michael j. morris


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

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Lady Gaga, Ballet, Synchronous Objects, etc.

I haven’t updated as recently as I would have liked. There is so much going on here at the end of the quarter, but I feel that there are several points that I want to quickly share. I confess, there is very little overt connective tissue between these various ideas, but the common denominator is that they are occupying my attention right now, and as I hope is clear through the overall journey of this blog, that which occupies my attention inevitably finds its way into influencing “the work” (i.e. my creative practice, the dances I make, the papers I write etc.)

So there’s Lady Gaga. There’s her new album Fame Monster that is blowing up my world.

And there’s its connection to ballet. On November 14th, Lady Gaga premiered her new song “Speechless” at MOCA’s 30th Anniversary Gala in Francesco Vezzoli’s “Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again).” She played a piano customized by Damien Hirst, wore a hat designed by Frank Gehry, was accompanied by dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet, who were attired in costumes designed by Miuccia Prada. That alone should be enough said. But you can read more about it here. And see a clip of it below. And an image.

So for my last week of teaching ballet this quarter (to beginner non-majors), I set all of my barre combinations to Lady Gaga, predominantly the new album, as an homage to this contemporary intersection of high Russian ballet and contemporary pop culture, it in itself an homage to the Ballets Russes and the work of Serge Diaghilev. After having taught Vaganova Technique all quarter, it felt appropriate.

I had an amazing opportunity to take a class with Jill Johnson, former dancer with William Forsythe and the Frankfurt Ballet (among a list of other credentials). I relished the opportunity to revisit a way of moving that became familiar last winter working with Nik Haffner and Forsythe’s “Improvisational Technologies.” Today Jill emphasized the relationship between these ideas and classical ballet technique, epaulement as rotations in the body, and working rigorously in abstracting these various rotations and counter-rotations. It was not the same way of moving that I explore last year, but there was significant overlap, and moments of realizing how that experience last year changed the way that I move “naturally.” You can see me exploring some of those ideas in a piece I performed in October here.

I am also working on authoring a new paper, the working of title of which is “Body of Knowledge/Knowledge of the Body: An Analysis of the Presence of Embodiment in Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced.” I am working to construct a working theoretical definition of what is meant by “embodiment” from synthesizing writings by Mark Johnson, George Lakoff, Judith Butler, Amelia Jones, Heidegger, and Henry Sayre, among others, and then looking for the presence of embodiment in Synchronous Objects. I have found that there is a fairly widespread uncomfortability amongst dancers engaging with this dance-based research project. I think it has something to do with a sense that the knowledge that we know as our moving bodies has been extracted, transformed into date, and re-presented in forms/objects other than the moving body. My interest in the implication of embodiment throughout the project, in the site of origin (the dance), the collection and translation of the choreographic systems into data, the transformation of the data into alternative re-presentations, and ultimately (and perhaps most viscerally) in the viewer of the project himself or herself. While the paper is still in the works, I feel that there are implications of embodiment throughout the project; this is most acute in the viewing of the project. The project is an object to be viewed, to be understood by a viewer. It is a request for the re-embodiment of the knowledge being re-presented. I am attempting to describe that not only does the site itself necessitate the (embodied) presence of the viewer, but that the way in which the objects themselves are understood are through conceptualizations of time, space, density, movement, etc. that emerge from an embodied experience of the world in which we live. This is supported primarily by Johnson and Lakoff’s writings in Philosophy in the Flesh and The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. I’ll keep you posted on the paper. In the mean time, I hope you go and explore the site.

In the reading I’ve done in preparation for writing this paper, a gem of a resource was a book I came across by Henry M. Sayre entitled The Object of Performance: the American Avant-Garde since 1970. Sayre writes about the shift of importance in the visual art world from the art object to the performative act, and in doing so the shift of “presence” from the artist/object to the viewer of the object. He writes beautifully about the photograph emerging as a respected medium, a signifier of both presence (the viewer of the photograph, and even the photograph as an object itself) and absence (that which the photograph depicts). He also wrote about the action painting (re: Pollock, Krasner, others) as a significant shift, in which the paintings that were bought by museums and collectors were not the action painting itself. It was a thing concerned with the immediacy of the action; the painting acted as a trace, a document of the action, and yet an object itself. Like the photograph. Like Synchronous Objects. It has sparked some fascinating notions as I have engaged with visual art after this reading. Last weekend I saw a series of works by Dale Chihuly, mostly large glass sculptures. It was fascinating and exciting to engage this work as “movement traces,” the documentation of the actions of the glass artists (which, in Chihuly’s work, art already mostly interpretations of Chihuly’s “action painting” designs for the pieces), and even farther as potential “movement scores.” Visual art as movement score. Reading visual art as movement scores as a method for engagement. There is something there.

Speaking of art object as documentation of action, I just ordered a “Tit Print” by Annie Sprinkle. She posted on her facebook today that she just made another batch of them, and had them on sale today. They consist of large ink or paint prints using her breasts as her instrument. I think they’re lovely, a kind of Yves Klein way of revealing the body. And the fact that I am going to San Francisco later this month to interview Annie and Beth and see their upcoming show “Sexecology: Making Love with Earth, Sky and Sea” at Femina Potens Gallery.

One of Annie's Tit Prints

Yves Klein "untitled"

Finally, a little rant: I am exhausted about hearing about making art or dance “accessible.” I take issue with this word. Because it rarely refers to making art experiences available to the population. It most often implies that the art be constructed in such a way that the viewer can “get something out of it.” It is not about making the art itself accessible as it is about making a specific experience (or kind of experience) of the work accessible. I think it has emerged from the collective anxiety of audience and artist worrying that they have somehow misunderstood the art experience. And my issue is this: “accessible” implies that there is something to be “accessed,” something encoded that must be (able to be) decoded. It assumes that art is essentially communicable, that its purpose or intention is that the viewer understand or “access” the experience that the artist has of her or his own work. And I think that is simply not the purpose of art. My theory is also that we live in such a visually complex, communication driven culture that we spend our lives trying to “figure out” what we’re supposed to understand from images, advertising, commercials, etc. etc. etc., that we come to the art experience with that same pressure. It is my opinion that the art experience is perhaps the opportunity for reprieve from this way of engaging and understanding. The purpose is not to access the encoded meaning, but instead to engage with that with which you are presented and make it meaningful for yourself. Construct meaning rather than access meaning, using your experience of the dance or sculpture or literature or music, etc., as the materials by which you construct your meaning. In this sense, I am opposed to making art “accessible.” I am in favor of making art available. But I would like to do away with this language/concept that there is anything to “access” in art. It is there. You experience it. You make that experience meaningful for yourself using the materials before your as the materials of your meaning.

There. That’s my little rant for today.

Back to reading/writing about Synchronous Objects.