Commentary on “Private Performance”

Up to this point, most of my stories have set in the context of science and technology. I decided to venture to the far side of human achievement and set this one in the world of art.

A few years ago, after attending a workshop at the New Media Institute at the Banff Centre, I was inspired to start writing a stage play about a performance artist who is commissioned to perform a private piece for a wealthy entrepreneur. It was going to be an allegory. The four characters in the play would represent the artist, the patron, the critic, and the public, each holding dramatically different expectations about the art. The play was not working and I abandoned it after hacking around with the first act for a while.

When I achieved more success as a pornographer than a playwright, I decided to dig out the idea and rework it. I could make it smutty by having the artist present a much racier performance.

In the story, a performance artist, Catherine, meets an entrepreneur in a gallery. He commissions her to perform a series of three performances at private parties in his home.

Her pieces are intended to separate reality from television by presenting one aspect of herself on screens in one room while another aspect is presented in person in another room.

In the first performance, her head is available to talk to people in the front room while images of herself stripping her clothes off are shown on television screens in the back room. For the most part, men watch her strip on TV while their wives chat with her in person.

In the second performance, the roles are reversed. Her head is shown on screens in the back room, telling the most intimate details of her personal life – psychologically stripping herself – while people are permitted to caress her body through holes in a box in the front room. This time it is the women who watch the television screens while the men go for the real thing.

In the third performance, while the artist is bound in a cage, the audience is exposed. Individual faces were recorded as people leered, groped, or looked offended during the first two performances. After seeing themselves, they are asked to vote on whether the artist who has enticed and humiliated them should be allowed her artistic freedom and released untouched, be punished for humiliating them by being flogged, or be considered a whore who panders to men’s base instincts and fucked by one of the men in the audience, chosen at random.

The audience votes in favor of punishment and the artist is brutally flogged. The flogging has been designed to cause considerable pain but no permanent injury.

In this story, the audience is personified by a single man and his wife, chosen because the man is the only member who abstains from voting and his wife because she is chosen to administer the flogging.

This is a story about how art and artists should be judged.

I justified this story as appropriate for BDSMLibrary because of the flogging, along with some mild voyeurism and frottage. If anyone cares to count, I spent more than 600 words describing the first stroke of the cat. That is pure self-indulgence.

Though I know less about performance art than other visual art forms, I believe that the performance that I described is artistically meaningful. An artist would not allow her nude body to be touched and later allow herself to be flogged in real life. But performance artists like Laurie Anderson and Marina Abramovic have performed some fairly masochistic pieces.

I immodestly think of my description of Catherine’s piece as conceptual performance art, meant to be considered but not actually performed.

I included a brief discussion of the distinction between art, illustration, and decoration in this story, based on the kind of impact that the piece has on the viewer. This was another bit of self indulgence but I believe what I said in that section.

Another point that I made in the same section is that great art is often something that you would not want hanging on your living room wall because it can be too disturbing. If people accept that truism, they may realize that they should judge fine art by different criteria than decoration or illustration.

I leave it to the readers to decide if they would want Catherine’s performances to take place in their own living rooms.

The audience member in this story who abstains from voting on the artist’s fate represents everyone in the general public who sees art but, for whatever reason, is afraid to pass judgment on it. It is appropriate that his vote, if cast, would not have affected the artist’s fate. People who abstain from judgment have little impact on the world.

When I posted this story, I labeled it with the tag line, “Is it art or is it porn?” This was intended to work on a number of levels.

Obviously it is a reference to the performance art featured in the story. The performance is explicitly called pornography by some of the wives whose husbands are looking at and touching the artist’s naked body.

It is a reference to the obscenity trials that keep popping up every few years when the government tries to legislate against pornography and artists start creating pieces that are intended to get swept up in the net.

It is also a reference to the story itself. I am inviting readers to judge for themselves if my story has any literary value. Like the artist in the story, I am willing to stand in judgment before my audience. But I won’t let them flog me, only say cruel things about my writing.

Yours, Ashley

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About Ashley Zacharias

I'm a post-modern woman who lives a vanilla life and dreams about kinky adventure. I write BDSM pornography but have no interest in acting out my fantasies in real life. Find my work on SmashWords.com and Amazon.com
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7 Responses to Commentary on “Private Performance”

  1. Koala says:

    First off. I love… love… LOVE this story. It works on tons of levels and made me think about things that I don’t expect to be thinking about when I read dirty stories. About the nature of art and how we interact with it. About our attitudes towards sex and sexual images. About the nature of being a voyeur. All very deep indeed.

    I was interested to read your view on Howard. As a longstanding voyeur, I identified with him right away. Your perspective on him was as the passive art-viewing public. I thought of him from the perspective of a voyeur. (Maybe not too different from someone who reads porn on the internet.) He wanted to watch Catherine expose herself, to grope her, to watch her be flogged, but as soon as he was asked to participate, he chickened out. While that didn’t change Catherine’s experience, or what Howard got to watch, there’s something kind of sad about it for him, and by extension for those of us who might spend too much time being voyeurs and not enough time living.

    On the question on is it are or is it porn, I could see some people argue that it’s so artistic that it’s not really porn. I would disagree though. I found the first performance to be a real turn on. The idea of talking to a girl, looking her in the eye while you can tell she is undressing in the box, I found it very arousing. It’s funny, because you wouldn’t really know. Maybe those images on the screen were recorded earlier, maybe it’s not even really Catherine. You can download a gazillion videos of women undressing. What’s so special about talking to a woman while others watch a video of a woman undressing? I can’t say I have an answer, but definitely liked it! You say the description of the flogging was self-indulgent. If that’s the case I want to urge you to continue to be as self- indulgent as you want.

    Thanks for the stories,
    K

  2. I like your description of Howard. It is stronger than mine and, I think, more accurate. I’ve never thought of myself as a voyeur, but your description of Howard fits me, too, in many ways.

  3. Reader says:

    You madam, are a genius and a pervert. Congratulations and thank you.

    I really liked the way this story said what it said about human nature. Catherine created a couple of unusual situations and held up a mirror for people to see how they reacted. Rather than say “I need to work on being a better person.” most said “I need to punish the person with the ugly mirror.” Unfortunately, I found this to be very believable.

    Howard’s wife was correct to accuse him of cowardice. In my mind, his abstinence was more repulsive than his wife’s willingness to whip Catherine. Think something. Feel something. Do something. I wonder if Howard would have been embarrassed to have his indecision revealed at a fourth party.

  4. It would have been terrific to have been able to show Howard abstaining as part of the third performance, but impossible. The video was matched to a person when his or her card was slid into one of the slots. Because Howard never slid his card in, his image was not automatically matched to a vote. Catherine never anticipated that abstaining would be an interesting option so she didn’t provide for any mechanism to pick abstainers out of the crowd.

  5. seto says:

    I’m a bit late to this discussion, but Ashley just pointed me to the blog. And while the touching and flogging might sound extreme for a perfomance artist, they are not that unrealistic. Seperately both has been done.

    In Frankfort, Germany a female artist in the 1970’s walked in very public places, while wearing a wooden box in front of her breast. She invited male and female passersby to touch her breasts through openings in the box. As it were the 70s, quite a lot did.

    A Munich, Germany based artist of Austrian origin, Wolfgang Flatz, did a number of performances in the where his bodily pain became his artistic expression. In 1979 he asked the public to throw dart arrows on his naked body, and at new years eve 1990 he became the clapper of a bell, when he put his body, hanging upside down between two steel plates and celebrated the new year by “ringing the bell”.

    If you use an online translation tool you can read more on Flatz at the German language Wikipedia at http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfgang_Flatz

    • I’m no expert in performance art, so I was unaware of either of these artists’ performances. Now I feel terribly ignorant and derivative. 🙂 But I won’t let that stop me from writing more stories. One of the great things about writing fiction is that you can write about things that you don’t really understand. Faking it is the job description 🙂
      Seriously, thanks for the pointers. I’ll have a look at them.

  6. Leigh Bowery also did a number of quite masochistic performances. I’m not sure if they were intentional or not. At least one ended with a lot more injury than he anticipated. The 2002 documentary The Legend of Leigh Bowery shows some of this.

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