First, apologies for the puns to come. It’s difficult to talk about sexuality and eroticism without making a bad pun or two. Sexuality has seemingly always been a site of discomfort in our culture: through it, we are laid naked and bare, both literally and via the fetishes that express the darkest sublimations of gendered relations. The advent of a communication tool and platform for largely consequence-free expression—the internet—has greatly affected the role pornography and sexuality play in our everyday lives. Faith Holland’s exhibition Technophilia at Transfer Gallery explores the crash between human sexuality and the internet in ways that range from funny (there’s a tissue box below the exhibition title in the gallery) to thought-provoking, all the while trying to reform the inherent patriarchal nature of pornographic cinema as it currently exists.
Faith Holland, Ookie Canvas I, 2015. 84"x47.25", Edition of 1 + AP
The most dominating and visually enticing work in the exhibition is Ookie Canvas I, an abstract expressionist “painting” printed on canvas, crafted from an interactive project that has grown out of Holland’s previous porn interventions [NSFW] on Redtube. Earlier this year, Holland placed an open call for “sub/emissions,” riffing off the idea of cum tributes, a practice where (mostly) men cum on images (or screens) of their favorite porn stars and post the video. Holland asked for “anonymous submissions of CUM SHOTS that will be used as part of an artwork. Submissions will be accepted from any and all genders as long as it is fluid emitted as the result of an orgasm.” Each shot was then isolated and altered using color saturation values and digitally collaged onto the Ookie Canvases.
The submission process itself proved insightful. Holland mentioned one individual who submitted his contribution with the following note:
I sent this video to my ex girlfriend when she and I weren’t together last November. She was in love with (the beauty of) my cock. On the video I tell her how deep my primal need was to have a baby from her, cumming even after three times in an hour. She did get consciously pregnant from me, first try, one months [sic] after I sent her the video. However, then at 8 weeks pregnant, she got a panic attack, feared the lack of sufficient financials in the future (not an issue in this country, but she was from Hungary, which isn’t stable), ran out the house in panic, got an abortion, and went back to Hungary.
The expression of sexuality online often exposes an interesting need to lay bare the personal details of our lives. The act of cumming, even within a (mostly) anonymized space, is still an extremely personal act. Holland’s interest in the material, however, is rightfully a political one. When asked what interested her in cum, she responded: “The imbalance of visualizing pleasure that happens. The way that porn routinely ends with a man coming on a woman or a man. It indicates male pleasure and not female pleasure.” The act of cumming on someone is also an exercise of power: there is a quality of latent potency and an expression of excess virility. The Ookie Cookie series hamstrings this expression of power through aestheticization.
Animated gif from Visual Orgasms, 2013-2015. Variable length, variable dimensions, edition of 5 + AP
Pornography is a male-dominated domain and the mores and practices it espouses are increasingly at greater odds within a progressive, egalitarian society. There are conflicting reports as to just how deep online pornography penetrates. (A 2013 Pew survey suggested that only a meager 12 percent of Americans watch online pornography, yet at the date of publication, the 44th most popular website in the world is xvideos.com; Netflix sits at 53.) When Slate wrote about the Pew survey, they called the article “How Many Woman Are Not Admitting to Pew That They Watch Porn.” The consensus at the time was that women mostly get their kicks from erotic fan fiction and romance novels, a world we explored last month.
This is an understandable conclusion. The vast majority of porn online is made by and for a male audience which perpetuates patriarchal attitudes when it comes to sex and sexuality. Why would women watch media that denigrates, belittles, and objectifies their own gender? Cultural production needs to actively address and mitigate the slew of aggressively exploitative, patriarichal porn that is currently influencing every 16-year-old with an internet connection. Not through illegalization, banning, etc. but by investment in and production of alternative forms that actively address these underlying codes of power. If pornography can manifest our subconscious in ways that other media cannot, then it must also be able to change our subconscious attitudes founded in patriarichal power dynamics.
The Hays Code and the culture wars led by an energized conservative-Christian base that were able to prevent and censor art to an extreme degree seem like a distant past. Non-hierarchical media (like the web) are mostly to thank for this. The mass availability of pornography online, however, has and will continue to have broader cultural effects. This author would like to think that the broad availability and acceptance of pornography is having an opening effect on how we as a society practice our sexuality, allowing for more varied and inclusive kinks to become acceptable expressions of our relationships with one another. Holland remains skeptical:
Unfortunately things are becoming more sexualized whereas expressions of sexuality aren’t really any more accepted to a certain degree. LGBTQ rights have blossomed, we have gay marriage–who thought that was going to happen ten years ago? At the same time, there still is a huge culture of shaming, especially for women there is still very much a double bind. ‘We want you to be a sexual object but if you present yourself as having a sexuality that you want to fulfill...’ It’s not simple.
Left to right: It Needs You, 2015, Sub/emissions, 2015, Visual Orgasms, 2013-2015, Ookie Canvas I, 2015. Installation view
Visual Orgasms, a projection piece on the back wall of the gallery cycles through gifs that depict symbolic representations of orgasm: trains coming out of tunnels, champagne corks popping, rockets taking off, fireworks exploding. A nod to Hollywood's restrictive Hays Code, Visual Orgasms explores previous ways in which western visual culture represented ejaculation, not orgasm. These visual representations serve as a medium between the intimate act of sexual intercourse and the technophilia that Holland ultimately comes to investigate.
Matrice, It Needs You, and Centerfold all explore this eroticization of technology that must occur when it becomes the medium for sexual pleasure. It Needs You consists of ethernet wall plates and hundreds of feet of ethernet cables that spill out from the wall, glistening with lubricant supplied by a nearby pump jug. Matrice, a net of ethernet cords that emerges on the floor from a corner of the gallery represents an important confluence for Holland. The term “matrix,” a common metaphor for digital life, comes from the French “matrice” meaning “womb.” Holland's interest in this doubly-bound term is foundational to one of her earlier projects, VVVVVV, which practices new vocabularies for a feminist pornography.
Shifting the aestheticization of patriarchal power within pornography can be a supremely simple act. Holland related a story to me where during a book release for The Feminist Porn Book, edited by feminist educator/pornographer/director Tristan Taormino, Holland asked about the formal differences between heteronormative porn and feminist porn. Taormino responded that she once submitted a porn to a production company and got it back with edits. Someone had written in big red letters: “MAN DOES NOT CUM IN THIS SCENE.” Taormino answered, “I know…”
(Image at top: Faith Holland, Ookie Canvas I (detail), 2015. 84"x47.25", Edition of 1 + AP. All images: Courtesy of the artist and Transfer Gallery.)