The irreverent Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park held an informal screening last August of work by local filmmakers, and at the last minute the curator agreed to add a five-minute digital video just completed by Kristie Drew, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute, and her boyfriend, Usama Alshaibi. The dreamlike Slaughtered Pigtails shows Drew, her hair in pigtails, running scared across a field, seen from the perspective of someone who's chasing her with a hunting knife. Finally the predator catches up to her and violently negotiates a clear plastic produce bag over her head. A struggle transpires, and the film concludes with a close-up of Drew as a bubble of blood blooms from her mouth. The audience at Heaven Gallery had reacted positively to Alshaibi's earlier film on the program as well as some others whose violence was muted by ironic distance. But when Slaughtered Pigtails was over, there was dead silence.
According to Drew, some audience members told the curator that the video's misogyny had ruined the evening. "It's kind of a shame that 'feminism' and political correctness still [make] people so fearful and defensive that it renders certain subjects taboo," Drew wrote in her on-line diary at Livejournal.com. Her profile on the site describes her as "artvamp, artwhore, artist, filmmaker, naked cam girl, grad student, polysexual, polytheistic, taboo breaker, median jumper, pervert, freak, [and] flake." An experienced sex worker, she runs a site called Objectifyme.com that charges $10.95 a month for digital-video clips of her executing a wide variety of sex acts and bodily functions. But in person Drew is plain and soft-spoken, so shy that she has a hard time talking on the phone, even to her closest friends.
"I discovered--or perhaps was introduced to--sexual arousal at around age five, and [I've] been hooked ever since," she says. Growing up in a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, Drew was molested by a male family member for eight years. In most other respects her childhood was normal; her parents ran an electronics repair shop and a video production company, and as a girl she'd spend her afternoons trying to construct gadgets out of spare parts. During the summer she and her younger brother would stay up until sunrise watching their parents shoot music videos, and then the family would head out for breakfast at a diner. But even as a preteen, Drew was a little kinky: sometimes she'd loiter in front of the shop, flashing her panties at men in passing vehicles and keeping a journal of how many honks she got.
When she was 13 she saw a sex-ed movie that explained how terrible it was for someone to touch you "down there," and suddenly the caresses that had never bothered her before began to creep her out. She and her best friend hatched a plot to run away to New York, but her friend chickened out and told a school guidance counselor, who contacted Drew's mother. Drew told her mother about the sexual abuse, but gradually she realized that she felt bad about it only because society had told her to.
A wife at 19, a mother at 20, and a divorcee at 21, Drew freely admits that her history of sexual abuse shaped her personality and her art. "That does not change the fact that I am a grown woman who is able to understand this, and still make self-directed choices," she says. "I don't need to claim victimhood as some sort of badge, or worse yet, an excuse for my beliefs or actions. I'm fortunate enough to be really comfortable with whom I am, regardless of the past."
In 1995, Drew enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute, and as part of a psychology class she created an alter ego for herself, Echo Transgression. The birth of this twin sister helped Drew overcome her timidity toward the things that fascinated her, which included "just about anything that had a direct effect on the body that made you aroused or made you want to throw up."
She began keeping a diary as Echo and later posted her entries on-line; in one of them she's riding on a commuter train and spots a particularly innocuous-looking stranger. She slips him a note: "I'll fuck you if you follow me home and don't say a word." He takes her up on it, and she keeps her promise. She participates in a ritualistic gang bang in a hotel conference room; she harbors, photographs, and sexually experiments with a teenage runaway. In one particularly outrageous entry she turns on all the electrical appliances in her apartment and masturbates with them, then she climbs into the refrigerator to cool off. "Echo is not exactly me in disguise," says Drew. "She's Kristie filtered through the lenses, circuitry, and fantasies, being somehow changed. Some parts of me are magnified in crystal clear focus, and other parts shaved off completely."
After graduating from art school in 1999 she gave her ex-in-laws legal custody of her son and moved to Chicago to join the master's program in filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute. Drew was influenced by faculty member Barbara DeGenevieve, an erotic photographer and video maker whose course "Body Language" analyzed the production of pornography and the motivations behind it. Along with some other students Drew founded an independent group, PornShot, dedicated to producing intelligent porn films. Even in this company Drew distinguished herself. Last October, on Channel 11's Artbeat Chicago, DeGenevieve talked about the relationship between art and pornography. The episode cuts to an image from Drew's Satyr/Sadist, a tight two-shot that shows Drew crying and Alshaibi slapping her, the movement of their bodies clearly implying a rape. The host remarks, "There's one piece that made me concerned about the line you cross--" A tense DeGenevieve cuts her off, nodding her head: "Mm-hm. I know which one it is."
In December 2000, Drew decided to follow Echo into the night and hired on at an escort service. Her second assignment sent her to a hotel room, where a female client waited. "I want you to strip for me and eat me out," the woman said. Drew says she'd gotten down to her panties when two vice cops burst in from the adjacent room. They ordered her to sit, half naked, while they searched her purse, and then they busted her. At the police station a couple of officers laughed at her for carrying a vibrator; another made her sign the same forms again and again, declaring her signature unsatisfactory. "I can get what you give for ten bucks down on North Avenue," one said. "Brutality is the fun part of this job," another commented. She says she wasn't fed for nearly 24 hours.
After that Drew was reluctant to meet with clients in hotel rooms, so she quit and went solo as a full-service escort. Last August she stopped having intercourse with her clients; she says her boyfriend satisfied all her cravings, and she didn't want to expose him to sexually transmitted diseases. She still gives erotic massages and services foot fetishists, but she also teaches digital video editing at Mac University and volunteers at the Chicago Historical Society. She hopes the revenue from Objectifyme.com will allow her to quit the business altogether. Paying members can watch Drew copulating, urinating, defecating, masturbating with a lavender stuffed rabbit that's equipped with a huge phallus, and penetrating herself with the Visifuck, a contraption she made out of a large glass tube and a flexible dildo. Various found footage available on the site includes humorous old smut films and a home movie of a woman having sex with a dog.
Another Web site, 12taboos.com, grew indirectly from the on-line diary of Echo Transgression. Shortly after arriving in Chicago, Drew set out to make a feature-length film called Other People's Mirrors, using the diary as a script and acting out everything Echo had written. "Echo is on a quest," she writes, "the purpose of which is both anthropological and spiritual. Disillusioned with the search for meaning, she has made it her goal to eliminate judgment through breaking taboos." The film hasn't been completed, but Drew has uploaded some of the footage onto 12taboos.com. "There was the conflation of what I was doing as Kristie the director and as Echo the character all packaged within the film's Web site," says Drew, "blurring fiction and performance with documentary and creating a sort of hybrid."
That same month Drew appeared on the MTV program Sex 2K, talking about her experiences as an escort. Viewers saw a quiet but articulate woman speak reasonably about the work, but at the end of the segment the focus abruptly shifts to her history of sexual abuse. "I felt completely victimized by it," says Drew, backed by the Destiny's Child tune "Survivor." An on-screen title declares, "75% to 90% of all women in prostitution were sexually abused as children." End of show. Drew was furious. "Okay, first of all, my last statement was taken COMPLETELY out of context," she writes in her on-line diary. The quote about being victimized, she says, referred to the cops who'd busted her, "NOT...my molester! I made a point of saying that yes I was molested, but that I had resolved all that and didn't hold a grudge or anything....They just USED me to prove their little statistic!!!"
Drew's anger over being exploited seems like a strange reaction from someone who built a Web site called Objectifyme.com. But she thinks there's a difference between "empathy through a journey into numbness" and having the purpose of her journey skewed to fit an agenda. Neither liberals nor conservatives can figure out how to classify a smart, sexually charged woman who has no shame. Classmates and instructors have criticized Drew for dwelling on shock value, yet she defends her form of "art viscera"--art that has guts, or at least the ability to punch the viewer in his. It's aggressive, sometimes sexual, and sometimes disturbing. "My utter fascination stems from the fact that sexual arousal is this feeling that can be really surprising and out of one's control," she says. "I often never know what's going to turn me on next, so I like to explore the possibilities....It's such a rich subject matter, and I'm driven to explore it. Maybe it's a calling."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Usama Alshaibi, Fred Burkhart.