“A Monument to the Risen”, consists of a large-scale installation based on a series of interviews with sex workers, exploring the idea of performative emotionality, emotional labor and the cultural production of sexuality. This project examines how sex workers construct their identities in and out of sex work, their relationship to cultural expectations, and how their work effects their personal lives.
Gender and queer theorists such as Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick write about how gender and sexuality are performed, and the behaviors and rituals that define social roles. In this regard, as part of the expected ritual of sexual behavior, sex workers perform emotions that facilitate connections between them and their audience/clients. These acts and emotions are fundamental to the transaction of their societal roles as sex workers. However, it is a mistake to correlate these behaviors to actual intimacy, since the ritual of the affection, sexual gesture, or the performance of an orgasm is often just that – the affectation that is part of a fiduciary transaction dictated by the desires of a client in the consumer exchange.
The communities that I have been investigating are strippers, porn performers, dominatrixes, cam-girls and prostitutes. Each of these professions, while similarly exhibiting or exchanging sexuality for financial gain, differ in that the workers “perform emotions” in different ways, with varying boundaries between themselves and the client/audience. Strippers perform for varied in-person audiences, ranging from the look-but-no-touch world of the peep show, to the acrobatics of a pole dancer, to the intimate one-on-one contact of a lap dancer. They are expected to flirt and interact with customers, exhorting them to spend more of their dollars in the booth, on the stage, or on dances. In porn, while performers may like who they perform with, or they may have met them for the first time 30 minutes before they start filming, the performance is primarily for an unseen audience, and dictated by market demands. In prostitution, the performance is for a single client or set of clients. Whereas a porn performer has a faceless audience to amuse and stimulate, a prostitute must convince single or multiple clients of their sincerity in intimate encounters, which can range from the performance of an enthusiastic orgasm to feigning of an actual relationship (known colloquially as the Girlfriend Experience). A cross-over of this experience of performative emotionality in sex work is in the experience of the web cam performers, who, while their audience is unseen, they are not unheard – they make requests/demands via online chats, and the performers are in a constant state of both performance and negotiation, trying to get clients to spend more time/money, and maintaining their own boundaries. This provokes an interesting discussion about the labor practices of porn, when performers are encouraged by their employers to push boundaries to make financial quotas, as in the case of a recent lawsuit that was brought by web cam models against Kink.com for violations of labor laws in California.
I made a conscious decision when refining this project that I was going to be concentrating on a small sample of sex workers. Although the type of sex work they do is wide-ranging, the choices I have made in regards to gender, age, race and class keeps my sample size pretty small. I have chosen to only focus on interviews with cis-gendered and genderqueer people who do not identify as transgendered, none of whom have ever done “survival sex work”, or sex work not by choice, but by necessity. These women are fairly privileged as sex workers, and they understand and acknowledge this privilege. I am not positing that these experiences are the experiences of all sex work, but are part of the “polymorphous paradigm” of sex work, part of “a constellation of occupational arrangements, power relations and worker experiences” that is “sensitive to the complexities and the structural conditions shaping the uneven distribution of agency, subordination and worker control.”7 In other words, just because I am not discussing sex slavery, trafficking or streetwalkers, that does not invalidate the work and experiences of this group of people.
PEEP SHOW – Installation of three “peep show” booths, video interviews and projections of appropriated pornography
The first section of my installation is inspired by the lobby and peep show booths of the Lusty Lady in San Francisco where I had my first experience with sex work. The hallway outside the installation acts as the lobby, with the neon sign as signifier and signal of what is to come.
Viewers enter a dark room draped at the rear with red curtains, behind which they see the flashing lights of a stage and hear music and announcements as different strippers start their shifts. In front of the curtain, there are two “talk booths,” spaces suggestive of the compartments where a client at a peep show pays to interact with a “live nude girl” on the other side of a plexiglass wall. Each booth is 8’ x 4’ x 4’, containing a faux “stage” behind a plexiglass barrier. On the stage are a monitor which plays a loop asking the viewer to “Insert a dollar to see a video” and advising them to “See an attendant for change”. When the viewer inserts a dollar into the bill acceptor, the monitor shows a video interview, while a projector throws images onto the viewer. The space is small and confined, with multiple reflective surfaces. There are ten video interviews available, five different interviews in each booth, and they are 2-6 minutes each. Each interview features a different sex worker’s story about how the emotional labor they perform affects their daily lives. The projections are the same length as the interviews, and star the same sex workers, but in their roles as sexual performers, acting out their roles.
At this point in the installation, I consider that there are three points of engagement: immersion, the gesture, and the reflection. The immersive aspect of the space has established an expectation of sexual commerce in the mind of the viewer, who might recognize the space, whether from personal or cultural experience – even if you have never been inside a peep show or strip club, there are enough representations of these spaces in the media that the viewer can recognize the space. This recognition is then subverted inside the booth when the interview with the sex worker appears, shifting the expectation of what is supposed to happen on the “stage” to what is then happening on the body of the viewer. The next point of engagement is the gesture, which occurs when the viewer puts a dollar into the bill acceptor, an action signifying a ritualized element of sex work: “paying for it.” Finally, the engagement with the reflection refers to the complicity of the viewer in the consumption of sex, and the shifting of reality between the confessional nature of the interviews and the performance of the pornography. The multiple refelctions of the image that become available, on the screen, reflected on the body of the viewer and the spaces in the booth, on the screen seperating the viewer and the sex worker, these reflection serve to complicates the reception of narratives regarding sex work.
Viewers can then move behind the curtain to the second installation:
CROSSING THE STAGE – installation of a peep show stage, a mirrored room with a stripper pole in the center. Audio only.
As they cross the peep show stage, the viewer is also crossing a border. They move from being observers and consumers of sex work to a place where they are now immersing their bodies in the space of sex work and sexual labor. Seeing their bodies in the mirrors all around the stage, this is another reflection that subverts the narrative for the viewer. As there is no performer to observe, viewers see themselves only in this sexualized space, perhaps allowing themselves to imagine their lives in the place of the sex worker’s life. This is also a place of action – the music may make them want to grab the pole and take a turn, but what is behind their impetus to perform?
Behind the stage, a door, labeled DANCERS ONLY leads to the third installation:
BACKSTAGE – installation of a peep show dressing room. The room contains a dressing table with mirror and lights, a couch and a bank of six lockers.
Across the stage, a gap in the curtain leads to the third part of the installation. After passing through the spaces of implication and action, the viewer moves into a space of rest, reflection, and preparation. A private space, the action here is about the unveiling of intimacy. The dressing room is populated with the objects belonging to the absent working dancers: bottles of water, makeup, coats, purses, hairspray, a pair of sparkly underpants, shoes, vibrators, strap on dildoes. These objects are elements of a larger story, evidence of experience, tangible triggers of memory. The audio in the space reflects that, with sounds of the absent dancers just audible enough that you can hear what seem to be conversations, but not clear enough for you to focus on any one story. To do that, the viewer has to move to the lockers. Each locker has been inhabited by one of the sex workers I have interviewed, with the donated items that they link to sex work. Inside each locker there is a small monitor, triggered by an arduino when the locker door is opened. The videos shown on these small 10” screens suggest an intimate confessional, with the sex worker talking about an aspect of her private self not normally shared publicly. To hear what each person interviewed is saying, you have to actually stick your head inside the lockers, putting your head deep into their intimate space.
Through a door or opening, the viewer will then enter the final area of the installation:
The final space of the installation is behind a curtain at the far end of the room. The 5 minute video piece “Intimate” is on loop. The video portraits comprise an entire wall of several Odalisque figures, reversing the viewing context such that sex workers observe and consume observers, creating a final moment for the viewer, where, after staring at these people for the entirety of their experience in this space, the odalisque finally gazes back. With the “long video portraits” of sex workers, I refer conceptually to how the object of the gaze looks back and the odalisque observes the viewer. This asks the following questions: How are emotions being performed and reflected? What do we project onto the subject in these long video portraits, with the sex worker invoking a moment that might either be genuine or contrived?