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MARIA BEATTY & ANNIE SPRINKLE: Sluts and Goddesses Videoworkshop

by Johanna Drucker

Peculiarities of our time(s) require that Annie Sprinkle and Maria Beatty be universally admired and this tape be considered a work of art. I would admire Beatty and Sprinkle in any moment -- the way I admired and was in awe of the women I met in highschool and college who knew more than I did about themselves, their bodies and their sexuality -- and who seemed, in an abrupt, matter-of-fact way willing to let us know that we could have access to that information if we let go of our uptightness and inhibitions. This collaborative tape goes way beyond those sessions in which knowledge was held out like a dare or a bluff never called. Sprinkle and Beatty generously, seriously, humorously, affectionately offer a workshop through which to access the pleasures of female sexuality. Without judgement, without criticism, without ethics except those of karmic, cosmic, and personal health, they provide a how-to tape for women which is a kind of Wilhelm Reich meets the New Age in a format which combines the Home Shopper's channel with the aerobic work-out tape. This is a packaged-for-consumption tape just like the home handyman, budget gourmet and other tapes which belongs on the shelf of every supermarket and video store in the country. Things being what they are, it won't end up there and will end up instead as the object of Congressional investigations, of Helms inspired pejorative pronouncements, and of nervous art administrators' condemnation. The tape will get used as the grounds for denying funding to institutions who show it, and will no doubt only have an audience among the already converted or the already condemnatory -- rather than reaching the pubescent set who are already getting their social/sexual roles fixed through conventional relations of repression.

And art? The sociological profile of that activity has altered dramatically as free speech issues have come to dominate the aesthetic landscape. As the one domain within late and oh so polluted capitalist culture (read: the enterprise zone of democracy), Art has come to function as the arena in which limits are tested for the expression and representation of sensibilities, positions, points of view which in a more enlightened society would be fully integrated into ordinary, everyday life and elementary education. If this tape qualifies as art, it is in part because it is only in Art that permission to explore what should be normal territory can be tendered -- and even there, the insidious forces of external and self-imposed censorship will work to find grounds on which to condemn this piece (as Not Art-ish enough, Not Aesthetic, or Not Beautiful).

Like Bernini's St. Theresa, Sprinkle, as the visible member of the team, offers the spectacle of her sexual ecstacy as public spectacle. The difference is that Sprinkle knows what is happening to her, and is in control -- not only of the experience, but of a good, quick smart discourse around it. This is a position which has netted every form of repression from stoning to dousing to burning at the stake for women since biblical times. Living as we do in a so much happier time, we of course have no reason to fear such reprisals....

On camera, Annie Sprinkle presents herself as a perfect hostess from the outset, in modest, almost frumpy, black cocktail dress, hair in bouffant and striking poses that come right out of Whirlpool and Philco advertisements of the 1950s appliance mania. Her autobiographical statements have a tabloid headline truth value - "I have been a prostitute, a porno movie star, a pin-up and so-on --" in a catalogue of roles prescribed by the sex industry. In a moment when it is in fashion to discuss the problematics of female empowerment through control of spectatorship, manipulation, and etc. (ho hum). Sprinkle's delivery is refreshingly unpretentious. The general tone of Beatty’s and Sprinkle's tape is simply designed to persuade you (if you didn't already believe this) that maxing out on your orgasmic potential is the route to good health, happy life, and cosmic harmony. Yes, cosmic harmony -- the New Age is here in abundance, and though nobody throws any crystals, the connection to the universal cosmos is stressed in imagery and text through a whirling mandala of masturbating women, breathing exercises, and so forth. For those of us (I happen to be one) with California in our history, all of this is terrifically familiar and not really off-putting (communing with the cosmos still seems easier to tolerate than the old habit of going to church services), but I wonder how this reads in the rest of the world (my college undergraduates?). Still, if we accept the point that good sex practically leads to good consciousness -- it does explain something about the current state of American politics....

The tape frequently saturates the frame with the high color background, isolate-the-object look of the shopper's channel, as I said above, but maximizes this to focus on vaginal exercises, rings piercing various not-so-extremities, tattoos, masks, jewels, costumes and devices for inducing pleasure in even the most hopelessly inhibited of female organs. The variety of body sizes, ethnic types, and atheletic dispositions among the female "facilitators" is as representative as any international board of anything should be. The demographic range of this is truly helpful to the audience, most of whom will not be able to feel up to advanced yoga as a prerequisite for orgasm. Sprinkle's own body shows a few tell-tale signs of aging, but her unselfconscious use of it for her own pleasure and satisfaction reminds us, all, again, that sexuality is much more about attitude than appearance -- something it's not always easy to remember in a culture saturated with hygenic images of anatomical perfection and the rhetoric of celibacy, monogamy, or denial.

Visually the tape is a curious melange of the high end of low production values -- which is to say, a lot has been done with filling in backgrounds, using funky, minimal sets, and the basic techniques of video editing rather than making an investment in pre-production elaborate sets. The tape avoids the docu-drama techniques of porno narratives, and also avoids the fantasy lure of same, but the result is, as I said above, a curious kind of home shoppers' look combined with a hygiene tape and, at times, a relaxation through meditation technique cosmic visual sensibility (whirling colors, split screen duplication, minor mtv touches).

While not overly artsy, it has clearly been crafted, and much of the visual sensibility skirts a thin, but safe, course between kitsch and humor which preserves it from either hardcore or pedantic self-seriousness. The sound values are clear, and the Oliveros sound track moves between unobtrusive emphasis and musical interest in a way which complements, with equally light touch, the interplay of humor and serious intention in the visuals.

I have my own idiosyncratic quarrels with certain points in the tape. I found the whole introductory "be a slut" or "a goddess" session hokey, kitsch and a little silly -- I like costume, kink, disguise and acting out but the oppositional simplicity of slut/goddess felt too much like it was scripted in 42nd street bar for the sake of conventioneers without a lot of imagination -- in fact, felt in general too complicitous with the standard terms of sex industry expectations. Sprinkle's manner is cutesy-coy at moments which makes me wonder who she thinks her audience is, and at other times so professionally detached and objective vis a vis her intimate experience that she seems to forget the gulf which separates her from the bulk of women for whom the many bonds, veils and chains of repression will never be lifted. We live with the baggage of our moral training, our romantic scenarios and our self-consciousness in the face of media perfection -- and Beatty and Sprinkle's distance from these restraints, while admirable, doesn't translate into insight into what to do with the realities of lived experience.

There are a few things in this tape likely to bring on the critical response and negative judgements generated by the phobic fears of the truly righteous: Sprinkle only engages in sexual acts with women -- a point not even commented on as it is in the spirit of safe sisterhood and sororial intimacy with which, again, most women are familiar (though we generally repressed the erotic aspects of these experiences owing to our good toilet training). The women, simply, seem utterly comfortable with each other, especially as they do, in fact, know more about each other's bodies than most men could be expected to. But the more significant point of what will be responded to as transgression in the tape is the separation of sexuality from the capitalist/bourgeois mythos of romance. Sexuality is a thing apart, in itself, not necessarily related to or even possible within the confines of the monogamous relations of property/propriety.

Sexuality, in fact, has next to nothing to do with the fables of love, mating, and dating which make the advertiser's world go around. Beatty and Sprinkle's approach, in which sexuality unleashes a power, an emotion, an energy which they reterm "cosmic" or "universal," takes the distinction between romantic love and sexuality so much for granted that it will shock and dismay the legislators of morality on all sides of the political spectrum who salve their libidinous consciences by writing themselves a continual scenario of affection each time they indulge in the pleasures of the flesh.

Ultimately, however, this tape goes right to the heart of one of the most important issues in feminist politics since female sexuality and its restraint is one of the points on which the rigid controls of patriarchy may be indexed historically. Women's relation to their own sexuality is directly related to the forces of repression which are effected in economic, political, and socially strategic terms. Feminist critics have been struggling for a decade to demonstrate that the demarcation of zones of private and public activity can't be successfully maintained given the extent to which internalization of social codes determines the interior life of an individual. There is no "private" life beyond the limits of the ideological agenda, sexuality, like emotional life and psychic life and public politics is formed in relation to the rules of order laid out for us by the culture in which we develop and struggle to live. Beatty and Sprinkle offer a liberatory criticism, posed as an alternative, an opportunity, the result of which, if it is truly successful, won't only be transcendence (I have the Marxist's fear of this and an old hippie's attraction to it) -- but empowerment. The link between access to pleasure and access to power is neither trivial nor weak. The practice of sexuality is, necessarily, engaged with issues of politics and power. Women have yet to come into their own in the public sphere, but is there a way to make progress in the personal domain which will show up, count, assist in this activity?

It is not the explicitness of sexuality which will make this a political bombshell -- but that it is female sexuality -- the kind which the uptight supporters of partriachal hegemony love to trash after watching it and filling their pants up, knowing their survival depends on keeping it in control. So, from my perspective, it is hard to avoid coming to the celebratory defense of the work in advance. After all -- in an age where the realm of art is the one last protected (under threat, endangered as a species) realm in which some bit of free speech gets play, this tape shows how completely needed the domain of art actually is -- since it's the only place this work will get done. In the best of all possible worlds, this tape would be sold without stigma, next to health food cookbooks and other items designed to improve posture, digestion, ecological consciousness, psychological well-being and physical health.