Staring in the Dark

HELEN GRACE INTERVIEWS ALASDAIR FOSTER

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In the introduction to the exhibition, Staring in the Dark, you make the point that the pornography industry in the US has a turnover three times that of Hollywood & that it now represents the ‘biggest underground minority form’ in the West. In what ways can art and artists explore this form and still have anything like the impact which pornography itself now has as a popular form?

In order to answer that question one has to slough off some of the outmoded and transient notions of art from the past few decades. Notions such as the shock of the new and the role of art as critical agent. The artists in this exhibition are, for the most part, not seeking a morally or intellectually superior ground to pornography, but to explore it as a language and form in itself. Like a novelist who writes in the vernacular they are engaged in a process of intensification and narrative extension rather than socio-political deconstruction or pious moralising.

Equally, one has to consider what one means by pornography. It is a term inherently bound up in the class system. The pornai of ancient Greece, from which the word derives it’s emotive sense, were the lowest and least expensive class of prostitute, the hetaera, or courtesans, being the highest and most educated. It was not the commercialisation of sex, but the class of person that was at issue – hetaera were more powerful and politically influential than wives.

In contemporary society the word’s inherent value-judgement tends to get conflated with notions of the commercialism, mass production and easy availability. How can something so ubiquitous (and challenging to bourgeois notions of ‘taste’) possibly be art? Meanwhile 19th century pornographic cartes des visites become 20th century erotic art simply by virtue of their rarity and the exoticising distance of time. The acts portrayed remain the same.

Art is a process. But the powerful influence of the museum treasure house and the private gallery retail modes have tended to promote the idea that the value of art is in rarity and notions of ‘uniqueness’. My interest in showing this work was in exploring the art process. A number of the individual works we showed could, in another context, pass muster as commercial pornography. Scott Redford’s film I Need More is a very effective piece of pornography and, indeed, the artist has been invited to make a sex film commercially. But then this type of film, which explores the esoteric sexual games of Berlin’s gay leather scene, is about alternative forms of pleasure and the right to explore one’s sexual potential to the hilt. In that sense the cultural and political impact of the film is present both in the gallery and in the more usual theatres of pornographic consumption though playing to differently motivated constituencies. By including the stills from this film at ACP (the film itself was deemed likely to contravene Australian censorship laws) that assertion of right was brought into a wider sphere and into a place where the process of consumption was public and the audience less specialised in their tastes – a context which tends to force greater emphasis on the rationalisation of public and private moral values.

Staring in the Dark was the second of three exhibitions on the theme of art and popular culture. An interestingly different response to explicit sexual representation occurred during the first of these exhibitions, No More Than I Know. This show, curated by Max Doyle and Malcolm Watt who publish an art-fashion crossover magazine called doingbird, included the work of Bruce La Bruce. La Bruce is a Canadian pornographer whose oeuvre is simultaneously marketed as pornography, sold as art in the classiest dealer galleries and afforded cult status by devotees of fashionable pop culture. The exhibit at ACP involved a naked skateboarder with a very prominent erection. Responses to the images, even from the more conservative press were amused and engaged rather than outraged – beguiled in part by the candid description La Bruce gave of the shoot, complete with viagra and a PhD student as ‘fluffer’. But also, perhaps, by the context of an exhibition that was about a range of pop culture influences rather than overtly focussing on pornography and identifying it as such.

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It used to be that the bohemian lives and tastes of artists shocked the general population (‘the masses’) but now it’s more the case that popular tastes shock the artworld, which increasingly resembles the image of bourgeois society, which the Dadaists set out to embarrass nearly a century ago. Do you think artists’ use of pornography represents a continuation of this ‘shock tactic’ or does it point to another form of expression, which requires a radically different set of critical tools.

I don’t think that’s a shift in ‘mass’ attitudes so much as a re-drawing of the bourgeois comfort zone. I doubt the vast majority of working people in the early 20th century West gave a toss what the bohemians were up to, apart from maybe thinking they could do something more useful with their time. It was the bourgeoisie who universalised their own reactionary anxieties onto a projected notion of ‘the masses’. As sexual variety, drug-use, individual expression and vegetarianism gained acceptance becoming familiar elements in the narratives of mass entertainment, so bourgeois attitudes to a bohemian lifestyle shifted. And, as you suggest, it is the bourgeois corner of the artworld that remains agitated by the pornographic.

It’s also worth noting that bourgeois values are those espoused publicly and not those necessarily practiced privately by the individual of that class. Bourgeois values are above all about appearances. So it is wholly congruent with such a value system that one may consume pornography in private whilst being uncomfortable about it in public. It’s not looking but being seen to look that is the issue.

Many of the ethical constructs around the relationship between sex, emotional intensity and monogamy relate to the protection of property rights and maintaining clear lines of inheritance. It’s not surprising then that the bourgeoisie (a class defined by their aspirant but unstable relationship to property) construct a morality so concerned with such constructs, albeit under the guise of protecting the sanctity of love. I was amused to read two extended reviews of Staring in the Dark, both by serious critics, which concluded that what was missing from the exhibition was love (in one case specifically Platonic love). Pornography is not about love, but about sex as a form of recreational fantasy and imaginative play.

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Can you distinguish pornography’s claim to greater authenticity (by virtue of its low-res look, low production values etc) from the traditional claims of photographic authenticity (by virtue of the indexical)? (Are these two claims related?) Is there really a difference between an accidental aesthetic and a carefully cultivated look?

Pornography does not claim authenticity so much as employ the notion as part of a game. In the eighties this revolved around high resolution, evenly lit images that allowed for an almost forensic exploration of the mechanics of sex denied to all but the most limber of us in real life. The current fashion for low-res, apparently amateurish pornography is an extension of the reality TV mode in which we don’t aspire to the exceptional but rather scrutinize the minutiae of other unremittingly ordinary lives with which to favorably compare our own.

The internet has, however, also facilitated the involvement of a great many more players not simply in the consuming of pornography but in its production. This, and the way the internet stimulates emergent communities, has lead to a significant diversification in the range and form of eroticised activity and foci.

Pornography uses the notion of the veracity of the photograph. It’s a notion that remains tenaciously and pleasurably ‘felt’ long after it is ‘known’ to be false – we no longer seek evidential truth from news photography but we enjoy the fantasy of photographic veracity in pornography, New Idea’s ‘Stars Without Make-Up’, or Channel 9’s Changing Rooms.

It’s also worth remembering that the notion of photography’s undeniable relation to ‘truth’ (as opposed to verisimilitude) is a construct of the mid-20th century that was sustained for rather less than a third of the period in which the medium has been around. The understanding of pornography and photography both, in their various ways, change radically with wider social and technological evolution.

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Can you give examples?

The development of fast flexible film and small cameras allowed photographs to address the narrative flow of the world as it unfolded rather than having to have it formally staged before the lens. The liberalisation of the post-war West meant that sexual material could be produced in quantities that could sustain big business. The internet has stimulated not only a further massive increase in consumption as pornography becomes instantly (and privately) accessible to anyone connected to the web, but has encouraged diversification of content and the development of micro-markets.

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Can you say something of what made you choose individual artists and works for the show?

I wanted to choose a group of artists that touched on a range of approaches, methodologies and media in their engagement with the phenomenon of pornography. The show included video, animation, advertising displays, sculpture, mock-historical prints and textiles. There were established artists such as Scott Redford, rising international stars such as  and relative newcomers such as Linda Erceg or the creative duo, Mimi Kelly and Clint Woodger. It was also important that the artists came from a range of backgrounds and localities.

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How did you find some of the work? (Cee Sparét in particular; this is really wild stuff!)

I first saw Cee Sparét’s work in the National Museum of Erotica in Canberra. I was fascinated not just by the physiological premise (that she uses her own ejaculant to make the work) but by the gender-role inversions and novel photochemical processes involved. We met when I was next in Darwin and I found she was applying these patterns to clothing – a further ironic twist, in the light of the fashion industry’s flirtations with fetishism and the pornographic ‘look’, that appealed to me.

Other work I knew from research trips interstate or from on-going dialogues with artists nationally and internationally. Two of the projects first came to my attention as unsolicited exhibition proposals.

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Staring in the Dark was the third in a season of shows on the interface between art and popular culture and we know that art has drawn upon popular culture since at least the Impressionists ventured into the streets in the nineteenth century (partly in response to photography’s challenge to painting). But is this a one-way street, as cultural studies critics seem to suggest in rejecting art in favour of popular culture?

“Art” and “popular culture” are just generic terms used to segment the broad field of imaginative communication. The interface between these terms has at various times been a battle line, a site of moral outrage and a porous zone of osmotic interchange. Equally, the interface itself remains mobile, not simply from age to age but from user to user. Perhaps, more dangerously, the terms can become synonymous with judgements of value, authenticity and quality. There is good and bad art just as there is good and bad in popular culture.

The terms simply reflect shifting modes of production and consumption. In the exponentially accelerating curve of technological development these modes and interfaces are in continuous flux. I for one find this hopeful. For in this way they will outstrip the race for tendentious definition by which various ideological, economic and habituated mind-sets might seek to contain them. And it is refreshing to see among many of the newest generation of cultural practitioners a complete lack of interest in the semantic arguments over whether what they do is art, popular culture or commercial application.

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Staring in the Dark … is great, relevant, full of humour and credibility. Congratulations!”

Sidney Peyroles, French Cultural Attaché, Embassy of France in Australia (2003) *

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This interview was first published in April 2004 in ArtLink magazine.

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Images:
Menu: © Paul M Smith from This is Not Pornography 2002
Upper: © Paul M Smith from This is Not Pornography 2002
Lower: Girlcome Welcome 2003 by Cee Sparét – performance at the opening of Staring in the Dark [photo © Cee Sparét]

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* this was an unsolicited and independent view; there were no French artists presented in this exhibition

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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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