This was written in 1998, for Martha Wilson of the Franklin Furnace.
Twenty-five years ago, on July 29, 1971 I happily gave up my sexual virginity. It was indeed a major turning point in my life. However it did not compare to the transformative experience I had twelve years ago, on January 26, 1984, when I did my first "performance art piece" at the great, the one and only, Franklin Furnace. So powerful was the experience, that it changed my life forever for the better.
Up until that fateful night, I had, rather contentedly, been living as a multi-media whore--making porn films, doing burlesque, nude modeling and doing photography for sex magazines. I enjoyed my work, but my deep, dark, secret fantasy was to be... an artist!
I got my big break when Franklin Furnace was sponsoring Carnival Knowledge, a women's art collective, to put together a series of performance events. Carnival Knowledge in turn invited Club 90, my porn star support group, to participate. We were a group of seven women porn stars (Veronica Vera, Gloria Leonard, Veronica Hart, Candida Royalle, Kelly Nichols and Sue Nero) who met every few weeks to discuss problems, share successes, to network and to gossip. Delighted to have an opportunity to reveal other sides of our selves, and to a whole new audience, as well as to some of our peers (even Bob Guccione came), we accepted the invitation. We welcomed the challenge to try our hands (as well as the rest of our bodies) at something new.
Our one night only show Deep Inside Porn Stars was a reenactment of one of our meetings, portrayed in an honest, albeit stylized way. Within the "meeting" we each had a spot in which to share a bit about ourselves in any way we wanted. For my spot, I chose to illustrate with slides, words and a few props, how shy, insecure, scared Ellen Steinberg had recreated herself as Annie Sprinkle, exhibitionist, confident, fearless sex slut. My personal visual poem, now titled Ellen/Annie, was only a few minutes long, but became the spring board for a whole new and improved life, and set the basic style for much of all my work there after.
In retrospect, here are the main things that struck me from doing that first show:
- The art audience was very nice, and it even included a lot of women! It felt kinder, more inquisitive and more mature than my usual all male audience who simply looked to get sexually aroused.
- It felt liberating to expose myself in a new way, to reveal a deeper truth of who I was, and to be seen for who I truly was, instead of conforming to what had become only other people's fantasies.
- I enjoyed the nice treatment and the respect that I got from folks in the art world, especially from Martha Wilson and her staff. Some of the guys I'd been working for weren't nearly as nice, especially the porn producers and the strip club managers.
- Preparing for and doing the show was fantastic therapy. It really helped me to understand myself and my friends better. The intensity of the experience bonded our Club 90 group even more.
- I was titillated and intrigued by the art world, and the art world seemed titillated and intrigued by me. I could really relate to performance art.
- There was no specific "commercial style" or “formula" one had to adhere to, like in the sex biz. There was total creative freedom, and far less censorship. For example in a burlesque show you pretty much had to dress and act a certain way. Performances were always 20 minutes, and there were strict laws about the sex and nudity. In art you could dress how you wanted, act how you wanted and perform for as long or short as you wanted, and there didn't seem to be any very specific laws about the sex and nudity.
As quickly as possible I transformed into a professional performance artist. I began traveling the world making a living sharing stories of my life.
My next show was a one woman show, Post Porn Modernist, which I performed for five years. Earlier versions were very different than later versions. As I changed, the show changed, and visa versa.
The show became known mostly for it's two most controversial parts: The Public Cervix Announcement, where I would show my cervix to my audience with the aid of a speculum and flashlight (if you missed it, you can still catch my cervix on my web site-http://www.heck.com), and The Temple of the Sacred Prostitute, a sex magic masturbation ritual.
In retrospect several things strike me from having done Post Porn Modernist:
- Performance art is extremely educational. I learned a whole hell of a lot from my audiences, and many members of my audiences reported learning a lot from me. I was both a teacher and a student at the same time. For example, some audience members reported feeling better about their bodies and their sexualities. I learned from audience reactions about how to be more authentic, about how to accept wherever I was at in the moment, and about giving and receiving.
- If you share your life on the performance art stage, you put yourself in a position to be seriously judged as a good person or bad person. At times I was worshiped as a goddess-- art lovers lavished me with gifts, shared their beautiful tears, gave me their blessings, sprinkled me with their love and adoration. At other times I was hated-- protested against, screamed at, threatened with arrest, consistently censored, stalked, and I even had my life threatened. (Similar things can happen performing in the sex biz, but as long as you stay in the porn ghetto, people don't care that much. But if you bring similar issues to more mainstream culture, all is intensified. ) On stage I simply shared who I was, which happens to be a lot of things that a lot of people love to judge and to hate; an ex-prostitute, a pornographer, a witch, a jew, a lesbian, a feminist, and yes... a performance artist. Interestingly, the people who expressed the most hatred never met me or saw my work.
- Doing performance art is a perfect place to experiment with life and it can be a fruitful spiritual practice. For example, by doing the masturbation ritual on stage I got more invaluable insights than anything else I've ever done. I learned so much about energy, about trance, about how to be, about shame, about timing, and about having no expectations.
- I discovered that through performance art I could create my own future. If I performed who I wanted to become, I would become it. I could also help create the future of the world. For one thing, I had great access to the media, and I often saw ideas I'd expressed through the media reflected back to me in various ways, especially in other people's work.
Eventually I outgrew Post Porn Modernist and wanted to do something new (even though it was still in great demand). I decided that I wanted to share my enthusiasm for doing sexually explicit performance art with other women, to give them a chance to have some of the life enhancing experiences I'd had. I created a show called MetamorphoSex, in collaboration with my favorite artist Linda Montano, and my friend Barbara Carrellas. It premiered in Austin, Texas in December 1995, at the Vortex Theater. Women were invited (by Xeroxed flyer and word of mouth) to take a week long sexuality workshop which culminated in three evening performances (sacred sex magic rituals), where the public was invited. Twenty six women from all walks of life participated.
These were indeed very spectacular and powerful shows. Most all of the women greatly enjoyed their experience and got a whole lot from it. However, I learned one very important lesson, the hard way. Here's what stuck: Performance art can be dangerous. There was so much personal risk taking, so much volatile energy got stirred up, and there wasn't enough time after the shows to ground and to process, so some adverse reactions and situations resulted. There were some feelings of exploitation and violation, many women caught the flu, relationships broke up, and one woman even threatened me with a law -suit over the video documentation! I have decided put the explosive MetamorphoSex project on hold.
The most recent show I've done is Hardcore From The Heart--My Film Diary of 25 Years As A Porn Queen, which just premiered at the Schmidt Theater in Hamburg, Germany (Oct. 22-27, 1996). It's a two women show which I perform with my lovely wife, Kimberley Silver, about the longings of the heart, and I'm extremely excited about it. We plan to tour it for the next few years.
Here are some thoughts I have after performing this new work:
- Doing controversial performance work requires a heck of a lot of energy, and can be a really hard job. Although I've become a much more skilled performer, it doesn't seem to get easier.
- Doing performance art can be pure magic. To draw forth concepts from the void, to have your concepts become manifest, to be the focal point of the energy of so many people (audience and co-workers), and to see so much change occur through the work is nothing but miraculous and awe inspiring.
- I'll always be eternally grateful to Martha Wilson and the Franklin Furnace.
- To be a performance artist is a great way of life. I highly recommend it to everyone.