​investigating porn with feminist artist faith holland

The artist sheds light on the relationship between sex and technology.

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May 19 2015, 11:59am

Cum shot paintings, illicit web cams blocked out so you can only hear the sound of a woman moaning, the smell of lube, and gifs of trains and tunnels that simulate sex: welcome to the wonderful world of feminist artist Faith Holland. From challenging the (mis)representation of bodies and sex in pornography to commenting on the evolving relationship between our bodies and machines—specifically lusting after bodies ''behind'' the screen to focusing on the erotic power of the machine itself (the buttons we stroke, the pressure points we tap, the handhelds we gently caress)—Faith wants us to think about how we think about sex. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Faith her spent entire childhood pretty much online. Mix this keen technological know-how with a growing desire for female empowerment, and the rest, as they say, is history. Ahead of her upcoming exhibition at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn, we caught up with the artist to talk about sex, baby.

Sex is the starting point for most of your work, where did this fascination come from?
I think it came from a childhood spent on the internet with adults who saw the web as a sexual playground (to borrow a term from Ann Hirsch's Playground). But it was fostered at Vassar College, where I both worked on an erotica magazine called Squirm and was studying pornography academically. At the time, I was using film studies to think about pornography but now my thinking is more about networked experiences of sexuality.

Do you think sex is still a taboo?
In certain ways, yes. I often get uncomfortable giggles when I talk about my work, which I try to do frankly and explicitly as much as possible. Of course other kinds of sex and sexuality have become less taboo, particularly when they can be deployed to sell something. Even though my work rarely includes any nudity, I find thinking critically about how we consume sex often makes people much more uncomfortable than a woman in a bikini selling beers.

How important is the relationship between technology and sex?
Though the relationship extends well beyond contemporary day, I think the importance of technology to sex is only increasing. One thing I would like to do, since I haven't found a good source that has already done this, is trace a history of that relationship beginning (presumably) with early condoms made of various animal parts to vibrators to hormonal therapies to newer, tactile technologies that are just beginning to emerge. Pornography, too, has a history that is entwined with technology, but that is well documented.

Is the human element of sex becoming eradicated with the rise of technology?
No, I don't actually think it is. I am interested in thinking about human-technological sexual interactions, but there is always a human present. Even machine-on-machine "sex" is a human imposition on machines. (Of course, all innovations at this time are human impositions on machines). I think that sexuality is particular to humans, and technology's sensuality is always human-centric.

How important is technology as an actual artistic medium?
Most of my work is produced on the computer, but it isn't exactly high tech. I don't see myself as a technologist but I deeply respect artists who intervene in technology making—something that is getting harder as devices become more complex and opaque. I follow sex technologies closely, but tend to work with relatively lo-fi means, which I find more malleable with the potential to be just as speculative. I can depict something more readily in a gif than a functional prototype.

You've worked a lot with the visual tropes of porn, where did this interest in porn specifically come from?
It's hard to pinpoint where the obsession comes from, but it was definitely developed while I worked on the erotica magazine Squirm at Vassar, and also researching pornography for classes. It's such a major part of our culture, yet it is rarely considered critically. Linda Williams wrote Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible in 1989, a foundational text both for porn studies and for me personally, yet relatively little has been published in the ensuing years. Annie Sprinkle, an artist, educator, sex worker, activist among many other things, was exploding the boundary between pornography and art in the 80s. So there have been these foundational figures, yet to me it still seems under examined.

How do you feel about the idea of sex as a performance and not something that comes naturally to us?
I'm not sure those things are mutually exclusive. Obviously sex does come naturally to us; hormones nearly necessitate that we have some form of sex and we (as a species) procreate like lots of other animals. But we also experience sexual pleasure and thankfully have the leisure to explore it. Our sexual performances are also bound to our social performances, which have little to do with anything "natural."

Most representations of female sexuality are produced by men, how can we change this?
Simply by making our own! Of course, that's not at all simple, and to perform one's own sexuality without being co-opted by a heterosexual male gaze redoubles the problem. But allowing women to feel comfortable and own their own sexuality is the first step and I think it's one that can be traditionally "sexy" (Nicki Minaj is a fantastic example of a woman who is not necessarily redefining sexy but who is centralizing her own pleasure) or it can be about opting out of performing sexiness. Or a million things in-between. A plethora of representations of non-"normative" sexualities, genders, etc. is needed.

Your work also focuses on notions of beauty, could you explain a bit about that?
Questioning and looking for multiple representations of beauty is akin to needing more representations of gender and sexuality. I am interested in this totalizing narrative of beauty that prescribes very specific guidelines to diverse bodies. I have investigated all my supposed imperfections by doing a thorough retouching of my face and presenting all the changes needed to make my face conform—getting rid of a lot of blemishes and facial hair, dark circles under my eyes, a double chin, so on and so on in the series Retouch, Reform, Refit. I then wore the retouched face as a mask in a sci-fi short Improving, Non-Stop. I'm also fascinated by make up tutorials and did one piece in which I removed all the "action" from a series of race-based tutorials so that all that was left was the uncomfortable lull spots of women looking into the camera in the three-channel video piece Makeup Tips.

Tell me a bit about your upcoming exhibition and the various things we can expect to see?
The show continues my thinking about how we represent and access sex through technology. For the show I've made new Visual Orgasms, GIFs that use visual metaphors to think about the mandate to make the physical sensation of an orgasm visual. There will also be two Ookie Canvases, a new body of work in which I collage and color cum shots into "paintings." One of those canvases is composed entirely of photographs sent to me based on an open call and in tandem with that canvas, I am making a small zine of some of the incredible emails and images that were sent to me. There will also be a pin-up style photo of wires drenched in lube that will also be the center-fold of a catalogue I'm producing. Finally, I'll be making two site-specific sculptural pieces involving wires and lubricant. The whole exhibition will also have a sensual technological soundtrack. The idea is that the show will appeal to multiple senses—sight is obvious, but also the smell of lube will permeate the exhibition space.

What are you working on for the future?
Once I'm done with this exhibition, I'm excited to go back and make more Porn Interventions, videos I make specifically for RedTube that interrupt the flow of pornography. I plan to make a response video to a fan video I received of a man jerking off with my handle on his hand, some erotic phone massage, and a sensual wire bath. I also plan to make some sculptures with embedded videos, but those ideas are still nascent.

Technophilia opens at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn on June 13th

www.faithholland.com