Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Politics of Porn Performance: Remembering Tim Stuttgen via an Interview with Aiden Starr & Adrianna Nicole

From Principien
Back in February of 2012, I received an email from Berlin-based porn scholar, Tim Stüttgen. I was unfamiliar with his work at the time, and enjoyed a few pleasant and deeply interesting email exchanges (primarily about Mason/Sam No, but also about Berlin, the post-porn scene, and...well, porn!), before benignly losing contact for a spell. I was grieved to discover that during this time Tim had passed away. In one of the emails, Tim asked if I would like to post an interview he had conducted with sex positive porn performers, Adrianna Nicole and Aiden Starr. I said I would, and as is the wont of part-time bloggers, did not return to the idea. In a gesture of remembrance, and to follow through on my promise to get the interview out there in English, I am posting the interview below with only minor technical edits. As someone new to the world of post-porn, I invited porn scholar Amy E. Forrest to write a preface. 



[Amy E Forrest is an independent scholar with plans to commence a Ph.D. Her main areas of research are post-pornography, violent women in media, and deviant, subversive forms of feminism in visual and social media. She is currently translating a queer porn website, and in her spare time, she manages the international network of early career scholars of pornography, XCircle_edu – check out the Facebook page and follow the Twitter stream @XCircle_edu. She blogs erratically at TheDissident Porn Scholar, and can be found tweeting about pornography and the representation of violent women in media @Amy_E_Forrest.]

Tim Stüttgen (1977-2013) was a German queer theorist, curator, journalist, and drag performer. He presented his most recent book, In a Quare Time and Place (2014), at the 2013 transmedialefestival in Berlin. He also contributed to Catch Fire (on behalf of whom, it seems, the following interview was conducted) and published articles in various newspapers and magazines (Jungle World, Spex, and De:Bug). Through his writing and performances, Tim made a sizable contribution to knowledge within many fields, including pornography, film, queer, gender, and performance studies.

One of his most significant works is his edited book Post / Porn / Politics (2009b), which is based on a symposium he organised in October 2006, that took place at Volksbühne Berlin. Embodying the post-porn theme of experimental and conceptual art, the symposium reader Post / Porn / Politics is an aesthetically disturbing but highly engaging collection of video stills, photos of performances and exhibitions, interviews, monologues, and academic articles. For those unfamiliar with the subject, post-porn modernism is an aesthetic and a cultural movement, whose art –post-porn– is sexually explicit. Its aesthetic is often derived from conventional pornography as well as drawing on artistic traditions, however, it is also characterised by a strongly critical, socio-political, and reflexive sensibility; indeed, post-porn conveys a political-aesthetic discourse. Post-porn indicates a rethinking and rewriting of traditional, modern pornography in its attempts to deconstruct and expose naturalised pornographic tropes. By disconcerting the spectator and attempting to make them self-aware, post-porn encourages a greater understanding of normalised attitudes and systems of oppression. Feminist and queer critique, then, is a central feature of post-porn, and one to which Tim was evidently drawn both on a personal and professional level.
Not only an accomplished queer theorist and journalist, Tim was also a radical drag queen performer (stage name: Timi Mei Monigatti). As a self-described ‘white, trisexual bioboi [...] and transvestite’ (2009a: 19), Tim’s personal life and politics informed his writing and theory. Following his passing in May 2013, his publisher, b_books, wrote: ‘As with many of his deeds, his texts were a constant violation of the norm. For him, they weren't about provocation or being an exception, but rather a gentle but uncompromising pressing onwards of the reconstruction of issues, a constant stream of objections and reflections being brought forward’ (translated from the German).

Thanks to a great deal of theoretical and practical background knowledge, Tim’s interviews with others often managed to touch upon fundamental contemporary issues, while retaining a personal, friendly touch. The following interview with Aiden Starr and Adrianna Nicole, conducted at the Porn Film Festival Berlin in 2010 demonstrates Tim’s enthusiasm and desire to probe into preconceptions surrounding many polemic issues to do with pornography. 

Tim approached pornography (and those people who worked on it, performed in it, and enjoyed experiencing it) just like one would any other domain. This, along with many others, was one of his most commendable traits. Ultimately, I express a hope that his dedication to transgressing norms and rewriting knowledge, as both a theorist and a performer, will not be forgotten.

Works Cited:
Stüttgen, Tim. 2009a. ‘Before Orgasm: Fifteen Fragments on a Cartography of Post / Pornographic Politics’, in Post / Porn / Politics, ed. by Tim Stüttgen (Berlin: b_books), pp. 8–21
--- (ed.). 2009b. Post / Porn / Politics (Berlin: b_books)
---. 2014. In a Quare Time and Place: On the Politics of Blaxploitation-Cinema and Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism (Berlin: b_books)

By Tim Stüttgen

CATCH-FIRE: What do you tell people, usually, to describe what you do for work?

ADRIANNA NICOLE: I usually tell people that I make dirty movies. I think it is a disarming way of saying that I work in the Adult Film Industry. It usually gets a laugh out of them, perhaps an uneasy one, but it almost always leads to an interesting conversation. People are curious and when they have genuine and thoughtful questions, I like answering them.

CF: There are many narratives about why women work in the porn industry. The most stereotypical narratives are maybe that they were either forced into doing it or just need tons of money after they ran away from home. Your background seems to be a different one though, and from what I remember I read about you, you were already part of fetish and s/m subcultures before you did what's considered mainstream porn.

AN: Yes, I started shooting bondage and fetish videos and I did that for two or three years before I did more mainstream kind of productions. I was always interested in different types of sexwork, but I never had the confidence that people would want to see me naked. I felt quite insecure, I think. With fetish-films I got used to sexually expressing myself on camera and having orgasms onscreen. I learned to tune out the camera and be in my own head, so that's what I did when I started doing boy-girl scenes in the mainstream world too.

CF: So you lost your shyness?

AN: I might be very comfortable performing an intense sex scene on camera, but when it comes to having to go on stage and speak in front of a large group, I might have a shaky voice or even be close to passing out. At a video shoot, it's also a large group but I’ve learned to take that out of my mind during my performance. I’m very comfortable with that.

CF: Can you tell us how many people are really around during a mainstream shooting?

AN: It can be only two people, when it is a gonzo- or POV-film, but it also can consist of a full crew plus a few performers who are shooting other scenes in the same project.

CF: There was a lot of talk in the last years that studio-porn is dying and all the shooting would be only one guy with a camera plus a performer – but it's not the case?

AN: There are still one-on-one or POV style shoots where the camera person is one of the sex performers. Big studio production seems to be doing a lot of movie parody production which I don’t really understand the appeal of. I like originality and thought, not just a familiar story line, bad acting and sex.

CF: How do you get jobs as a performer?

AN: When I started doing fetish work it was a lot of word-of-mouth, people that I would work with would refer me to other studios and companies. When I came to Los Angeles, where the mainstream porn industry is based, finding an agent to introduce you to the companies and directors was the way to go. I emailed and called a couple agencies and found one within a week or two.

CF: You have been a Spiegler-girl, and "Spiegler Girls" is a very respected agency. People say the Spiegler-girls have their own character, which is not the case with all female performers in the industry.

AN: Spiegler wasn't my first agent, but he was definitely the best one I had. However, porn has changed a lot in the past few years, a lot of companies don't exist any more and a lot of the performers that I really have enjoyed working with in the past have moved on. So, after being in the business for some time, I decided to take things into my own hands and be more selective when choosing who I shoot with. I’m a lot happier choosing directors and performers that I like to be around. I felt like there wasnt a reason to have an agent any more.

CF: When discussing the matter of agency, there are of course many different clichés regarding women in porn, especcially when they perform very rough and submissive scenes. Can you tell me how this thin line works for you, that on the one hand, you might be into very intense sexual experiences and you definitely did some scenes that are scary to some of the feminists out there. How can you stay distant towards insensitive directors or performers? Especially when you have a reputation for rough scenes, I imagine there might be men who totally overdo it and think it's kind of cool to perform as brutal as possible.

AN: Basically I like when some people are scared of what I do. It is interesting to challenge someone's idea of sex; what makes them uncomfortable. If someone is uncomfortable maybe it will make them stop and think about what it is that makes them feel that way.  So I like when my performances raise those questions. I think if a dominant performer is getting too rough it can be a reflection of their insecurity almost as if they have something to prove. A good dominant is able to read the scene and their partner. It is a back and forth exchange and I always try to talk with the performers before the shoot. It is good to discuss the scene and what a person likes and dislikes. If both are clear it makes for a better scene, one where everyone is happy with the outcome. As I started shooting porn in the fetish world, I think I became very good in communicating how I feel when I shoot a scene. I am very comfortable communicating when I want something to change. Maybe it would have been different if I started directly in mainstream porn or if I would have been younger than I was when I started shooting porn. Maybe it would have been harder to find my voice?

CF: When you start working with an agent, you also already define what sexual practices you do and which you don't. So if somebody books you some limits are already addressed.

AN: Yes, that is true. In my case, from the beginning, I did nearly everything. Some performers are like: First I’m gonna do girl-girl and maybe a year later boy-girl and another year later possibly anal. For me that was not the case. From the start I wanted to experience all of it.

CF: Today there seems to be a new double-standard, especcially when it comes to queer readings of pornography. On the one hand, queer viewers might get if a girl crossdresses masculine and fucks a guy or another girl with a strapon, but if the girl still looks femmy and performs a submissive role, it's totally stigmatized. You have a very femmy look while you perform both dominant and submissive roles.

AN: I perform both and take pleasure in both. It also has to do with your partner in the scene. For instance, there are people I want to be submissive to, and people I completely don't. There also might be scenes, where the director wants me to be dominant towards another girl, but I only would do it if I know she enjoys that type of scene. I want to have a conversation with her about things that turn her on while being submissive and things that make her uncomfortable. I want to do the things that turn her on. But everything in the end comes down to communication, that is something I find very important to remember.

CF: When talking about other girls in the business, I would like to know more about how difficult it is to relate to each other as colleagues in a solidaric or feminist way? In the end, a female performer is surrounded by a lot of other performers which posits a situation of direct competition.

AN: I think at the end of the day, my real competition is with myself. I look at things that I did five years ago and I am happy to see that I like what I do even more today. Making better scenes and negotiating my own limits, that's my competition. In regards to other female performers: We're not the same person, so there is no sense in comparing us. When I am on set, I also tend to keep to myself. I introduce myself if I don’t know anybody on set and it might be great to have a new experience with a new person, but basically I am not so interested in making small talk. I find it hard to relate to some of the other younger girls so I generally keep to myself on set in between scenes.

CF: How do you deal then with clichés that address you from two sides: On the one hand, people outside the industry think that porn is bad and women who work in porn are victims, while on the other side, you have pressure from the industry to represent their ideology, that basically porn is always fun, there is never exploitation and everybody is happy?

AN: I think I try to not interact with discussions that are too stereotypical. The American way of small talk is very boring - "So, what do you do for work" - totally on the surface and very uninteresting to me. It's a kind of small talk where nobody gives a shit and its content is forgotten five minutes later. For me, the most important point is to be truthful towards myself and to become more reflective about how a shooting went and how I like the scenes I did. If I am clear with that, I can be also more clear towards everyone else involved. For the people outside the industry, I dont really see the urgency to have to explain myself to them, it's just none of their business.

CF: How I understand the immanent logics of porn production, the whole system is relying on transgression, on pushing the boundaries, which is obviously becoming more and more difficult. Sometimes it seems as if everything has already been done. How do you deal with the pressure and how, at the same time, do you find a way to realise your own ambitions and push your own personal boundaries.

AN: I thought about that a lot as I was shooting more regularly. I think the answer to both questions for me was to shoot less and become more reflexive of what actually happens when I work. I totally was at this point where I asked: "Whats left? I've done kind of everything, with each person, a number of times, what else is there?" Now, as I don't do that much any more, its fun again. I really had to pull back though, and find a new distance towards what I do – and then I was actually able to fall in love with it again.


CF: Aiden, I am really happy you're joining us, because both of you, to me, seem to symbolise, besides a few other women, a kind of new phenomenon in porn, which, in a sense also happened after the model of Belladonna. There seems to be a new kind of girl-posse around in the industry, and even though there have been both friendships and influential women in the porn industry before, I think your group of friends is somewhat unprecedented. Some of you,  such as you and Dana De Armond, have even been lovers for a long time. You are at the same agency, you perform very rough scenes, but at the same time seem really be able to process what's happening. Most of you also switch between dominant and submissive roles and seem very content. You, but also women like Bobbi Starr, Kimberly Kane, and Dana De Armond, also became directors... Can you talk a little bit about this new girl posse which totally disrupts the idea of the classic, somewhat passive performer and mainstream starlet, but also has nothing to do with the looks and circles that define diy-pornography and queer undergrounds...

AS: It's true, we are strange, hybrid creatures. One of my partners once called me "LA on the outside – New York on the inside"... We look very femme and very polished, we look probably more than somebody's expensive wife - but then we act like crazy gutterwhores. It's a huge dichotomy in how we look on the outside and how we act on the inside. And yes, it's a specific generation, all of us are around thirty, and there is a bunch of us. And we are all very interested in porn, both including the sex- and the business-side. 

We could do other things for a living but we choose not to. We are all very intelligent, some of us are very well educated. And we are very feminist, but we are not extensively loud about being feminist. We put our feminism in our practice, instead of endlessly walking around and talking about being feminist, like some of our queer sisters and bretheren. We practice more than we preach. I cannot tell you why we exist through a historical lens, but we are here and we do what we do in our own terms and that is a fact. So all of us are very complex performer-producer-director-complicated-sexworker-careerists who definitely also look different than your queer punk cliché.

CF: Even if cameras are now available to anybody and the internet gives everyone space to show her or his work, how difficult is it still to be respected as a woman filmmaker in the porn industry? I remember talking to Audacia Ray, who said to me: There might be a lot of cool girls now in the industry but usually they don't have the time and possibilities to develop as a performer or even become a director...

AS: To become a woman director in this business is nearly impossible. And of course this is totally ridiculous. You could have the best cameras and equipment and even the biggest budget but if you have a vagina and happen to be a director, you have to work ten times as hard as everyone else to be accepted.

CF: That's totally awful, it basically means nothing changed in the last thirty years.

AS: Yes, it's fucking awful! If you look at Kimberly Kane's work or Bobbi Starr's work, the films are beautiful pieces, they're very well thought out, there is hot sex in all of the scenes, all of the areas are very strong, from lighting to editing to the performances. All of these films have a very individual character, but to be succesful with that and be respected in the industry is still nearly impossible. But if we would be bunch of meatheads with a dick between their legs, the world would go round for us. Of course, not all male directors are meatheads, there are people like John Stagliano who are very creative. But there are also women (before us), like Mason and Belladonna, who are very creative too. To be honest, the situation is quite simple: A lot of men don't deserve their jobs and they should give them to us.

AN: We are treated differently because we are performers first, and they are definitely not viewed in the same class as directors and producers – which usually happen to be men.

AS: It also has to do with very different neurological forms of intelligence and how this plays out in desires of men and women. Men are very visual creatures and women obviously are more mental creatures. For men it is much easier to just look at our femininity and then have a fantasy with fits with that. But women's multidimensional sexuality is definitely beyond their fantasies. We can multitask with our sexuality.

CF: There seems to be a lot of creative knowledge in your bodies, a knowledge that people in the realm of (queer and feminist) theory often underestimate. How do you, for instance, know about all these different sexual practices and technologies? The Berlin Porn Film Fest has shown some of Tristan Taormino's work today, and she really does education-films, but I think that is an exception.

AN: We are just very experienced!

AS: Yes, we're whores, we're fucking sluts! We started our experimental sexlives way before working in the industry.

AN: I was always sexually very active and always inspired by porn, if it was things that I read or things that I watched. I was always into experimentation and I also came into the business out of curiousity.

CF: Even if I would argue that it was already the case with people like Annie Sprinkle, that she basically went into porn to really explore different fantasies and perversions, today Sasha Grey seems to be the first who embodies a different agency and is still accepted in the mainstream beyond porn. She never submitted to the victim-idea anti-porn feminists have, that women, besides obviously liking the pay, go into the industry to explore their own sexuality.

AS: Yes, lots of girls come to explore their own sexuality. But of course there are different girls and different stories. Somebody might really need the money, and somebody else might decide for herself, but still experience pressure to wear no condom in the scene. While it is very usual that people wear condoms in gay porn, doing straight porn is still based on doing an HIV test every month but perform without condoms. In the industry, people tell us that they could get performers from Eastern Europe to perform without condoms, so there really exists pressure regarding that question. But coming back to your question: I was instructed by older sexworkers and had a very interesting time working as a dominatrix in New York. I like the idea of sharing knowledge, so if a girl is nice, I might show her some tricks.

CF: One of the oldest but still very actual discussions around porn is the question of authenticity. Since pornography exists, at least that's what film theorist Linda Williams argues, porn always tries to prove that it documents real sex. How would you answer the question if your sexual experience in porn is authentic?

AN: I try to have an authentic experience. That's why I go there, to have authentic sex, hopefully. Sometimes it's not as planned and you feel a certain doubt about the team or the other person. Sometimes you might feel what's happening is not that great. I think there were at least four occasions - which doesn't sound like a lot, when one remembers I’ve done several hundreds of scenes - but at least after these four scenes I felt really depressed. It wasn't simply about me doing something wrong or another person, sometimes its just the mixture of crew, performers and atmosphere... It really is a bit of a bummer, but these things happen. Everybody has a bad day at work sometimes, we try to have really great days. I feel also lucky that maybe that happened only four times since I started doing porn. You can only do the best you can.

CF: On the one hand you have many (porn-)fans around the world which totally adore you. On the other hand outside the porn-bubble people don't really see or respect your qualities as performers. Like the director Mason once said: "I think it´s really important to appreciate the girls. They give so much." Do you think your work gets valued enough?

AS: I think that is a very good question.

AN: I am just very happy if people can appreciate it. That is the most I can hope for. I don't think everybody should think that it´s so amazing what I do, but it makes me really happy when people do appreciate it and when they're nice.


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