michael j. morris


The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Yesterday evening I was honored to have the opportunity to participate in a vigil for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers at Femina Potens Art Gallery in San Francisco. In addition to being present for the vigil itself, I was honored to be included in a press conference preceding the event on behalf of my blog. I came to San Francisco to experience and write about Love Art Laboratory‘s current exhibit “Sexecology: Making Love With The Earth, Sky + Sea” (currently on display at Femina Potens). Although this vigil was not an official event of the Love Art Lab, I timed my trip in order to be present for this important cause. I am pleased to be able to contribute to the “press” surrounding the event.

I have considered and reconsidered how I might want to document this event, while still pertaining to what I consider to be the mission or creative platform of this blog. What makes the most sense to me is to relay what I found striking, what will stay with me, what I found to be of importance. This relates mostly to ideas, perspectives, and theories surrounding culture, violence, and sex work(ers). Statements or ideas may not always be credited to specific speakers; that was not the way in which I was engaging with the event. I won’t be detailing the rich history of this event or its spread and international implications (more can be read about the history and founding of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers here). Instead, I will offer ideas, quotes, and paraphrases that emanated from the community in attendance, while recognizing that any community is constructed from a complexity of intersubjectivity, a collection of individuals, and that any one of these ideas that have stayed with me originated in a specific individual even as it became expressive within and of the community.

I will briefly offer context. The gallery is a beautiful space, currently filled to the brim with work by Elizabeth M. Stephens and Annie M. Sprinkle (Love Art Lab) addressing sexecology (or ecosexuality). Chairs were set up facing the back corner of the gallery where there had been erected a simple altar for victims of violence against sex workers. Signs with provocative statistics surrounding violence in this industry/community, red prayer candles in memorial to specific victims, red umbrellas that would fulfill a further function later in the evening, and a collection of flowers comprised the altar. In attendance (introduced at the press conference) were Annie Sprinkle and co-hostess of the evening Kimberlee Cline, Madison Young, executive director of Femina Potens, and Carol Queen, noted sexologist, co-founder of the Center for Sex and Culture.

The press conference gave us the opportunity to hear and discuss issues surrounding sex work, violence against sex workers, the implications of violence throughout our cultural infrastructure, the complexities of the community which is identified as “sex workers,” and the relationship between the the movement for sex workers rights and the LGBT rights movement.

from left: Madison Young, Annie Sprinkle, Kimberlee Cline, Robyn Few, and Carol Queen

The vigil itself took the form of an informal ritual. Carol Queen opened the ritual with a stunning invocation honoring the Goddess, Her sexual power, creative potential, and presence. This invocation was followed by the reading of names of sex workers who have been murdered in 2009, read by hostesses Kimberlee Cline and Madison Young. This was a list of women, men, transgendered, and unidentified bodies, of all ages, from around the globe. After reading and honoring those who have been lost, the ritual shifted to an open mic for anyone who wanted to share or express. Some told stories, some offered poems, others shared their personal histories in sex work. Annie Sprinkle closed the ritual with guided breathing experience, breathing in the love and connectivity and support of this community and taking that into ourselves to bring back into the world. Having this vigil opened and closed in such sacred yet open and inclusive “liturgies” added a specific tone to the event, alluding to a kind of community practice that spans bodies and spirit, that contains space for our differences and diversity rather than being formulated on a sacredness that abjects/rejects an other as “profane.” This was to me significant in understanding both the extent of violence in our culture and the(a) form of resistance to this violence. The next phase of the vigil was a “solidarity stroll” from Femina Potens to St. James Infirmary, which provides “compassionate and non-judgemental healthcare and social services for all sex workers while preventing occupational illnesses and injuries through a comprehensive continuum of services.” Those of us participating carried the signs, candles and umbrellas that previously adorned the altar in the gallery. It had a sacred feel as we became the bearers of these implements, a mobile “altar” of human beings. It was also a time for community, people talking with one another, hearing one another’s stories, making connections with people who had previously been strangers. This was the conclusion to the vigil.

on the Solidarity Stroll

Emerging from this structure and community were so many profoundly relevant ideas and perspectives surrounding sex work and the culture in which it operates. To begin, there is the breadth of what sex work includes, and the complexity that such diversity entails. “Sex work,” as discussed throughout the evening, signifies professions including street prostitution, indoor prostitution and escort services, work in the porn industry, strippers, exotic dancing, erotic massage, etc. It includes professions in which sex, whatever its form, is, at least in part, that for which one is being paid. This diversity presents its own difficulties. During the press conference, Madison Young and Carol Queen discussed the tensions and divisions that can exist between these professional subsets held tenuously together under the umbrella of “sex work,” making a unified and cohesive politically activist community even more difficult. Rather than recognizing the similarities and affinities that may unite these professionals as the foundation of a coalitional political identity, emphasis is lost on distinctions. As Queen put it, the strippers can always say, “Well, at least I don’t fuck them.” I describe these infrastructural tensions and divisions because conceptually I think they are expressive of one of the fundamental issues surrounding violence, both against sex workers and within our culture at large.

Similar to the expansive nature of the designation “sex work,” another function of the evening was exposing the expansive and pervasive nature of what constitutes “violence.” This was a profound realization for me, considering that which serves as the foundation for violence as implicit in the violence itself. Addressed were the perhaps obvious forms of violence: murder, rape, assault, abuse, battery, physical and emotional trauma. But also addressed were what might be seen as the more subtle aspects of violence: porn companies that prohibit the use of condoms, the lack of sexual education for those entering the sex work industry, the lack of compassionate medical and psychological care for sex workers, without judgement or assumption, the defamation of character suffered by those in sex work, the laws in this country the prohibit sex work, making reporting violence effectively impossible (this double-bind of the illegality of sex work is perhaps one of the most profound contributing factors to violence against these individuals, discussed further below). One speaker specifically addressed the “violence of shame, the violence of having to hide.” This was striking to me. Shame has been a recurring subject in my creative work for some time. For my purposes, shame is an interpersonal experience in which one’s experience of oneself is compromised or contaminated by one’s perception of the Other’s perception. A culture of shame is familiar territory within the LGBT community (one of many similarities between these two sometimes overlapping communities), but what was a substantial shift for me was the recognition that the society or culture that propagates shame might be considered a culture of violence. The foundation of shame is judgement, or at the very least the perception of judgment. Put simply, that it is not okay to be who you are, either in whole or in part. A culture of shame emerges when the social assumption is that in difference and diversity there are correct and incorrect ways of being. A culture of shame emerges when diversity and difference are not celebrated, when their distinctions are used to separate and divide rather than unite. This makes me think of a presentation that Norah Zuniga Shaw gave concerning “Synchronous Object for One Flat Thing, reproduced” in which she emphasized counterpoint as a system of recognizing diversity and difference as the superficial organizational structure, supported by a deeper unity of purpose and intention. She presented this not only as a potential way for looking at dance, but also for considering society, culture, and community. My thought is that a society which looks for sameness and uniformity, in which diversity is potentially unacceptable, which proliferates shame surrounding difference, is a society in which violence is implicit.

I question that occurs to me is “To what degree do we celebrate difference? How ‘different’ is still acceptable?” I think the answer is perhaps simple: to the degree that the difference itself does not produce violence.

One of the commonalities or deeper unifying organizational structures within the “sex worker” community that was discussed was the “sex-positive” movement. It is perhaps here, from perspectives of sex and sexuality, that this culture of shame and violence emerges. “Sex-positive” is a loosely defined term, but what it hopes to promote is the perspective that sexual expression is good and healthy, an essential aspect of our humanity and being. It is in response to cultures that cloak sexuality in secrecy, shame, restriction, repression and suppression [there is certainly space here for an intertexutal discourse involving Michel Foucault’s rejection/genealogical reformulation of the “repression mythology” surrounding contemporary sexuality, responses to Foucault’s work by authors such as Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (among others), and the vast literary history of “sex-positivity” emerging from the feminist “sex wars” of the 1980s (including such texts as Pleasure and Danger: exploring female sexuality edited by Carole S. Vance from the papers presented at the 1982 conference “Towards a Politics of Sexuality” held at Barnard College. This discourse is, of course, beyond the scope of this reflection on a specific event, but it is worth acknowledging that these issues are complex; they have not only been discussed by many great thinkers, but there is still space for yet more discussion and discourse.] I dare say that while there has certainly been progress, American society and culture continues to be less than “sex positive.” Sex is addressed in the public and political arenas as a moral issue, a religious issue even. Once sex is considered in these terms, diversity and difference are less likely to be celebrated. These are the arenas in which homosexuals are considered deviants, whores are considered criminals, in which sex carries a narrow definition and in which expressions of sex and sexuality that extend beyond this narrow definition are deemed inappropriate. They become targets of condemnation, shame, and thus violence. I believe that this is the predominant, mainstream culture within our country, a site of struggle for any individual or community that exists outside of the mainstream, or predominantly accepted, definition of sex and sexuality.
This was not the culture represented at last nights vigil.
Sex work was discussed as an expression of giftings, “undervalued gifts of robust sexuality,” overwhelming compassion and generosity, a deep capacity for creativity, healing, and love. Sex workers were described as heroes, super-heroes, priestesses of the Goddess, who make their living opening themselves, completely, becoming vulnerable and sharing love and energy through what they do. These giftings, this openness, this generosity and sharing is part of what makes this community susceptible to violence.

With this honoring of sexual difference, sex as positive, and diverse sexual expression came an emphasis (or re-emphasis) of the source and site of violence, not in these professions themselves, but in the conditions of these professions that are produced by our culture of shame and violence. For instance, because prostitution is illegal, prostitutes become susceptible targets to violence; the violence cannot be reported without the targets themselves becoming implicated in the crime. Medical care is compromised due to cultural mindsets that there is shame or indecency in these professions. Stigma is attached to the persons of these professionals, potentially compromising their social standing and personal relationships. Because the difference and diversity that this community represents is not celebrated, the conditions this community faces become compromised and compromising. The violence emerges not from these individuals, not from what they are doing, but from the society and perspectives in which they are operating. And, no, it isn’t as simple as changing the laws, although this would/will be a profound shift in our culture. Amsterdam and New Zealand both have regulation for legalized prostitution, and violence still persists in these countries. The shift must be deeper, a shift of perception, and a value for the diversity of sexuality, sexual activity, sexual identity, and sexual expression.

One speaker made a statement that I found to be a striking summation of this plight: “Human rights are human rights; they don’t stop at sex work.” This could be said about so many communities and individuals that face violence based on actual or perceived difference. Human rights do not stop at our differences. They are pervasive. The right to own, honor and express one’s own person, one’s own body. The right to happiness. The right to love and have that love recognized. The right to explore and express the uniqueness of individual identity without fear or shame. Too often difference and diversity are denounced as destructive; this is fear, and eventually hate. Those who are perceived as different or deviating from the regulatory norms of culture are dehumanized, deemed less than human, by effectively denying them these fundamental human rights based on their differences. What I suppose I am proposing or supporting is a shift of consciousness as the “end to violence,” recognizing diversity and difference, and celebrating them as not only essential to the fabric of culture, but as a fundamental human right.

The vigil last night was both solemn and celebratory. Solemn in memory of those who have suffered the effects of violence in our culture, and angry at a society that, if not condones, does nothing to prevent such violence. Celebratory of difference and diversity, because it is in this celebration, in this shift to recognizing a deeper pervasive unity in the uniqueness of human and sexual expression, that the potential to end violence resides.



Integration of Art and Life

Integration.

Balance. Integration.

Connection. Balance. Integration.

Art. Life. Love. Loving. Identity. Multi-media. Interdisciplinary. Integration.

These are the things that I am thinking about. I feel as if most of the time these things become areas of my life or parts of my life, competing and conflicting and challenging one another rather than a more fluid, connected, integrated flow of living.  I’m sure there is a rich field of precedents in the various arts of artists who have managed this sort of integration of life and art. We looked at many of them in my seminar course in Winter with Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil. But if I were to make a sweeping generalization, this integration mainly came about (the most effectively, in my opinion) when the definition of “art” was opened to a broad place, and the activities of living became the art. Political activism as art. Ecological activities and humanitarian aid as art. Service aesthetics, in which an activity normally associated with the service industries were appropriated as art practices. In an even broader generalization, the art became ways in which people interact. Social living became the art. And there’s something beautiful about that. That is part of what I see at work in the Love Art Lab with Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle. Their relationship with one another, their love, their activism in areas like same-sex equality, violence against sex workers, and anti-way politics, becomes their art in magical and creative ways. I am so inspired by this.

And yet when I’ve been aware of dance artists who have danced this line, they become separated from the “dance world,” from dance techniques, dance history, the evolution of this form. They become removed from concert dance, and “traditional” ways of making. And there’s a part of me that is not ready to lose those connections. As I delve deeper into graduate school, I am submerging myself in those areas of study and research. I am going deep into dance history and dance and aesthetic theories, investigations of the body, etc. But also away from things like “performativity.” I still care about sharing work, displaying work, but its the experience of the dancer, the person dancing the piece . . . I feel myself continuing to get farther away from concerns like fabricated expression and anything artificial. I think for a while now I have not been able to separate what I do on stage (or in a studio, or anywhere else) from “real life.” I am interested in it being a real experience that is in turn witnessed, and we as a community of people, of dancer and spectators, are some how benefited by the sharing of that experience. I’m not sure if this is making any sense, and it feels a bit tangential, but it’s where my mind is going with this speculation. When I performed “Red Monster” in May, it was not “pretend.” It was actually me standing in front of a room of people, without a shirt on, revealing my body, taking measure of it, tracing and touching the parts of my body that I am sometimes ashamed of, and in doing so in front of this room of people, actually engaging with that discomfort and shame. The piece involves a fantasy of an Other . . . maybe in a more vulnerable version of the piece I will not imagine an Other, but actually find someone in the audience who will fill that role. But the fantasy was real in that I was really envisioning that person, really generating those experiences of desire and shame, really fantasizing about having sex with that person as I unzipped my pants and moved as if masturbating [IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE PIECE, I apologize if this makes no sense. You can see a video of it on my youtube account here]. And the piece was about the distance between self and the Other . . . the Other is intended to be absent from that moment. So even though it does lapse into fantasy, the piece is about lapsing into fantasy. If that makes sense. And when the piece was over and I went and sat down in the audience, I had actually done those things in front of viewers.

This is beginning to lapse into my thoughts on the choreography of identity, or choreographing identity. The short, muddled version of that notion is that we know ourselves and our situation in the world first and foremost through our bodies and the movement of our bodies. Corporeal identity (what I am calling the way in which our identity is known and expressed through our bodies) becomes something of a loop, perceiving who we are through our bodies, then contributing to that identity by our conscious and subconscious decisions and directions for how we move, behave, and take physical action in the world. The way we move, the way in which we do things, both expresses and contributes to that corporeal identity. I am also interested in the somatic notion of the memory of the body. I haven’t gone very deep into this investigation, but somatic forms such as Rolfing and Feldenkrais (as well as others) posit that the body carries its history, its memory, in its structure and thus behavior. The way in which we do things, the condition of our bones and muscles and neuromuscular interfacing, represents that which has come before, the history that we carry in our bodies. I am interested in how this might relate to a dance practice. How does the experience of dancing “Red Monster” continue to “live” in my body as part of its history, and thus part of my identity? In very literal ways, I have scars from some dances that I performed (importantly, both my own choreography and the choreography of others); there are literally marks that reveal how my body (and thus my Self) has been changed by this practice. Because of my dance training, I exist in my body differently than someone without the same training. I am aware of my physical abilities and limitations in a different way. This has an effect on my perception of self, my self-identity. I am curious about more subtle ways, like how repetition in the rehearsal process might build strength or weakness, tension or release, in joints and muscles and tendons and ligaments, in the structure and thus behavior of my body. How does that choreography continue to “live” in my body? And in even more subtle ways, like style of movement, movement qualities, etc. I had an amazing experience this past quarter studying modern technique with CoCo Loupe, who was one of my first modern dance teachers when I was in high school. Close to ten years later, my body had an understanding, a memory, of her way of moving. I don’t perform it perfectly, but my body remembered it, because it was part of my early training. I don’t know how to quantify that observation as data, but experientially I was aware of how that way of moving had continued to live in my body, my identity.

Dancing, and choreography, then, takes on an almost sacred quality, because we are literally constructing and deconstructing our bodies/Selves in/through what it is we are doing as dance artists. When I take a class or dance my own work or the work of another choreographer, I am taking that experience, that real experience, into my body as part of its history. It becomes part of the way I exist, part of my corporeal identity, my Self.

And maybe that’s a clue to the kind of art/life integration that I began this post speculating. When talking to my brother yesterday, he mentioned the possibility of the solution being one of “ritual,” in which dancing and training and stylization and ways of moving take on an important role in living, in personal or social life. The dancing becomes more than theater, more than spectacle, more takes on a sacredness that reflects the work I observe being done in the individuals involved. And it alludes to taking on spiritual significance as well.  

That’s all I have time for at the moment. I hope to return to this speculation/contemplation/integration soon.



continuing thoughts from Hamilton/Mercil seminar
14 January, 2009, 12:39 am
Filed under: art, cosmology, creative process | Tags: , ,

I again left my class with Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil with pages of thoughts. Tonight we witnessed a series of “responses” or “activities” or “demonstrations.” Each person (I think there are fifteen of us?) presented an activity-based piece. 

The over-arching thought I was left with has to do with selection and choice. It has long been a life value of mine that anything I do, any choice I make, especially in reference to time, is to the exclusion of all else. This becomes especially pronounced in the creative process in which you are ultimately displaying a series of choices that you have made concerning the materials with which you are working (in my case, movement of the human body, source material, sound accompaniment, etc. etc. etc.). In almost every piece tonight, there was some structure of participation, and some degree of decision making within that structure.

In one, the artist was under the table around which we were all sitting, and she selected individuals to read accusations that she handed to them from under the table.

In another four individuals were selected to read transcripts of their own words that had been translated into a foreign language.

In one, the artist selected two individuals to sort through a pile of stuff from his desk at home. They were not given any criteria by which to sort these materials.

In another, we received envelopes containing two images and the instructions to select one, and paste the other to someone else’s image (giving you the agency to choose the image, the criteria by which to make that decision, how it would be applied to someone else’s image, etc.).

In another, we drew slips of paper from a bowl designating us either “A” or “B”. A’s were instructed to find a B, ask for their cell phone number, and call them. The piece progressed further, but it began with selecting (at random) our own designation, then the role of A’s selecting which B they would approach.

My piece also involved selection. I will paste the instructions below:

 

“Activity About Shame

* All are invited to participate.

*Starting at the north end of the studio, walk slowly towards the south end, contemplating that about which you are most ashamed. Allow this to be something like a moving meditation.

*At any point during the piece, you may choose to stop walking, make your way to another participant, and look them in the eye while continuing your contemplation. If you are chosen by another participant to engage in an eye contact exchange, please engage with them in it.

*If you are participating in an eye contact exchange, either partner (the initiator or the one who was chosen) in the exchange may choose to whisper to their partner the object of their contemplation (i.e. that about which you are most ashamed). Your partner may choose to reciprocate or not to reciprocate. In either event, continue in the eye contact exchange after any verbal exchanges have been made.

*At the end of the piece there are several courses of action that you may have taken.

You might have walked in solitary contemplation from one end of the studio toward the other.

You might have engaged in an eye contact exchange, either by choosing to do so or being chosen to do so, and maintained that eye contact for the duration of the piece.

If you were involved in an eye contact exchange, you may have chosen to whisper the about which you were contemplating to your partner, or your partner may have chosen to do so, or both; either way, after any verbal exchange, you will have continued to maintain an eye contact exchange with your partner.”

 

I can’t say I was particularly pleased with how mine turned out. Or maybe I was just frustrated by time constraints. The entire piece had to take place in 4 minutes or less . . . which seemed to make the emphasis how fast these things could or would take place. How quickly do you walk, how soon do you choose to make contact with another person, how honest/vulnerable can you/will you be in four minutes? I think ideally I would want to attempt this piece in a different setting in which there was much more time, for the walking to truly become secondary to the thought process (a movement concerned with residing in a specific cognitive space), for the choices to be deliberate, and the time spent with another person to become . . . profound? I suppose I am not surprised that I just wanted everything to take more time.

Which addresses a current obsession of mine. Things/people/events moving slowly. The slower they move, the better. The more minimal the content, the more important that content becomes. It is elevated by its scarcity. The piece tonight felt dense in time, too much happening too quickly, without quality. Stretched over something like twenty minutes, each step can almost echo in time. Each choice becomes rare and perhaps profound simply because of the space between choices. The time spent face to face or walking next to or listening to another person has duration, time to go somewhere. I think that is where my disappointment/dissatisfaction lies.

But I was talking about selection.

In my piece, clearly there were the overt choices (to walk, to find a partner with whom to make eye contact, to speak or not to speak). But there were also the subtle choices: how quickly to walk, whether or not you were actually contemplating your shame. And whether or not you continued that contemplation while looking at another person. Or whether you were honest in what you spoke to another person. Who you chose to make contact with (visual or verbal). So many choices.

So the question that arises, whether it be in art or some other part of life, what are the criteria by which we are making our selections? I truly do not believe(at present) that there are correct or incorrect choices, in art or any part of life. There are simply choices with outcomes/consequences. And each choice is to the exclusion of every other choice. Some choices have relatively mild consequences (how quickly I walk home from school, etc.). Some have profound consequences (whether or not to act on anger or hate). Consequences can be constructive, destructive, or neutral. It seems as if all choices affect someone(everyone?) else to some degree. Constructively, destructively, neutrally. If nothing else, each choice affects us, me, myself, and I am a social being, thus that affect on me affects the way I am/who I am with others, to some degree . . .

This is turning into philosophy. I suppose all I am meaning to ask myself/you is what are the criteria by which you make choices? Or a specific choice? In your art, or some other part of your life. Do you derive that value system directly from a specific source (such as your interpretation of religious literature, etc.), or more indirectly (such as the culmination of a series of experiences, etc.)?

These are my thoughts tonight.