Monday, March 16, 2015

On Pornography and Split Pea

Not long ago I worked the International Restaurant Show for a smoked meat company, frying sample bites of bacon non-stop for three days in a row, seven hours straight without letting-up, feeding the crowds who walk the massive halls of the Javits Center looking for the next big thing. Hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands of people dressed to the nines buying and selling, "owwing" and "ahhing", shaking their hips, closing their eyes, cooing “Ohh, ohh this is so good. Everything's better with bacon.” 

Later that week I found myself with time on my hands in the East Village. It was a freezing night so I popped into the vegetarian mecca B & H Dairy, a tiny hole in the wall I’d frequented when I lived in the neighborhood thirty+ years earlier. Walking through the misted door from the frigid street was a mind bending time warp; the same scrubbed formica set with clunky diner dishes overbrimming with the same menu items. The same crowd of young artists greeted warmly by the same short order cooks, sitting down with the same dog-eared French philosophy books and talking about their bands. The only change were the iPhones resting by every steaming bowl. As always, I ordered split pea soup and buttered challah and was transported by the first loving spoonful.

In the early 1980’s I was a founding member of an artists collective called Carnival Knowledge. Our earliest works, Bizarre Conceptions were made in response to threats to reproductive rights; proposed legislation limiting access to birth control and OB/GYN services, clinic pickets and harassment of healthcare providers and women seeking services, etc. We set up booths on street corners and created participatory artworks at community centers to raise awareness and open dialogue.

In 1982 a controversial conference at Barnard piqued our interest. The conference explored sexuality beyond reproductive rights which made many uncomfortable veering as it sometimes does into forms of exploitation, objectification of women’s bodies, kinky fantasy and the power relationships inherent in sexual practice. Carnival Knowledge however celebrated this unfolding believing our efforts to free ourselves from the bonds of reproduction opened doors to more liberated and empowered sexuality. We set about trying to define feminist pornography. Each month for almost two years, rotating from one members kitchen to another, we shared a pot luck meal and an evening of discussion.

The thinking we did, and field trips to sex shops culminated in a show called The Second Coming. This took place at the alternative performance and artspace the Franklin Furnace in 1984—a month long festival of artists books, installations, and performance art. On street level we set up a bookstore showcasing books and small objects, then down a narrow stairwell hung with flowing titty banners whose nipples gently brushed your face as you descended to the basement gallery. We divided the gallery into a kitchen, dining room, bedroom, etc. thinking most women would feel comfortable exploring pornography in the comfort and safety of “home.” Following the feminist credo that the personal is political much of the art, which we curated from an open call for contributions, was confessional and memoiristic.  

I built the living room furniture; a couch, easy chair, fireplace, which I covered with text recounting a fantasy story of a menage a trios, describing the acts that took place on the couch on the couch, on the rug on the rug, etc. I have no record of the text and of course can’t remember the details. I can only imagine it was fairly tame and peppered with the longings I had for romantic love. Throughout the show the living room became a performance space—there were artist made videos and Sex Ed. films we’d ordered from a catalogue looped on the TV in the corner of the room, as well as live performances. Draping her body across the couch, one artist did a striptease while playing saxophone. She had painted glittery keys down the length of her body and she encouraged volunteers to play her as she blew her horn.

top: ?, April Ford, Annie Sprinkle, Sabrina Jones, Veronica Vera, Karen Rusch
second row: Candida Royale, Ame Gilbert, Gloria Leonard, Anne Pitrone, Veronica Hart
odalisque: ?

The performance that garnered the most excitement was by a group of porn actresses called Club 90. They sat on my living room furniture and performed Deep Inside Porn Stars, a ‘Chorus Line’ style piece based on the consciousness raising support group they had formed. This was radical—that they were coming together in an artspace, that they, like women all over the country had a CR group, and that we, a group of feminist, artist, pro-choice activists were embracing women who were unapologetic and empowered by working in the sex industry. Plus they were funny, glamorous and sexy. 

The Carnival became a thorn in the side of Moral Majority conservatives who got wind of it from the bits of press we garnered. The gallery took the heat with the loss of some of their National Endowment for the Arts funding. During Club 90’s show there were threats of protests and we had to hire a security guard to watch the door.

By the late 80’s after switching focus to HIV, CK dispersed. Some of us married, had kids, divorced, moved on to different careers, but each of us has kept a finger in the art world. Last month a notice appeared in my inbox for CineKink, a film festival that focuses on “diverse sex positive kink” and one of their events was a tribute to Club 90. Surprised and excited I emailed the Carnies I’m still in touch with but no one was free to join me.

On a crazy bitterly cold night feeling like an intrepid warrior I ventured from Brooklyn to Soho to the East Village, first to an event that was part of a show celebrating Martha Wilson, the founder of the Franklin Furnace—a piece by Coco Fusco impersonating Dr. Zira, the forward thinking chimpanzee ‘animal’ psychiatrist from Planet of the Apes. The packed performance was smart and heady, Dr. Zira was a brilliant heroine, Coco Fusco is a brilliant thinker. During her powerpoint lecture she offered wry analysis of the male dominated pack behavior of humankind. 

And then to the porn stars! The sold-out show was at the Anthology of Film Archives, a venerable institution that preserves and exhibits avant-garde film and video. The LGBT+ hetero audience jammed into the lobby waiting for the theatre to open was dressed to the nines. I wish I’d had the courage to chat them up but I felt too shy. Who was this lively crowd? I knew, more or less, the people at Coco’s performance but not so here. Standing in the crowd I was aware of feeing judgmental, a bit critical and defensive—even after all that time working with CK. I found myself wondering too who I’d like to have sex with, surveying the room jazzed just thinking about porn.  

Veronica Hart, Veronica Vera, Candida Royale and Annie Sprinkle looked remarkably similar to my memory of them despite the passage of time. Each woman spoke about how important the support they gave each other in Club 90 was, and how formative the Second Coming was in helping move them towards a place in the industry they could call their own. I was thrilled and surprised, moved by the power of art. Then each spoke about the path she had taken. Candida became a director, moving behind the camera to make films that appeal to women, Annie is a performance artist and combines eco-activism with pornography, and Veronica Vera who opened a school “for boys who want to be girls” is an advocate for transgender rights. We watched a series of clips each had chosen that spanned her career; they were funny, sophomoric, empowering, and unapologetically joyful. There were bits that even aroused. After the show I pushed through the crowd to introduce myself, and was warmly greeted after explaining who I was (I guess I haven’t aged quite as well as they had!) They were thronged by fans and I didn’t know what more to say so I slipped out into the night. 

Like the CR groups that created space for women to reflect on and challenge the status quo, places like B & H welcomes you and creates a space where you are safe (and fed) and can reflect on and challenge the status quo. Split pea soup defines that period of my life. To this day eating a bowl feeds a sense of creativity and excitement. Sure its nostalgic too—the soup might be considered comfort food—but the sense of comfort comes from challenging the status quo and believing it possible to change the world.

In contrast, forking over bite-sized pieces of bacon at the Javitz Center felt pornographic, much more so than watching film clips at CineKink. The bacon was fetishized consumerism made into a billion dollar business that preys on longing and desire. The Club 90 women who defy repressive definitions of acceptable behavior poking fun with cum and pee—they are stars and artists. I think Dr. Zira would agree. 

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira


  1. There is so much worked into this: an important piece of social history intertwined with a personal trajectory, ideas of art and of pornography and the fetishism of bacon. I like your even tone and precise language and final killing (which I hope is the beginning of another piece).

  2. thanks Simona! I appreciate your reading and comments.