In March of 2021, I was able to create a new installation that brought the three video pieces of Safe 3 together. The installation featured a large projection of the video edited from the mainstream documentary. This video was flanked on the left by a small projection of my failed porno shoot and on the right by a small projection of my appearances as a character actor in pornos. Across the room, lit by a lone spotlight, was Dr. Thumper, which I was able to salvage and save from the trash when  my old company closed. During the installation, the fucking machine was calibrated to slowly extend and retract a red dildo back and forth over the duration of the exhibit. Otherwise, there were no other objects or photos in the room. In the future, I will complete the second part of this installation. A separate room will showcase another appropriated re-edit video as well as the documentation of a new performance I am working on. This final appropriated video will feature footage from a behind-the-scenes movie the company I used to work for made that highlights a day-in-the-life of my job responsibilities. For the performance, I will simultaneously build and restrain myself into bondage made from the same metal piping showcased in the previously described behind-the-scenes video. After remaining in the bondage for several minutes, I will free myself, and the structure that remains will hold the projectors showing the behind-the-scenes video of me working as a sex laborer along with a second video documenting the process of making and restraining myself in the bondage. As with the other projects in this series, my goal was to put my representation on the line as opposed to objectifying anyone else’s likeness. 

View of Installation

Since 1999, I have been using my jobs as research to inform my art practice. Having completed bodies of work regarding my professional careers as a cabinet maker, fine-dining busboy, locksmith, and yoga instructor, I most recently –from 2010-2018– worked behind the scenes helping to produce adult bondage and fetish movies as a full-time hourly employee. As a worker in this industry, my job title is often referred to as an “engineer” or a “rigger.” This entailed constructing or assembling the bondage in which models would be restrained during the filming of the movies. This role encompassed many different tasks; however, my most important responsibility was to create and fabricate safety for everyone on set, with the primary emphasis being placed on the safety of the model who would be in bondage.

When I began to moblize my employment in pornography as part of an art making process, I first had to determine if and how I might be able to ethically make art inspired by this research –as I have done in my other employment experiences– in ways that didn’t objectify anyone. At the outset, I spent a lot of time reflecting, researching, and defining how to situate my role as a worker in this very complicated context. To do this, I created the term “sex laborer.” By authoring this term, I was able to make a distinction between my job responsibilities and that of “sex workers.” Sex work is an identity and a form of employment for which I have tremendous respect, and I make this important distinction between my labor and that of sex workers because although some people in the world view my role in the production of fetish movies as sex work, others in the sex-industry disagree with that notion as I kept my clothes on and rarely appeared on camera. However, there have been other times in my life that my work in pornography has been treated with judgment by people outside of the industry in similar ways to the judgment that is sometimes placed upon sex workers. This left me in a complicated situation that I needed to come to terms with and to find a safe place from which to contextualize my experiences while also firmly situating myself in solidarity with sex workers all over the world.

The third part of research into my employment as a sex laborer revolved around the creation of “an intimacy of self.” I define this as making situations that allow me to experience a feeling of safety or intimacy of, by, or for myself, as opposed to creating it for other people as part of a job responsibility as a sex laborer, service professional, or as part of a series of social expectations. I realized that if I was going to make art that was inspired by my employment/research in adult films, then I needed to point the camera at myself: I needed to objectify myself. To address this idea further, I began to appropriate video footage derived from pornographic or mainstream sources that contained my image or representation as either a model, an actor playing a supporting character role, or as a laborer performing my job responsibilities. I then re-edited and re-contextualized the appropriated footage so it highlighted my presence in hopes of gaining some control over my representation. I do not own any of this footage.

View of me making bondage for a shoot.

View of the bondage being used in the shoot.

These videos and installations all center around a presentation of myself as the objectified subject of the projects. Part of my job responsibilities as a sex laborer was to objectify other people. Whether that was by treating a body as a raw material to be consensually contorted and restrained in bondage or by pointing a camera at them, I was expected to create an objectified representation of another human’s body in order to create a fictionalized and fetishized commodity to be bought and sold. Although many of my past art projects have addressed issues related to BDSM, I felt strongly that if I was going to make artwork that specifically addressed my employment in adult films then I needed to put my own image and representation on the line in the same way that the hundreds of sex workers that I worked with in the production of porn had done. In short, my question became: what am I willing to risk? 

What am I willing to risk? This question has weighed heavily upon me since I began to wrestle with my work as a sex laborer in pornography. As an academic, I am too close to the material that I am attempting to study. This insider status taints my perspective and makes it essentially impossible for me to study the idea of sex labor objectively. This reality is best described by Dr. Heather Berg in an article called Labouring porn studies (2014.) In it, Berg outlines the problem of privileging academic work that relies on a researcher who was –or still is– part of the culture that they are studying (in Berg’s case pornography). Berg defines herself as “otherwise” when situating their relationship to the academic study of pornography, ambiguously claiming to be neither an insider nor an outsider. In Berg’s own words:

“I come to the research process as both a worker (academic and otherwise) and a student of labor seeking to understand and confront the work dynamics. I am being deliberately vague regarding what this ‘otherwise’ means, as I am wary of the tendency in much feminist research to privilege ‘insider status’ and the incitement to the labor of self-disclosure this compels. As a number of feminist researchers have noted, academics interested in social change must place special emphasis on conducting and disseminating research ethically.”

This point is well taken; however, I am not sure what I am doing as an artist can or should be considered “academic.” Although my art practice is born out of research, it is also born of the necessity of labor. More specifically, in a Marxist sense, the appropriation of my labor in exchange for currency that I can then trade to secure the resources, rent, and commodities is  needed to stay alive. Although it is factual that I worked behind-the-scenes in adult films, I do not think my assertions as an artist making work about my experiences working in adult films should be viewed as “factual.” Like Berg, I feel a great desire to disseminate my work in an ethical fashion. However, for me, this means the opposite of what Berg was referring to. Unlike Berg, I feel a need to be transparent about the source that is specifically informing my research. I do not feel I can ethically refer to my role as “otherwise,” while also giving audience members the opportunity to know ahead of time that the content they are about to engage with might be problematic or triggering for them. In the simplest sense, Berg is saying that we need to maintain objectivity when doing academic research because when we do not, it creates problematic data. However, some academic work is viewed as more valid than others if the person authoring the research is part of the demographic being studied. With this assertion, Berg points out that critical objectivity is sometimes lost when only researchers who are part of the community being studied are given permission to discuss those communities in nuanced detail. 

In my case, there are two points that become relative to Berg’s assertion. The first is: since I was not part of a BDSM community prior to working in adult films, do I have the right to research, observe, and profit from it as a laborer and/or artist? The second point is: since I felt the ethical obligation to tell the audience prior to viewing my art about my employment as a sex laborer in pornography, does this effectively bias the audience before they can objectively engage with the work on their own terms? 

As I wrestle with these questions, several more related questions rise to the surface. The first is simple: am I an insider or an outsider? Should I have been allowed to work as sex laborer since I was not part of the BDSM community prior to being hired? Is working as a laborer in this industry inherently different than working as a laborer in,for instance, construction? Does a sex laborer have an ethical obligation to be part of the BDSM community in a way that a laborer for a construction company is not required to be part of a community of woodworking enthusiasts? Do my seven years of employment as a sex-larborer make me an insider, or does it still situate me as an outsider? I find no easy and straightforward answers to these questions; however, I feel comfortable with this ambiguity. I think in this case an answer of “both” is not a cop-out, but is instead logical and ethical. Perhaps this is what Berg truly means when she self-identified with the term, “otherwise.”  

The second point is more complicated. In my opinion, objectivity is less important for an artist to maintain in the creation of their works than it is to a scholar who is studying a certain cultural demographic, however, I do not  think it should be devoid of it either. Any artwork that is solely contextualized as the exclusively subjective experience of the artist without any attempt to create an experience that addresses a broader concern runs the risk of throwing up the impenetrable defense of “un-critique-ability.” By stating at the outset that these works are a derivative of my personal, physical, and emotional experiences related to my work as a sex laborer, I run the risk of giving too much information to the viewer at the outset before they have any chance to create their own meaning-making experience. This, in turn, makes it difficult for a viewer to foster an objective critical dialogue on their own terms because I–as the artist–have already told them how the work is to be understood. I find this deeply problematic. In my opinion, anything that is above critique is inherently dangerous and I have never approached my art practice in this fashion. If sharing this background information about my subjective experiences as a sex laborer creates–in keeping with Berg’s analysis–a tainted “data-set” which in turn makes it teeter on the edge of  “un-critique-ability,” how can I better contextualize this work while at the same time being honest with viewers about how it was derived? Can I facilitate critical, objective, observational freedom for the audience while also fostering a safe space? I can honestly say that I have succeeded at creating those parameters within some of my past projects about my other types of employment. How can I facilitate those parameters within artwork specifically derived from my labor in pornography? Even after thirty months of work at UCSB, I clearly still have more questions than answers. 

In the “Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway asserts that there is no single characteristic that unifies all of the different groups devoted to the feminist agenda. She says that there is not a unified female experience and famously concludes that she would rather construct herself as a cyborg on her own terms than to be worshiped as a goddess on someone else’s terms. Although I do not know Haraway’s opinions on pornography, her axiom unifies anti-porn feminists such as Andrea Dworkin with pro-porn feminists such as Constance Penley. Both are feminists, yet both disagree. I certainly cannot posture my work as the reflection of a feminist agenda; however, I find a certain connection to Haraway’s writing. At the core, Haraway wants to not only control who she “is” but also how she is “perceived.” This desire to self-define was at the heart of my initial work while at UCSB. Much of my time has been spent attempting to frame my representation in a way that I was not permitted to do while executing my job responsibilities as a sex laborer. In a Marxist sense, this is an intrinsic consequence of being a laborer: the loss of self. It is not possible for me to control how my likeness–or how I am perceived–is  disseminated and consumed within the context of pornography because my representation will appear on some version of the internet so long as digital archives exist. In this sense, I would rather create myself as a sex laborer on my own terms than to be judged as a pornographer on someone else’s terms.   

As I digested the implicit objectification embedded within the act of producing or consuming pornography, I found myself seeing the experience in a slightly different fashion. Any person whose likeness is represented in porn is indeed objectified and the net result of that objectification is the production of a commodity. On a topical level, when another person purchases and consumes this commodity, they take possession of the entity that has been objectified. This is the implied meaning of objectification within the free-market consumption of pornography. However, there is something unique about the nature of pornography that somewhat subverts this narrative, which I struggle to define. Andrea Long Chu observes a peculiar intersection between left-wing anti-porn feminists and right-wing alt-right men who seek to break themselves from their perceived porn addictions. To these men, “Pornography is what it feels like when you think that you have an object, but really the object has you.”59 Perhaps, this is simply the nature of addiction in general; however, pornography does not give a consumer what they “want,” but instead points out what they do not “have.” In that sense, porn can never fill a person’s needs in the same way the purchasing of other commodities–for instance, paper towels–might. Instead, it would seem that Chu is saying that porn as a commodity consumes the consumer. This assertion feels oddly akin to my desire to objectify myself in terms of  my own representation within the narrative of porn. Through labor, I sought to become both subject and object in the production of these art projects. 

In the end, the work that comprises my thesis resists a specific reading. Although a viewer might not be able to access the specific experiences that inspired the symbolic actions that I perform in the videos, I do think it possible for them to see something of themselves reflected in my representation. Many of us work, and at our best moments, hope to find some sort of meaning, intimacy, safety, or significance in the social contract of waged labor that we may find ourselves with little choice but to invest in. It is because of this that I think it is possible that there are some people–certainly not all–like myself that are all looking to connect with the objects and labor that consume the vast portion of our waking lives. In that sense, I do not think that the art that composes my thesis nullifies critique, but instead presents the possibility for a viewer to see their own labor reflected in my representation. 

As I digest this work, I finally see that I was asking myself the wrong question at the outset of my investigation. These investigations were never about the question: what am I willing to risk? Instead, at the heart of the dialogue around this work, there is actually a long list of questions that I am still seeking to answer: who does the viewer need me to be as a subject-object? What do I give myself permission to study as an artist and/or academic? How do I want to situate myself in relation to my lived experiences, my research, and my art practice? Is it possible to meet the viewer on equal terms? How can I escort the viewer to a safe and respectful experience while also allowing them to objectively engage with the work on their own terms? To be honest, I have no easy answers to any of these questions. But after all this work, it feels good to have clearly defined some of these questions for myself.

Safe 3: Full Installation, UC Santa Barbara, 03/21 | 2019 | Safety Specialist