Exclusive Q&A: Artist Jonathan Harris on Documenting the Lives of Lesbian Porn Stars
Lesbian BDSM starlet Dolores Haze is going for the money shot. She's on her knees, furiously masturbating in front of a set of cameras for feminist porn pioneer Jincey Lumpkin's new feature, "Therapy." Jonathan Harris, computer scientist, online artist, and documentarian, is filming her too, only he continues rolling after the rest of the crew has packed up to leave. The shots last only 10 seconds: Dolores lying on the couch in a post-coital daze. Dolores getting on the subway and walking home. Dolores calling a friend because she accidentally locked herself out of her own apartment.
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Harris filmed nine women who work in lesbian porn in New York over 10 days, in 10-second intervals, and spent 24 hours with each one. This week, he launched the intimate interactive documentary detailing their lives. Similar to Harris' 2006 project, "We Feel Fine," which measured an aggregated universe of multi-colored emotions on blogs, "I Love Your Work" works like a tapestry of plot points that can enlarge. Each row designates a different female subject, and you can click on each individual teaser shot contained within. In its entirety, the project is six hours long.
In an exclusive interview, the Voice spoke to Harris, who has won three Webby awards, spoken at TED forums, lived with a family of Inupiat Eskimos to document a whale hunt in Alaska, and previously exhibited his work at the MoMA. We asked the artist what it was like to follow these women continuously--stepping into their showers, beds, and shoots--and how the experience has affected Harris' own views on human sexuality since.
You haven't explored lesbian porn before. Why dive into this subject and this community using this particular online documentary platform?
I think I'm generally drawn to marginalized or misunderstood stories and communities. I did another project years ago with a family of Inupiat Eskimos documenting their whale hunt in Alaska. Whale hunting is very politicized and a lot of people have a lot of opinions about it, and also this is a group of people that most don't know a lot about, or have a sense of what their everyday lives looks like. I think I'm just very interested generally in subject matters that have a built-in drama to them, but once you explore them, you realize they're like everyone else. Lesbian porn is such a salacious phrase, just those two words, but once you get into it you realize these women's lives are just like anybody's lives.
You know, the format of the project itself made me think of a vagina. There are folds, expansions, some parts that are particularly internal...
You mean the tapestry? The interface where you move your mouse around and things open up for you? Yeah, it's very vaginal.
That had not occurred to me, but maybe that's buried somewhere in my subconscious. I've been looking at the wardrobes of Georgia O'Keefe, so maybe that was somewhere in my mind.
How would you recommend viewing and approaching this project, interface-wise?
There's a few things going on there. In a way it's meant to mimic the dynamic of porn in general on the internet. It's so abundant and so instant and so plentiful. You watch something, and when it's not working for you anymore, you open up a new browser tab and you watch something else. That was very much the feeling I wanted people to have: Of, "Oh my god, there's so much here. I could spend hours looking at this, but the moment something is boring I can click to another thing." But you're not watching porn most of the time. You're watching people brushing their teeth and riding on subways and checking their email in the way that most people watch porn. There's not really an editorial perspective, it's just samplings of reality. I think you often find yourself getting hypnotized by it, and you find yourself watching clips for 30 minutes and you don't look away. I also think it's totally cool to watch it all back-to-back, and watch all six hours of it like a movie. You can also jump around.
These women spend a lot of time in front of the camera--they already have a distinct relationship to it. But there's a different relationship between a documentarian and a subject. Were some initially uncomfortable with you filming their real lives? How did that dynamic change?
It's an interesting question because when there's a camera in front of you it fills you up with energy. You know that you're not only performing for the person behind the camera, but also your words and your actions are being captured forever. But at the same time, because it's so continuous, for 24 hours, at some point you reach a turning point where you can't take it anymore, where you just give up or act normally. It's hard to pinpoint where that moment occurs, but to me it felt like it did occur in all of the women's lives at some point during the day.
What were you most surprised to learn about the lesbian porn community in New York?
I would say the biggest thing I learned is how extremely normalized sex was for, I'd say, all of these women. I grew up in a pretty conservative way. I went to fancy schools, like Princeton, and I went to a boarding school and my family is fairly conservative. I was brought up to think of sex in a certain way and not talk about it. But these women were so open about their sexuality and their sexual preferences and their sexual history, and that really changed me actually. I think over the 10 days of doing this project, I changed. I can talk about sex to other people, and I'm much more open about it.
Any moments of openness that stick out in particular?
I was with Dylan Ryan, who's probably one of the most well known of the actresses--she's known for doing really, really intense BDSM porn--and she has a huge cult following. She was borrowing my laptop and puts her name into Google, and gives me a guided tour through some of the porn that she's done. And it was just...these really intense BDSM scenes in this dungeon with her strapped to a table with a huge dildo in her mouth and a guy with a blowtorch dripping purple wax all over her stomach and whipping it off with a flogger. And she's sitting there, sunnily narrating it to me. There were a few moments there where I was like, "I can't believe this is my life!"
I was clicking around and came across a clip of Luna talking about God and sin, these very foundational belief systems. Did you find yourself having many of these spiritual conversations with the women involved?
Yes. The themes that emerged, completely not by design were sex and death. The presence of death in the project was something I totally didn't anticipate, especially because these women were so young and vibrant. For Luna, death comes up in the judgment way, how will you be judged for your sins after you die. And she has this whole rationalization around how Satanism is actually a helpful set of principles to help you succeed in life. She actually goes through the seven deadly sins and explains why each is actually a helpful business strategy. But then for someone like Ryan Keely, who's probably the most "typical" porn star of the group, she's almost like a Penthouse Pet, death came up in the context of fame. She was freaked out about being forgotten. She was doing porn as a way that she would not be forgotten, that even 200 years after she dies she would still be remembered through the images that she left behind.
For Jincey, if you watch the last day, two big things came up around death. The first was that her pet chihuaha, called the Mama, had to go to the hospital that day and they thought she was going to die. And it was incredibly traumatic for Jincey and her partner. And then the other thing is that when we came back to her apartment that evening, because death was on her mind, she starts opening up to me and explaining that she was suicidal, about a year before. She went to the window across the room from where we were sitting and thought about jumping. She got on medication and she's been much more stable since then, but this is someone who projects extreme confidence in the world. If you Google her, she comes across as this supremely confident lesbian sex maven. And she is in a way, but another aspect of her personality is that she's extremely insecure and was suicidal a year ago. But what she said about that is that coming that close to death made her realize that life is really brief and that it doesn't matter what other people think. And I think that realization has allowed her to build this porn empire. The sex and death thing comes up again and again and again in the 10 days. Yeah, there's that universal quality to both. Everyone is totally vulnerable in an orgasm, and it's almost the closest you can be to death in a way--you're completely at the mercy of your own pleasure.
And then in French the word for orgasm is "le petit mort," which means "little death." Do you think you watch porn differently now, after you've done this project?
I think the illusion of porn is less believable for me now. Having seen it behind the scenes, where it's so not sexy, and where the women look so different when they're in hair and makeup, I think that the power that those fantasies have to make you feel inadequate about your own life is lessened. I think a lot of the images of beauty that we see, whether it's in porn, or magazines, they make the viewer feel inadequate about their own lives, about their own beauty. And having seen this stuff from behind the scenes, the power that you perceive these things to have is not there. Were there any women you felt particularly close to?
I'd say the two I got closest two were Jess and Dolores. Dolores is so smart and so funny and aware. She's just an amazing woman. And then Jess was very different. Very opinionated, but so young. She felt almost like a kid. She was projecting opinions with extreme bravado and confidence, but then you can see through that and see she was just on this rollercoaster that was taking her along, and there was something about her reckless, fearless approach to her life that was really beautiful, I think.
I wanted to go back to the experience you had in 2007, living with the Inupiat Eskimos, and other projects you've done--like in Bhutan. I imagine that immersing yourself in an unfamiliar group of people for this amount of time, you learn how to relate, how to document, how to keep your distance, but at the same time be human and be close. Could you share any of that insight and how you apply that to your projects?
There's a few things I've learned. The first thing is that it's a totally different headspace that I get into when I do a project. I find that for that amount of time, I can kind of do anything. Even if it's really painful or boring. But this one was different from the whale hunt because of the fact that the switches from one woman to the next happened every morning. Every time a switch occurred it was an incredibly jarring experience. You just spent 24 hours getting to know a person and learning how to film them in a way that's intimate, but not intrusive. And then suddenly you have to do a total context switch and be with someone you've never met before. There's something very sociopathic, almost, about that. And I think the way I would handle those transitions would be to be incredibly quiet, and deferential, and soft. Try to get a feeling for what their natural rhythm is, how much conversation they're comfortable with, how much filming they're comfortable with. Kind of act like a mirror, and reflect back onto them whatever they're showing me. In that way, I try to find the path to each story that is authentic to the person that I'm following, but not something I'm imposing on their life.
Consent must have been key as well, allowing you to film parts of their lives.
People have different boundaries for what they're comfortable with. Jincey, for instance, was probably the most conservative with her boundaries. She would go into her room at the end of the day and close the door, whereas Ryan would have me go into the shower with her while she shaved her pubic hair. I would never, never push. I would always let them say, "Oh, you can come with me now!"
That's such a fascinating parallel. Because everything that you put into filming these women--the intimacy, the respect, consent--is everything that's missing from traditional depictions of porn. There's no sensitivity, there's little context, it's just wham, bam, thank you ma'am, and then the pizza guy leaves or something. Yeah. And then there's a whole genre of porn about getting people into porn. They'll meet someone on the street and ask, "Hey, you want to audition for this movie role?"