by Wendy Clupper Meier
In 2005, performance artists Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth M. Stephens began a series of pieces and shows under the provocative title: “The Love Art Laboratory.” They spent seven years getting married to each other and nature all over the world and for thousands in public audiences, indoors and out. Neither artist was a stranger to multi-media nor collaborations. But this massive and continuing project, which was born personally of their reactions to global crises and structurally from Linda Montano’s ‘Seven Year Cycle’ model for art-making through the use of colors and chakras, takes the notion of experimental public performance to the level of peaceful political demonstration, which only a few other artists have achieved (John and Yoko come to mind). Post-Porn Love as Sprinkle calls it, has for her and Stephens meant: beating Annie’s breast cancer in a series of performances scheduled around her surgery and recovery; protesting military regimes globally and the anti-gay marriage agenda in the United States; promoting participatory audience interaction on stage; and showing people what PDA is really all about. In this revealing interview series, scholar and performer, Dr. Wendy Clupper Meier, talks to both women about their inspiring work individually and as a couple.
Part I – Annie Sprinkle
Dec. 20, 2011. 1pm. San Francisco, California.
Wendy Clupper Meier: Well here we are in beautiful San Francisco on the deck of Annie’s home. Late December under blue, sunny skies and reflecting on the latest and last performance piece you and your life partner and artistic collaborator, Elizabeth Stephens staged in the seven-year wedding cycle just up on Bernal Hill here in San Francisco. It must be a pretty overwhelming feeling to have finished seven years of weddings within nature, to each other and to nature itself. Congratulations Annie!
Annie Sprinkle: We are feeling good, feeling the love. We just spent the afternoon walking on Bernal Hill where this weekend we had just performed. My partner, Elizabeth M. Stephens and I just finished performing our seven-year wedding cycle. We just created in a public space our eco-sexy wedding to the sun. And closed our seven-year performance art project with Linda Montano’s structure. We had already committed to doing art about love and then we applied her structure at her invitation, which worked really well. So a new day is dawning and we also pleasured the planetary clitoris. We walked around the planetary clitoris and on the planetary clitoris. Well, we massaged it with our feet, let’s just say. Because we’re all very ‘pollen-amorous.’
WCM: Let’s talk then about this performance ritual.
AS: Yes, it was definitely a ritual of performance. We ask for no gifts, we kind of occupy weddings. Almost eleven years ago when Elizabeth and I got together, we became domestic partners in a ceremony at City Hall with thirty-three other couples and the war had just broken out and we figured that if we can’t get along, if the world can’t get along, then how can we get along? So we decided let’s become domestic partners. The news was there and we spoke out publicly against the war and we thought, ‘Damn, this is a great political platform. A really good way to get our message across, as a political platform.’ It just seemed so radically traditional. And so, we made an appointment to get married when (then San Francisco Mayor) Gavin Newsom said we could get married and the day before our appointment it was stopped (the law allowing gay couples to get married in California) and it pissed us off. So we decided, we’re going to have some weddings anyway. And so we did. We had fifteen weddings in six years.
WCM: Now this performance ritual of weddings was guided by the work of Linda Montano, with ‘Life/Art’ and that legacy that she has now shared with and given to you.
AS: And now, there were twelve other artists that did it too: I call them our ‘Art Lifers.’ ‘Linda’s Lifers.’ And she offered publicly her structure over to anyone who wanted to use it. And she selected some and actually Elizabeth and I were a ‘satellite piece’ and Linda had just become Catholic again, right when the Catholic Church had become public about being against gay weddings. There were a couple of satellite projects, which we considered, separate but equal, but we worked it out and it became this big performance art piece. And Linda finally realized that it was complicated because how does she support us and yet, follow the Church? She was always very supportive of us but in the beginning, that support, it was confused by the fact that how could she support these gay weddings and still also follow the Church’s stand against gay marriage? So it was a little challenging in the beginning and then we worked it out. Which was the goal of our performance piece –was to all get along, and to love each other.
WCM: Which is beautiful. And when I think of the structure of the Life/Art cycles, which Linda as an artist engaged first in, I wonder how so much of what she did early on in her career and on her own was not seen by the general public. And now the work, such as with the wedding cycles she collaborates on with you and Elizabeth and other artists is visible, there is this idea about ephemerality and performance. And yet it makes me think of the most notable performance artists alive today—your work especially coming together with Linda’s structure—is reaching the most people. It is the most participatory and you are always inviting other people to get involved in a kind of life ritual that would normally be witnessed by a select few. It seems a very savvy political move as a performer to take the Life/Art cycle approach, and open it up to as many ‘audience members’ as possible thus exposing the public to a very sacred and beautiful demonstration of love and commitment that—in the manner of Christian love—shows people how gay people are still just people who fall in love and want to commit to their beloved and show the world and in the eyes of ‘God’ that they desire to be united to one another ‘til death do you part.’ Would you agree with that assertion? Not just in that it is participatory, that you are constantly inviting people to attend but also to play an active role in the performance each time it is created anew?
AS: Yes, but Billy (Reverend Billy Talen) does that. And Guillermo (Guillermo Gomez-Pena) does that. A lot of performers are doing that. Many others do that, involving other people in their work. There are a lot of people who are doing that, but I see what you are saying, so, thank you.
WCM: Maybe what I mean to say is that I don’t quite see other artists, your peers and colleagues, doing exactly the ‘brand’ of what you are doing. Do you see other artists doing quite what you are doing though?
AS: You mean the Life/Art that Linda did?
WCM: Yes, the Life/Art -but also making it very autobiographical. Topical. In the present moment. Your major collaborator is your wife. Your weddings are your performances. That’s what I mean.
AS: Yes I do see a handful of us, who take our life experience and turn it into art and performance and a variety of art products—books, magazines, photographs, websites and yes, I think especially here in San Francisco, I mean we have Guillermo, Keith Hennessey, Reverend Billy was from here. Who else? I mean there are certainly a core of sex workers who are doing performance art that involves the autobiographical. With Madison Young and Sadie Lune who are the next generation. I mean there is a whole generation of ‘whore-culture artists’ who are investigating culture and politics. So I don’t feel that unique—except my little piece of performance is that I was from the sex industry and then transitioned into art. And now the new piece (Eco-Sexuality) is one that comes from a new place, where as we were doing it about love and sex. Now we are doing art about the environment and art and love and sex. So that is the new piece, we are doing ‘Eco-Sexuality’ we are starting an Eco-Sex Revolution. Those are my two bridges that I have crossed that maybe have not been crossed in quite the same way.
WCM: Maybe what I am trying to get to is that there is this quote I am paraphrasing from Karen Finley, where she says that as a person versus an artist she is very compartmentalized, that the person that one meets when you come over to her house for tea, sees the domestic, the polite, the person that you do not and will not see on the stage. There is the individual on-stage and off. Both are authentic but many artists will only share one ‘personae’ on-stage. And you talk as well about authenticity in your work. And I almost see that when you began, as a performer coming from the sex industry though you changed your name you were still ‘you.’ Similarly, in your journey with Elizabeth, who is also a performance artist, your audiences ‘knew’ Elizabeth too. You’ve never shied away from your approach about being inclusive with your audiences about knowing you, your body, your lovers, your collaborators. You’re doing it in life, whether it’s your politics and beliefs about sex workers or an issue you are addressing in your work. But then I’m specifically looking for an evolution in your work from what it was to what it is. I perceive your audiences will never see this disconnect between who you are as a person, open and honest about your ‘real’ life and your ‘real’ body and your art that reflects those experiences and feelings. I see a continued growth in you in your artwork, as a person. Can you?
AS: Yes its one long life. I’m fifty-seven now. You know I was raised by civil rights workers and Unitarians and my parents were against the war, and so I was raised really to be political. And an activist. My parents were on the American Friends Services Committee. And trying to help humanity, they were Humanitarians. And when I went into the sex industry at the age of eighteen, this surprised everyone. Well little old me! But I was very open about it. I told my parents that I had gotten a job in a massage parlor. I didn’t think they would figure out it was prostitution, but they knew. Of course then their daughter starts doing porn right away and that’s pretty public. So, I was always honest, but then my parents were also honest, they had a lot of integrity and these days I hear so many horror stories about parents reading their kids diaries or going through their phones and my parents had a lot of integrity and compassion and so I was raised to be honest and to have respect. And when I went to work as a sex worker it was about creating a fantasy. Creating theatre actually, creating a stage. You know so when a guy came into the room it was lit up with candles and music was playing and I had an outfit and he would ask for something and it was performing a service but it was also playing a role and in a sense creating that fantasy was like creating theatre. So now while looking back I think, wow, I wasn’t really starting in the sex industry from the start, I was actually doing performance since the beginning! The sex industry funded a lot of performance art for me. In my book,Post-porn Modernist, I mentioned Spalding Gray, a lot of artists who did porn that ended up funding their performance art. Sex and art and love and sex! But you’ll have to excuse me if I’m getting off topic because after the wedding performance this weekend, I’m still in that love mode.
WCM: Speaking of love, let me bring up the question of chakras, which now, you learned a lot about from your work with Linda Montano, yes?
AS: Well actually I learned about ecstasy and altered states through psychedelics. LSD. I went to school in Panama from fourteen to seventeen and did a lot of psychedelics on the beach in Panama and everyone was doing them back then and truly that’s where I learned about what eventually became my beliefs in eco-sexuality. Was on mescaline on the beach and feeling at one with nature and looking back those are really important experiences then. I was never a drug addict or an alcoholic. Some of the people in the sex industry that I knew where addicts and that’s very dangerous, you can get into a lot of deep doo-doo. Cause you are not really grounded and that’s one of those, I don’t know, ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’—but a lot of those people that I came up with that didn’t survive, had those issues, but I was certainly experimenting without any problems.
WCM: Now you mention the dangerous kinds of experimenting that others (artists and sex workers) that you’ve known who did not survive or come out of those times alright were involved in. You’ve said many times that you feel that you’ve been very lucky not to have been damaged as a result of experimentation the way others have.
AS: Very lucky. I have good guardian angels. I think it’s also a good optimism and I don’t know if I am losing that or what but I’m becoming more balanced over time I think.
WCM: That is good, that personal feeling or faith, if you will. Well now let me ask you what is your kind offaith?
AS: It is a total mix. I mean, my parents didn’t believe in God. I was pretty much raised by atheists. I was raised atheist. But then AIDS hit and I was losing a lot of friends and lovers and I needed something. My heart was opening and I was hurting and I needed these healing modalities and from where ever we had this healing group, ACT-UP was meeting and it was about being both a political activist anger art group and then there was this healing group. With Louise Hay and Ram Das and all of these New Age people came through and taught and meditation and Sufi and all of these different spiritual traditions and then all of these work with orgasms with Harley Swiftdeer was pivotal. And doing ecstasy breathing, moving, and grounding, sexual energy and Tantra and so it shifted from the more physicality of sex to the more energetics of sex. And that somehow catapulted me into some sort of spiritual realm and then Tantra. ‘Sluts and Goddesses’ was a workshop that I taught for years and years. And it was sort of juxtaposing the classic whore/goddess/slut archetypes. So I resonated with all things Indian, the music, the culture, and Linda, Linda Montano was going to the Ashram every year and she became and has always been sort of my spiritual guru. And she has been a great friend and inspiration and artist and when I see her work I am just floored.
WCM: Now, I understand that she is still producing but also archiving her work, so it must be strange as an artist to be thinking about selling your work when it’s not the entirety of your creative output. And as a performing artist to be selling your work at all must be strange as well.
AS: Yes indeed. Now there are others from that generation of women artists who have sold their archives who have been very aesthetic. But she needs to find a home for it. It is very important work historically. And it needs to be preserved.
WCM: Well and that is important as she is an incredibly influential American artist. A feminist artist. A performance artist and one who has developed a body of work unmatched by any other, one might argue. I mean, she inspired you. She was your mentor. She is your mentor.
AS: Yes, I would go and study with her any chance I got and time I had to spend with her. She called today to see how our wedding this weekend went. I mean, she is constant source of inspiration and advice and she baptized me an artist. I never thought of myself as an artist. I was comfortable being a whore (laugh). But I really wanted to be an artist and so she baptized me and then I thought, “Okay, now I am an artist.”
WCM: She convinced you of what you never thought of yourself of as before? As an artist? She made you see you could be and where an artist? Linda gave you that title?
AS: Yes. I mean, I would say sometimes that I was (an artist). In fact, Willem de Ridder, my boyfriend, back in the day, who was the European Chairman of Fluxus, he would say I was but he kind of introduced me to Fluxus and I really resonated with Fluxus. It is still my favorite art movement to this day. Fluxus. He said, “Oh, you’re an artist.” And I’d say, “Oh whatever, you can’t call yourself that, someone else has to call you that.”
WCM: Wow, that is an incredibly interesting idea Annie. I think a lot of artists wait to be told that. Wait for acceptance. But now, you do say, “I am an artist.” I saw it on your website (laughs).
AS: Yes, ha! It’s my life, art, practice.
WCM: Now, in terms if practice and faith and sex and religiosity, I am thinking of the way you speak of your work as a kind of ‘spiritual practice.’
AS: I don’t follow any particular form of religion at all. I just gather from all of them. Parts about all of them I like. Because I was raised Unitarian. Well, I am of Jewish blood but I didn’t feel like I resonated with Judaism any more than I do with Hinduism or Buddhism or Tantric or whatever, I guess its in my genes but I just draw from all different religions you know? And in that sense, I draw from everything in life for my art.
WCM: But do you feel like when you are in a performance that you are in a particular state? Where others would say they are in a state of being in a performance mode?
AS: I mean I guess just the ‘love state’ –I know it sounds schmaltzy, but when we did the wedding this weekend last, there was and still is this real ecstasy that just comes out as palpable in the pageantry and the coming together and listening to music and creating art and doing performative gestures. I mean, is performance art a religion???
WCM: I think it is up for grabs. We are past Deconstructionism and we are past Post-post Modernism. We are what we are, what we want it to be now. No one is setting definitions.
AS: I think that a lot of people say or that I am critiqued as being ‘too spiritual’ sometimes. But so be it. I don’t think of myself as spiritual but I go through phases. I mean, I will go with Linda to Catholic Church sometimes and I will get this ecstatic feeling from meditation from religious practices. I get off on it (laugh). But it’s all just energetics. From being in a beautiful building with many other people together all just singing some very simple song about love, it creates a vibration. But that’s not to say that that isn’t any better than being at the old Show World Center on 42nd Street (now defunct porn palace in NYC) where I wanted my ashes scattered (laughs). Now I think I would switch to (having my ashes scattered in) nature. I mean, since becoming Eco-Sexual, I think I would, we (Beth and Annie) would, falling in love, in nature, through all of these weddings, we are, I am, madly in love with nature and of course, that includes people too. But the one thing about being in nature is that you so easily can fall in love.
WCM: I don’t understand that critique people would have of you being ‘too spiritual’ –you mean, as a performance artist? I mean if you’re being labeled a ‘nature lover’ removed from the philosophy of Eco-Sexuality (which I gather many other people do not understand) it may cause confusion as to where you are coming from.
AS: Well I know when my book came out, I had this exercise in there about unleashing your inner slut/ goddess and these sex journals came out and they said, “We don’t like the part about being a goddess stuff.” Religion or spirituality…
WCM: …or feminism…
AS: Right! Or feminism! They get really turned off. That’s true. They get really turned off by even the wordgoddess. And I can see there is this archetype, but so I have played them both –goddess and whore. But regardless, I am a feminist. I like people who treat women well and with kindness. I love a woman, but I love men and I adore transgendered people, to me they are the primo-magical-extraordinary people, more so than any other kind of people. Well, everyone has their special-ness but I just happen to hold transgendered people above and beyond as the be-all-end-all, in all regards.
WCM: It feels like we could go down a whole ‘nother road with that one topic but, let me ask you, when an audience comes to see your work, what is it that they need to accept to believe going into it for them to have the reaction that you hope that they will have in the end? Is it important that they are respectful of women and feminists and the nude body and female sexuality or sexuality as a whole…?
AS: Well yes, absolutely. But when I was touring a lot and met a lot of audiences, that was when “Post-Porn Modernist” was very successful and it toured for five years and it was extremely popular and it hit on three major archetypes: the virgin, the slut and the goddess. And I think that a lot of people related to it for those reasons. And a porn star could come and relate to it and new age people could come to it and kinky people could come to it and it resonated with all of them. Or people who saw me on HBO and lived in the suburbs and I resonated with them. Or straight or queer people, just a broad audience.
WCM: So, curiosity drew these many different people to you.
AS: Curiosity? No, not exactly. I think people related to it.
WCM: No, what I mean is that people find themselves okay with stepping outside of their shells and getting close to something or someone they have always felt inside their own identity. I guess now we are contending with the concept of performance as ‘spectacle’ versus ‘ritual’ which would suggest this is a ‘show’ versus a ‘show of’ that an audience would not feel going into it otherwise. Changed I mean. This is the idea that the audience member feels a certain kinship with the performer in a spiritual way and instead embrace the opportunity to explore something inside of themselves they have always wondered about or felt a need to get closer too. But then that becomes problematic sometimes. I think that one of the major things that has endured about your work in its evolution is that it has –it is controversial but still it is accepted. Never the less, because it is about sex it rides a fine line. That taboo line.
AS: I think my gift, if I can be so bold. Is that it I am comfortable with myself, and my work comes form the heart. Like, (California-based performance artist) Tim Miller comes from the heart. And you have some really great performers, who are out there who doing theatre and performance art pieces and who do different things and who are coming from a place of not anger but, without a kind of love and compassion, and we need all kinds but I guess, what makes some audiences come back to see me year-after-year is I think they are going to come and feel love. So that I can show my cervix and they feel okay about their own body instead of feeling shocked and disgusted. Hopefully they are going to feel better about themselves and they are going to feel like I love them. And that they are okay with the way they are. It’s a way to self-acceptance. Although, I still feel issues about my weight and yet I still feel okay getting up there on-stage and taking off my clothes and so, you know, it is a fine line.
WCM: Have you ever considered the comparison and maybe it is just me, between your own infamous performance piece ‘Public Cervix Announcement” and Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’?
AS: No, but certainly there have been strong comparison’s made between Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Interior Scroll’ and a picture of me douching that someone placed and published side-by-side. She and I are in the same pose –years apart. I think it may have been in Theatre Journal..?
WCM: Another great example of performance ephemera captured for posterity. And humanity.
Part II – Elizabeth M. Stephens
February 17, 2012. Lunchtime. San Francisco, CA. Annie and Elizabeth’s House.
WCM: Your artistic work has called on the work of other women artists (Linda Montano, Judy Chicago, Annie) but you also bring in a historical narrative of familiar women (Lizzy Borden, the Biker Pin-Up Girl). Would you consider your approach as an artist shaped by history –yours and other women? What stories need to be told for audiences to better understand how culture over time has shaped the way we perform as humans and the way women perform as artists?
Elizabeth Stephens: My work had certainly been shaped by history, my own and other women’s. Women sculptors women like Alice Aycock, Louise Nevelson, Lauren Ewing, Mags Harries was a public artist I worked with. Then I was looking at Valerie Solanis, I was looking at people like Lucille Ball, who was Blacklisted and that’s why she had to become a comedian. She was blacklisted by the McCarthy laws. Additionally I was looking at male artists, too. Especially I am thinking of this paper I am going to be writing. I was very influenced by the work of Joseph Beuys, and a lot of the Fluxus artists both male and female. In my work it has become shaped into a strain that has been involved in environmentalism now. And how the sort of environmental degradation has somehow become aligned with the kind of degradation that is of our everyday life. That forms a huge part of our everyday life. The environment provides the platform and the sustenance for our everyday life and so I am considering things on the level of historical change, and I am looking at human and non-human relationships as well. So that’s why I am looking back towards Joseph Beuys. I am looking at the work of Donna Haraway, who also influenced me at an earlier stage in my career.
WCM: And if I am not mistaken you and Annie performed an homage to Donna upon her retirement from UC-Santa Cruz?
ES: We did a retirement celebration piece with Linda Montano. So Linda joined us in celebrating Donna’s esteemed career. She is a very esteemed scholar and a very much-loved scholar. But you know its really exciting for me while I am going through this PhD work that I am now doing to fill in some of the gaps I have in my theoretical knowledge. And I am very, very excited about looking at knowing and the ways of knowing. I am looking at a lot of things around indigenous knowledge, which is influencing me very heavily right around now. Theories around immense work, theories around knowledge and theories around feminism. Things like that. And now I am coloring in around them, filling in these sorts of gaps that are really important for us to know. To forge into this new field of SexEcology. And trying to go with the theoretical is really trying to empower our performance.
WCM: What stories need to be told, do you feel for audiences to better understand how time has shaped the way you have performed as person and the way that women artists have themselves performed –as feminists?
ES: I think they are bifurcated stories that need to be told. We are living in a society where things really are not as they appear. One of the things I have really realized about my lifetime is that while I was being very, very concerned about the rights of women and the rights of queers which are really very near and dear to my heart, neo-liberals were sewing up the welfare system. It could be called now the criminal welfare system. Which is pretty much tied up to ecological issues and –what we are going through right now is almost unimaginable and if people don’t come to the country to see where the –monoeconomies are being run and the way that pollution has killed fish and the way people are pissing their antidepressants into streams and rivers. They’re making frogs unable to breed. The breakdown of our ecological system right now is horrifying to me. Because it is going to hit the cities first, and the poor people first and the people of color first and the women first, and then eventually it will work itself up the ecological chain of power and I don’t know where exactly the very wealthy think they are going to go after they have destroyed the earth in search of the accumulation of wealth…
AS: The greedy ones especially.
ES: And it is a very different landscape than when I was growing up.
WCM: And I think I recall this anecdote…it was a very impactful one in your writing, Beth, about how you were flying over the mountains of West Virginia where you grew up and below you and the land, the mountains they were just gutted.
ES: I have never been so shaken by one sight. And that moment of looking over the mountains and it was daytime and not night and I was looking over the mountains I had known my whole life, and they are the oldest mountains in the world, and I can’t think of…the words that come to mind are very strong. I think of rape. I think of evisceration. I think of – is just horrible. It is just death. It is death incarnate what these people are causing and it happened in the dark. In the cloak of night. And there was this delusion of everyone feeling that we were really strong and could do anything and we were protesting. Even though these things that we are protesting are very real things, they almost feel like the powers that are manipulating and controlling government policy were like, “Give the queers a few bucks to work on their AIDS problems,” you know? And they were at the same time busting up public lands, extracting the minerals they could get from them, raping the lands and never even talking about that. So this is a part of the work that Annie and I are doing now, is drawing attention to what is going on in these invisible places. Like West Virginia, places that are ‘no-where’ right now. Those are the places that feed the cities, that the culture affects the people and it’s a really direct relationship but the culture has just been erased.
WCM: Okay so an informed audience coming into your work would benefit by some background in that complicated heritage.
ES: Well, we tell them the story. We tell that story in our performances. Because it is just simply impossible to expect people to have all of the information that we have that you need to get it.
WCM: I see. You are the vehicle for information in that you are story-tellers but then in a way you are also utilizing a rather Bretchian experience since you do shock your audiences with the reality. So they do not simply walk away informed, but also hopefully affected and motivated to consider deeply the socio-political ramifications for one knowing, not doing anything about it. And also, that you shatter any preconceived ideas they may have coming into the theatrical experience that eco-sexual performance art is going to simply be about love and nature and a big cuddle-fest when what they instead get is a big old dose of raw truth.
ES: That is exactly what they get. We are doing that with our weddings because we are using the script and ritual a very well known cultural ceremony, the wedding ceremony.
WCM: The performative.
ES: The performative. The ‘I do.’ Basically to say, we will not accept things the way that they are and you need to know the way that they are and we are not out to shock people in the way Brecht did with frudensuede. We are using another tactic too. We are trying to engage love. As a revolutionary strategy. Because I think that people are so overwhelmed with the amounts of information. The amounts of despair. I mean, I have talked to people who are in their early twenties who have admitted to me that they are already in ‘mourning’ for the environment and I am thinking that is heavy! So our work is to try and inject love into a really desperate situation. Also to shock people into seeing what is really there, what is happening. What does is mean to say I love you now? And what does it mean to say, “I promise to love, honor and cherish the Earth until death brings us closer together…”? What does that mean you know? And then how are you going to do it? I mean you cannot do it fueled by despair, you just can’t. So this is where love and empathy come into our work and those are very powerful entities in our work. And joy and fun.
WCM: You have been a multimedia artist and a collaborator throughout your career as an artist. What shaped your beliefs that the kind of performer you wanted to be was one who would draw attention to the state of our culture (technology, ecology, power struggles) but in cooperation with other like-minded artists?
ES: Well I grew up in the coalfields of West Virginia and so basically I grew up in a place where power did not even bother to disguise itself. The coalmines were so corrupt in the ways they were run, racism was rampant. I actually am old enough to remember when blacks were not allowed to go into restaurants to eat with whites. A very unimaginable world, if you are white I mean. It is not unimaginable if you are black. Black people are still held down in atrocious ways in our society. And I grew up seeing that but I also happened to grow up loving some black people and to see the way that they had to suffer broke my heart and so I’ve always been someone who has tried to fight for social justice. And then also, I didn’t really know that I was a queer when I was growing up. But I knew I better not say anything if I were because I was just supposed to marry someone who was supposed to work for my father, and that was just it. That was the lineage and it was a man’s world and that really just pissed me off, because I had no intention of marrying someone who was going to work for my father. So I felt like a secret agent growing up in some ways and very secretive and so on and so forth. But I also knew how to deal with those complexities and contradictions. I see the world that way in fact as a basket of contradictions, and I can embrace those. But when I see things that are wrong, I have a very hard time with them. And I think what is most sad it me is that with all of the bad and unfair things going on in the world right now, we just walk by each other, our neighbors, who are being kicked out of their homes and people who are sick and need help and we just don’t even look at them.
WCM: But you do. And as an artist, you use your platform to shout about these social problems and I feel like since the beginning, for instance in the ‘Wish You Were Here’ piece, that in your work you have been that way and with Annie as a collaborator as well.
ES: Annie has been there with me since that piece actually. And I picked her up on the East Coast and my little Volkswagen kept on breaking down and after about the third time it did it and Annie was still there, I thought, she’s a keeper! (laughs) And at that time and through that project people were giving me these little projects to do as I was driving across the United States and I did the things they wanted me to do, so that was a big collaboration.
WCM: Did academia seem a natural place for you as an artist?
ES: Academia seemed about the weirdest place I had ever been. It is so bizarre.
WCM: Did your artwork come out of your work in academia or was it there before you began your scholarship?
ES: Oh no, I had made art long before. I went to art schools. I am first an artist and then an academic. But academia is a privileged place to work you know because even though the demands are really intense, there is still free time to do research. I get a lot of pleasure out of that. I try to create new thoughts but I would not call it original because I don’t think that very much is original at all. And I don’t think that originality is all that interesting. And I find that those people who claim that, it is usually a lie. They are not usually singular and they are not usually geniuses. And I find it to be a very destructive positionality because then hey, if that person is than everybody else isn’t. And I really subscribe to Joseph Beuys’s philosophy that everyone is an artist. Its like whether they get the nutrients they need or the support system they need or not that affects whether they get to be the artist they can ultimately be, you know? I like to support that work. But most people, women and people of color, they just get excluded from the white male genius mold. They just get excluded because of how they look and I think that is very problematic and very boring.
WCM: But are we talking about academia now or are we talking about the art world?
ES: We’re talking about both. I think that academia is becoming more corporatized. Just as the art world is. The way that we are trying to develop these social networks is through granting agencies. So really the social practice it could be if it wanted is not what the agencies want and of course, each agency has an agenda. But corporate rules are very problematic and so we are teaching students in academia how to negotiate these rules and in a sense it’s a big training ground.
WCM: For fitting in?
ES: Yes, for fitting in. So it is a very interesting system that we have set up and it is very interesting as well when radical politics become involved through these contradictions. The irony is that there really isn’t any other place than a university where I would like to be working because I do feel like there are these areas of freedom in academia, they are being constrained, you know the arts aren’t getting funding, the humanities are being defunded but that’s because the state has pulled out and so now we have all of these private funders who all have private agendas that are dictating how we teach, and what we teach and who we teach it to at our universities.
WCM: What is the nature of Beth? Leaving West Virginia and exploring the world and hooking up with one of the most social performance artists in the entire world, who is peaceful and also, one of the most prominent porn stars in the world.
ES: And taking Annie home to meet my family, let me tell you. I don’t know that they have ever seen a porn, let alone met a famous porn star! So really it’s about relational art. I mean, to introduce them to Annie and then to bring them to a place where they see her as the wonderful human being that she is was a process. And bless their hearts. Their love for me allowed them to do that. Their love for me has allowed them to embrace queers too. It has been powerful but it has been a process. A thirty or forty year process. I can be social but I want to go into my cave and be contemplative. I mean, I love to collaborate and especially with Annie, but I’ve done solo work as well. But the bulk of my work has been collaborative.
WCM: And especially the performance pieces.
ES: Oh yes, definitely, the performance pieces. And I love that coming together. Bringing people together we create things that we could never have imagined on our own. And I find that to be the seed of what creativity is, you know. I don’t think of creativity as this thing that you think of and execute. That is just production. That is a factory. For me creativity is that once you engage in it, you never know where you are going to end up. I find that very exciting.
WCM: Well once you bring in another artist you consider the audience and the production staff who assist with the production. But then aren’t we getting into some complicated areas of definition when thinking about how scholars have tried for sometime now to draw clearer lines between ‘performance art pieces’ and ‘solo art’, w hich is autobiographical? I have been writing for a few years now questioning whether or not that differentiation was ever an actual thing and then it was New Genres or west coast academia. It seems too muddy a genre once and still called ‘performance art.’ Even though it may have evolved from an offshoot of the visual arts of the 1980s, what a hybridized field it has become.
ES: See, but that is such a manifestation of people being forced to define their work in order to get grants. You have all of these granting agencies that dictate what you are supposed to say. You know I was just thinking the other day about doing a performance art piece about never having to ever apply for another art grant again. You know because they really make the boundaries about what you have to do to get the money to make the performance art and you need to give them what they want, call it what they want or you’re not going to get the money, right? And it’s the same with academia, creating original research, that is how you get tenure. Collaborating doesn’t count. It was very messy and because it hadn’t been done before and original ideas that hadn’t been covered or written about before. But you see that there is no such thing as original anything. There is no solo performance. Annie could not have done the performance work she did had she not had sex with 3,000 people. Because you don’t gain that kind of knowledge without other people, whether you know them or not. Whether you collaborate with them directly or not. Whether they are dead or alive.
WCM: That is the nature of how knowledge gets disseminated.
ES: You know that someone who credits everyone they collaborate with is Donna Haraway. I think that generosity of spirit in academia is so rare and that she is so secure in her work that she doesn’t have to be a miser about who she credits. And it’s just beautiful.
WCM: And rare.
ES: And rare.
WCM: Well I do not doubt that if that is what you admire most that you are already doing it in your own work and will continue to do so in your career and that you are a beautiful and rare person. And what you will be.
ES: Well I do aspire to be and to do that. I don’t know that I will.
WCM: One of your first installations included photographs attributable to Annie. How did you and Annie meet?
ES: Well, I was a graduate student at Rutgers University, in 1990-1992, Golub was teaching, Rosler was there teaching photography, Joan Mitchell was there teaching painting, it was a powerhouse art school. A powerhouse of radical artists. And this was also when identity politics was having its heyday, and a lot of the faculty at Rutgers were queer and I had never really thoughts about my sexuality with work until I got there and I was asked to curate a work called, “Outrageous Desire” and it was about queer artists and I had just discovered Annie and I was like, “Well I know she’s not exactly queer but ‘queer’ is expansive,” and so I wanted to curate her into the show and since I was curating the show I could go pick out the work that I wanted so I drove to New York with my little truck and I knocked on her door and she gave me the ‘tit prints’ and after the show was over, I took them back to her and she actually gave me the ‘tit prints’ which are now hanging next to our bed, and I just fell in love with her. And I was just like, “God she is just so nice and she is super famous, and super hot and super sexy. So I got my courage up the next year to ask if she would model for me for my graduate thesis project show and she said yes, so I went and got her. I borrowed a really nice car (laughs) and this really ties into how it happened when I started dating her because I then I borrowed someone else’s dog because I knew she really liked dogs (laughs). It was a lab, which was the kind she liked and is the kind of dog we now as a couple have. But imagine, I borrowed a lab to go seduce her! I learned that stuff in West Virginia; it’s an old hillbilly trick. If you want someone or something, you wear a costume, or borrow a prop, a truck, a car, a dog, whatever, so I went and got her and we shot film the whole day and we got to know each other. And we were friends but it didn’t happen until later. We both moved out here in 1997 and I invited her to be a visiting artist at UC-Santa Cruz, which she did and which got me hauled down into the Chancellors’ office, but that was okay because some Christians objected to her lecture. That blew over and then I took her to my sculpture class and she did an energy orgasm, which they just loved, I mean, she did it with her clothes on. But then she said, ‘You can ask me any question you want.’ So we wrote down our questions and put them in a hat. So we passed them around so they would be anonymous and no one would be embarrassed. And one of them said ‘How could you have possibly become a sex worker?’ And she said, “You know, the reason I became a sex worker was because I really love people. I just feel like everyone needs to be touched and loved. And the people who come to see sex workers are the ones who don’t get to be touched and loved the way they need to be and my heart just goes out to those people so much.” And the student, it just totally changed her mind about what a sex worker was and that knowledge she gave was so transferable. So she came down to visit as a professor and I was renovating the house we now live in. And her houseboat had burned down and my carpenter, who was a huge fan of Annie’s said, “Gee Beth, I sure wish we could build Annie a new boat house!” And so I asked her to come here and live with me and I told her it could be her new houseboat and that was eleven years ago.
Part III – Annie and Beth.
February 17, 2011. Post V-Day Dinner with Annie and Beth in San Francisco, CA.
WCM: In order for audiences to believe your performances you ask them to accept that kissing is performance, snuggling is performance, and that people can marry nature itself. Considering your audience as subject, are they suspending their disbelief for the sake of the performance or are you changing people’s minds?
ES: Well I think with performance art you can take someone like Vito Acconci and say that everyone who was masturbating was doing performance art. So I think that when we say kissing is performance art they are relieved that they don’t have to masturbate in public. He did walking pieces, I mean, lots of people have done similar things. I think the ground has really been laid for our work.
ES: Maria Abromovic, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono.
AS: You know, there are plenty of precedents so I don’t even think of it as an issue. It hasn’t felt like an issue.
WCM: I do. But it’s not as if you are marrying inanimate objects.
ES: Right, just as when you are marrying another person but we are focusing on the words and gestures of care that speak to that commitment you are making to another living being. The vows are spoken to promise to care. Between two entities. And we try and show how these entities do care for us by producing air, producing water, by regulating temperature in ways that allow us to live. We will die without nature, just as we may die without our lover.
WCM: What I am concerned about though is that you have done so many of these great performances that as you say question the dominant paradigm about what a performance ‘is’ –do you feel like you know your audiences well enough to feel concern that you are at this point ‘preaching to the choir’ or are you reaching beyond them to affect new minds? Do you ever feel there are doubters?
AS: Well yes, we always feel that there are doubters and that’s why in the performances we have a conscious objector. We always leave a space in the wedding for someone to object. Does anyone here have objection to this union let them speak now or forever hold their peace. And we always have a plant or two; we want to give voice to people who think this is crazy or think this shouldn’t be done.
ES: Well I have these friends Tim Collins and his wife Reiko Goto and they are doing these performances/ experiments about plant communications through radio frequencies with each other. And we were just talking with someone who is doing work down in Peru that’s all about plant communication. But I also want to point out that we’ve done a wedding in Croatia, and at a Mountain Justice Gathering, where we were not preaching to the converted. We were trying to marry them to the Earth, and I am still getting comments. We were talking about it on the Mountain Justice blog and there was one individual who got very angry that we were doing that. She said ‘this shit is totally unimportant.’ But then, there are people in the Mountain Justice Movement who may only have a sixth-grade education but they totally embrace it and they get it because they have a deep connection with the land that urban people cannot even imagine.
WCM: Okay so would the criticism here then from such individuals opposed to your Eco-Sexual performances be the kind of anti-theatrical prejudice that people use and sometimes misinterpret the intent of the artists. As if you are somehow making light of the actual environmental problem you are trying instead to draw serious attention to?
AS: Absolutely, we had an Evangelical Christian radio host in Ohio suggesting that we were Satanists. Wiccans. Pedophiles. He was just saying that we were all of these horrible things.
ES: And that we were ‘taking’ state funds because this was when we were performing at the University of Ohio. So we do spark controversy when we do these performances. When we stage a ritual performance, like a wedding to nature, out of town (out of the San Francisco Bay Area) we are performing for strangers, the uniformed.
WCM: But that is scary.
AS: It is scary.
ES: We’re too dumb to be scared (laughs).
AS: Let’s put it this way, when we did our purple wedding, they tried to shut us down. We have had the police called on us; we have had to have a lawyer present in order to stage the performance. We have been picketed by certain ‘feminist’ groups, neo-nazis; we have had all kinds of controversy to deal with. We have dealt with bomb threats. Death threats.
WCM: This had to have been over issues of sexuality though rather than issues of nature though right? To get people so upset and angry as to threaten you?! Homophobes?
ES: No, it was people who were concerned that we had a sexual relationship with nature. Which we do. But we’re not really going for zoophilia but that’s where those people take it. This is going back to the witch-hunts of the 14th Century. I mean this is what some of this is with the Evangelical people, with the neo-nazis were after Annie because she has Jewish blood, the ‘feminists’ were against us because we embraced certain kinds of pornography. I mean we have gotten very soundly and very directly threatened and attacked.
AS: But that, you see, is how we know that we are doing something that is striking a nerve. I mean, something provocative. We want to provoke thought. We want to start the conversation. To me, that is the goal.
ES: But we also, have educated a lot of people about performance art. I mean don’t you think a lot of people don’t have the luxury of knowing performance art. Now, I personally don’t think of performance art as a luxury, but if I had five kids to raise and every day I was afraid I was going to lose my job, having time for the kind of engagement that performance art asks of an audience would very much be a luxury. But you know for those who are engaged, we have educated people about performance art and they have embraced it. And we have educated them about queers and they have embraced it. You know? Some really very beautiful deep things like that have happened. And we are educating people about environmentalism and we are educating people about mountaintop removal. It’s exciting but we do not in general, and the majority of our performances that we do, are not for the choir.
WCM: I am glad that you see and make that distinction. San Francisco is and has been a Mecca for performance art of a certain breed for decades now and it is easy for us who know this area to forget that.
AS: But listen, now as a sex worker, I was doing porn and prostitution for twenty years, and there are sex workers now who just think that I am off the wall. For having an education, for having a PhD and teaching and being an activist. Of course, there is also age discrimination. And then the academics think ‘she talks too much about sex.’
ES: I mean, you would be surprised how much of the rhetoric of many of our critics sounds the same.
WCM: From the Evangelicals to the academics to the neo-nazis?!
AS: You know, across the board, I actually found I caused more controversy doing art about love than sex. Really. I mean, when I moved away from just doing the sex stuff publicly, to doing the love stuff, it was ‘oh (roll of the eyes) she’s gotten older, she’s gotten soft.’ But when I started getting on stage older, and naked, and fatter. That was the most taboo thing I have ever done. That is way more taboo than fisting or fucking. Being older and fatter and naked –that was the most taboo of all.
ES: But I think also that working with the subject of love humanizes us in a way that makes the performing more real. Whether it’s dealing with issues of being queer or the environment or sex, it humanizes us. And there are certain segments of the population that would love nothing more than to write that off.
ES: It is much harder if we are saying, “Try love.”
AS: Oh yeah, and we have even pissed off people who say that as gays we should be focused on sex not love. But our project, this seven year cycle of performances, wedding rituals to each other and to nature, which was built with the structure created by Linda Montano happened as Beth and I were really coming together as collaborators and that has been the most rewarding aspect for me. Before I was with Beth, as an artist, I always had to worry about the commercial value of the work I created. But with her as my partner I was somewhat relieved of the burden of making money from art. Together we could make art that was way more experimental, we didn’t necessarily have to make art that had to sell. Say, if we did a gallery show, because she doesn’t think about that, like I do.
WCM: Beth’s earlier work speaks to anger over what humans have done to hurt the Earth.
ES: And each other. How people have hurt each other.
WCM: How did that anger evolve into a positive demonstrative love towards the Earth? Does this new philosophy and the kinds of performances you’ve created to go along with it help you cope with the sometimes-obvious loss of faith in humanity for how they have raped the Earth (i.e. West Virginia mountaintops)?
ES: I think anger is positive for one.
AS: It’s energy.
ES: It’s energy. A powerful energy. Anger is negative when its turned either onto yourself and it becomes depression or you inappropriately apply it to others, and then it is abuse. Which can be abuse but sometimes it can be honesty. I mean, I am actually not afraid of anger, I embrace my anger. Anger got me out of West Virginia. I mean, anger is what allowed me to have a life. So I don’t demonize anger at all, I just think it needs to be utilized and channeled correctly. That is the issue with anger, you know, is learning how to go with it in appropriate ways. But sometimes it is important to be inappropriate too (laughs). I mean, just think, there wouldn’t be any performance art if everyone was being appropriate. And if people weren’t angry either.
WCM: So then does your embracing, Beth, of a new philosophy (and please correct my semiotics if I am wrong) that focuses on love but is fueled by an anger born out of a recognition for the cruelty with which people treat each other and in turn the Earth resemble a new faith that you have accepted as the kind of artist you are today as opposed to the one you were early on in your performance career?
ES: Oh, faith for me remains eternal. You know, I think of mining in terms of an endeavor, one that involves gathering minerals from the planet for our own use as something that we have both lost a lot with but also gained a lot with. It involves lots of creative inventions and processes. I think that we have reached a tipping point where we need to find new solutions and new inventions in order to move forward in this area in a positive way in order to fuel our society. I mean, we have become addicted to electricity. We need to come up with new ways of creating new energy for the earth that isn’t harming it the way that we are harming it right now.
AS: And we are just trying through our art, to get that positive message of inspiring people to action and considering new ways of creativity out there. That’s all.
WCM: That said, what is the current state of feminist performance art?
ES: As long as there is one woman performing out there right now in the world, there is hope.
AS: I would point to Madison Young, who is our porn art daughter.
ES: Michelle Tea is doing a great job too. Kirk Read. Jeff Jones. Visionaries, non-profit and funded, young queer, but not necessarily gay community players. They inspire us really.
ES: I think feminism has transformed into something not so pure. Sometimes I think of feminism as an academic term.
WCM: Not outdated, not obsolete, not antiquated?
ES: No, a structural mode of operation in the world. But I think the danger is that in not naming it, so many people assume that the hard won rights that feminist writers and artists and workers and politicians have fought for and that activists have enabled us to enjoy, like reproductive rights, are in real danger right now. But feminists are still fighting for those things. Women artists are still fighting for them. Feminism is alive and well. It is. But I have faith in it too because it’s changing. Like nature, it evolves.