Florian Cramer on Wed, 6 Dec 2006 19:31:46 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Sodom Blogging - "Alternative porn" and aesthetic sensibility

[This text was commissioned by the German art magazine
 'Texte zur Kunst' <http://www.textezurkunst.de> for
 its 'PORNO' issue (no. 64, December 2006) and is online at
 http://www.textezurkunst.de/NR64/SODOM-BLOGGING-d.html (German) and
 http://www.textezurkunst.de/NR64/SODOM-BLOGGING-e.html (English).
 English translation by Gerrit Jackson. ]

"Alternative porn" and aesthetic sensibility

The contradiction of all pornography is that it destroys the obscene. Like
the beautiful for classicism, the sublime for Dark Romanticism and the
ugly for the grotesque, the obscene is porn's aesthetic register, its aura
and its selling point. Sade invents modern pornography as the discourse
of art crosses a historical threshold from rule-based poiesis to the
sensitive aisthesis. The "120 jours de Sodome" illustrate precisely this
clash of cultures: a gang of perpetrators, old aristocrats who combine
and choreograph their orgies according to the rules of poetics; a group
of victims, young children from the bourgeoisie, whose sensibilities
unmask the debauchery as perversion in the first place; and as a result,
a mutual escalation of poiesis and aisthesis, construction and sentiment,
machine and body. Conceptualism and performance, the antagonistic and
complementary poles of modern art, are already fully developed here,
and their conjunction of the pornographic and the mechanical will be
taken up again in Duchamp's "Large Glass" and Schwitters's "Merzbau",
patrician sex-machine construction and petit-bourgeois sensitive
"cathedral of erotic misery".

That the pornographic logic of the taboo on obscenity cancels itself
nowhere more thoroughly than in pornography itself, is demonstrated
exemplarily by the performances of Annie Sprinkle. An actress in seventies
mainstream porn who became an Action artist and "alternative porn"
pioneer, she not only transgresses generic boundaries but also turns
the classical imagery of heterosexual pornography on its head. With her
ritual invitation to the audience to see into her vagina by means of
a speculum, Sprinkle concludes the iconographic tradition of Courbet's
"L'Origine du Monde" (1886) and Duchamp's "�tant donnés" (posthumous,
1968), but disarms the previously lewd gaze, exorcising, an agent of
both sexual education and enlightenment, both the taboo and the sexual
mystery from such display. Speaking of an obscene "heft of language"
and discovering "in a word such as 'cunt' [...] great power",[1] writer
Kirsten Fuchs indicates not only the taboo of Indie porn discourses
which defuse this heft but also the failure of industrial porno-graphy
to reproduce it. Sade, whose systematically constructed escalations
blunt the consumer's sensibilities just like any mainstream pornography,
attempts to save the taboo by carrying his excesses to the extreme of
ritual murder, a figure of thought, Romantic and sentimentalist at its
core, which lives on in the "urban legends" of performance art suicides
Rudolf Schwarzkogler and John Fare, and is physically performed, in a race
against the Zeitgeist, in Genesis P. Orridge's modifications of his body.

The "exploitation" of the porn viewer consists in the false promise
of obscenity, or its simulation - as Gonzo porn has done since John
Stagliano's "Buttman" series - through the aggressive penetration
and protrusion of bodies.[2] Yet this is precisely where mainstream
and independent pornography, the business and the activism of porn
meet: Sprinkle's performances are Gonzo with the addition of a feminist
"empowerment" which returns the object of such protrusion to the position
of the subject. And the independent pornography which has recently
established itself as a genre, mostly on the Internet but flanked by
sexually explicit auteur movies such as "9 songs" and "Shortbus", can
be the subject of a discussion free of bad conscience because, among
other reasons, it presents "good" sex without obscenity; fulfilling,
after the interventions of the feminist anti-porn debate of the 1980s,
Peter Gorsen's diagnosis of a neo-vitalist tendency in contemporary
sexual aesthetics that consummate the program of turn-of-the-century
anti-industrialization and Naturist movements.[3]

Thus, the boundaries are blurred between the pornographic exploitation
of codes from subcultures and artistic experimentation on the one
hand, and the sub-cultural appropriation of pornographic codes on the
other hand. The Australian porn holding gmbill.com hosts "Project ISM"
at ishotmyself.com, a simulated conceptual art project by women who
photograph themselves, and beautifulagony.com, a website - the eroticism
is quite successful - exclusively devoted to close-up videos of men's
and women's faces during sex and orgasm, thus serializing the concept
behind Andy Warhol's "Blow Job", in recursive application of Warhol's
aesthetic to itself. The milieus, roles and interests of art and
commercial enterprise, of artists and sex workers, of sex industry and
cultural criticism seem to blend into each other: the photo models and
sex performers at suicidegirls.com or abbywinters.com discuss feminist
literature seminars, artist Dahlia Schweitzer is at once Electropunk
singer, author, former call girl, photography artist and her own nude
model with a college degree in Women's Studies, while the humanities in
turn approach the subject as participant observers in Porn Studies and
at recent "netporn" and "post porn politics" conferences.

The price for such integration is the avoidance of all conflict. Whether
as a provocation, as an expression of the power of sex or of sexual
politics - what is thus liquidated, the obscene, was what marked the
points of intersection between the experimental arts and commercial
pornography, in Courbet and Duchamp, in Bataille's novels, Hans
Bellmer's dolls, Viennese Actionism, Carolee Schneemann's "Meat Joy",
but also in pornographers later honored as artists, such as photographers
Nobuyoshi Araki and Irving Klaw, fetish comic strip artist Eric Stanton
and sexploitation moviemakers Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman, Jean Rollin
(whose work was honored by Aïda Ruilova during the most recent Berlin
Biennial) and Jess Franco.[4] What is obscene in these constellations
are fetishes that become objects of exchange between the porno and
underground cultures. Cross-fading between the biker and gay leather
S/M cultures, between Satanism and Fascist iconography, Kenneth Anger's
experimental film "Scorpio Rising" of 1964 exemplarily demonstrates
these transactions. A decade later, Genesis P. Orridge and Cosey Fanny
Tutti will copy this back into youth culture with their pornographic
performance group COUM Transmissions, from which the band Throbbing
Gristle and industrial music emerge, as will punk fashion, collaged
by Vivienne Westwood at her London boutique "SEX" out of bondage and
fetish accessoires.

McLaren's and Westwood's punk is the bourgeois culture of sentiment
inverted, mobilizing the registers of the ugly, the disgusting and the
obscene for an anti-beautiful aesthetic. Little wonder, then, that in its
later, no less bourgeois mutation into the Autonomist culture of squat
houses, construction trailer camps and cultural centers, punk claimed a
different, "alternative" kind of beauty for itself. Following the same
logic, the connotations of the fetish are transformed from the obscene
into the anti-obscene in the sex stage shows of early hard-core punk band
Plasmatics, featuring frontwoman Wendy O. Williams, a former stripper
and porn actress, and later of the punk/metal women's band Rockbitch,
and finally in "Indie porn", an allegedly punk-cultural Internet
phenomenon. During the 1990s, specialized porn websites establish the
genre of "Gothic porn" with otherwise conventional pornographic images
and videos showing women in the Dark Wave look. In 2001, "Suicide Girls",
the first commercially successful Indie porn website, emerges from this

But punk, thus dressed up as leftist radicalism, disowned its roots
in fetishism, or rather displayed its other side, traced already in
the late 1970s' rivalry between punk and disco by Spike Lee's movie
"Summer of Sam", with punk culture - dominated by heterosexual white
men - nursing its resentments of the poly-sexual, gay-dominated and
multi-ethnic disco culture. German polit-punk band Slime's disparaging
refrain of 1981, "Samstag Nacht, Discozeit / Girls Girls Girls zum
Ficken bereit [Saturday night, disco time / girls girls girls ready to
fuck]", expressed an attitude which, six years later, at the apex of
the feminist "PorNo" campaign, exploded in violence at the Berlin movie
theater Eiszeit when an autonomous commando raided a presentation of
Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch's underground porn movie "Fingered". Even
today, debates over pornography belabor this conflict, though less
explicitly so. Proclamations of an alternative pornographic culture and
imagination still always also mean taking a stand against anti-pornography
feminism. And the other origin of Indie porn, besides commercial Gothic
porn sites, is the "sex-positive feminism" - founded by Susie Bright,
Diana Cage, and others as a counter-movement to the PorNo campaign of
Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, and, in Germany, Alice Schwarzer -
which not only discussed but also put into creative practice a "different"
pornography incorporating feminist reflections; for instance, in the
Lesbian journal On Our Backs, in the German Konkursbuch publisher's annual
"Das heimliche Auge", and at nerve.com.

Both feminist tendencies, anti-porn and pro-porn, disagree on the
therapy but not on the diagnosis that mainstream pornography is sexist
and disgusting.[6] What is often overlooked, especially in Europe,
is that Dworkin and MacKinnon by no means demanded that pornography
be prohibited or censored.[7] Instead, their campaign acknowledges the
power of sex and of the obscene imagination - the power that virtually
all varieties of alternative pornography play down as a game without
consequences, rationalize and repress. Indie porn replaces the rhetoric
of artificiality in classical mainstream pornography - artificial body
parts, sterile studios, wooden acting - with a rhetoric of the authentic:
instead of mask-like bodies normalized using make-up, wigs and implants,
the authentic person is exposed and protruded not physically, as in
Gonzo porn, but psychically. Indie porn websites, comprehensive links
to which can be found at www.indienudes.com, no longer emulate the cover
aesthetics of porn videos and magazines but have switched to a standard
format including diaries, blogs and discussion forums where users
communicate with models and models with each other in a rationalized
discourse characterized by a pretense of mutual respect, while the
private person is at the same time in her "authentic" totality exposed
to the public view, following exactly the logic traced by Foucault in
the development of the penal system from the physical mutilation of the
offender to the modern panoptic prison's psychological terror.

With this personalization and psychologization, Indie porn is making
the logical next step in a progressive unmasking of the pornographic
actor that began in the 1980s with the switch (recounted at epic length
in the movie "Boogie Nights") from 35 millimeter porno-theater flicks to
cheap video, continued in Gonzo anal sex porn, and culminates in Internet
pornography. Gonzo porn is even more subversive and transgressive than
Indie pornography in that it subliminally satisfies and thus installs
gay desires within the heterosexual mainstream: anal barebacking, women
styled like drag queens, and - in contradistinction from most 1970s and
1980s porn - offensively sexualized male stars, like Rocco Siffredi, in
the camera's focus. What Gonzo stages as a radical poiesis and white-trash
body performance in the vein of "Jackass", is turned in Indie porn into
a sentimentalized confessional discourse before a paying audience cast
as voyeuristic confessors, with constant assurances of the bourgeois
normalcy and, irrespective of its rating, the playful harmlessness of
the sex on view.

Just as Indie pop is a specious alternative to the music industry's
mainstream, and in reality based on the same business model, which is
being protected by ever more absurd copyright laws, preventive technology,
cease-and-desist notices and searches of homes, Indie porn is not at
all "independent" but in fact commercialized and sealed off from free
channels, even positioned in opposition to them: precisely because the
mainstream merchandise is easily available on peer-to-peer exchanges,
pornography, just like pop music, now sells only by virtue of difference,
including difference from itself.

Florian Cramer


 1. "Sex ist das Spiel der Erwachsenen", interview in Der Tagesspiegel,

 2. Cf. Mark Terkessidis, "Wie weit kannst du gehen?", in: Die
 Tageszeitung, 8/18/2006.

 3. Peter Gorsen, Sexualästhetik, Reinbek 1987, p. 481 ff.

 4. Porn and art are fused in Otto Muehl, who on the one hand anticipated
 the imagery and rhetoric of mainstream and scat fetish porn with his
 formulaic sexist and voyeuristic material Actions, and on the other
 hand took part in the making of the sexploitation movies "Schamlos
 [Shameless]" (1968) and "Wunderland der Liebe - Der groÃ?e deutsche
 Sexreport [Wonderland of Love - The Great German Sex Report]" (1970);
 a similar path was taken in 1981 by pop singer and future sex guru
 Christian Anders in his movie "Die Todesgöttin des Liebescamps [The
 Love Camp's Goddess of Death]".

 5. It is a less well-known fact that Hustler publisher Larry Flynt
 started a porn magazine called Rage, styled as "Alternative pop" in its
 photography, typography and copy, already in 1997; its publication
 was soon discontinued. Joanna Angel, host of Indie porn website
 burningangel.com, now works for Flynt's "Hustler Video".

 6. Or they are fused, as in Catherine Breillat's movies, in the synthesis
 that sexuality's being per se sexist can be made a source of infernal

 7. See Barbara Vinken's preface in Drucilla Cornell, Die Versuchung
 der Pornographie, Frankfurt/M. 1997.


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