodies extend beyond our skin? What if our understanding of “the body” extends beyond our corporeal forms into the way in which we know and that which we know. This brings to mind again the quote by Abinavagupta, that perception is not separate from the perceiver, thus the perceived world is only the perceiver. Perception, according to Alva Noë, is rooted in sensorimotor experience; it is essentially embodied. Taken together, one might conclude that given the perceiver’s embodiment, perception, an action of the body, is not separate from the body of the perceiver, thus that which is perceived (the perceived world) is not separate from the body of the perceiver.

Is this radical?

It relates to my yoga practice/philosophy as well. In recognizing the universe as created from consciousness and perception and recognizing perception as an action/condition of the body, then the universe that we perceive is not separate from the body. Finding nature sexy is, in a sense, finding the body itself, or one’s understanding of the body, a site of sexual content. This doesn’t seem so huge of a stretch. If we look to the body as the site and source of pleasure in the universe, is it so difficult to look back out into the world and find that [bodily] pleasure there as well?

And what might it have to do with dance?

To what degree is sex or sexuality already a component of our pervasive understanding of situation? And in recognizing the possibility that sex/sexuality is already actively contributing to/shaping/affecting our understanding of the world around us, to what degree is the world around us, the natural world, the Earth already a participant in our sexuality? If we are never simply “subject” but only ever “subject-in-environment,” then perhaps realizing that the environment is never separate from who we are is a step towards recognizing that our environment is always implicit in our sexuality, in sex. Maybe an additional question becomes how we feel about that . . . does it turn us on? Is it erotic to consider that sex includes environment?

So, as I walk around outside, I keep thinking about ecosexuality, looking for the body beyond the prescribed boundaries of the body: the succulent fleshiness of plants, the roughness of tree bark and cold blasting wind, tlong tendrils of leaves and branches, the bush of grass and moss, the wetness of the sea, the way it drips, the oozing of tree sap, the phallic quality of tree trunks and stems and stamens, the soft openness of flower blossoms, the swelling of fruit . . . There’s something about the experience of the body adding morphological meaning to the natural world beyond the prescribed boundaries of the body. It’s like a kind of anthropomorphization . . . but perhaps less directly . . . something like our familiarity with the body offering a kind of legibility to the world around us.

Beth talked about ecosexuality as being more about a pulse of sensation, a pulse between how the Earth/Sky/Sea makes her feel and how she makes the Earth/Sky/Sea feel. This pulse makes me thing of spanda, the creative pulsation, again a strong, perhaps implicit, relationship to yogic philosophy. The pulse between recognizing both one’s individual distinction and Absolute Oneness of the universe in consciousness. If the universe is One (and I think it is), it is so in/as Consciousness, which is situated in/as the body. This pulse sees pleasure in the body, then looks from there to see pleasure in the universe/natural world.

This connection to yogic philosophy or a yogic perspective of the body is a fundamental aspect of the Love Art Lab. The very organization of their project is the chakra system, an energetic network distilled from centuries of bodily experience. I feel that maybe as I try to write about this material, it might be appropriate to bring in a substantial amount of Tantric philosophy and its terms and perspectives as a way of engaging with the work. It feels appropriate.

I realize that my terms are getting muddy, conflated . . . sex, sexuality, the body, pleasure . . . maybe it’s all the same? Or at least maybe it is enough to say that none of these occur apart from [an understanding of?] one another? I suppose it’s a good thing that I’m trudging through Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter right now to problematize and destabilize such assumptions . . .

Another relevant question seems to be “Why?” Why look for sex/sexuality/the body beyond the body in the natural world? I suppose the most practical answer is in order to change the way we treat the Earth, Sky, and Sea. It is somewhat of an anthropomorphilogical metaphor, but one that is constructive in altering behavior.

But in a larger sense, I think it has to do with the kind of world in which one wants to live. It emanates from a “sex-positive” perspective, I think, that sex, pleasure, even love, are HEALTHY and GOOD. By expanding those ideas/perceptions/concepts/boundaries, we create a universe that actively contributes to and participates in that health and goodness. Does it have to invoke “sex?” Perhaps not. I think the yogic philosophy of grace achieves a similar ends, perceiving the role of the universe, its nature, as contributing to and participating in our own goodness. By invoking sex, there is an invocation of a certain promiscuity, a boundless sexuality, perhaps even a boundless sexual generosity. In this boundlessness of sex/the body, what room is there for boundaries? Immediately I think that it has to do with trust. I can trust nature, I can believe in Her goodness. I may not be able to extend that same trust to everyone. Thus, the same sort of generosity that I have, or may have, as an “ecosexual” may not translate into boundless promiscuity with people . . .

This “sex-positive” perspective was prevalent throughout my experience of San Francisco, Femina Potens, Love Art Lab, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, stores like Good Vibrations, etc. Interestingly (and adjacent to this discussion), it has sparked a new interest in exploring how sexuality or sexology might provide relevant terms of analysis and methodologies for quantification and organization for research. In a conversation with my dear friend CoCo, we were discussing what currently constitutes my potential dissertation interests, namely the body as the site of identity, movement material generated by the body as constitutive of an extension of identity, the choreographic process as an intimate exchange by which identity is synthesized/co-constructed, etc. CoCo noted the sexual quality that my language around this project possessed, and it opened my mind to the possibility that what I was describing suggests a kind of “sexual epistemology,” and rather than resist it, embrace what it might bring to or provide for the work. This quality of “sexual epistemology” seems to be at the heart of “sexecology” and “ecosexuality.”

And that’s all the scattered words and ideas that I have as of now. I hope that in the weeks to come that I can begin to formulate these ideas into a more cohesive structure, and over time produce some sort of text that discusses this provocative and relevant work. For now, I invite you to peruse and discuss these ideas, in their raw forms.

Oh, and here are some images to accompany the ideas:

Costumes and ephemera from Green and Blue Weddings

photographs by Elizabeth Stephens

Sexecology 3

collage by Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, with Camille Norton

collage by Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, with Camille Norton

collage by Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, with Camille Norton

finding the sexy, wet and fleshy