My thesis show will consist of a large-scale installation based on a series of interviews with sex workers that explore the idea of “performative emotionality,” sex work as labor, and the role of intimacy in the life of a sexual laborer.
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 two communities that I have been investigating are porn performers 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. Porn performers describe what they do as everything from “making porn widgets” (producing a product that is defined by the porn market as a desirable porn object) to a romantic on-screen connection with an actual off-screen partner. 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 an intimate encounter, which can range from the performance of an orgasm to feigning of an actual relationship, known as the “Girlfriend Experience.”
My work examines how these sex workers construct their identities in relation to their performances of emotion and their private lives. I also consider cultural expectations that might inform and shape their performances, as well as the cultural reception of pornography, prostitution, and the place of the sex worker in cultural and economic context.
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. There will be a counter, manned by a gallery sitter, who will act as the attendant for the space, making sure that the patrons can get correct change for the booths.
PEEP SHOW is an interactive installation space, mimicking a real-world peep show. Viewers will enter a room draped at the rear with red curtains, behind which they will see the flashing lights of a stage and hear music and announcements as different strippers start their shifts. In front of the curtain, there will be three “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 and projector, triggered by a bill acceptor. When the viewer inserts a dollar, the monitor shows video interviews, while the projector throws images onto the viewer.
The video interviews are 2-5 minutes each and feature a different sex worker’s story. The projections are the same length as the interviews, and star the same sex workers, but in their roles as sexual performers, performing their jobs.
The three points of engagement in this installation are the immersion, the gesture, and the reflection.
The immersive aspect of the space establishes an expectation of sexual commerce in the mind of the viewer, who might recognize the space, whether from personal or cultural experience. Recognition is subverted inside the booth when the interview with the sex worker shifts from the expectation of what is supposed to happen on the “stage” and what happens on the body of the viewer.
The gesture occurs when the viewer puts a dollar into the bill acceptor, an action signifying a ritualized element of sex work: “paying for it.”
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 doubling of the image, on the screen and reflected on the body of the viewer, 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.
Viewers next cross the peep show stage, moving from the space of observing sex workers to immersing their bodies in the space of sex work, sexual labor, and seeing themselves reflected on the stage walls. As there is no performer to observe, viewers see themselves only in this sexualized space.
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.
After passing through the spaces of implication and action, the viewer moves into a space of rest, reflection, and preparation. A more intimate, private space, the dressing room will be populated with the objects belonging to the absent working dancers: bottles of water, packs of cigarettes, a hoodie, a pair of sparkly underpants, etc. Each locker will be “inhabited” by one of the sex workers I have interviewed, with each one donating an item that they link to sex work and to intimacy. In addition, inside each locker there will be a small monitor, triggered by an Arduino when the locker door is opened. The videos shown on these small 10” screens will suggest an intimate confessional, with the sex worker talking about an aspect of her private self not normally shared publicly.
Through a door or opening, the viewer will then enter the final area of the installation:
MONUMENT TO THE RISEN – Gallery installation of four to six large-scale mixed media drawings of appropriated pornographic images. Shown with projection of INTIMATE video.
This room serves as my monument to the women I have interviewed, celebrating the work that they do. This room will contain an exhibition of large scale images of the sex worker “in action,” and are graphic depictions of her sex acts rendered in pen and ink and watercolor.. My aim is to bring the odalisque, or harem woman, into a modern context.
Shown 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. These drawings are 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?
The video portraits will comprise an entire wall of several Odalisque figures, namely reversing the viewing context such that sex workers observe and consume observers.