Academic conferences are not normally the place to find demonstrations of Japanese rope bondage or extracts from films about sexual interaction with an octopus.
But those were two of the contributions at an event held in London earlier this month that united artists, activists and academics with “camgirls”, strippers and “submissives” for a series of discussions on the effect of the internet on pornography and performance art.
“Performing Porn (after the computer became boring)”, held on 12‑13 July, was organised by the performance artist Daniel Ploeger, lecturer in theatre and digital arts at Brunel University, and Brunel PhD student Sarah Harman.
Pornography was opposed by many feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, the pair explained, but later practitioners “produced work that ventures beyond normative gender stereotypes and aesthetic clichés, and blurs the boundaries between performance art and sex work”.
Now that pornography is readily accessible on the internet, it has “arguably lost some of its thrill. Can body-based performance art practices offer a response?” they asked.
Giulia Casalini and Ana Grahovac – curators of CUNTemporary, an organisation set up to “explore feminist and queer art practices and theories” – presented examples of “Guerrilla Pornfare” by artists “address[ing] the vexed question of whether our global porn-saturated digital environment can re-awaken and stimulate our bodies and desires”.
They included a 2009 video called Mother of Pearl by visual artists Andrzej Wojtas and Ewelina Aleksandrowicz – known as Pussykrew – which features an extended interaction between a woman and an octopus.
Meanwhile, Heather Pennington, who has been investigating the London “kink” scene as part of an MA in performance and culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, gave a demonstration of kinbaku, or Japanese rope bondage.
She compared the practice – which is safe, consensual, female-friendly and as ritualised as flower arranging – with most representations of it on the internet, which often show jeering men torturing much younger women.
Sharif Mowlabocus, lecturer in media studies at the University of Sussex, considered “the emergence of a new economy within online pornography made up of performers who are, often for the first time, making money out of their own sexually explicit material”. He asked whether “Web 2.0 is ‘democratizing’ pornography” and “support[ing] more egalitarian, less objectifying pornographies”.
Yet Victoria Holt, “a webcam performer, stripper and professional submissive” who is about to start an MA at Sussex, argued that “the openness of the internet is really not that open after all”. When she started a blog, she said, she had wanted to “show that pretty, articulate people who were ‘sane’ could use their bodies in unconventional ways, [including] a type of masochism…rejected by much of mainstream society”.
Yet as time went on, Ms Holt continued, strangers began to ask her questions and book her for “professional submission sessions in the dungeon”. This soon led to her “producing photographs I thought would be either enticing or shocking enough to keep the people who read my blog interested…I was the object, when I so wanted to be the subject, of my own work.”