Los Angeles, July 2013: Probably the only person to ever get pregnant from casual sext, Los Angeles-based photographer Logan White exchanged risqué pictures via cell phone with an anonymous man in New York for nine months before giving birth to her side of the exchange in a gallery setting. The show, a collection of her provocative self-portraits taken off screen and printed in large format, simply called “Sext,” lasted one night only. It was one creative woman’s way of depicting her desire, her lust, her self-image, how she thinks she looks good, and what is sexual to her.
Sexting became part of mainstream public discussion when teens started confusing authority figures and news reporters with contemporary quandaries of morality, privacy, and shame. Since Logan’s show, other artists have also publicly, purposefully explored the medium as a form of expression. See Karen Finley, whose performance at the New Museum in May, called "Sext Me if You Can," constructed a commercial venture inside a closed dynamic whereby a patron could purchase access to a private phone number, send a sext, and Finley would paint a portrait of it.
(Of lesser note, there’s currently a show called “SextMe” at the Bob Oré gallery in West Hollywood full of hellishly dull black-and-white photography posing as “smart phone cyber trysting,” a result of a conversation two women had “about the growing sense of alienation they felt at being single ‘thirty-somethings’ in an increasingly twenty-centric world and how technology has changed the face of modern mating.”)
White’s work is authentic, raw, gutsy, and confrontational, glinting with accidental elucidation and big discovery. With sensual lighting, diffuse carnality, optical tricks, and references to ancient mythology—not to mention the undeniable physical beauty of the subject/photographer herself—White’s collection of cell phone photography is one you want to actually spend time with, question, and wonder… how did she do that, and what does it mean? Beyond erotic, these images pushed boundaries on narcissism and self-arousal, exploding the conversations the media is currently having around women’s rights, sexual identity, desire, pleasure, and power dynamics.
Logan White, Labanna the High Schooler, 2011; courtesy of the artist.
Liz Armstrong: How did this whole thing start? It wasn’t an art project initially, it was real life.
Logan White: It started off pretty self-serving, I guess. I was frustrated and bored sexually and didn’t feel like I had anyone to share that part of me, which really needed to get out at that point. I was online chatting with a friend I went to RISD with, and I was telling him about the lack of freaky guys in L.A. He was like, “You gotta come to New York for the freaks.” I couldn’t afford that, so I asked him for his hottest friend’s phone number. He gave me a number but didn’t tell me a name. He told me his friend was a good guy and that the ladies loved him—sounded pretty good. So I sent him a sexy picture. It was like 1 PM on a Tuesday.
LA: Totally unbidden?
LW: Completely out of the blue. Just this random number, I dialed it in, took a little pic from above, booty in the air, and pressed send. A few minutes later he responded.
LA: He tried to start a friendly conversation, which was not what you wanted.
LW: I just wanted it to be really straightforwardly sexual. That was the purpose of this. I didn’t want to respond to his small talk. I made it really clear what the purpose was, and that was to get off.
LA: Did it work?
LW: Hell yeah. I couldn’t believe the intensity that it got to between us. It became this consuming process. Some of it was immediate, and he encouraged that, but I’d spend hours taking photos for him. In this sense, I was a perfectionist. I’d be like, “This angle isn’t working, let me try again,” and I’d do it fifty more times until I found the shot.
Logan White, Sext with Clouds and Rainbows, 2012; courtesy of the artist.
LA: What turned you on so much?
LW: The chemistry, the dialogue. His pictures were whatever—I mean, I liked his bod, that hip groin muscle. But to get off I would start to look at pictures that I sent him of myself. That was much sexier because I was imagining him seeing it and getting turned on. And his reactions would drive me further and make me want to do more. And that would build to climax, basically.
LA: How were his responses encouraging?
LW: He would make demands, which was really hot. It felt so primal. And the anonymity felt safe in a weird way.
LA: Did you ever make it personal, peel back the anonymity?
LW: After a while it got a little more intimate. It was like the best sex of my life at the time, it felt like. It’s a funny thing to say or realize because it was like masturbation.
LA: Looking at pictures of yourself!
LW: Well, that, and reading his responses together.
LA: It was the details surrounding the act.
LW: Yeah, it was an active pursuit and he would create these scenarios that were so hot, it was like living out a fantasy. And it was so vivid because this exchange was mutually beneficial.
LA: Being intimate in that way first is what got you to talk about more personal details.
LW: Yeah, it was so intense it was almost like we wanted to cuddle afterward.
LA: Who initiated that?
LW: It was even. Both of us.
LA: Did it cross over into real life?
LW: At one point he asked me to do him a favor. He’s an artist, and he asked me to deliver a painting for him… Then we talked about his paintings, and he looked at my photography. We got into a more tender dialogue and would sort of critique each other’s work.
LA: How did you decide to exchange names?
LW: I was scrolling through the phone to click on sexy pictures and I accidentally called him. I hung up really fast, but then he called me back. We talked for just a second and told each other our names. But we’ve never said those names out loud. He’s still in my phone as “Sext.”
LA: This wasn’t entirely you as an exhibitionist, or as a narcissistic voyeur… it’s something in between. There was one person out there who was completely absorbed by your sexual expression.
LW: It’s validation. There was confirmation that yes, I looked good. I wanted to please someone else.
LA: You were aggressive in approach, but submissive in practice.
LW: That might be one of the complicated facets of my sexuality. I’m an assertive, strong, and confident female, and I also want to be dominated. To get that across sexually is difficult.
LA: You’re daring a partner.
LW: Yes. And they need to understand that means they should one-up me, not submit to me. It’s about the growth and the build. I would dare him, and he would demand me to do something.
LA: When did you realize this was art?
LW: As I chose to use certain symbols in these photos that I use in my artwork, I realized that the two aren’t so different… It was also a sort of a meeting of the minds to create images that were maybe more complicated and symbolic and deeper in their meanings, and still sexual. Providing the need and serving that need, and also meeting his requests. As I progressed in this work I realized, “Why is this any different from my art? I’m spending a lot of time doing this, it means a lot to me, it’s a consistent ritual, and there is meaning.” There was a genuine artistic expression happening through sext. When I think about what makes this an art project, it’s an exploration in female sexuality and the use of modern technology as a visual language to describe desire.
Screen capture of the first exchange, 2012.
LA: Why did you make this public instead of keeping it a closed exchange?
LW: I felt like one woman’s creative depiction of her sexuality and desires was relevant, especially when it’s self-curated. I think all female sexuality is complicated and relevant and interesting. So I don’t know if it’s necessarily just about me. We all have this modern language and technology that we use to describe desire. It’s pretty common for people to sext each other. A lot of people think, “sext” and they think, “dialogue.” And there was that, but for me it was more about images and understanding the time it took to feel like I was depicting that accurately and beautifully.
LA: Do you feel like this kind of complexity is possible face-to-face?
LW: It’s gotta be or I’ll be alone forever. I sought it out here because I couldn’t find it in person. Now I am more comfortable waiting for it. I don’t need to have casual sex. I’m more interested in collaborating with and understanding someone else’s sexuality now, and how it might evolve through our love for each other.
LA: How did this project transform how you think about your sexuality, or your needs?
LW: I realized that I can find what I need from within just by understanding what I need. There’s also more patience. But it wasn’t really meant to transform me, it was just meant to satisfy me in that moment—instant gratification. As casual sex goes, you get what you need and then you move on. That’s what it was, a casually sexual relationship that happens to have taken place exclusively on the phone.
LA: Has anyone asked you, “How is this art?” Or implied that?
LW: No. Some of my questions for myself were also, “Is this feminist?” And then the follow-up to that is, “Does it matter?” Then, “Is this art?” And “Does that matter?”
LA: Does it?
LW: Well, good art asks questions, it doesn’t answer them, necessarily. I think it is feminist, because I am, and because I’m in control. I think the anti-feminist theory would be something like, “How are you in control when you put the image on the wall and there’s the male gaze? You don’t have any control over that.” But what about the power of the image that is reflecting that conversation? It makes the man question the self and power. It’s a social experiment too, my choice to show it.
LA: Oh, absolutely. That’s a whole other conversation. What kind of response did you receive?
LW: It was funny to see the span of reactions from men—a single guy’s was different from that of a guy in a relationship.
LA: How so?
LW: Single men would acknowledge my presence in the work, more my body, the sexuality, whether they approved or not.
LA: Whether they approved?
LW: Well, no one really challenged it in that sense. But the single guys were like, “Nice work, Logan,” kind of winking, acknowledging the sexuality without making it uncomfortable. Whereas someone in a relationship was like, “The prints look great!” Or, “Wow, this paper is really shiny.” “Great compositions.” Or whatever. The single guys were less self-conscious because they didn’t have their monogamous partner next to them. It felt like an interesting sociological study.
LA: How did women respond to the show?
LW: They were probably even more enthusiastic. There was a large gay attendance. Some of the first people I talked to were gay and trans, and they were really into it. They thought it was so badass, and gave props to my work, saying it was brave, bold, fresh, and relevant.
LA: Was there anything negative?
LW: When I was installing, someone was there and he hadn’t said anything to me at all the whole time. When I was finishing hanging the last picture, as he was walking out, he said, “Nice ass. Nice pussy.”
LA: That seems pretty ignorant.
LW: I was like, “Thanks! I know!” I didn’t care so much though. It was just one man’s way of reacting to the work because it probably makes him uncomfortable and he wants to offer me some sort of compliment but maybe doesn’t see it the way other people might. It’s not for everyone to have one response to. That’s not what art is about.
Logan White, "Sext" installation at United Arts Corp LA, 2013; courtesy of the artist.
LA: Did you think about other ways to present this?
LW: I thought about doing a zine and putting out an open call for submissions, but then I wanted it to just be about me, my experience—one woman’s experience. That’s also why I didn’t put up any pictures of him. I didn’t want to do a zine because I didn’t want it to be pulp, something that could be taken home and jerked off to. Which is why I chose for the show to be one night only, and also for the images to not circulate online. That adds to the special experience for the audience, and the intimacy and dialogue that we get to share as a result of that. It was instant gratification, and then it was over.
LA: How did you know when you and this guy were over?
LW: It had just panned out and it was time to move on. The end conclusion, for me, is that I have other needs, and in this point of my life this kind of relationship doesn’t satisfy me.
LA: Did you tell Mr. Sext about your show beforehand?
LW: He had no idea I was going to do an art project. Then after the opening I sent him a photo of the installation. I was like, “Guess what? I had a show of my sexts to you!”
LA: What did he say?
LW: He was like, “Wow, that looks amazing—so cool!” I told him someone wanted to buy one and he said, “How much?” And I said, “Why, you wanna buy one?” Ha.
LA: You had another real-life project that was also very sexy and then turned controversial: those nude and semi-nude photos of performance artist and musician Labanna Babalon at your high school.
LW: That was fun. That kind of just happened too. Labanna is a very sexual and spiritually minded, evolved woman. I think something Labanna and I have in common is that we are interested in empowering the female—and the younger female—and setting them up for wanting to understand and describe that, if they choose to, without shame or embarrassment or insecurity.
LA: Tell me more about the shoot.
LW: Those pictures weren’t even really thought out, which is fine and fun sometimes. They just felt casual and happy, exciting and voyeuristic. Right after Christmas, 2011, Labanna came and visited me at my mom’s house in Macon, Georgia. We went to my high school at night and found a door propped open for some construction workers. Those construction guys were on the scene so we had to sneak around. We were naked in the locker area, and they were working in the other room. We would run around and be sneaks, taking pictures.
LA: What made you want to go back there?
LW: Labanna likes to transcend age, she likes to be a role model for younger women and men and encourage them to embrace their sexuality. She teaches not to have shame, so that’s why we wanted to go to the high school. That was the audience we wanted for the pictures, that was the whole concept. In high school—and that high school in particular—there’s a dress code, punishment if you wear flip-flops. You can’t even show your toes much less your boobs. It was Labanna the high schooler, and we wanted to present a high school girl that was in control of, comfortable with, and celebrating her sexuality. That’s why we went to the trophies and held them up, and showed her with the gold medals around her neck. And it was just fun to run around with my friend and be naked and take pictures. That’s my favorite thing to do.
LA: What was your high school experience like?
LW: I have an intense history with my high school, mostly surrounding my art, and my outspokenness and comfort with my sexual identity. When I was a junior in high school I started taking nude self-portraits and nude portraits of a male model.
LA: Did anyone find out what you were up to?
LW: I would develop them in the darkroom at school, like normal. Students would start to talk. They would go in my cubbyhole and pull out the pictures and whisper, “Logan’s got naked pictures of herself,” or, “Logan’s got naked pictures of herself with this guy.” The shoot with him wasn’t sexual at all. I’m in some of the pictures with him and there’s partial nudity, but it’s like male/female body/soul—it was barely even erotic. So the teachers started to overhear, and they told the principal, who told the headmaster. I had to deal with a lot of negative attention, gossip, and allegations. I was threatened with suspension.
LA: Did the adults look at your photos?
LW: No. It was a fear of the unknown, and they didn’t want to know.
LA: You put those photos with Labanna on your blog. What was the response?
LW: I got some feedback from a teacher. She was really upset. “I find these images incredibly offensive,” she said. “A lot of us call this place our home. We’ve been here for years and I support your art but this feels like an insult and an attack.” And the principal asked me, “Are you angry? Are you OK? Do you have a lot of anger? Because these pictures seem really angry and aggressive.”
LA: Sounds like the response you got the first time around.
LW: Yeah, ten years later, pretty much to the date—it’s the same issue. I did do it in their environment, so they felt violated, but it did start an interesting conversation. But I don’t understand why they thought it was so offensive. It’s just female nudity, it’s just a body. She’s smiling, she’s happy, we’re running around giddy, laughing.
LA: But it’s not just a body, because you set up the context. It’s the same thing with your Sext series.
LW: I think they just jumped to the conclusion that Labanna being naked in that space meant, “Damn this space.” If you dig deeper, my background might inform someone and make it seem like it was a fuck you to the alma mater. In a sense, I guess it was, because it’s like, “You can’t control me then or now. And I will not hide for your comfort.”
LA: There’s a lot of contempt for girls who don’t hide.
LW: Yes, the labeling, the name-calling, the branded whore—I feel like that happens so much in high school, and it sucks. I want girls to either ignore that and realize it’s ignorance and not need to react, or to fight it and stand up for themselves and be like, “Whatever. I like sex. What’s wrong with that?”
LA: Or, “I don’t like sex, and I don’t want you looking at me like that.”
LW: Yeah. I mean, girls who don’t even have sex get called whores. It’s so twisted. What about that girl who was expelled for sexting on a dare, and then the guy she sent it to shared it? She got in trouble for sexual harassment and was branded a deviant for showing her breasts. Meanwhile, all around New York you can walk around topless.
LA: Males don’t seem to have to deal as much with the complexities of sexual behavior.
LW: Yes, but they do have to deal with these traditionally gendered masculine expectations that I think perpetuate the way we look at both genders, and the expectations we have of everyone. Men get represented horribly in the media. Think about the best male role models on TV—who would that even be?
LA: I’m not sure.
LW: What about how men were portrayed in the Steubenville rape case? A woman gave a news report where she practically said, “My heart goes out to these boys.” It was sports taking precedence over women’s rights and justice. It was the same in my high school, it’s the same in every high school. In this case, even the victim’s friends were calling her a liar, and there are pictures of it, of these guys carrying her naked, unconscious body to the basement. The news about it focused on how the guys’ lives are ruined, not this girl’s. They were sentenced to one year in juvie, and this girl has to deal with it for a lifetime. She has to live with being branded a whore, or a victim, or a liar, or maybe wanting of the attention, or just pissed off because a guy didn’t like her. It’s so twisted. At least people recognized that imbalance and protested it. But it’s still not enough, it’s really disturbing. And the victim remains nameless, just another anonymous female victim who told. There’s a lot of motivation to change this.
ArtSlant would like to thank Logan White for her assistance in making this interview possible.