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Florian Cramer

Sodom Blogging "Alternative porn" and aesthetic sensibility

Annie Sprinkle, Kitchen Performance Space, New York, 1990 Annie Sprinkle, Kitchen Performance Space, New York, 1990

Indie porn represents a currently flourishing sub-genre of pornography, in which well known looks from subcultures such as Gothic or Punk are oftentimes staged as anti-commercial, feminist gestures of self-empowerment. In this regard the conflicts that shaped the debates around pornography's obscenity from the sixites onwards are however avoided in favor of alternative sexual aesthetics -pornography thus loses one of its basic features. But can there ever be pornography beyond the obscene?

The contradiction of all pornography is that it destroys the obscene. Like the beautiful for classicism, the sublime for Dark Romanticism and the ugly for the grotesque, the obscene is porn's aesthetic register, its aura and its selling point. Sade invents modern pornography as the discourse of art crosses a historical threshold from rule-based poiesis to the sensitive aisthesis. The "120 jours de Sodome" illustrate precisely this clash of cultures: a gang of perpetrators, old aristocrats who combine and choreograph their orgies according to the rules of poetics; a group of victims, young children from the bourgeoisie, whose sensibilities unmask the debauchery as perversion in the first place; and as a result, a mutual escalation of poiesis and aisthesis, construction and sentiment, machine and body. Conceptualism and performance, the antagonistic and complementary poles of modern art, are already fully developed here, and their conjunction of the pornographic and the mechanical will be taken up again in Duchamp's "Large Glass" and Schwitters's "Merzbau", patrician sex-machine construction and petit-bourgeois sensitive "cathedral of erotic misery".

That the pornographic logic of the taboo on obscenity cancels itself nowhere more thoroughly than in pornography itself, is demonstrated exemplarily by the performances of Annie Sprinkle. An actress in seventies mainstream porn who became an Action artist and "alternative porn" pioneer, she not only transgresses generic boundaries but also turns the classical imagery of heterosexual pornography on its head. With her ritual invitation to the audience to see into her vagina by means of a speculum, Sprinkle concludes the iconographic tradition of Courbet's "L'Origine du Monde" (1886) and Duchamp's "Étant donnés" (posthumous, 1968), but disarms the previously lewd gaze, exorcising, an agent of both sexual education and enlightenment, both the taboo and the sexual mystery from such display. Speaking of an obscene "heft of language" and discovering "in a word such as 'cunt' [...] great power", [1]. writer Kirsten Fuchs indicates not only the taboo of Indie porn discourses which defuse this heft but also the failure of industrial porno-graphy to reproduce it. Sade, whose systematically constructed escalations blunt the consumer's sensibilities just like any mainstream pornography, attempts to save the taboo by carrying his excesses to the extreme of ritual murder, a figure of thought, Romantic and sentimentalist at its core, which lives on in the "urban legends" of performance art suicides Rudolf Schwarzkogler and John Fare, and is physically performed, in a race against the Zeitgeist, in Genesis P. Orridge's modifications of his body.

The "exploitation" of the porn viewer consists in the false promise of obscenity, or its simulation - as Gonzo porn has done since John Stagliano's "Buttman" series - through the aggressive penetration and protrusion of bodies. [2]. Yet this is precisely where mainstream and independent pornography, the business and the activism of porn meet: Sprinkle's performances are Gonzo with the addition of a feminist "empowerment" which returns the object of such protrusion to the position of the subject. And the independent pornography which has recently established itself as a genre, mostly on the Internet but flanked by sexually explicit auteur movies such as "9 songs" and "Shortbus", can be the subject of a discussion free of bad conscience because, among other reasons, it presents "good" sex without obscenity; fulfilling, after the interventions of the feminist anti-porn debate of the 1980s, Peter Gorsen's diagnosis of a neo-vitalist tendency in contemporary sexual aesthetics that consummate the program of turn-of-the-century anti-industrialization and Naturist movements. [3].

Thus, the boundaries are blurred between the pornographic exploitation of codes from subcultures and artistic experimentation on the one hand, and the sub-cultural appropriation of pornographic codes on the other hand. The Australian porn holding hosts "Project ISM" at, a simulated conceptual art project by women who photograph themselves, and, a website - the eroticism is quite successful - exclusively devoted to close-up videos of men's and women's faces during sex and orgasm, thus serializing the concept behind Andy Warhol's "Blow Job", in recursive application of Warhol's aesthetic to itself. The milieus, roles and interests of art and commercial enterprise, of artists and sex workers, of sex industry and cultural criticism seem to blend into each other: the photo models and sex performers at or discuss feminist literature seminars, artist Dahlia Schweitzer is at once Electropunk singer, author, former call girl, photography artist and her own nude model with a college degree in Women's Studies, while the humanities in turn approach the subject as participant observers in Porn Studies and at recent "netporn" and "post porn politics" conferences.

The price for such integration is the avoidance of all conflict. Whether as a provocation, as an expression of the power of sex or of sexual politics - what is thus liquidated, the obscene, was what marked the points of intersection between the experimental arts and commercial pornography, in Courbet and Duchamp, in Bataille's novels, Hans Bellmer's dolls, Viennese Actionism, Carolee Schneemann's "Meat Joy", but also in pornographers later honored as artists, such as photographers Nobuyoshi Araki and Irving Klaw, fetish comic strip artist Eric Stanton and sexploitation moviemakers Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman, Jean Rollin (whose work was honored by Aïda Ruilova during the most recent Berlin Biennial) and Jess Franco. [4] What is obscene in these constellations are fetishes that become objects of exchange between the porno and underground cultures. Cross-fading between the biker and gay leather S/M cultures, between Satanism and Fascist iconography, Kenneth Anger's experimental film "Scorpio Rising" of 1964 exemplarily demonstrates these transactions. A decade later, Genesis P. Orridge and Cosey Fanny Tutti will copy this back into youth culture with their pornographic performance group COUM Transmissions, from which the band Throbbing Gristle and industrial music emerge, as will punk fashion, collaged by Vivienne Westwood at her London boutique "SEX" out of bondage and fetish accessoires.

McLaren's and Westwood's punk is the bourgeois culture of sentiment inverted, mobilizing the registers of the ugly, the disgusting and the obscene for an anti-beautiful aesthetic. Little wonder, then, that in its later, no less bourgeois mutation into the Autonomist culture of squat houses, construction trailer camps and cultural centers, punk claimed a different, "alternative" kind of beauty for itself. Following the same logic, the connotations of the fetish are transformed from the obscene into the anti-obscene in the sex stage shows of early hard-core punk band Plasmatics, featuring frontwoman Wendy O. Williams, a former stripper and porn actress, and later of the punk/metal women's band Rockbitch, and finally in "Indie porn", an allegedly punk-cultural Internet phenomenon. During the 1990s, specialized porn websites establish the genre of "Gothic porn" with otherwise conventional pornographic images and videos showing women in the Dark Wave look. In 2001, "Suicide Girls", the first commercially successful Indie porn website, emerges from this environment. [5]

But punk, thus dressed up as leftist radicalism, disowned its roots in fetishism, or rather displayed its other side, traced already in the late 1970s' rivalry between punk and disco by Spike Lee's movie "Summer of Sam", with punk culture - dominated by heterosexual white men - nursing its resentments of the poly-sexual, gay-dominated and multi-ethnic disco culture. German polit-punk band Slime's disparaging refrain of 1981, "Samstag Nacht, Discozeit / Girls Girls Girls zum Ficken bereit [Saturday night, disco time / girls girls girls ready to fuck]", expressed an attitude which, six years later, at the apex of the feminist "PorNo" campaign, exploded in violence at the Berlin movie theater Eiszeit when an autonomous commando raided a presentation of Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch's underground porn movie "Fingered". Even today, debates over pornography belabor this conflict, though less explicitly so. Proclamations of an alternative pornographic culture and imagination still always also mean taking a stand against anti-pornography feminism. And the other origin of Indie porn, besides commercial Gothic porn sites, is the "sex-positive feminism" - founded by Susie Bright, Diana Cage, and others as a counter-movement to the PorNo campaign of Andrea Dworkin, -Catharine -MacKinnon, and, in Germany, Alice Schwarzer - which not only discussed but also put into creative practice a "different" pornography incorporating feminist reflections; for instance, in the Lesbian journal On Our Backs, in the German Konkursbuch publisher's annual "Das heimliche Auge", and at

Both feminist tendencies, anti-porn and pro-porn, disagree on the therapy but not on the diagnosis that mainstream pornography is sexist and disgusting. [6] What is often overlooked, especially in Europe, is that Dworkin and MacKinnon by no means demanded that pornography be prohibited or censored. [7] Instead, their campaign acknowledges the power of sex and of the obscene imagination - the power that virtually all varieties of alternative pornography play down as a game without consequences, rationalize and repress. Indie porn replaces the rhetoric of artificiality in classical mainstream pornography - artificial body parts, sterile studios, wooden acting - with a rhetoric of the authentic: instead of mask-like bodies normalized using make-up, wigs and implants, the authentic person is exposed and protruded not physically, as in Gonzo porn, but psychically. Indie porn websites, comprehensive links to which can be found at, no longer emulate the cover aesthetics of porn videos and magazines but have switched to a standard format including diaries, blogs and discussion forums where users communicate with models and models with each other in a rationalized discourse characterized by a pretense of mutual respect, while the private person is at the same time in her "authentic" totality exposed to the public view, following exactly the logic traced by Foucault in the development of the penal system from the physical mutilation of the offender to the modern panoptic prison's psychological terror.

With this personalization and psychologization, Indie porn is making the logical next step in a progressive unmasking of the pornographic actor that began in the 1980s with the switch (recounted at epic length in the movie "Boogie Nights") from 35 millimeter porno-theater flicks to cheap video, continued in Gonzo anal sex porn, and culminates in Internet pornography. Gonzo porn is even more subversive and transgressive than Indie pornography in that it subliminally satisfies and thus installs gay desires within the heterosexual mainstream: anal barebacking, women styled like drag queens, and - in contradistinction from most 1970s and 1980s porn - offensively sexualized male stars, like Rocco Siffredi, in the camera's focus. What Gonzo stages as a radical poiesis and white-trash body performance in the vein of "Jackass", is turned in Indie porn into a sentimentalized confessional discourse before a paying audience cast as voyeuristic confessors, with constant assurances of the bourgeois normalcy and, irrespective of its rating, the playful harmlessness of the sex on view.

Just as Indie pop is a specious alternative to the music industry's mainstream, and in reality based on the same business model, which is being protected by ever more absurd copyright laws, preventive technology, cease-and-desist notices and searches of homes, Indie porn is not at all "independent" but in fact commercialized and sealed off from free channels, even positioned in opposition to them: precisely because the mainstream merchandise is easily available on peer-to-peer exchanges, pornography, just like pop music, now sells only by virtue of difference, including difference from itself.

(Translation: Gerrit Jackson)


[1]"Sex ist das Spiel der Erwachsenen", interview in Der Tagesspiegel, 7/2/2006.
[2]Cf. Mark Terkessidis, "Wie weit kannst du gehen?", in: Die Tageszeitung, 8/18/2006.
[3]Peter Gorsen, Sexualästhetik, Reinbek 1987, p. 481 ff.
[4]Porn and art are fused in Otto Muehl, who on the one hand anticipated the imagery and rhetoric of mainstream and scat fetish porn with his formulaic sexist and voyeuristic material Actions, and on the other hand took part in the making of the sexploitation movies "Schamlos [Shameless]" (1968) and "Wunderland der Liebe - Der große deutsche Sexreport [Wonderland of Love - The Great German Sex Report]" (1970); a similar path was taken in 1981 by pop singer and future sex guru Christian Anders in his movie "Die Todesgöttin des Liebescamps [The Love Camp's Goddess of Death]".
[5]It is a less well-known fact that Hustler publisher Larry Flynt started a porn magazine called Rage, styled as "Alternative pop" in its photography, typography and copy, already in 1997; its publication was soon discontinued. Joanna Angel, host of Indie porn website, now works for Flynt's "Hustler Video".
[6]Or they are fused, as in Catherine Breillat's movies, in the synthesis that sexuality's being per se sexist can be made a source of infernal pleasures.
[7]See Barbara Vinken's preface in Drucilla Cornell, Die Versuchung der Pornographie, Frankfurt/M. 1997.