Challenging Assumptions: Images Festival's in support of sex work Program
While transgressive sexuality holds currency and appeal within contemporary art milieus, its execution can come at the exclusion or fetishization of sex workers. The 33rd iteration of Toronto’s Images Festival—which ran as a livestream from April 16 to 22, 2020—brought a wide range of experimental, moving-image art online. While the current changes to festival structures and delivery raise many complex questions, the feat of Images bringing their programs to a broader, virtual community shimmers with possibilities for the future.
Nestled amongst a slew of anticipated titles from established artists and filmmakers, the festival’s in support of sex work program, curated by Toronto’s Almond Lindenbach, was a rare gem. Its presence is indicative of Images’ push towards the inclusion of more radical content in its lineup. There has been significant growth in the number of porn film festivals worldwide, and large-scale events like Berlinale have incorporated related content into their programming. Despite these shifts, it remains rare to see non-adult festivals provide designated space for films in explicit conversation with the politics of sex work. This lack of representation has real consequences for the reception and dissemination of art.
In a spoken introduction to her curatorial approach, Lindenbach laid out the ways in which in support of sex work is scaffolded by overlapping political contexts: the ignorant conflation between sex trafficking and sex work which produces thorny legislation and prevents decriminalization of the latter. In turn, this has bearing on the censorship of artists, who are routinely reported and removed from sites where they might self-promote and exhibit. While this ambitious program’s angle is clear from its title, the decision to open with an extended introduction provided an educational precursor for the uninitiated and
—as is rarely the case —demonstrated first-hand knowledge of the communities it aims to support.
While in support of sex work thankfully doesn’t take on the gargantuan, impossible task of surveying an entire canon, this program does present a foundational work—Annie Sprinkle’s Post-Porn Modernist: My 25 Years as a Multimedia Whore (1993)—to historically root its contemporary showcase. In Post-Porn Modernist, Sprinkle uses the monologuing format of a one-person show to examine and dissect the performative selves she embodies as a sex worker. As this is more theater than film, we can hear the affective titillation of the audience in the background as Sprinkle declares “during my commercial sex career, I figured I’ve had about three thousand men. Now, according to Masters and Johnson the average penis size, when erect, is six inches. So, if you line all those penises up back to back, that would make 1500 feet of peni!” Dressed in a pinstripe suit and wielding a teacher’s pointer, Sprinkle gives a punchline-esque tap at a cartoonish graph titled “The Empire State Building = Total # of Cocks.” A well-known artist and performer, Sprinkle’s body of work has perpetually pushed against the high/low separation between porn and art, often deploying signature wit and predilection for sharp double entendre to place audiences in confrontation with the body of a sex worker. Post-Porn Modernist embodies the spontaneity of 1990s performance art and postmodernism’s emphasis on fragmented subjectivities.
Here, however, it is not just the multiplicities of the sex worker but her profound humanness that can only be captured by the reciprocal dynamics of live theater. Bedecked in a pink boa, blonde wig, and black lingerie, Sprinkle addresses the audience and invites them to the front of the stage to instruct her poses. While a cacophony of flashes goes off, Sprinkle exaggeratedly lifts her nipple to mouth, grabs her crotch, moans, slides her panties to the side and giggles. Sprinkle states that usually she rakes in money for this kind of thing, but, “tonight it’s government-sponsored!” This irony (that hinges on the punitive ways that governments regulate sex work) peaks during a sequence in which Sprinkle performs fellatio on a diverse lineup of dildos (including a synthetic anus) while an audio mashup of sex sounds and eschatological Christian preaching blares.
Recorded performances so often fail to capture the spirit of an original event, but watching the shadowy figures in the audience crowd Sprinkle’s stage with their cameras adds a unique dimension to the ideas about artistry, sex, and spectatorship that follow. Lila Ballen (2018) by fuckingconflicts—a German art collective composed of Tina Jung and Henrik Seidel—takes an essayistic approach to these themes. In the film’s opening shot, an ass, penis, and torso writhe against an inflatable lilac structure, while a conversation negotiating sexual consent plays out in the subtitles: “Do we want sex? Do we want sex in front of the camera?” While the refusal to indicate who is speaking may seem to present consent as confusing, as the piece progresses, it reveals consent to be prismatic, with the potential to be poetic, erotic, and ongoing, rather than simply a stale exchange of words.
Renaissance art—that period which still occupies such a hegemonic position within artistic imaginaries—is dominated by a select number of compositions, the Madonna holding her infant being one of the most iconic. In Iqrar Razi’s Madonna and Child (2018), the artist takes on the role of a hairy chested Madonna who gently tips back the head of collaborator Rosalie H. Maheaux, whose glossy lips and painted eyes taped back in artificial stasis make her appearance oddly reminiscent of Jennifer Coolidge’s campy idealized womanhood. Using a tubed apparatus wrapped around the artist’s nipple line, Razi feeds splashes of milk into Maheux’s mouth to the dulcet notes of a delicate piano soundtrack (Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina”). Though the work evokes a tranquillity, its impact hinges on the striking subversion of canonically sacred imagery.
Chaerin Im’s Flora (2018) also plays on established image associations, beginning with the O’Keefian line, “does a vagina look like a flower?” and ending with the assertion that “the penis looks like a flower, too.” As a voiceover narrates formative gender memories, we observe the veracity of this statement as digital animation transforms fleshy floral folds into phallic shapes, which are multiplied, magnified, and rendered opalescent. Compared to Flora’s muted palette and contemplative tone, Cheng-Hsu Chung’s animated short ADORABLE (2019) moves through a colourful world where anthropomorphized shapes tessellate and transmute at rapid-fire pace. Both commentary on and celebration of contemporary queer life, ADORABLE displays abstracted red bodies with star-shaped nipples copulating as if they’re on the cusp of combustion and literal disintegration. Early on in their sex scene, we realize we’re watching a porn video—a hand-drawn screen within our computer screen—where a sketched out pointed cursor fast-forwards and rewinds the steamy action before exploding into a sequence of abstract forms. A refreshing contrast to the drab monotony of lonely screen time during social distancing, ADORABLE resurrects the kaleidoscopic joys of queer life in scenes that feature the conveyer belt of dating apps, casual sex, BDSM, the social intrigue of gyms, or nightclubs with shared drinks, drugs, and death-dropping drag queens.
While Flora and ADORABLE abstract the body, in support of sex work’s last two films return our attention to the visceral interactions between performer and audience foregrounded by Annie Sprinkle’s opening piece. Dallas Cant’s Hot Plastic Suits (2019) begins with a dramatic portrait of a subject filling their mouth with cherries and plucking them out one by one. With each cherry removed, provocative orange text is layered over a background of cherries: “lust inducing,” “money grabbing,” or “hot” and “sticky.” This sequence dissolves into an image of an unworn suit made from plastic bags and other consumer materials floating ethereally atop a field of tall grass. A subsequent triptych of frames reveals the subject lying on a bed wearing the suit, while a disembodied hand pokes into frame to stack debit cards in their mouth. While Hot Plastic Suits invites a number of general metaphors or theoretical frameworks that erotic content usually tempts—abjection, transaction, objectification—none of these quite fit the film. If Cant scratches at monetary flows without making a value-judgement, Eija Loponen-Stephenson’s Dress Making (2019)—meant to be viewed on Pornhub—seeks to position art outside of conventional art contexts, in turn placing the work on a major industrial site. Drawing from the appeal of the WAM (wet and messy) fetish—a broad term for a wide range of activities that include sploshing, cake-sitting, lotion play, and mud wrestling—we watch a recording of viscous material that, poured from a bucket, enrobes the body and quickly dries. For turned-on audiences who might accidentally find this work on Pornhub, a lengthy artistic critique that commences as soon as the dress is dry and the artist leaves the frame, comically zaps any lingering eroticism from the room: nothing is less sexy than an art school crit.
That filmmakers can freely upload anything to Pornhub and place their work outside of generic contemporary art spaces is exciting, but raises many compelling questions. While Pornhub’s more relaxed content policies might appeal to artists frustrated by censorship on stricter platforms, the fact that anyone can upload content to Pornhub has been a major problem for many sex workers who aren’t compensated for material that gets cyclically ripped and re-uploaded. Earlier this year, Leilah Weinraub’s documentary Shakedown (2018), (a past Images opening night feature), which catalogs the vitality of its eponymous black lesbian strip club and queer life in early 2000s LA, was formally released on Pornhub as the platform’s first foray into streaming artistic content. The buzz surrounding this collaboration was amplified by the fact that Shakedown was scheduled for subsequent release on the Criterion Channel (a platform that denotes arthouse cinephilia).
Shakedown’s online release brought into dialogue two streaming platforms whose signification and aesthetics seem diametrically opposed and was generally received with critical mirth at this momentary dissolution of cinematic categories. While Pornhub maintains a fascinating space for the exhibition of art, it would be a mistake to regard the platform as purely liberating or separate from other forms of institutional hegemony. in support of sex work prompts us to consider how these leviathan networks shape our consumption of erotic content while refusing to negate those artists and individuals who work within them. The project stands as a unique achievement in validating modes of artistic production and labor that are so often maligned and ignored.