Cybersex: What’s Art Got to Do with It?

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Vagner Whitehead
Associate Professor, New Media
Oakland University

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It is difficult to speak of sex and representation without considering pornography and desire. The word pornography derives from the Greek pornographia, which is a derivative of the Greek word pornea (meaning prostitution) and grapho (meaning I write/record or illustrate). Pornography can be defined as the depiction of explicit sexual activity or content, for the purpose of sexual excitement. Like prostitution, an implied exchange of values, physical or monetary, takes place within and around the pornographic image.

Some of the original questions raised at the call for this panel are worth reiterating here.

Where do reality, fantasy and pleasure collide?

Desire is a key element in this equation, because of its relationship to consumption. Desire is self-perpetuating because, once fulfilled, it is replaced by a new desire, a new goal. Images of sex are created to be visually and continuously consumed, as replacements (or perhaps instigators) for the actual consummation of carnal pleasure. They serve as surrogates or symbols. Similarly, the virtual environment of the cyber world, solely constituted of signs, is ungraspable, everlasting, self-replicating, mutating, and always available.

How is gender and sexual identification/preference represented, expressed, and/or problematized by current technologies?

The mediation of sexual imageries, and their further contemporary remediations, simultaneously constrict and expand pervasive notions of traditional sexual roles. The ubiquity and fluidity of how these frameworks operate today might be indicative of the liquid nature of cyber-identities. Doug Ischar’s video brb, which was shown as part of the panel that this article is based upon, presented a quiet but powerful contemplation on the intricacies of intimacy.

Where does art and morality intersect?

To phrase this in another way, what constitutes proper and not obscene is highly contextual. As artists and educators, in private and public institutions, we may run into this tenuous line quite frequently, specially when dealing with recent and/or contemporary subject matter.  The contingency of morality and its relationship to art was addressed by Barbara DeGenevieve’s presentation and related article, titled Fuzzy Logic:
“I know it when I see it” and other hazards for artists.

What is the relationship between sex and technology in art practices?

A recent statistic counts the number of websites with pornographic content to be about 4.2 million, with 420 million pages, or about 12% of total existing websites. It is safe to assume that some of the users/consumers/viewers/enablers for all this content are artists, though there seemed to be a much larger interest with the weather and the environment than in sex at the CAA conference. Considering the democratization of production, marketing, and distribution the Internet now offers (think of blurb.com, etsy.com, et cetera), as well as its “socialization” or collective mentality (facebook.com, myspace.com, to name a few), Stephanie Rothenberg, Jeff Crouse and Michael Schieben, with Laborers of Love/LOL propose that collective spending, as well as creating, might be the new strategy for the customization and visualization of cyber pleasure.

Sex as subject has also permeated my own art practice. My creative interests lie in re-presenting ubiquitous and slightly out-of-fashion communication media technologies to highlight the times we live in, the way in which we engage with images, media, and one another (usually if a technological term becomes a verb, I explore it subjectively, rather than aesthetically). I began documenting my sexual encounters with strangers in Second Life in 2007, via the “snapshot” feature of that interface, and turned chat transcripts, from that environment, on art and love into audio files. These media assets were combined in a project titled Vagner Bleac 2.0. I find that, in Second Life, one often undertakes the activities or behavior of a flâneur or a whore, so the majority of this “documentary” project revolved around architectural and sexual encounters and explorations. Sex is indeed safer in Second Life than in real life, though one could potentially contract a computer virus. Instead of deciding if cyber-mediated sex, (their devices, applications, portals, etc) serves a positive or negative role in our society, I rather accept its existence as a given and favor instead the opening and continuation of dialogues about it. I am more interested in raising questions than answering them.

Similarly, in the homonymous panel presentation that took place in February 13, 2010 in Chicago, my goal for this article is to raise more questions than find definitive solutions, as well as learn a variety of propositions from others. In these fragmented times we live in I personally feel the need to find peers and kindred spirits that may form a more inclusive community within the arts. I would like to think that I am not the only artist thinking and incorporating my cybersex experiences (or careful observations) into my art practice. I do not claim to be an expert in cybersex as a subject, though the research has proved to be quite enjoyable. My goal here has been to find out and learn as much about it. So my original question, or perhaps my first quest, was to consider what cybersex and art have got to do with one another.

Cybersex: what’s Art got to do with it?

I have used the term pornography quite extensively so far, but to make it clear, I do not mean to categorize any or all artistic representations that utilize images of sex as pornographic, because their context and purpose are obviously quite different (though this is not to say that pornography is bad or art is better than pornography – they operate in distinct spheres with merits of their own). Rather, pornography might be the raw material or subject matter for artistic expressions, though a connection between sexual desire and indexical images as the inspiration for visual creations, and vice versa, persists.  Harems, slave-pins, brothels, bathhouses, dungeons, live sex theaters, sex clubs, and the military have been traditional institutions for the experiencing of sex outside marriage or simply to look at sex or sexual bodies and objects. Today many of these places have their cyber counterpart.
For the purposes of this article, I define cybersex as virtual sex, involving two or more individuals (actual or imaginary), connected via a computer or similar machinery, with the aid of images, sounds and/or texts, through various interfaces, which may or may not involve actual sex or masturbation.

How have artists dealt with (cyber) sex in their practices?

One interesting outcome in my search for contemporary examples was a lack of explicit images of sex, perhaps pointing out to the cerebral or imaginary nature of cybersex. The works cited below were not featured in the panel presentation, but are referred here as framing devices or examples of the complex ways in which artists have dealt with cybersex.

Teknolust (2004), a movie directed by Lynne Hershman Leeson, wonderfully presented the desire for DNA completion as a metaphor for emotional fulfillment, for the cyborgs Ruby, Marine and Olive. Through an Internet sex portal, classical cinema downloads, and online purchases, these clones attempted to decode what being human (and feeling human) means. In this process they revealed to their creator, Dr. Rosetta Stone, that the need for an “other” is more important than the need for knowledge; that not all languages can be decoded.

I also noted a reoccurring allusion to fantasizing about the need for actual contact. In her photographic series titled Missed Connections (2008), Valerie Garlick authored and altered posts from Craigslist’s renowned personals section about extremely brief un-encounters. She then creates photographic images that lead us to believe that all posts are about the same person: herself. These works treated the complex subject of desire in a very simple manner. In a sense, personal ads are always about one person (other than the artist or self): the one who is not there, or the one that got away.

Exploring a search for love disguised as sex, and vice versa, Robb Stone utilized profile pics he found in gay cruising or hook-up sites (manhunt.net, adam4adam, et cetera), to analyze the male gaze and self-objectification in the construction of a mediated sexual personae. In 2008 this series was featured in the exhibition iGuy: HeLovesMeHeLovesMeNot.com at the Kinsey Institute Art Gallery. In our brief e-mail exchanges, Catherine Johnson-Roehr, the curator for the Kinsey Gallery, made me aware of the difficulties in providing and displaying online content for their projects, because of the complicated laws and regulations on what constitutes obscene in the world wide web, specially for a site funded by a state university.

What is the place of pornography and sexuality in art institutions (museums and academia)?

We began the panel presentation with Barbara DeGenevieve, an interdisciplinary artist who works in photography, video, and performance. Her practice is project-based and her interests lie in the intersection of ethics, the politics of sexuality and political incorrectness. Drawing from her own art works as well as the works of students she has worked with, her presentation addressed the tenuous and complicated line between art, pornography, and obscenity, in relation to the Internet, censorship, and self-censorship.

Unintentionally, but appropriately, the following presentation took place via Skype, and featured Stephanie Rothenberg (space, time, technology and weather prevented us from including the entire team virtually and in situ). Stephanie uses performance, installation and networked media to create provocative interactions that question the boundaries and social constructs of manufactured desires. She began working collaboratively with Jeff Crouse in 2007 at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York City. Laborers of Love/LOL(2009-present), which will delve into the problematic of sex and labor on the internet, via crowd-sourcing, also includes Germany-based Michael Schieben.

The last presenter was Doug Ischar. Since the early 1990s, Doug’s work has focused on the potentials of video and sound as distilled manifestations. Beginning in 2006, he began producing single-channel videos on issues of cross-generational male intimacy and psychological/social loss. Doug screened his video brb(2007-08). This work utilizesextensive chat-room transcriptions as its central organizing element, counterpointed with documentary-type footage and explores the poetics of human exchanges, sexual or otherwise.

The following articles, authored by the artists themselves, further articulate their vision and understanding of the complexities, paradoxes, and wonderment of dealing with virtual sex in art. With the possibilities of online publishing it is my hope that an adjacent “comments” section will further engender thoughts on the relationship between art and cybersex, addressed in this article or otherwise.


Panelists

Fuzzy Logic: “I know it when I see it” and other hazards for artists
by Barbara DeGenevieve

Laborers of Love (LOL) – A Project-in-Progress by Jeff Crouse, Stephanie Rothenberg and Michael Schieben
by Stephanie Rothenberg