21 pornographies Interview with Mette Ingvartsen
The work with its title begs the first question to be: why, which and in which sense, pornography? Where does your interest in pornography come from?
In my two previous performances that form a series with this one – 69 positions (2014) and 7 Pleasures (2015)[*] – I explored unresolved issues concerning nudity and sexuality. After many discussions about these pieces the question of the pornographic arose, in spite of it not being their main topic. My interest was also triggered by reading Paul B. Preciado’s autobiographical text Testo Junkie (which I invoke in 69 positions). In this text, Preciado associates pornography with a general mode of production within affective capitalism, or in particular with how audio-visual materials are produced in cultural industry. An image is not only pornographic because it shows naked bodies copulating, it is pornographic in as much as it provides and perpetuates a cycle of consumption by alternating excitation with frustration.
The pornographic thus has a broader relevance for the affective mechanisms pervading many social instances. From my point of view, for instance, breaking news could also be considered to yield an orgasmic structure that uses repetition of images to capture attention. TV series where episodes end with a cliffhanger at the very peak of excitement would be another example of how the excitation-frustration-excitation cycle operates …
The piece begins at a significant moment in the history of the genre, with the literature of Marquis de Sade.
At the outset, I realized I wasn’t interested in daily news footage or in the explicit sexualization in our culture, nor in mainstream pornography. Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (1785/1904) surfaced as a seminal source because it posits sexuality and power in an explicit relationship. It shows how power operates through desire on a scale of passions, ranging from the pornographic to the criminal ones. Reading Susan Sontag’s lecture “On Classical Pornography” (1964), which discusses Sade among other authors, made me discover humor in pornographic literature. For instance, Sontag interprets the excessive repetitions in Sade’s passions through the lens of comedy. Thanks to irony and parody, the real experience shifts into fantasy. Sade’s characters step out to comment a parte as in comedy, which involves a certain kind of distancing and detachment from the real. The movement of suddenly approaching it close and then going far away again interested me. Her text also reminded me of the sex comedies produced in Denmark in the 1970s, a few years after pornography was legalized in the country. Between 1972 and 1978 many pornographic films were produced and widely distributed in Denmark. With Danish actors who weren’t porn stars and films made available in many movie houses, Danish sex comedies contributed to the mainstream movement of sexual liberation. Of course, two remarks must be added. These films were mostly made by men featuring the perspective of the male gaze that objectifies female bodies. And, secondly, they mark the moment in which pornography enters the commercial sphere.
In 21 pornographies, the third point of entry into the genre of pornography comes in relation to war and warfare today. While making the piece I found out that psychologists who have critically investigated the situations of American soldiers during the Iraq war have discovered a correlation between increased consumption of pornography and war brutality. Addiction to pornography has an anaestheticizing effect on the bodies, which explains why it arises in the situation of war. One has to increase the stimuli toward ever more intense and more extreme sexual imagery to obtain the same effect. I also discovered that apart from consumption, soldiers have developed a new kind of pornography, also referred to as “war porn”, which is about displaying pleasure in brutality and humiliation of victims. I have been looking at how nudity and sexual violence have been bound up, as for instance, when American soldiers take pictures of themselves standing and smiling next to the naked prisoners of Abu Ghraib. The violence lies in the pleasure of torturing, a perverse form of brutality.
21 pornographies collects samples of the genre around three formative moments: the birth of discipline in modernity (and Sade’s passions from The 120 Days are mediated through Pasolini’s film Salò,[†] where the fantasies that were originally written without image get to be staged in a fascist camp). The second is the moment when pornography was decriminalized and legalized, which also paved way for its commercialization. And the third is the current intensification of violence in a sexualizing and pornographic manner, spawning graphic materialist images of brutality that have a disturbing effect. All three moments highlight the dynamic between sexual desire and power.
Yes, absolutely. In the last few years, I have been exploring sexuality in my work, and its association with power and violence has been present, but not crucial in my previous performances. For instance, in 7 Pleasures, one of the last scenes confronts two intermingling groups of bodies (the naked and the dressed), and confronts issues of dominance and subordination. I thought it very important now to foreground and examine more precisely that relationship, the one between sexual desire, political power and violence, and emphasise its social and political dimensions in a society that thrives on exposure and collapse of boundaries between the private and the public. That said, I should also admit that I am not a moralist prude who condemns all pornography, I have my portion of interest in particular experimental pornography and cinema. Pornography exhibits a variety of political orientations, multiplicity of desires, fantasies and perversions, which I don’t judge. But in the overflow of standardized forms of pornographic images we can discern political abuse of power and patterns of representation that merit critical attention.
To return to the principle of detachment or distance that you mentioned in reference to Sontag’s lecture, you choose to present pornography as it is mediated through literature and cinema. We go from reading and listening, watching dancing and singing, to sheer fantasy in some sort of sci-fi dream. The pornographic is always seen through a frame of a story or descriptive visualization. We are never confronted with raw or brute violence or obscenity.
The piece is constructed as a series of frame stories. The idea of frame stories is that you tell a story and then inside that story there’s another story that is being told by a character of the original story and then inside the second story there is yet another, third story and so on. It is the structure of Russian dolls in which you go further and further in frames, but sometimes you step out of a frame. Framing and re-framing the materials again helps me deal with different proximities. So, sometimes I’m describing, other times I’m demonstrating, another time I’m really trying to immerse myself in it, or I can be reluctant, and then again affirmative. This is how the solo has been composed and how my mode of performing is structured in levels of distance and proximity. It also reflects how I’m thinking about media.
One of the questions I’m posing in this piece is how we relate to power and sexuality in the images that we consume. This relationship has changed after internet and DIY techniques of producing video material. Not so long ago, extreme images or images of war and violence came with a signature of a rewarded photographer who risked their life by putting their body amidst conflict or in a war zone. And their images had the power of changing the world. Nowadays, anyone can produce an image that might go viral and have a political impact on the public, but we might not know anything about who is on the image, who committed the violence and who the victim is, who took the image, and how we are to relate to it. Quality gave way to proliferation and accessibility, which has effects on how we look at and how we understand images of violence.
I have paid special attention to constructing the frames in the piece, so that they expose the way in which something is being shown – the operation of the image. The affective power that manipulative images possess interests me from a critical point of view, how this power can be sensed, laid bare, broken, or resisted.
The storytelling and description of images work more with fantasy than affect, for me. You lend your body to partial, never fully complete images, whereby the frame choreographs our imagination.
In this piece, imagination is a tool in a double sense: I try to picture persons, situations, and spaces by describing them so precisely and vividly that you can engage with them. Then I hope that this can propel the imaginary of the spectator that I am not in control of.
I try to explore the choreographic and imaginary capacities of language – something I already worked on in Speculations (2011) and 69 positions. What kind of movements can you create with words that you cannot create with the body? I’m thinking of the visceral effect that the word in combination with the body can have. For instance, in the scene where I’m showing eating shit, my body has a visceral response to the action I’m doing and this, I think, affects imagination. It only works because you are in a frame of verbal imagination, thinking “ok, this is actually shit.” It doesn’t work if I only do the action without speaking about it, nor does it work to only say it. The choreography operates by linking the body in motion with speech which opens the space of the imaginary.
There is an obvious connection between dancing and pornography we haven’t unpacked yet. The history of dance can be told as the story about dance struggling to be taken seriously, to be more than providing a frivolous lascivious pleasure as a soft form of prostitution. The burlesque pornography from the 1970s you are deploying in the piece includes a lot of dancing, combining elements of ballet and pop. Are the women dancing in the 1970s “fri-sind” (free-spirited) porn from Denmark doing it exclusively for male pleasure? Or does it involve their right to their own enjoyment?
I think it’s actually not so black and white. Why these burlesque dances interest me is that the dancers produce resistance to the male gaze that is even explicitly shown in the films. They comport themselves with extravagance and excessiveness. There is a potential for emancipation lurking in those images. I think it happens in burlesque expressions in general: excess and distance. So what I try to do when I dance them is to get into that state of being.
Enact it with your own body?
Fully embody it, but at the same time stay within an image, stand in as an example of something. I am not an expert in Danish pornography from the 1970s, but I am attracted to that historical moment that linked sexuality with social utopia towards a more gender-equal society. However, it was the feminist movement in Denmark (and not the porn movie makers, of course) that worked on how to incorporate this sexual liberation and gender equality into the societal structures.
Obviously there could be many other places to look into today in relation to transformative sexual expressions and empowerment. For instance, the queer approaches or BDSM practices that base themselves on consensual division of power, where being submitted to someone is not immediately bad, but is a choice.
You tell and sometimes also put yourself in a situation in which you are a “test subject”- as you narrate in one of the stories. Sometimes you’re describing someone else’s fantasy, or it is a fantasy that you too could possibly entertain. In one scene you are the object or victim, in another you are the director staging a porn scene. Your position is always shifting. Because pornography is something that people usually experience alone, can we enjoy this show as pornography when we are sitting together in theater? Is this possibility excluded? You must have contemplated the positions that the audience might take…
I haven’t been thinking so much about, “oh, how will people receive this performance in relation to pleasure?” I have actually been thinking that the piece has to do with cruelty. Thinking of cruelty was also motivated by the feeling of living in a city (Brussels) with a strong military presence after the terrorist attacks. The fact of displaying militarily protection has produced a public debate in Scandinavia around how to avoid explicit demonstration of power in public space. The question that arose in the debate was whether or not the “performance of security” gives people the feeling of being protected and safe. My interest in working with the presence of military figures throughout this performance comes from a reflection on what this military presence can also do to us in terms of feeling oppression operating directly on our bodies…The question of how the audience will position themselves as spectator of the brutality I display in the performance was more on my mind than pleasure.
Is it inconceivable that everything that you do on stage is something that you might also enjoy?
The torturous image of turning in the end is actually something I enjoy doing. I like turning very much and to do it with a bag over my head, with flashing lights, is a challenge. It is very intense, but also interesting to do because it is disorienting. In spite of it being a horrible torturous image, the duration of it can allow people to go through different stages of thinking about what this image is doing to them. On the one hand, it is a continuation of the brutalities of the previous narratives of sexualized violence, with the difference that it is now performed through full embodiment. On the other hand, the experience of intensity, light, sound and movement can also disorient perception in a more abstract manner and perhaps yield visual pleasure. In that sense there is ambiguity in the piece which has to do with the question of pleasure, indeed, and also with how brutality is driven by pleasure, as it was in The 120 Days of Sodom.
Political art takes a stance of critique and moral condemnation of violence, injustice and other disagreeable concerns of living in democracy, but you seem not to take that stance, and it seems that you won’t expect something like this from your audience. What’s your attitude towards looking at things that we disagree with or might disagree with?
For me it’s rather this: “let’s take the time to look at things that we might disagree with and that might produce discomfort…”. If you are privileged, life gives you plenty of opportunities to look away or keep those unpleasant images far away from you. I prefer to look at brutality, cruelty and horror. I want to examine how our gaze on it functions, how the mechanisms of violence affect us, and how they make us indifferent or inclined to act.
In this piece, I start from an observation at distance, from a place that is also remote from my life as I’m the narrator who paints these images in a way that you as a spectator can keep your distance. And as we progress into the piece my engagement becomes more embodied. On the one hand, it produces a more enclosing environment, and on the other, the images become more abstract so you’re not totally sure anymore what they mean or stand for…
I always like to work with ambiguity, because for me the political messages in art are not something you can just proclaim. The political moment has arisen when the spectator needs to decide how they position themselves towards what they are watching. I try to show things that I have observed in different social instances, and it’s true that this piece displays more materials that I dislike than what I like. I’m working with the abject or that which I don’t have an easy relation to, because it was very important to try to go into those areas of discomfort. And then the shit scene of Pasolini that I also work with – I find it the most horrible scene, but at the same time the most brilliant way of framing and portraying violence.
Sade was someone who enjoyed eating shit. He wasn’t only tormenting other people forcing them to eat shit, he ate shit himself. For a sensitive soul today this might be unimaginable but we’re talking about libertinage in the 18th century where the relation to morality was different than today. The question that in the preamble to The 120 Days of Sodom is posed is whether desire is immoral? Whether power supposes violence, a more profound thought than just condemning those who take power.
There’s a moment in 21 pornographies where I’m imagining making love to a corpse of an old woman. It is a very interesting exercise for me because it’s totally outside my natural affinity, making love to a corpse is not part of my sexual imaginary…. Now I came to this image and desire while thinking of the necrophiliac tendencies in capitalism today in which death is traded. However, in thinking about turning this idea into an embodied experience I did not find it interesting to stage it in an already condemning way. For the first time in my life I also thought “ah, maybe drinking my pee could actually be exciting.” What interests me is that an aesthetic experience in art can modify and question our desires.
Fantasies shouldn’t be forbidden?
Exactly, this is why I am against censorship in literature or art. It’s wrong because it forbids something that exists in the social and about which people can think for themselves. Why shouldn’t art be allowed to address it?
The challenge of reception in this piece comes from theater as a consensus-making machine. It is maybe the reason why pornography was not meant to be seen on stage. In order to visit a brothel, you have to be ready to expose yourself on a kind of scene to more than one person. Sex clubs today involve communities. But in theater, audience acts like a group of witnesses who are responsible for what they see. They express their approval or disapproval through applause, hissing and so on. Now, can you be alone in theater and have a nuanced view on pornography without immediately making a public expression out of it?
I’m very curious and have no clue about the response this piece will elicit. Right now I think it is not likely that it will produce loud approval. Intensity and the topics I address engender different kinds of reactions, which is what this piece wants. The convention of clapping is strong, but is that what you do after watching this? If it produces pleasure, will it confirm our perversity? So this will be interesting to test now that I start performing the piece.
[*] More on Ingvartsen’s performances at http://www.metteingvartsen.net/
[†] Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975).