Is pornography a universal medium? Does sex speak a common language? I contemplated these questions last week when I presented a history of alternative porn in the United States at "PornoPunkFeminism: Queer Micro-Politics and Subaltern Pornographies," a conference held at Arteleku (arteleku.net), an art center just outside San Sebastian, Spain. It was a four-day event of multimedia presentations and performances by artists, filmmakers, performers, and activists from around the world. The theme centered around the concept of "post-porn," a term coined by artist Wink van Kempen. "Post-porn" is defined by feminists and artists as sexually explicit work that critiques dominant representations of gender and sexuality and creates a politicized space for alternative, subversive imagery. As conference coordinator B. Preciado explained it: "This event takes post-pornography as a place where three political movements providing a cultural critique converge: feminism, the queer movement, and punk."
Del LaGrace Volcano (dellagracevolcano.com) is a gender-variant visual artist whose pioneering photography has documented lesbians, punks, transpeople, genderqueers, and other outsiders in stunning, often sexually explicit photos. Volcano presented work from his latest book, Femmes of Power, where he and co-author Ulrika Dahl profile dozens of people around the world who embody queer femininities. He also showed his classic smut film, Pansexual Public Porn, which follows the adventures of several transmen having sex in a popular gay cruising spot in England.
Annie Sprinkle and her partner, Beth Stephens, presented a stunning retrospective of their individual and collective work over the past 30 years, which has ranged from Sprinkle's famed Public Cervix Announcement to Stephens's sexually charged multimedia exhibits. In 2004, they began a seven-year performance-art piece together, Love Art Laboratory (loveartlab.org), which culminates each year in a huge wedding. Because Sprinkle's work originated in porn and has become increasingly about love, she challenged the audience with the questions: "Is there a place in porn for love? Is love the last taboo?"
One response came from Massimo and Pierce of Black Sun Productions (anarcocks.com), who opened their presentation with an unforgettable line: "We fell in love making a porn movie." Apparently, the Swiss government didn't return the affection—the couple's home sex movies were targeted and seized by the government for obscenity. They showed one of the images at the center of the controversy: a striking photo of Pierce peeing into his own mouth. (Porn can show all the cum it wants, but urine is off-limits.) After an extensive (and expensive) legal battle, their home movies were returned to them; one of those films was picked up by U.S. distributor Treasure Island (treasureislandmedia.com), who released it as Anarcocks: Pirate Tape #1. Notably, Treasure Island cut all the scenes that featured gloves and condoms and kept the scenes without safer sex. "We were censored by the police in Switzerland for being too dirty," Massimo says, "and censored by the American porn industry for not being dirty enough.
"No stranger to censorship herself, multimedia artist Shu Lea Cheang has attempted to produce her live performance piece Explicit Express: I Am You Are High on Milk at several festivals, but has been stopped every time. So she clearly felt triumphant the night it finally came to life at this conference. As the story goes, the future's most popular new drug is called Milk—an ejaculate that gets people high, and which is created by the Milk Gen, a group of people of all genders with special mutant DNA (related to the HIV virus). Although I knew only the basic plot, it was a striking performance where agents track the producers and consumers of Milk as they get off on both the drug and each other. Members of the so-called "Milk Gen" weaved their way in and out of the audience dripping white, creamy liquid from their mouths and hands as others donned strap-ons, fucking, sucking, and flogging their way to ecstasy.
After the sticky substance was mopped up, Lazlo Ilya Pearlman (gendelicious.com), an American currently living in London who performs around the world, took the stage. He did three pieces, the best of which was a kind of gender tango with a woman named Nadege Piton. It was a dance-cum-striptease where the two swapped gender roles throughout, until Nadege was dressed in Lazlo's vest and hat while puffing on his cigar, while Lazlo was naked. (It's certainly not every day you see a transman stripped down under stage lights, so that alone was brave and unique.) Then they reached into each other's cunts—Lazlo pulled out a string of pearls from Nadege, Nadege retrieved a necktie from Lazlo, and each donned the other's hidden gender signifier as the piece ended.
As for the less visual presentations, there was text and context I didn't always get: my high-school Spanish didn't exactly come rushing back to me. That meant I couldn't understand much of the talks by Spain's leading porno thinkers, including María Llopis and Itziar Ziga, along with groups like Medeak and PostOp. From what I saw of their work, it was much closer to activism and avant-garde art than what we call porn—even alternative porn—in America. For all that was lost in translation, I still walked away having learned so much about independent and underground porn in other parts of the world.
One of the final events was a multimedia spoken-word performance by Diana Pornoterrorista (pornterrorism.blogspot.com). She started out encased in plastic wrap, standing against a screen that flashed rapid-fire images, each more disturbing than the one before: war casualties, hangings, decapitations, all intercut with graphic images of childbirth, anal fisting, and American porn star Belladonna giving and getting blowjobs. The juxtaposition of hardcore-sex images with depictions of unbelievable violence was totally disturbing. Meanwhile, Diana cut the plastic off and smeared blood all over her naked body as she read her provocative, sexually charged poetry. During one poem, a friend came up from the audience and fucked her with a dildo as she read: "Expand me/Move me/Impale me/Remind me there are no borders between/Pain and pleasure/Between sadism and tenderness."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.