Through the looking glass: women and art at MeCollectors Berlin

Permanence and transience. Can art represent both of these simultaneously? These questions of time and history are just what “The Moment is Eternity”, an exhibition starting September 26th at meCollectors Room, aims to explore. 

Comprised of some 300 images from over 60 artists, “The Moment is Eternity” illuminates the photographic works of the Ollbricht Collection, and shows them in conjunction with a range of weird and wonderful historic artefacts from the Wunderkammer, or “Cabinet of Curiosities”. 

Considered to be one of the most extensive private collections in Europe, the Olbricht collection is filled with artwork ranging from the 16th century to the most recent contemporary work of artists and photographers.

Through an interplay of art forms, the “Moment is Eternity” looks at the theme of transience in a series of single fleeting moments – the only “perceptible slice[s] of eternity” – as captured through the lens of a camera. As meCollectors suggest in their accompanying press release, “Lending duration to the moment is inscribed into the very medium [of photography] itself.”

“The Moment is Eternity” is diverse in terms of medium and epoch. This is a collection of harmony and incongruity: where images of defining moments in history are placed next to erotic scenes of young lovers, where bodies meet with objects, colour meets with negative, and the passing of time persists despite all human effort to prevent it. 

It is this juxtaposition of the past and the present, the conventional and the absurd, that gives us a peripheral view of identity across the ages. 

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When taking my first steps into “The Moment is Eternity”, I was aware that this was an exhibition with a clear purpose. With the many sheets of information I’d been given in hand, I began looking at these images with preconceived ideas.

These works were about timelessness and eternity and about collecting and preserving, interrogating and reporting, the moment. 

These images were a tangible memento mori, a symbol of transience, mortality, life and death, mapped, at least for the first half of the exhibition, onto visceral representations of the body. 

I glanced from image to image of the human frame. Next to the exposed, elegant physique of the model Kristen McMenamy was an anatomical print of a dissected frog, a quirky reminder from the Wunderkammer of our long standing, human interest in anatomy. 

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Helmut Newton, Nude of Kristen McMenamy, 1995

It seemed odd to have a sexualised portrayal of a woman next to an obscure, even grotesque, image of a dead frog. But perhaps this was the aim: presenting incongruity to inspire new ways of seeing. 

Around the room were shameless depictions of the female body. Women were clothed, or not, arranged in a variety of positions, shamelessly projecting their identity and reflecting the aesthetics of the age from which they were captured.

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I thought of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dictum of the ‘decisive moment’ that meCollector’s had referred to in their accompanying press release.

To capture the ‘decisive moment’ is to capture the essence of a transitory moment and the “form that corresponds to that essence” simultaneously. 

But as I looked from image to image of women stood gazing either in the mirror at themselves, or outwards towards their viewer, I thought that these weren’t, perhaps, what was meant by ‘decisive moment.’

These didn’t appear to be fleeting moments, caught in time, but moments captured, pinned down and perfectly contrived for the viewer’s pleasure. 

Russ Meyer’s ‘Eve in front of Fireplace’ seemed to confirm my view. A woman lies partially clad on a fluffy carpet, looking seductively out at the camera. The fire glows in the background as a glass of wine sits within reach of her hand – all the indications of cosy lovemaking. The artist calls her ‘Eve’, the first woman who deceived Adam and the biblical figure who has been identified for centuries as a wily seductress. 

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Russ Meyer, Eve in front of Fireplace, 1955

A person’s history is always brought to bear on an image they see before them. Mine was informed by the readings of John Berger in his essay, “Ways of seeing”, which takes a critical look at the way we perceive art. 

Berger discusses the disparity between nudity and nakedness and the rhetoric surrounding it in a chapter of his book. He says, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.” 

In an an examination of the European oil painting tradition, he says that only twenty or thirty nudes in the entire collection depict a woman as herself rather than as a subject of male idealisation or desire. After reading “Ways of seeing”, I could no longer look at the naked female frame and not question whether it was indeed nakedness, or nudity, that I saw before me.

These images of women didn’t appear to be caught in time, but purposefully arranged for artistic consumption. Was the ‘decisive moment’ here, one that had been artfully put together, rather than spontaneously captured?

The images represented female identity, their roles and rituals, throughout time. But was it their own self, or one created by another, that was being presented in these images? Was Russ Meyer’s Eve naked or nude? Did she arrange herself this way, or was she arranged? I looked to the next image. 

In a black and white photograph, Cindy Sherman is captured looking into a mirror. She poses, clutching a towel around her and looking over her shoulder with a provocative gaze, as if decidedly arranged this way, perhaps even by a male photographer. The moment here was certainly ‘decisive’, yet not spontaneous. 

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still 

Through this image her identity is obscured. We see her face, but only through a secondary source – her reflection. Here, the woman doesn’t show us her real identity, but an assumed one. Her body does not relax into its natural shape, but stands perfectly poised for a photograph.

Women, mirrors, make up, masks, are historically tied up with issues of identity, authenticity, beauty and vanity. Paul Outerbridge’s ‘Nude at a dressing table’, not only depicts a woman gazing into a mirror,  but presents her applying makeup – an action seen by the Elizabethan stage as a concealing of the self. Does the woman portrayed looking into the mirror mask her identity, or accentuate it? And if so, then who for? And why?

Andre Gelpke’s ‘Christine mit Spiegel’ presents a woman behind a handheld looking glass, her face completely hidden by the mirror – her arm raised as if applying makeup to the visage she hides from view. And then there is Gerhard Richter’s, ‘Betty’, a woman captured, but looking away. Her identity unable to reach the viewer at all.

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Andre Gelpke, Christine mit Spiegel

The identity of these women, as represented by these images, reveal something about how they are, and have been, perceived, and how they perceive themselves. They are a double image, with a double purpose. A reflection in a mirror. 

I stood looking at a courtly handheld mirror, dated back to 1650, encased in a glass box near these images. Staring at this tangible emblem of “womanhood”, I wondered how many women had looked into this glass through the ages and had truly seen themselves.

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Questions of time and history returned as I wandered through the rest of the exhibition. Historically charged pictures of the first test of an Atom Bomb in New Mexico, the explosion of Mount Vesuvius and a static image of the KKK juxtaposed naked lovers on a back seat of a car and Ed va der Elksen’s photograph of a passionate, cinematic kiss. 

The ‘decisive moment’, one momentarily suspended in time and hastily captured by the lens of a camera, was here, urgent and unrelenting. Whether nude, naked, premeditated, spontaneous, for the self or for someone else, these images have something in common: they are moments in history that cannot be replicated. 

Photographs can capture, as well as distort, reality. They can confirm and conceal the self, but the ‘decisive moment’ remains the same: one that can only be captured by the swift click a shutter. 

‘The Moment is Eternity” is open until the 1st April 2019 at the MeCollectors Room Berlin. The gallery is open every Wednesday to Monday, from 12-6pm.

What silence did for me

 

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It’s hot. My first of Germany’s intense and unrelenting Summers. I feel a silence within me that wavers between peace and ecstasy. It is the silence of lightning diffused by rain. 

I’m sat on a rooftop at sunset, watching the heat seep into the concrete. Up here, the angles of Berlin’s skyline can be observed in their entirety. I watch as the city’s shades of beauty reveal themselves slowly over the changing light of the evening. The buildings are stripped of their sheen; each prism of light revealing their imperfections. I could have been up there for days.

It is through lasting images such as these that we connect ourselves to a time and place. I close my eyes and envision rows of pristine white, post-war houses with gilded balconies; disused buildings anticipating reconstruction; metal tramlines; cycle paths bearing a range of cyclists, some clad in thermals, others with shopping piled high in their baskets; flea markets yielding goods of old boots; exotic handmade jewellery and books with torn pages; local bakeries stocked with crisp rolls and dark rye; underground clubs with graffiti branded across every entrance; elderly couples enjoying cups of coffee across red checked tablecloths. Berlin’s spirit of change and enterprise is palpable. You can do little else but internalise it. 

In six short months, I have nearly perished in Berlin’s deathly cold – never before has my skin been touched by such biting temperatures – and witnessed the lateness of Spring. With time to spare and a mind clear enough to contemplate my surroundings, I have seen the seasons come and go so fleetingly. Snow gave way gracefully to budding flowers, withered branches grew heavy with a sudden fostering of leaves, and I too emerged from spiritual hibernation. I watched as the city came alive. 

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Graefestraße, Kreuzberg

With the first flowers of Spring came the first fleet of tourists, scurrying about the city in any available site like ants near a fruit bowl. I hear you smirking at my confidence to exclude myself from the definition of ‘tourist’, but how long does one have to be resident in a country before identifying oneself as part of it?

From the rooftop, one can cast their eye over the landscape and imagine a city decimated by War and rebuilt from the ashes. Over the horizon, I picture Hackescher Markt, now a thriving scene of commerce, desperate and despondent in its post-war gloom; the crumbling buildings, broken streets and concrete slabs graced only by the life of tangled weeds; the beauty and violence beneath our feet. 

This is a city who still sleeps with one eye open. The legacy of war is what Berlin climbs into the sheets with at night. It is the monster at the bottom of the bed. The city has been constructed anew, with every last brick a tangible emblem of what they can’t forget. 

Yet amidst the rubble, this divided city became worthy of aesthetic attention. Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin allows its old to coexist with its new. It is a mass canvas of mixed material. Berlin’s task was not to cover and conceal, but to find a way of incorporating the past into the fabric of the future. Stagnation shifted, and reconstruction inspired a new way of seeing. 

In art nothing ever stands still, and Berlin proves it. At every street corner, workmen whistle as they emerge from newly constructed buildings, caked in plaster. The sad frames of disused warehouses brandish banners of images indicating what future form it will take. Baroque architecture maintains its majesty above street view, incorporated into newfound buildings that welcome commerce as a medium for change. Functionality collides with ornament; modernity with history. Art and architecture become the chisel with which Berlin carves itself a fresh identity. I see myself reflected in every new sheet of glass. 

Of course, places can offer you the illusion of feeling changed, or enlightened in some way. They absorb you in a swell of activity, addressing your feelings of anonymity with opportunities for communion with others. There’s a reason why backpackers return with a new set of values to match their post-travelling ponytails. They establish a new sense of self away from routine that reflects their surroundings. Liberation becomes woven into every last strand of dredlocked hair. 

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Sredzkistrasse, Prenzlauer Berg

 

There were nights when I could walk out into the city and forget I was anywhere. I had no shackles. But with an absence of responsibility came an absence of connectivity. Sometimes I felt like I could walk the streets and each house would turn their lights off one by one. No lamp would illuminate the glass allowing me to see my reflection. No flicker of a candle could offer me a nightcap. 

I was alone. The lack of light was just a tangible reminder. I could wade through a throng of people and not one soul would speak. I could be submerged in a sea of faces and still feel all alone.

These were moments where one solitary night can feel like permanent seclusion. I had to learn how to situate myself mentally in nowhere. I learned to inhabit loneliness.

Strangers and Serendipity

 

‘The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time. The ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.’ On the Road, Jack Kerouac

 

I thought about this quote the other day from a book that is very dear to me. On the Road is a classic as it is consummately American: filled with dreams, illusions, sex, drugs, and a whole load of heartache. It contains all that we seek to find in American literature: dreams punctured by reality. Pulsating to the rhythm of 1950s jazz and the emergence of counterculture, On the Road captures the exhausting richness of life: its exuberance, its melancholy, its incomprehensibility and, more importantly, it’s variety. 

It is now after spending six months away from home that I realise the gravity of Kerouac’s statement about ‘the mad ones’. It is these people that I came to know in Berlin. The people that love life and experience; the people that speak to strangers because they want to; the people who pluck conversation topics out of thin air and fuel them for hours on humour, gesture and narrative. Storytelling is what we live for. It’s what the travellers crave. 

Clear in my mind are the days that I wandered through the city, anatomising the face of every building and every person with a childlike curiosity. I began to speak to people out of desire more than necessity. Small talk gave way to conversations of unimaginable depth. I revealed sides of myself only a stranger could understand. 

Chance encounters became my source of serendipity – those uncanny moments of meeting somebody who you need or desire right in that moment. A stranger who will take care of you just for the night. Searching through underground clubs of dancing and flashing lights, where drugs and alcohol give visage to the faceless, to find my friends was just another way of making new ones. Sharing in the song of a blues guitarist in the Park was just another, more lyrical, way of speaking. Reading aloud about my life story was just another way of learning to bargain with the dangers and difficulties of words. The diversity of languages owned by the many different kinds of international people became both a bridge and a barrier to communication. Under such circumstances, you fashion new ways of understanding. 

I found that the people who said that they were travelling for fun had the most to hide. They veiled their pain under a guise of spontaneity. These were the people who were running from something, but couldn’t quite articulate what. After a few drinks, you knew why they had fled. Everyone is always looking for something. The people who say they aren’t just don’t know it yet. 

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Time can mean everything, and it can mean nothing. There are people you meet who become part of the furniture in your life. You shuffle over and prepare to make permanent room for them. These are the ones who provide a sturdy bed and a place to rest your head – the ones who will tuck you in after a bad night. And then there are the people who will pull up a chair to immerse themselves in you just for a few hours. 

Romance can exist for a night, and it doesn’t have to be marked by sex. I often tell people about my ‘one-night love stories’ in Berlin clubs. They are never what people expect. 

There’s something that seems deeply spiritual, again uncanny, about connecting to a person just for a day, or an evening. Significant events in life don’t have to be judged by their longevity. A night of looks across a room, a night of dancing and talking, a night where moments of conversation pique your interest for a lifetime, have their own importance. They say you never really forget a face. 

It’s 3am in a club that I never would have trespassed this time last year. For most, the night is only just beginning. I find my Parisian gentleman wandering around by himself, just soaking everything in – or, just clearly out of his mind on alcohol.  If there was ever a stereotype to be fitted to a Frenchman, he fit the bill entirely. This guy loved the Romance of it all: English girl with big brown eyes and a heart full of curiosity travels to another country to find herself. He filled in the part about her falling in love with the Parisian poet. 

We talked of an alternative life where I abandoned Berlin to live with him in Paris. Every morning we’d open our pearl-white kitchen windows and breakfast on the balcony on red-checked tablecloths laden with jams and croissants. Outside, our bikes would be lined up next to each other, ready to embark on our scenic trips out of the city on the weekend. We’d dine into the evening, getting as drunk on each other as on the traditional Parisian wine, and return home together, hand in hand … in the rain. You get the picture. 

Narrative is integral to human nature. It connects us to time and place, and to each other. These moments of serendipity, while short-lived, hold significance still. My Parisian love may have wandered into the distance without my phone number, but he left behind a deep impression of the novelty of the moment.

It’s possible to be happy just where you are, just for one night. The irony is that part of the romance of meeting somebody is never seeing them again. You suspend that moment in time and place, and preserve it for what it was. He was definitely one of Kerouac’s ‘mad ones.’

Looking back on my photographs of Berlin – my own visual memoir of the best six months of my life – made me think of how these are snapshots my children will look at someday. Perhaps they will know that their mother had stalked the ‘sidewalks of life’ without fear and apprehension, and had learned something along the way. 

On the Road is all about the quest for ultimate fulfilment. This is the paradox of human life. We seek to be fulfilled, but never will be so. 

In a way, I never want to know what it’s like to feel utterly fulfilled. I never want to grow old in a house at the end of a street in suburbia, sat in a chair in my perfectly ordered garden, gazing out at the trees I never climbed. My grandfather always said that looking at life with an ever-youthful, ever-curious eye was what sustained him throughout his life. The demise of curiosity is the moment you stop living. 

And here we are, back at the present moment. Today marks my six-month anniversary in Berlin. Some people I have met have stayed, others have fled, and the ‘mad ones’ have become a part of me. In Berlin, people live with a natural and purposeless freedom. To live is not just to be alive, but to experience the inexhaustible potential of people and places. The sands of time have little bearing on anything. 

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’

 

‘Put Me Back Together Again’: Florian Schulze’s Homeless Aesthetic 

Poverty exploited by the Privileged: how Berlin Fashion Week revealed the industry’s dark side

The 3rd – 7th July of this year saw Berlin’s annual Fashion Week take to the streets. Vogue voiced how ‘logomania and streetwear were alive and well’, and how ‘wild prints’ and effortless ensembles were ‘perfectly complemented by Berlin’s eclectic architecture.’1 In accordance with Berlin’s eco-spirit, sustainable fashion took to the stage. And then there was Florian Schulze’s collection, ‘Put Me Back Together Again’.

Schulze’s collection ostensibly ‘revisits romanticised ideas of homeless women dressed in shabby layers of discarded clothing.’2 Taking inspiration from the ‘bag ladies of New York City’, Schulze has created garments that reflect their ‘beauty of imperfection.’ Through his collection, the clothes of these women, drawn from ‘dumpsters’ and found in the streets, were showcased in all their glory. Using ‘detailed handwork’ and ‘precise processing’, Schulze supposedly applied intricacy to their ‘shabby’ aesthetic. His website reveals how his homeless muses received a ‘well deserved upgrade regarding their appearance’ in exchange for the inspiration they so willingly provided. Now this is just offensive.

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There is something quite incongruous, or perhaps even unsavoury, about using the clothes of the homeless to inspire a collection for a multi-billion pound industry. Simply put, this is poverty exploited by the privileged.

The ‘bag ladies’ of New York City do not carefully select their fabrics for aesthetic purpose as fashion designers do. They look this way because this is all they have. Their ‘fashion choices’ are based on accessibility, not taste. Their ‘craftmanship’ derives from necessity, not free will. Florian Schulze takes their scraps of survival wear and ‘puts [them] back together’ again for his own artistic purpose. And was their uproar on the runway? In the name of ‘Fashion’, not one critic batted an eyelid. With very little stir in the press, the incident seemed to slide under a perfectly woven rug into insignificance. This kind of exploitation is clearly nothing new in the underbelly of the fashion world.

I wonder what Schulze’s first thought was when walking the streets of New York, gazing intently at the outfits of homeless people with an artist’s eye. He looked at the homeless women of New York and saw an aesthetic worth replicating. He saw inspiration, rather than desperation. I slightly winced when I scrolled to find a comment from a friend on his instagram reading, ’I told you, you were going to be famous.’3 Amidst the showers of compliments lies a moral problem obscured from view. The homeless people of the streets of New York do not profit from their ‘shabby’ aesthetic, but fashion does.

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This is symptomatic of a wider global problem in the fashion industry. Schulze’s decision to replicate the garments of the homeless and ‘upgrade’ them using high quality materials fits into a wider framework of ‘ cultural appropriation’ – a controversy that is woven into the fibres of many designer’s work. Gucci’s Fall 2018 collection, for example, came under fire for producing looks for white models which were inspired by the turbans worn by the Sikh community. Schulze’s negative appropriation of poverty commits the same crime, placing high fashion over cultural sensitivity.

A quote on Schulze’s website reads ‘Fabrics sometimes need to be destroyed before they show their real beauty and become a part of their actual usage.’4 His artistic vision involves denigrating before creating: ‘putting things back together again.’ Whilst this is an interesting philosophy – it’s not entirely original, nor something that should be applied to real people in real circumstances.

In what perhaps began as a noble artistic pursuit to take inspiration from destruction, Schulze’s collection turned quickly into a patronising reimagining of the homeless ‘aesthetic’. Schulze used the shabby scraps worn by the people of the streets to exhibit his own artistic skill and provide a collection worthy of Fashion Week’s scrutinising eye. In doing so, he chose style over moral substance.

 

1 http://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/berlin-street-style-spring-summer-20192 http://iamflorianschulze.com/ma-graduation-collection/
3 https://www.instagram.com/iamflorianschulze/
4 http://iamflorianschulze.com/about/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Romantics and the shackles of Modern Life

‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’ – Jean Jacques Rousseau

We’ve all heard scientists talk about how sickness is epidemic in the modern world. The ills of technology, social media, processed foods and oppressive schedules affect each part of our physical and mental wellbeing. While a lot of this can be considered scare-mongering, I think there is some truth to the warnings. In some ways, we are the sickest we have ever been.

We are somewhat fortunate in the West that our culture propagates a strong work ethic as the key to success. People climb higher than ever before. The ascendance of individualism, however, has its costs. Humans are wired to always be on the run. Rising stress levels cause us to produce fight or flight responses to small inconveniences. We rely on substances to wake us up or put us to sleep. Chronic stress,  high blood pressure and strokes are more prevalent than ever before.

We are the generation of immediacy. We expect quick results, and everything in society must attend to this purpose. Technology provides shortcuts and brain-power where ours has lapsed. It is the clock that makes us tick. Time is of the essence, and our health suffers because of it. We have cultivated a society that attends to our needs, and doesn’t. Our quality of life has been impaired as much as it has been improved.

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Literature has long chronicled the illnesses of modernity. The words of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl suddenly spring to mind. His harrowing image of ‘starving, hysterical, naked’ automatons, the otherwise ‘best minds of [his] generation’, ‘dragging themselves through the streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix’, can only resemble the long queues of people waiting in line at the doctors for their magic pill: the elixir of life that will charge them up enough to face the mound of paperwork at the office the next day.

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Ginsberg often used natural imagery in his poetry as a point of contrast to the encroaching threat of modernity. He visualised a world that rejected the oppressive conformism and materialism of American society that had produced the sickness he saw on the streets. Like the early Romantic poets, Ginsberg saw industrialism as the disease of the modern condition.

Ginsberg’s generation, the Beats, were liminal figures. They expressed their cultural marginality by being everything and nothing, and belonging nowhere. They were the nomads of the American streets. The poets of early nineteenth-century Romanticism pioneered this interest in the figure of the ‘wanderer.’ Wordsworth, writing against a backdrop of rapid industrialism and the casualties of the French Revolution, fought against the changing order of society that modernity had brought along. He wrote of ‘thou wanderer in the wood’ – a person who wilfully chose to escape the reign of inequality being produced by a hierarchical, industrial-led society, into the recesses of nature, ‘the guide, the guardian… and soul of … moral being.’ Nature was still pure, untouched by human influence, and therefore a place to receive spiritual consolation.

Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, ‘Wanderer above the sea fog’ (c. 1818) captures a lone man stood on a summit, absorbed in quiet reverence, overlooking the catastrophe of the modern world. Framed by nature, he stands objectively, disconnected from the ills of modernity. Wandering was to the Romantics a way of submerging oneself into Nature and into a world with infinite and unlimited potential. Gazing out into the immensity of modern life, one should learn that it is, at times, okay to ‘wander.’

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Casper David Friedrich: ‘Wanderer above the Sea Fog’, (1818)

I now realise how Wordsworth felt composing ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, sat peacefully on the banks of the River Wye. Nature and writing, I have found, have an interesting alliance. I have learned enough about myself to know how susceptible I become to claustrophobic environments, and how much this can stifle my creativity. Sometimes sitting alone on a park bench amidst a cluster of trees truly can, as Wordsworth said, allow us to ‘see into the life of things.’

As Rousseau observed as early as 1762, man may be born free, but in the 21st century, our chains, obscured by the flashes of our mobile phones, may not be visible. We are inescapably tied to an overcharged sense of responsibility to perform at our best, reach success, make as many connections and as much money as possible. We may just not realise it.

Perhaps what our society needs most is a Roussean call to ‘get back to Nature!’, for it is Nature that can provide clarity to an unintelligible world.

The Romantics felt that life was not always something to be analysed, but felt and experienced. Nature, in all its majesty, was an apt setting to contemplate how one could strive for something greater.

Of course, it is too late in the day for us all to flee to the mountains, but all humans do need an outlet. For the Romantics it was opium; for my generation its the hyper-escapism that digital connectivity, recreational drugs and binge drinking can afford. The antidote for the stresses of modern life shouldn’t have to be a rejection of responsibility, or a substance-induced oblivion, but a carefully planned, structured, period of escape. 

Allow yourself time, stillness and flexibility. Cultivate an environment where only your own thoughts pervade. Shake the pollution of the city and embrace the fresh air of the country. Plan a day where events can be unplanned and spontaneous. Turn off that bloody phone.

Accepting uncertainty is not surrendering. It is choosing to relinquish, if only momentarily, the planning, structure and insatiable drive that lies behind our success. 

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Breaking the taboo on sex-work [Part 2]

Relationships, female empowerment and placing men in the submissive role

‘I am a firm believer in paywalling men. I will not reply to somebody if they haven’t paid for the privilege of speaking to me. It’s that simple.’

What do you think of when you imagine a sex-worker? What do you imagine them to be? How do you imagine them to live their lives? 

In this part of the interview, Sarah reveals how sex-work can be an interesting exploration into the psychology of men. We discuss how playing the ‘submissive’ and asking to be financially dominated is a way for some men to unburden themselves from real-life responsibility and relinquish control. Breaking the taboo on sex-work as a career choice led by and consumed only by men, Sarah explains how the porn industry is no longer needed to represent female sex-workers. To Sarah, the sex-worker is not an object of aesthetic awe devoured by men, but a woman in charge of her own creative vision. These are not the words of a subjugated person, but an empowered woman.

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M. In our previous discussion, we talked about how the content you produce for your clients is not protected online, as it is for other artists. How do you manage this?

If I find that one of my videos has been posted on a tube site, I have no problem in messaging the site and asking for it to be removed, saying ‘this is my property, this is my website, you can see that i’m selling it. You don’t have permission to sell it.’ But ultimately, I’ve found that my customer base is quite loyal. ‘‘Part of female domination, the clips that I make, is respecting the performer by paying for the content.’’ Financial domination forms part of the fetish. If you search on Clips4sale, you’ll find that ‘financial domination’ is the biggest category.

M. To me this reveals something quite intriguing about the ideals of ‘masculinity.’ Do you think the fetishisation of ‘financial domination’ says anything about how things have been changing in society with regards to gender roles?

I think the ability to create and share content has certainly contributed to women becoming more financially empowered. In terms of masculinity ideals, I think the concept of a man asking for a woman to be in control of their money and to financially dominate them does say something about how men see themselves in society and the ways in which they are empowered. In my experience, men conflate a lot of their self worth with how much they earn. Financial domination by a woman is taking that power that some men have conflated around wealth and being the ‘provider’ and reversing it.

M. I find it interesting that these certain types of men, your clients, fetishise the concept of being placed in a submissive role. What do you think it is about being submissive that is a turn-on? Why is submission so eroticised by these men?

I can only speak from my experience, but I find that a lot of my clients are very alpha-male in regular life. Often they have a lot of responsibility that they are looking to escape from. Some men may also just be naturally submissive and have been used to experiencing humiliation, perhaps in childhood, in the form of abuse or bullying. Even something like small penis humiliation, feeling feminised or embarrassed at school, can contribute to these kind of fetishes. I feel that for some men, asking for submission is taking control. To consent to humiliation and to ask for it from a woman, [who has historically been placed in a secondary role], can help them deal with their emotional issues.

M. So to turn to the other aspect of your work. What do you think about the online relationships you construct with men? What does this kind of contact do for them?

Some men are simply looking to ‘get off’ as a one-time thing. One client came along last night, for example, and just asked for a Skype show. He said he’s not a ‘lifestyle submissive’ but he finds that sometimes life gets on top of him and he can’t express this side of him with his girlfriend. ‘He needed one night to let off some submissive steam.’ Other people are looking to build more of a long-term relationship and establish trust with someone. Sometimes it’s not just about how they can ‘get off’ sexually. It can be a lot more emotional than this.

M. So in a way, the service you provide is more than sex and instant-gratification?  You’re actually helping people deal with psychological issues and also creating a safe place for men to indulge their sexual fantasies outside of a relationship? 

Yes, I would say so. I think it can be therapeutic for a lot of men. ‘There’s a lot in society about what a man should and shouldn’t be.’ They shouldn’t be sensitive, they should be sexually dominant etc. To be able to express an alternative side to a person that is going to accept them and won’t ridicule them is quite important for some of my clients. The irony of this is that I do ridicule men, but they ask me to. It’s the consent to ridicule that is important.

M. Do you ever feel like there are any negative aspects to operating in such a patriarchal system?

It can be frustrating. Sometimes I would like to put more work into making my clips a lot more artistic, but I often feel like I won’t be rewarded for it. Men are there for me, not for the quality of my videography. Also, having men commenting on your work, your body, or proposing clips that they think you should make when they’re not a paying customer, can be really annoying. A man sent me a message last week asking whether I had ever considered growing my hair longer, and proceeded to tell me that many men prefer women with long hair…

M. How do you manage men commenting on your appearance/body?

Luckily the nature of this kind of sex-work means that we don’t necessarily have to be polite to our customers. If we don’t like somebody, or disagree with something somebody says to us online, then we don’t have to deal with that. ‘I am a firm believer in paywalling men. I will not reply to somebody if they haven’t paid for the privilege of speaking to me. It’s that simple.’ You also just learn not to take people’s comments to heart.

M. Do you ever feel subjugated by men through your work? I think that a lot of the stigma surrounding sex-work comes from women who would perhaps feel used or undermined in this particular role.

There is certainly still an argument that we are being exploited and are objectifying ourselves because we are creating content to be consumed by men. But ultimately, this is all about personal choice. I personally think that having this career is liberating. One of the things I love most about camming is the diversity of women involved. It’s not restricted to a particular group of individuals. ‘Cam girls can be anything from supermodels to your girl next door. Anyone can cam.’ It’s not like porn where there is a certain way you have to look. There’s no man telling you what you should or should look like, what part you should play, how you should behave. ‘It’s not like we are trying to fit into a specific mould for men. We are what we are.’ There are enough consumers for each performer to have their individuality. There’s a paying customer and a market for everyone.

Would you say this is empowering for you? And does this now place the woman back in control in an industry which is supposedly run by men?

Well, yes and no. Sex-work is a huge industry. In my field, I have always been able to work for myself. For a lot of fem-doms (female dominatrix’s), being in control is obviously going to be a part of what they enjoy about the work. I am in charge completely of the content that I create, how creative I want to be, clients I choose to accept or decline and when/where I want to work. ‘With the beauty of the internet, women have been able to take control of their own image and livelihoods. We don’t need porn studios to represent us anymore.’

 

Part 1 of this article can be found here:

https://findingmymuse.co.uk/2018/06/18/my-work-is-my-art-breaking-the-taboo-on-sex-work/

‘My work is my art’: Breaking the taboo on sex-work

‘My area of work is very empowering to individuals in any situation. We get to be in control of our image, our schedule, our bodies.’

Upon first meeting Sarah, I never would have guessed that she was a sex-worker. In our rather conservative society, it is not every day that subjects such as this even come up in conversation.

It was my second week in Berlin. I was attending a small meet-up at the Berlinale Film Festival, if nothing more than to temporarily enjoy an evening of human interaction with other newbies. A seemingly quiet, reserved girl said ‘Hello’ to me sweetly and sat down next to me. We chatted about trivial matters. Following the linear course that these conversations usually take, we approached the ‘What do you do?’ topic. Her response was that she was a ‘sex-worker’; that she made video clips and had relationships with men over the internet.

The term ‘sex-worker’ is heavily loaded with negative connotation. If there are any typical stereotypes to be attached to sex work, however, Sarah defied every one. After speaking to her more on this topic, a person who derived real passion and joy from her employment emerged.

It became clear to me during our discussion that sex-work provides females with agency both artistically and physically. What Sarah described to me was an artistic process of filmmaking as detailed as painting a canvas. To Sarah, her work is her art. 

Sarah represents what every feminist would define as a modern woman: she is committed to her craft and in control of her life and body. 

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Prior to interviewing Sarah, I asked her to write down an official definition for the term sex-worker. This is what she came up with:

‘A sex-worker is a consenting adult who provides a service and creates content primarily for the sexual, but also the emotional, affectionate or otherwise intimate, gratification of others.’

In this part of the interview, Sarah discusses how sex-work for females is an empowering career choice.

M. You explained in your definition that sex work is essentially a service that enables the sexual gratification of another. What kind of things can this include?

Sex-work can involve sex lines over the phone, selling nudes, live web-camming, working in a strip club or escorting.

M. And what does your particular work involve?

I am an online dominatrix who creates clips that I sell on clip stores online. I also have relationships with men online and I’m paid for the interaction. I’ve done live cam shows in the past but it requires a lot more stamina than filming clips!

M. Some people might conflate sex work with pornography and prostitution. How would you say your work differs?

I think there is a lot of stigma surrounding sex work. People think that it is exploitative of women and that it is controlled entirely by men, despite the fact that the overwhelming number of performers are female. This may be the case in other aspects of sex-work, such as porn, working in brothels, or pimping, but in my work, women have chosen to do it. We don’t have to respond to any kind of pressure from male producers. ‘‘I think it’s important to create a distinction between consensual, empowered sex work like mine and non-consensual sex work.’’

M. How did you get started with this work?

Well, live cam shows were always something I did from an age younger than I would care to admit. I was addicted to chatrooms as a teenager. I was addicted to the way it made me feel. ‘’I felt good, I felt beautiful, I felt powerful.’’ I felt like I had something that the viewer could only have if I allowed them to have it. When I was 18, I realised that doing this kind of work could be a source of income. I planned to go travelling, and was at the time applying to University to be a primary school teacher. I started doing cam shows on the side just to earn a bit of extra money. Before long, I was doing less hours at my part-time job in a shop and more hours on cam. I realised that I could earn money so much more quickly and efficiently this way.

M. You mentioned that you were at the time planning on becoming a teacher. What influenced your decision to become a full-time sex worker instead?

I realised that I had a passion for producing erotic content and I wanted to put more work into developing my image as a performer. I chose the lifestyle of a sex worker over that of a teacher because I loved the idea of being in control of my schedule and of my own life. Sex-work is incredibly versatile. I can work anywhere in the world, as long as there’s a sustainable internet connection, and can have complete creative freedom over my work.

M. So just picking up on your phrase ‘creative freedom’, would you say that this is the most appealing aspect of your work?

‘’Working for myself and having complete freedom in every aspect of it is certainly one of the things I value mostly about my job.’’ I always wanted to have a career in art and I was trying to figure myself out as an artist for years. However, I always worried that if I continued pursuing my art passion, I would end up being a struggling artist, or I would feel anxious about having to work towards somebody else’s brief or ideal. ‘’So I just make the work that I want to make now. I have complete artistic control.’’

M. So in a way, this work is a platform for you as an artist? Possibly in a way that you didn’t originally intend or imagine?

Certainly. I always thought I would be an artist, and I think what I produce now is art.

M. How would you say that creativity is channeled into your work? 

It takes creativity to think about the ideas for my clips, to construct the creative language that you use in dominating somebody, to create your outfit, to perform the part of a dominatrix, even to create a backdrop for the clips. I certainly take pride in my cam backgrounds. I put thought into the layers, textures and the colours to make a visually stimulating backdrop.

M. So what you’re essentially describing is the process of creating a work of art?

Yes. I mean, when you’re looking at a porno or a video clip, perhaps this isn’t so apparent. You’re just there for immediate gratification. You don’t think, ‘Wow this is a really beautiful work of art.’ Even porn or nudes are still art. There is still production and purpose there. Somebody has set this up, decided on the angles and the lighting. In independent performer’s work, people definitely exercise this freedom of creativity beautifully. And it’s not just nudes, it’s art. I am proud of the art I make.

M. We’ve spoken prior to this interview about issues of legality in terms of people using and exploiting your work. Is there any way in which your artistic integrity is protected?

The monetary aspect of sex-work is currently quite complex as we are not understood as artists. As it stands, we have no legal protection over our content.

M. Why do you think this is?

There’s a big culture in society of consuming art for free. People aren’t used to paying for things and they don’t understand the amount of work that goes into it. Men online will find clips from independent performers expensive and say, ‘Oh my god, $10 for ten minutes. I could get that for free on PornHub.’ The problem is that there is a lot of process that goes into making such a small clip. Setting up, getting ready, finding different angles, ensuring sound and lighting is working correctly, editing. ‘’It’s not just taking your clothes off, it’s a real job.’’