Breakfast With Veronica Vera

The Performance Art of Sex Work

Veronica Vera and I have been best friends for many years. We have worked on hundreds of projects together.

Presently she is Dean of her own unique creation, Miss Vera's Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls and the author of a book by the same name. (website)

We had our breakfast in cyberspace.

Veronica Vera and Annie Sprinkle

Veronica Vera
Good morning, my darling. I'm just waking up and having my morning coffee. My favorite ritual of the day. What a treat to be sharing it with you.
Annie Sprinkle

My pleasure. Let's see. What year did we meet?

V V

We met in 1980, which means that this year marks the twen-tieth anniversary of our friendship. In the beginning, there was R. Mutt Press, that group of artists, writers and provocateurs that included Spider Webb, Charles Gatewood, Marco Vassi, V.K. McCarty, Michael Perkins, all of whom called Woodstock, NY, a sort of second home.

I was a newly liberated Catholic girl. My mother had just died the year before. It was an experience that changed my life and put me in touch with my own mortality. I had decided to leave my straight business-world job, where I had accumulated a small nest-egg, and pursue my dreams to be a writer. You had just come back from Italy and two years under the influence of the great artist Willem de Ridder, who, of course, you were fucking too. Fucking seemed always to be part of the process of communication. I had gone to Marco, the great writer and self-described 'avatar of Eros,' to learn more about S/M, a discipline that was a natural complement to my early religious indoctrination. You were fucking Charles, modeling for him and getting photography lessons, to boot. We were all in Charles's comfy living room with the wood-burning stove. You said you had something to show us and the next thing I knew we were being showered, so to speak, with brilliantly colored European sex magazines. Many were much more expensively produced than American mags, people in rubber with enema tubes (all very neat and pristine), some interesting farm animals. You were so enthusiastic. I was very impressed and remember thinking, 'This is a very dedicated pornographer.' I guess you responded to my enthusiasm, because we hit it off immediately.

In the beginning, I still had an income and I did not have to work too hard. I wrote for magazines like Penthouse Variations, Adam, I was a member of Stag’s Pussy Posse, but quit because the slant was too low-brow. I always liked to class things up. And I know that you liked that about me. You were hitting the bumpy burlesque trail, capitalizing on your movie fame and introducing 'Strip Speak' where you would actually communicate with the audience, rather than simply take off your clothes. I accompanied you a few times. There was a safety for me in that. I could jump up on stage with you or jump into the Polaroid photos you took with your fans, slip out of my conservative skirt and sweater set and get nearly naked without committing to actually being a porn star. There was still a lot of Catholic girl in me. We were both into audi-ence participation. It was fun getting horny guys, who might normally just sit quietly in their seats playing with themselves, to jump up on stage, take off their shirts and play with us.

In 1988 we would do a very similar performance at the Kitchen in Carnival of Sleaze, only this time we played to a mixed-gender audience, and got great reviews in an officially sanctioned 'art space.' Except for the curator's choice of the title, this seemed to be much more up our alley.

AS

What were some of the things we did together? We made a feature film with Gerard Damiano at my apartment, called Consent-ing Adults, which was perhaps the first 'gonzo' sex film, in which everyone got to do what they wanted to in their sex scene.

V V

I had dubbed your apartment 'The Sprinkle Salon' after one 'event.' What a magical place it was. One day when I was about to leave, you invited me to stay for tea. You had invited Gerry Damiano, to discuss an idea you had to make an X-rated movie in which everyone would play themselves. That spot of tea was like the potion that led Alice to Wonderland, for I was soon starring opposite you in my first X-rated movie. I wasn't supposed to perform sex in the film, I would just be an interviewer and when the spirit moved me, I would flash my newly pierced nipple. That changed the day you called me into the sex scene with you and Michael Cycle. It was Michael's first time on camera and he was intimidated. You thought fast and invited me to join you, thinking that with two women on his hands he wouldn't have time to worry about his erection and would rise to the occasion. It worked like a charm. Afterward, I looked at my reflection in your bathroom mirror

well, I thought, I had sex on camera and was not struck by lightning. I felt so free and more committed to the film and my career than ever. I use that experience in my performance piece, Bare Witness. The last line of the scene illustrates the conflict in my mind as I went down on you and Michael Cycle entered me from behind

'Don't let mommy see me, don't let daddy see me, don't let God see me ... Let the whole world see me, I'm a fucking movie star!' It was a real turning point in my life. In 1998 at the First World Pornography Conference that we both attended, I made the statement that I thanked God I took that step.

You know, Annie, what you did for me, sort of holding my hand through that process, helping me to confront my fear and desire is what I do now with my students. Many of them have never seen themselves totally transformed into females until they look in the mirror at the Academy. I pray that in each case, it is as liberating as it was for me.

AS

We hostessed many events at the Sprinkle Salon

an evening with Fakir Musafar (the father of the Modern Primitive culture), an evening with Kutira (Oceanic Tantra teacher). Ecstasy Breath-ing with Jwala. We co-directed Rites of Passion, a couples-oriented erotic video produced by Candida Royalle. Did many Sluts and Goddesses workshops together.

V V

'Events!' The word still gets me excited and always will.

AS

Remember when phone sex hit? We made a million of those one-minute phone recordings for Partner Magazine Some of those were definitely conceptual art!

V

That was the best gig of all time. $50 a minute. We ad-libbed the entire script. The last 20 seconds was lots of heavy breathing followed by a big '0'.

We made our magazines, like Annie Sprinkle's ABCs of Sexual Lust and Deviation, we printed newsletters ... In 1986, we began working together as a photojournalist team. Penthouse was our main client. You and I were on our way to an assignment in Philadelphia, Jennifer Blowdryer, who would later create a performance series called Smut Fesf, was along as your photo assistant. We decided we needed a name for our collaboration and came up with 'The School of High-Heel Journalism.' We not only documented the stories, we very much were the stories. In Los Angeles where we covered the adult film awards we dressed in crinolines and wore sexy T-shirts on which you had printed 'Retired Porn Star.' We were definite photo ops. I wanted to go to Brussels to cover the Second World Whores' Congress and convinced Jack Heidenry at Penthouse Forum to send us. We were the only journalists to also be delegates. Can you believe that prostitution is still against the law?

When I decided to testify in Washington for freedom of expression in 1984, in what would later become part of the Meese Report, you volunteered to document the event with your camera. You didn't want to testify you said, because you didn't want to speak in front of all those people. You, who would later be famous for your 'Public Cervix Announcement.' 'Document everything' became our motto. Documentation meant we could make our own interpretations. It also felt like we had control, even if we didn't. There was freedom in that structure.

A

Willem de Ridder affectionately called us 'artholes,' and gave us enormous support and encouragement. What were those gifts that he gave us that were so key to our careers and who we are today?

V

There are few people as generous as Willem de Ridder. Willem told us to think of everything we did as art. But not the stodgy museum or academic kind of art, art that was alive, art that exuded body fluids, art that was fun. Willem made himself totally accessible to us. He was never too tired to help with a project. Love '83, the magazine that we made with him in that year, is still my very favorite. When I was struggling over a piece about my earliest memories of masturbation and sexual guilt for that magazine, I feared that my struggle meant I wasn't ready to write about it or it really should not be written. Willem advised, 'When you are sweating, when the pen is shaking in your hand, these are the pieces that are really worth writing.' That piece has had a long and varied life span. He was the inspiration and the narrator behind The Sprinkle/ Vera Salon, our short-lived venture into public-access TV. He was also very respected in Holland and invited us to participate as visiting artists in the Holland Festival and all the while, Willem stayed hot and horny. I think we both met Willem at the perfect time to hear his message. Later that message would be reinforced by Linda Montano. I will be forever grateful to Willem for setting me on the right path as an artist.

A

What makes our sex work more like artwork than other sex workers make? What makes our artwork more like sex work than other artists make?

V

We are artists and sex is our medium.

A

What do you think made us unique in the world of sex work? In the world of art?

V

We have each other, and our idealism.

A

Do you think we actually made an impact on the world? What world/s?

V

The world has responded to us, sometimes with approval, sometimes with disapproval. I think the great challenge is something you attributed to something Carolee Schneeman told you, that we need to 'guard our meanings.' The world is always ready to make its own interpretations and simplifications, we need to stay vigilant that what we mean is clear, especially to ourselves. I see that with my academy project. It is not just about a man in a dress, it is about personal liberation and empowerment. It is about assimilating a consciousness. It is about changing the world.

A

Do you think we hid behind the art label? Why did we want to be seen as something besides the usual sex workers? Why didn't we do our porn and sex work the mainstream commercial way?

V V

The art label is like the emperor's new clothes, not much room to hide. We go beyond sex work because our intention is to go beyond an individual encounter, we want to turn on the world. We don't mind being publicity hounds.

We didn't do our porn and sex work in the mainstream commercial way because

  1. it was too often limited by the greedy sophomoric attitudes of the men in charge;
  2. we didn't need the money that bad;
  3. we had each other—and we found others with whom to collaborate. Collaboration is so important.

The women of Club 90, with whom we performed Deep Inside Porn Stars at the Franklin Furnace and with whom we have had an ongoing porn-star support group these past fifteen years, have been especially important.

A

Yes, Club 90 was majorly empowering for us. When we were in the porn mainstream, subversively making our porn into art, do you think the 'porn fans' liked our unusual take, didn't notice it, or just put up with it because they liked my tits and your ass?

V

They loved our enthusiasm above all, but the tits and ass sure got their attention.

A

When I'm a visiting artist lecturing on college campuses, I inevitably get asked the question, 'When you were working in porn and prostitution, weren't you just contributing to the patriarchy? Young women are commodities for men's pleasure, and you helped perpetuate bad, misogynist habits.' What do we say to that?

V

'Eat me!' Whoops, I guess I'm getting hungry. What I have learned is to forget about the woman I am 'supposed' to be and be the woman I am ... now, shall it be Shredded Wheat or a doughy, warm, sensuous bagel?

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