michael j. morris


courageous appearance

I sat down this afternoon at the local cafe and started to write about gratitude, specifically gratitude for the array of public figures that bring diversity to the public sphere, specifically folks who identify their genders in ways that do not conform neatly—or at all—to clear, discrete binaries of masculine/feminine or male/female. I am grateful for so many folks: musical performers like Justin Vivian Bond and Antony Hegarty, porn performers like Jiz Lee, Drew Deveaux, James Darling and a whole community of queer/trans/genderqueer porn performers who I admire, burlesque performers like Eileen Galvin, scholars like Eva Hayward and Susan Stryker and the whole trans studies initiative at Arizona State, people like Jack Halberstam, public figures like Kate Bornstein, Carmen Carerra, and Laverne Cox. People in academia and different modes of public performance who are actively reshaping how we see and think about gender and sex.

And then my thoughts on gratitude drifted, and I found myself scribbling out thoughts on appearance, recognition, vulnerability, and courage. It is not a formal essay, but the start of some thoughts. Not the start, actually, because this thinking follows closely so much that I’ve learned from Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, Bobby Noble, Shine Louise Houston, and Brené Brown, among others. I won’t be offering formal citations in these scribbled thought, but they are certainly indebted, built with and from the work that each of these people have done:

The space of appearance is fundamentally a social space: to appear is to appear for someone or someones, to be made available for others, with others, and to be apprehended within that availability. Society and social norms then come to condition that space of appearance, structuring how it is that bodies and people can appear, can be made to appear, can be made not to appear, can be made to disappear. To appear in ways that do not conform to such such—or refuse to conform to such norms—is to insist on a different social space, a different society that depends/relies upon different structures of visibility and recognition. Dissident appearances or appearances that dissent from the dominant norms exert force on such norms to adjust, adapt, and make space for appearing otherwise; for such norms to make space, the society that enacts—or is enacted by—such norms must become otherwise as well.

Of course, it is possible that such insistence will be intolerable, will not be tolerated, and will be punished or eliminated in order to maintain the existing norms that regulate who can be visible, who can appear, who can be recognized, and how. This maintenance can take any number of forms: subtle social pressures and insidious coercions, self-policing that takes the place of the policing of behavior that we have experienced or that we have witnessed, a look or posture from an other that registers one’s unintelligibility—a stare that communicates that you are seen and apprehended as incoherent, or even unapprehendable because of one’s incoherence; it can take the form of harassment or threats of violence; it is possible that one’s appearance will render one invisible, a kind of invisibility that accumulates in a space from which people avert their eyes, away from which people turn.

To not appear in ways that align with the norms that condition and regulate the social space of appearance—norms organized according to sex, gender, race, ability, and any number of other dimensions, indeed, norms of appearance that in part shape what is understood as sex, as gender, as race, as an able or disabled body—is always a risk. It is to risk invisibility, incoherence, discrimination, harassment, and violence; it is to risk the compromised sense of self that can result from any encounter with another in which the self that one appears to be is reflected back to that self as invisible, incoherent, or the cause for discrimination, harassment, and violence. And to not appear in ways that align with such conditioning norms must not be figured as always a choice, as if those who do not appear or appear incoherently, or whose appearance results in harassment or violence, could be said to have chosen such an existence, or to have chosen otherwise, as if such person could have chosen to conform to the social expectations for appearance. This is not, or even often, the case.

And yet, whether dissident appearance is or is not chosen, it is courageous. It is courageous because it is a risk, and the stakes of the risk are certain unavoidable vulnerability that make up what it is to be embodied with-and-in a world of others. To be is to be among others, and to be among others it to be physically exposed to them, to their words, to their gaze, to their touch, whether their words or looks or touches are caring or abusive. We are all [and here “we” and “all” are not only human] exposed to one another in any number of ways, and that exposure constitutes both the risk and the requirement of social existence. It is because of our shared vulnerabilities that we are already given over to one another; we require one another’s care, one another’s protection, one another’s assistance, one another’s nonviolence. Butler writes that we are already obligated to nonviolent coexistence because of this pervasive exposure and shared vulnerability. And all that we require from one another depends first on our having been recognized by an other.

When recognition requires appearance, and when appearance is regulated by exclusionary norms such that it becomes possible to not appear or to appear in such a way that renders one unrecognizable, or to appear as such an aberration of the norms of appearance that one is made into a target of violence, appearance then carries the risk of misrecognition or not being recognized or recognizable, making appearance a question of survival and livability.

These are common vulnerabilities, the risks that accompany appearance and recognition for everyone. But these vulnerabilities are taken for granted, overlooked, or even repressed when appearance closely approximates the normative expectations that enable and constrain recognizability. When society appears in ways that are homogenous and consistent, when those who appear maintain the effect of norms as natural, the stakes or cost of appearance are less apparent. When how one appears is how one must appear in order to be recognizable, the risk/cost of appearing otherwise cannot be obvious.

Thus, to appear in ways that resist or do not align with such norms is not courageous only because to do so exposes one to vulnerabilities; rather it is courageous because it exposes those vulnerabilities that might otherwise remain unappreciable, precisely when doing so also risks some degree of duress or suffering.

And: such appearances are also courageous because in the face of this all, they insist on the possibility—and livability—of such appearances. They insist on a society or social existence in which it is possible to appear and to be recognized in ways that exceed the available norms—of sex, gender, race, or ability. If such appearances or recognitions are to become possible, intelligible, even in their incoherence, it will be only because of the pressures exerted on the norms of appearance by those who appear otherwise, who courageously insist on public visibility.

Today I am grateful for the world that is given to me by those who insist on appearing otherwise.

Afterthought: Although dissident appearance is not always a choice, it can be a choice, a courageous choice, to appear otherwise. To produce more incoherence within available norms. To dress or present oneself in ways that do not confirm the expectations of one’s given sex or gender, to explore more diverse performances of self, more unexpected styles of movement and behaviors, to try out fashions or looks that introduce more diversity into the social space of appearance. To wear things that other than how they were intended to be worn. To wear clothes made by designers who are pursuing design into unexpected places, designs that reshape how we look at bodies, that reveal bodies differently. To make choices about one’s appearance—hair, make-up, no make-up, shaving, not shaving, tattoos, piercings, other surgical interventions, how you carry yourself, how you take up space—in ways that are intentional, thoughtful, and resistant to what you feel like you should do. I am not saying that these strategies alone are what makes or unmakes bodies, sexes, genders, races, etc., but I am suggesting that the more difference that we introduce to the social space of appearance, the more difference that social space will be expected to absorb and make space for. These are small activisms that are available to all of us, in our presentation of self, our production of self, and our production of the shared spaces in which we live.



a review of Madison Young’s Daddy: A Memoir
9 March, 2014, 5:46 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , , , , ,

cropped-daddy

Madison Young’s Memoir offers a truly rare account of a rich, complex life, of art, sex, porn, kink, and family. This will surely be a book for those looking for an insider’s account of working in porn and kink. Madison Young is an icon of feminist pornography, radical queer arts activism, sex education, bondage, and kink. No doubt this memoir will find an audience of fans and devotees already smitten with her work and public persona, hungry for a more intimate view into her life. Young—originally Tina Butcher—narrates the evolution of her porn persona, guides readers through the halls and chambers of the legendary KINK Armory, walks us through the throngs of people at the Folsom Street Fair, and goes into vivid, erotic detail describing sex both on and off camera. The writing is hot and will certainly arouse and delight. Her story will give feminists and activists much to celebrate and some places with which to struggle, where one woman wrestles to actualize her passions and ideals in and through her work, her relationships, and herself. Those looking for something of a guidebook into sex and kink will no doubt find Young’s journey educational and inspiring.

However, the significance of Young’s memoir exceeds anything like a “celebrity tell-all” or a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most important feminist pornographers of our time. Throughout the details of art and porn and kink are stories for any person trying to forge their own paths, to discover who they might become, to love and foster lasting relationships, and to find others with whom life is worth living. Daddy tells a story of one person’s journey that bleeds back and forth across decades, where the present turns again and again back towards a past from which it emerges, where the presence of the past sets the stage for how the present unfolds. It is a story of finding heroes and home, with its roots in a Midwestern childhood colored with loss, otherness, and shame, a journey of discovering empowerment and self-actualization in San Francisco and beyond. It is a journey there never fully finds completion; it turns out—for Young, perhaps for all of us—that what it takes to be empowered changes over time, that anxieties come and go, that shame and old wounds take time to heal, and that self-actualization takes place in all kinds of partnerships in all kinds of settings—having sex on a dirty bathroom floor of a bar, bound and suspended by rope, being fucked on camera, during performance art, covered in soil on stage surrounded by California red woods, holding a mother’s hand, planting basil on a patio, during a video conference call with a therapist, holding a child in your arms, and being held in the arms of our lovers. That the journey is never complete and that each step cannot be certain does not make the journey a failure; it is a journey that must remain ongoing, and each step is an act of bravery: that is what makes it a success.

Throughout her Memoir, Young navigates the shifting dimensions of relationships, negotiating monogamy, polyamory, open and dominant/submissive relationships, contending with the flourishing of love, stability, and security as well as the sometimes sudden and sometimes gradual pain of jealousy, anxiety, depression, and abandonment. In these navigations and negotiations, she works to find livability between the dynamic evolution of what becomes public and what remains private, what can be open and what needs to remain closed, what is part of love and what is part of work. She gives us an honest view of one person’s victories and challenges maintaining multiple identities, balancing who she is and who she wants to be. These are themes with which many of us are familiar: how do you make relationships work? How do we celebrate stability and security without ignoring or avoiding inevitable jealousies, insecurities, anxieties, and hurt? How can we recognize that one solution or version will not necessarily work forever and always, for the relationships we cultivate, nor for who it is that we might be? What does it take to stay connected—to others and ourselves—and move forward?

For me, Daddy is a story of families—of origin, of those we choose, and those we make—and the courage and creativity needed to find a way to love and live with others. Young does not move through her journey alone: this tale is populated with mothers and fathers, fairy godmothers, lovers, collaborators, respected colleagues, therapists, and trusted friends. One of the many lessons that I have taken from Young’s memoir is that none of us face this world alone, and we become more of ourselves as we discover ourselves with others.

There are parts of Young’s tale to which we might all relate, portions with which we might identify; there are other parts that recount experiences that probably few have lived. Young narrates us through the unfamiliar even as she herself comes again and again to the edges of what she has known, who she has been, and who she might become. She details her life—a life that is very different from mine, probably very different from yours—and in doing so, helps open up possibilities for what a life might be—from little girl to slut to hero, queer, lesbian, artist, activist, pornographer, submissive, feminist, bisexual, ecosexual, mother, and so on. In telling her own tale, Young expands an archive of lives lived, and in doing so, affirms and enables other ways of living and lives that might yet be.

I consider Madison Young to be a superhero—a sexual superhero, and so much more. Her book reminds us that even our superheroes suffer wounds—both physical and emotional. No great work is without cost and no great life is without suffering. Young reminds us that, “The reality is that we all have heroic moments. Sometimes, we have to be our own heroes and sometimes our heroes need our help. They are, after all, human too.” She boldly faces her own wounds and lives out something of her own healing in the pages that she’s written; she courageously comes to the aid of her own heroes, and we’re allowed to witness this as well. Some of it can be traumatic to read, some of it can be deeply triggering, but even at its most intense, Young remains a trustworthy caretaker of her reader throughout, all the way up to her words to her own child, “Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with yourself and with those around you,” to a final deep breath and “Instructions for Aftercare” in the “Afterword.”

Near the end of the book, in relation to her own therapy, Young writes, “It was hard work, delving through the past, understanding our emotions, our actions, and creating new pathways. Sometimes it felt like more than I could bear, but that was why I had support.” This summarizes for me the important insights of this Memoir: it is, itself, a difficult delving through her own life, back to families of origin, through painful and joyful moments throughout her career and adult life, making connections strand by stand, reflecting on herself, coming to recognize herself, coming to recognize those from whom she draws support, and finally giving an account of that life. I would not say that it is a Memoir intended to offer a model for living, a path for anyone else to follow; I don’t believe that’s Young’s intention. Rather, it boldly and courageously models something of how we might each approach our own lives, our own loves, our own desires, our own wounds, how we might forge our own paths, do the hard work of coming to know ourselves, and share who we come to know with others.

http://daddythememoir.wordpress.com

http://www.amazon.com/Daddy-A-Memoir-Madison-Young/dp/0985490284

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/daddy-madison-young/1114979918?ean=9780985490287



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.



Erotics (eco-logic)

This is not going to be my most eloquent post, but I’ve had ideas spinning around the notion of “eros” and “the erotic” for a while now (years?) and I think it might be developing into something a bit more effable, but I think I just need to get the ideas down.

I think my earliest encounter with the speculation on “eros” was with Anne Caron’s Eros: The Bittersweet, still one of my top recommended reads. Carson is a professor of classical literature, and Eros is her formulation of how eros functioned within Greek lyric poetry and thus how it might be considered to function within interpersonal relations. She explores the evolution of a literary culture’s impact on the senses of those engaged with that culture, a bounding, an edging and delimiting in the conception of the individual, concurrent with these lyric expressions of the sweetness and agony of eros. In her formulation, eros is desire that denotes lack: it is that which we do not have (or, she goes on to formulate with certain Freudian tones, that which we no longer have, that which we perceive to have lost), and the sweet-bitterness of eros comes in that agony of not having. We can no longer want that which we have, because wanting is itself predicated on lack.

I employed Carson’s text in a paper I wrote recently exploring theorizing “Sexecology” and “Ecosexuality” as it is performed in Love Art Laboratory’s Green Wedding Four (2008). In this paper, I began to explore the possibility that the erotic is a state of contingency. It is a state of empty spaces, spaces of lack, that seek to be filled. I correlated this with collaboration, that when we allow ourselves to collaborate, as artists, as researchers, as people (relationships themselves might be viewed as collaboration), we are actively engaging with those places of lack, perhaps even forming or formulating spaces of lack in order to find compliment from those with whom we are collaborating. It is an intimate exchange, it is a space of varying degrees of vulnerability, because in bearing our lack, we relinquish portions of our control. We ask to be filled by another, and coextensively, we do our part to fill in and meet and complement the places of lack presented by our collaborators. The product is necessarily unpredictable, indeterminate, and emergent. I don’t mean to imply that in all collaborative settings the distribution of power is equal and balanced; I think of settings in which I have functioned as a choreographer or director. There is a collaborative experience with the dancers in the work because the work would not be possible without their participation, and certainly the dancers bring their own personal and creative energies to the work. But the power is not balanced: I maintain a degree of control that extends beyond that of anyone else in the project. There are of course nuances throughout, but what I mean to address is that in this discussion of collaboration being predicated on a kind of erotic exchange between lack and complement, I am aware that power is imbalanced, potentially in flux, and rarely distributed equally.

This is where I begin to equate “collaboration” with “ecology”–it is not a perfect equation, but a functional one. Ecology (etymologically “the study of habitation/dwelling”) is predicated on “situation,” situation being necessarily complex, reciprocal, and potential systemic. For my purposes, I tend to shorthand “ecology” as the study of functional systems of interdependency. The jump to “collaboration” is not far. What I think I’m getting at is that the functionality of ecologies and eco-systems (systems of habitation, situation, which, again, are necessarily reciprocal; habitation is not passive) depends on complement, which depends on spaces of interdependency and lack. This in itself seems to evoke the erotic to me, but I think there may be yet another step. For there to be lack and complement, in itself, may not be erotic. Instead, it may be the sensation of that lack and complement. Is eros a sensation or a structural/systemic relationship/state, both or otherwise? Not sure.

I think our culture carries an anxiety surrounding “lack.” Perhaps it is simply the modern humanist individual, perhaps it is even reinforced by feminist projects that have deconstructed the conceptual/social/sexual dependence of women on men, but we shirk away from dependence (inter-dependence, co-dependence) towards notions of independence, that we are each our own, complete, lack-less, need-less, individual. I not only find this to be a tad bit inaccurate, but not helpful. I remember talking to Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens in December, and their discussion of their move away from the “modern genius” individual artist to collaborative work, because there’s more possible when you collaborate. I think I am theorizing this draw towards the “more that is possible” as the erotic. It softens at its edges, it expands and becomes fluid, willing to mingle and mix and exchange; it is porous and permeable, and accepts the risk of that permeability (the risk of “pollution,” perhaps). There is a danger to the erotic, to exchange, and collaboration; to no longer being in control. Catriona Mortimar-Sandilands, among others, has written exceptional writing addressing the correlation between environmental projects such as state parks and “nature reserves,” the project against pollution of the “natural environment” (need I remind myself that to inhabit is not passive, but is already an exchange?), and the medicalization and defense of bodies, the fear of the polluted body, the dangers of sex and exchange of fluids and the solidification of the edges. It is a complex question without (for me) a yet clear trajectory (I can see it pertaining to questions surrounding sex work, pornography, safer-sex practices, contact improvisation, localvore food cultures, etc.), but there is something about an acceptance of the permeability of edges, spaces of lack within our borders/boundaries, and the invitation for exchange across those edges in order to complement those spaces of lack. I call this ecology. Or eros. Or sexecology, or ecosexuality.

This relinquishing of (some) control/power connects to another conversation I recently had with Daniel Holt. In discussing his Guerilla Dance Project, I began to identify with a certain desire to not be completely in control. In other words, I noticed and identified with a need/desire (lack) to create work for which I (or one) is not solely responsible. I think this tendency fits into larger meta-narratives: for instance, the post-modern shift away from the single generative choreographer (prevalent in early modern dance) towards sourced-materials (dancers generating movement material to be shaped/crafter by choreographer) to collectives and improvisation (Grand Union, etc.), and even (what I have been referring to as) indirect methodologies for movement generation: methodologies that do not dictate movement from one body to another (direct), but put (indeterminate, or at least not fully determinate) systems or scores in place by which movement is then produced (image-based systems like Butoh and Gaga would fit into this category, but also the vast field of improvisational scoring that has evolved from the mid-20th century onward). It is a shift away from singular determinacy towards multiple indeterminacies, and it is fully engaged with this shift towards permeability, complementarity, and (erotic) lack. I think it fits into a context of yet larger meta-narratives, like the shift to Web 2.0, and maybe even models for emergent taxonomies in general. There is a move away from hierarchy and toward democratization of power, which necessitates interdependence and collaboration. I don’t know if I could pin-point a single or even list of reasons for this shift, except maybe what Annie and Beth said: there is the potential for something more. I might identify this, in a broad sense, as the erotic sensation.

Lastly, I’ve been thinking more about the notion of the sensation of the erotic, how this sensation comes to be (the genealogy of sensation?). I’ve been thinking about erogenous zones as spaces and surfaces with which we comes to associate “something more:” a site of further sensation/increased sensation, a site for potential pleasure, a site for potential participation, etc. These spaces and surfaces becomes charged through their histories (by histories, I mean the complex intersections of experiences that contribute to the construction of these spaces and surfaces as we experience them; I am assuming that biology is always infused with culture, and thus to say, “My body feels this way or that way,” is never unaffected by the (cultural/social/ecological) history of that body), through experiences that allow for the recognition of potential. This is where I begin to correlate “queer” and “erotic:” both are an insistence on possibility. There are differences perhaps . . . I take queer to connote a range of possibilities always in flux, always fluid and mutable and unfixed. The erotic, on the other hand, is possibly dependent on a degree of predictability. In order to experience the sensation of the erotic, we must have first identified or become aware of a potential that we then experience as lack (available to be filled/fulfilled).

Or maybe not.
I remember something I said to Bebe Miller last year about the erotic experience of discovery. There is something intensely titillating about not-knowing (the not-knowing being a place of lack) that seeks knowledge. It has not clearly identified the lack, nor that which might fulfill it, but it allows for the gap. I experience this with bodies, with trees and landscapes, with new research endeavors, with collaboration and experimentation: the erotic charge is in those spaces of not-knowing that then fuels the search, the seeking. I feel it in contact improvisation, I feel it in sex, I feel it in nature walks, etc. These experiences deaden when it feels completely “known.” In contact jams, it deadens when we fall into patterns, the same sequences of actions and supports, without any new discovery/ies. The same is true with sex: when it feels scripted, when sensations feel predicted or expected, when actions and positions begin to feel sequenced and even practiced, when bodies are no longer landscapes to be discovered, etc. And so much is lost of our experience of our environment when it becomes predictable or “known” (which is of course inaccurate; it, like us/with us, is always in flux). On my walk to and from school in the mornings, or across the Oval and back again when acquiring (yet more) books from Thompson library, or our delightful “Notice What You Notice” practice in Current Issues with Bebe Miller and Norah Zuniga Shaw this past spring, all of these become an ongoing space for (erotic) discovery. Acknowledging the unfamiliarity of the seemingly familiar, searching for the unexpected or unnoticed, seems to me an act of constructing spaces of lack, spaces of potential, in order to be filled. I am reminded significantly of David Abram’s work in The Spell of the Sensuous and Sara Ahmed’s queer formulations of phenomenology: we are always potentially in reciprocal exchange with our environments (be that landscapes, dance settings, other people, etc.) and when we tune into that exchange and recognize our participation in it, I think we/I begin to experience that erotic sensation.

As I’ve worked through so many of my ideas about Sexecology and Ecosexuality, a questions that comes up every now and again has been “why?” Why look for sexual experiences with the environment? Why try to understand habitation and systems of interdependency through a sexual lens or epistemology? One reason that I have come to before is that sexuality, among many other taxonomies of our selves and our experiences, has the potential to serve as a site for liberation, transformation, discovery/re-discovery, and political/personal activism. I still think this is true. But I also think that it has something to do with this logic of the erotic. We (can) experience eros acutely through our sexuality; sex and sexuality are constant discourses of lack and complement, subjects and objects, desire, etc. It’s not, as I think I’m beginning to formulate, that sex is the only situation for the erotic, but that it is a familiar space. Here is where I see the potential for the employment of a sexual epistemology as a means for accessing/understanding/recognizing the erotic, both within and beyond what we experience/identify/taxonomize as “sexual.” Annie and Beth talk about sex being something really big and broad, not narrowly defined. I think this expansive sexuality, that explodes sex beyond specific acts and experiences and begins to recognize the relationship between those normally(normatized) experiences identified as “sex”  with a larger landscape of experience(s). I think that the erotic might be a significant connective tissue within this expansion.

Those are some of my thoughts. Looking forward to seeing where these ideas go.



Making Explicit

I think I am finally coming to a greater understanding of what the meaning or reason of this piece might be. I have been working for a few days on a new soundscore with which to experiment in our rehearsal this week. It is the basic mash-up that I have described before (Marie Antoinette soundtrack, ISAN, Lady Gaga, Aphex Twins) with new text and sound loops woven into it. The new text/sound is taken from two films by Madison Young, “Fluid: Men Redefining Sexuality” and “Thin Line Between Art and Sex.” I have transcribed the text in earlier posts, statements made by Tommy Midas and Jiz Lee. I have also lifted sound from the sex portions of these films, weaving sounds of fucking, sucking, moaning, groaning, slapping, sighing, orgasming, etc. into the soundscore. It’s pretty hot, a little kitschy, borders between overstimulation and potential humor. I recognize that. There is a sense of both poignancy and humor to hear Lady Gaga sing: “Russian roulette is not the same without a gun, and baby when it’s love if it’s not rough it isn’t fun,” while at the same time hearing a woman begging “choke me, please, choke me, please,” while someone else is moaning while getting slapped around. Several of my peers have asked why I’m creating this soundscore, and here in lies my new understanding: I think I am trying to make aspects of dance that exist implicitly in our practices explicit in this piece/practice. Often in the dance world, especially in Western theatrical dance and dance training, sexuality is significantly downplayed, as if to suggest that sex plays no part in what we are doing. I do not mean to imply that dance is all about sex, not at all. But dance is a physical practice, essentially embodied, and sexuality is persistently a part of our embodied existence. We may not be conscious of it, we may not even acknowledge it, but it is always present. I am interested in acknowledging this, bringing it from its implicit, unacknowledged place into the foreground, explicitly acknowledged as a dynamic in what it is we are doing. I don’t think that this piece/we as a cast/this academic institution are quite ready to literally have sex as part of a dance, especially in front of spectators (although I have to say that this intrigues me), so I am exploring other ways to make the sex/sexuality explicit. This soundscore is one strategy. I think the stripping and biting and rolling around on the floor in our underwear also foreground a space in which sexuality occurs. Similarly, I think the component of the biting is a strategy for making explicit the implicit violence of dance. Dancing is difficult, demanding, and often destructive to our bodies. There is an inherent masochism and sometimes sadism to much of dancing. By creating a dance in which masochism and sadism are made explicit in these “biting scenes,” mixing it up with intimacy, friendship, dancing, and the implication of sex, I am foregrounding aspects of what we do that generally go unacknowledged/unexplored.

I don’t think this is the only reason or meaning behind this work. I think equally as important are the themes of integrating art and life, shifting power dynamics, and agency/indeterminacy as I detailed in my previous post. I was discussing some of these ideas with a colleague of mine this afternoon, and she commented that maybe all of this, the dancing, the sex, the violence, Lady Gaga, maybe it’s all the same thing. Then she refined that statements: maybe it isn’t that it is all the same, but that it is all always a part, always at play. There is sex in dancing even if the dancing is not about sex. There is agency and indeterminacy and improvisation in sex, even if the sex is not about exploring these ideas. There is violence in dance practices, and in sex, and it is sometimes tangled up with intimacy, pleasure, fulfillment, excitement, etc. In a truly post-modern turn, this dance is perhaps less about isolating and examining each of these aspects of human existence and more about blurring the lines between them, layering them in all of there complexity and contradiction, just as they occur in life. Because the dance is our live, our lives are the dance, etc.



Autumn Quartet: Bite images, etc.

These were taken last week after our rehearsal. I wasn’t certain whether I would post them, but as I read back through the various posts describing this process, it feels very removed from the bodies themselves. Something about these images brings the process back to a very physical place. I think of them as art integrating with life. Lingering bite mark after rehearsal.

I have also been working on integrating various text into what we’ve been working with as our soundscape. First were the previously shared quotes from Tommy Midas in Madison Young‘s “Fluid: Men Redefining Sexuality.” Now I have made connections to quotes by Jiz Lee in another of Madison Young’s docu-porns, “Thin Line Between Art and Sex.” I’ll transcribe those below:

“I think that there are a lot of similarities between art and sex, particularly with dance.”

[referencing Contact Improvisation]: “It’s about inter-relating with another person, or more than one person, in such a way that it’s improvisational, you’re taking cues from them and what they’re doing, and what they’re going to do next. You know, anticipating what they might do next, or what they might want next. There’s also a level of, like, a follower and a leader sometimes, so sometimes there’ll be, like, someone kind of, like, following, and the other person takes cues off of that, or visa versa, and they switch at any moment . . . I feel like it relates to sex because you can start off in one way and then decide, oh, actually, I’ll let you lead for a second, and I’ll take that cue.”

“It was called the Undress Project, and so I was dancing naked on stage, and it wasn’t sexualized, and actually they found out that wearing a little bit amount of clothing, like even rehearsing in bras and underwear, was more tantalizing and titillating than just being completely naked. And there was a real beauty and zen-like quality to performing completely bare and being exposed, and seeing that our bodies were this kind of functioning machine, where they eat and piss and shit and eat again, and they age and they sag and they live and die . . .”

“I found myself being kind of upset being on stage and being naked and people seeing, like, ‘Oh, that’s a woman,’ and you know, like, the size of my hips and you can see my boobs and to be . . . by a lot of reviewers being, like, ‘She this, and she that,’ and actually I identify as gender queer, so . . . and I had been packing, binding, and identifying as trans for a while, so it was an interesting transition to be okay with my body and be okay with what other people thought about my body.”

“So I got very comfortable with myself naked, moving naked, being seen by others and however they wanted to see me.”

I have also been considering the format in which this piece might be seen by outside observers. I have been questioning the necessity of having any sort of formal or informal performance/presentation since the start of the process, and I still have questions about the implications of presentation for this work. In so many ways, this piece really is about and for the four of us as a practice in which we engage, a dance intended more for the kinesthetic, spatial, and interpersonal experience of being inside of it rather than the visual experience of seeing the piece. And yet there is a sense in which the piece might . . . want to be shared? So I have been considering the possibility of personal invitations, inviting specific individuals to witness our practice, week by week rather than any sort of epitomizing performance experience. I haven’t quite figured out the details or viability of this approach, but it does seem like a way to continue to maintain a sense of intimacy in the process, emphasizing the interpersonal rather than the spectacle. I think.

That is my creative update on the Autumn Quartet. There are so many other thing about which I feel compelled to write . . . how the this piece is beginning to feel implicated in the post-modern period through its inclusion of undressing (I’m thinking again of David Gordon’s Random Breakfast, and Anna Halprin’s Parades and Changes). Maybe that will be the paper I write for “The History and Theory of Postmodern/Contemporary Dance” this quarter. In any event, the work of reading and writing and teaching now requires my attention.



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