There won't be any sex at "Sex Party," says Rebekah Levine. But it will be a party, with beer and dancing and music. Levine and Vincent Darmody, members of a four-person collaborative called Law Office, have asked male artists with some knowledge of pornography to build "fantasy spaces that they find they identify with sexually." The four resulting porn sets, which can be viewed and entered, will provide the decor for this 21-and-over art event taking place Saturday from 11 PM to 2:45 AM at 1542 N. Milwaukee.
According to Levine, the party is secondary, a ruse "to see how people will react to or interact with the sets." With no actual sex, the sets can't fulfill the expectations raised by the advance publicity, but as Levine and Darmody wrote in a document given to the designers, "Parties, holidays, weekends, general human gatherings are all about some form of missed expectations, a setting up for high times which are rarely if ever met."
Levine, who's 24, admits to a fascination with porn. "I like to look at Playboy, Hustler, Club International, Club Confidential, Barely Legal, but I'm not really sure why. They're titillating, I suppose, but I'm also fascinated with the hairstyles, the sets." She understands these publications objectify women, but she also points out that the women are "the stars--every man who looks at the magazine looks at them. I guess I want that to be me sometimes, but it also troubles me that I think this way."
For the last three months Levine and Darmody have been working on the publicity for their event, passing out leaflets and spreading the word. "Sex is a weird thing," Levine says, "especially now when everybody's kind of scared to have sex because of diseases." As she and Darmody explained to the artists, they want to give viewers "a feeling of being onstage in a production they have not rehearsed well enough for....The effect of the sets should illustrate the huge missing piece of bodies copulating, while the viewer projects the fantasy."
A Grease Monkey's Wet Dream is the title K.C. Welch and Timothy J. McGuire have given to their collaboration. Their set will be shaped a bit like a theater stage, with McGuire's motorcycle--a 1967 BSA 650 Lightning--as its centerpiece. It will have mirrors and fur on the walls and black vinyl on the floor. Small phallic cones will hang from the ceiling, and "dirty magazines" will be held in a space under the stage. "Some of the mirrors will be convex," says McGuire, "so they give you a full-body perspective. There will also be motorcycle mirrors. You'll be able to walk in and see your sexual organs, your breast, your penis, just be able to check yourself out. People get off on themselves every day looking in a mirror."
Welch was surprised to be chosen for the project. He grew up surrounded by his dad's paintings of nudes taken from Playboy, but he doesn't think this early exposure to erotic imagery constitutes any special involvement with porn. Yet he recalls his father's magazines were always "conveniently in the bathroom. My friends were like, 'Your parents are so cool.' Kids always liked to come over to my house, and I remember around junior high these guys would go into the bathroom and be gone for an hour." He saw his first hard-core porn films while baby-sitting for a neighbor who had a video collection. He says his interest in porn diminished when he started having intercourse, but he still uses it today. He paints murals for a living and says he's tired all the time; though he lives with his girlfriend of four years, sometimes masturbation is easier than intercourse. "With somebody else you have to worry about them and communicate with them. Sometimes I don't even find it relaxing."
The 32-year-old McGuire is president of Go Design, a graphic and Web design company located in a Milwaukee Avenue storefront. Everyone who works there rides a motorcycle, and they park their bikes inside the office. "Being exhibitionists and performance artists we like to be interactive with the community," McGuire says. "We have our motorcycles in front, and people wonder if it's a motorcycle shop." The space is also used for parties and art exhibitions. "When we have shows, we call it the Blue Canvas Gallery."
For his own art, Welch paints and makes boxes: "They're a little like Joseph Cornell, but more kitschy and more glitzy." He says the set he's made with McGuire is "in a way like a big box." Some of McGuire's other work is collaborative as well, with several artists painting on the same canvas. He says he's not much of a porn consumer today: "Most of my sexual experiences become pretty spiritual and highly emotional, and I think interacting with another energy system, a female, you build up and go to a different place for an extended period of time. You can have sex not only with people--you can have sex with objects. Somebody who works on motorcycles, they're very obsessive, they love to handle their parts and their tools and they count their nuts and their bolts. They put it together and it's a beautiful thing and they can get lost in it for hours and hours. Physically they're not having sex, but they're having sex."
Erik Campbell has "the biggest porn collection I've ever seen," says Welch. Campbell admits that his collection is "above average sized--mainly magazines, a minimal amount of videos, digital image files saved from the Internet, and the plastic bags." The bags contain body parts cut from magazines--breasts in one bag, eyes or hands or crotches in others--which he incorporates into his paintings. "I feel more in control of my life with things organized, especially things like that have some guilt connotations. It's like the skeleton in the closet that's neatly packaged." Campbell, who's 26, collected bugs as a child. Then he got into an uncle's porn magazines. "My mother found an issue of Cherry that I had hidden away in my bedroom, and she was very upset. She shredded it up in front of me and yelled for quite some time, and ended up throwing it in the trash." Campbell retrieved the fragments from the garbage, put them in a Ziploc bag, and obsessively taped the magazine back together.
His set, titled Boff, "will have objects from my everyday life. Some are pieces of furniture that I own. I work in art packing and got a real nice museum-quality crate that will be turned into a bed. I have a chair that had been in Hugh Hefner's mansion that I'm going to cover with vinyl. There's going to be a couple of road cones, kind of big phalluses. I've been purposely buying drinks in unusually shaped bottles to create almost dildolike objects, and I'm dipping the tips into latex to create a nipplelike or penislike cap. It will be kind of surreal because it takes everyday objects and heightens them."
Like Campbell's set, Christopher Ritter's utilizes everyday objects. "I'm doing an office," says the 33-year-old artist. "A lot of printed porn takes place in a bedroom or living room, but they also have sets such as an office, auto shop, and machine shop, and I find those layouts more interesting. One type of woman that really turns me on is the woman who works in an office, who wears a business suit--the coat, the skirt with the pantyhose, the pumps or the heels. If I have a reason to go downtown I'll make a couple of extra trips around the block and stare at the skirts. I do have an honest office-fuck fantasy. I'm interested in the areas where you can have sex, put your day clothes back on, go out in public, and have that smirk on your face. 'Ah! I've just finished.'"
The furnishings for his set will be relatively minimal--desk, chair, bookcase, phone, computer monitor. He's constructing a shallow, cylindrical bookcase, and he demonstrates two positions in which someone could copulate while leaning against it. True to the idea that this is a set, the bookcase will be filled with cardboard dummy books. "Some of the other guys are creating these fantasy rooms, and my intention is to create a room that's more everyday. With the label of it being a porn show, people can see it as an office and think about sex in the office. They can come and see this and then go to work on Monday and then start to envision how their cubicle could work for their own fuck situation."
Office Porn Set has an important source in Ritter's past. In 1985 he got a job with an architect who worked out of his home. The architect introduced him to several older women, one of whom "totally took me to school. I was still feeling a little insecure about my sexual abilities, and I've got this 30-year-old woman who was totally hot and all over me and fucked my brains out on a couple of occasions." Later the architect got married, and the next day, when Ritter came in to work, he could hear him having sex with his wife. "Then he comes out, and he's totally sexed out, and he asks me if I want to join them. I'm kind of freaked out about this. I was raised Catholic and I had this notion that marriage was an institution that was sacred. I really wanted to--but I couldn't. I said no and he was like, 'That's cool.' I went into the bathroom, jacked off, and left. In a dirty perverse way, I was so turned on by it."
Bill Talsma's set, simply titled Porn Set, also has a strong autobiographical component. It's a boy's bedroom, replete with model airplanes, toy trucks, trophies, a toy baseball bat, and a poster of Jennifer Love Hewitt. But the bed is twelve feet long. He's removing the hockey players from his old trophies and replacing them with generic figures holding a wreath. "I don't want it to be about Bill Talsma in 1979, when he won this trophy," says Talsma. "I think if it's just the man with his arms raised people can project onto that. One of the ideas that we've all been talking about is the idea of projection, and what that means in pornography."
Talsma wants the long bed to suggest a boy's anxiety about his growth, but it's also "a place where you could line ten people up and have a big orgy. You could fit a lot of people on there in many ways. Rebekah and Vince asked us to keep in mind the question, 'What are you doing after the orgy?' That's another reason why I built the bed long: it's long enough for two people to sleep end to end. Sleeping next to somebody means that you're in agreement over what has just happened. It's something that wouldn't necessarily happen after a porn shoot."
The set also has roots in a key incident from Talsma's boyhood. In early puberty the 28-year-old musician and sound artist had a series of experiences with another boy: they lay side by side, masturbating themselves. "When those sorts of things would happen, I would always want them to go further than he wanted to. It caused me to think something was wrong with me; each step of the way in one of those experiences and rejections reinforces the society's telling you that it's wrong.
"One time when we were masturbating together, our legs were touching, and we started to get closer to each other. Then I wanted him to actually touch me, and he said, 'Bill, I'm not gay!'" Talsma realized that "what we were doing was an idea that was out there in the world, and that some people do this but that the majority think it's wrong or sick. I hadn't connected it with the label 'gay' before, because I'd never thought of myself as gay." Then the friend told some other kids, and "for a while I kind of had this reputation around me."
Talsma was exposed to porn at nine or ten, and while he doesn't know whether the experience harmed him, he has mixed feelings about pornography. Though childless, he would "definitely not want my nine year old looking at porn," he says. "I don't necessarily think pornography is a good thing, even for adults. I'm kind of a hypocrite for saying that, because from time to time I buy it.
"Porn offers the illusion of total control over the person in the picture. You can do whatever you want to them in your fantasy. When we first got together for this show I brought this page from a magazine, fake letters to the editor obviously written by somebody at the magazine. An example would be like, 'Dear Magazine Editor, I love your magazine. I really liked so-and-so in issue number 28. I came all over her face. I took it in the bathroom and did this to her.' That is pornography in a nutshell to me.
"But with porn our expectations are never fulfilled; even though you do have control over the person on the page while you're looking at them, it's like you don't have control because it's just a picture. When you close the cover, all you have is a very lonely moment of masturbating to a magazine."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.