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Women of Internet Video   Recently updated !

“Obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with self-possession, with the possession of a recognized and stable individuality.” Georges Bataille

Yesterday I was asked to present some work and write a little something for an event at Ludwig in Berlin called Pixelspace: The Women of Internet Video, hosted by Ceven Knowles (who you may remember as a performer and producer in my film and web project Other People’s Mirrors. I thought it would be nice to share it here. Below is the short essay I wrote with reference videos.

I was born into video. My parents did video production and even at age 14 and 15, my friend Ceven and I would borrow my dad’s analog video camera and do performances. Fast-forward 15 years from that.  It was 1998 and I was in a web art class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and instructor Jon Cates brought up a website called anacam.com. It inspired me to take on a whole new direction.

Ana Voog

I already fancied myself a filmmaker, and was deeply rooted in the long history of women in video art as well. Cosey Fanni Tutti’s recent interview in the Guardian brought to mind the women performers who inspired me (from Carolee Schneeman to Lung Leg). In some ways I relived the same stories in my own way.

By the mid-70s, their performances often involved nudity, live sex acts and bodily fluids: crowds of entranced children were noticeable by their absence. Tutti thinks her increasing fascination with and involvement in the world of pornography had something to do with it. She’d been including images from porn magazines in collages, she says. “I just thought: ‘It’s a bit rotten using them like this.’ I’d sooner get in there and do it myself, so I know the background behind it and how it’s made. And then, once you enter that world, things do change, they get less playful.”

But anacam was a new iteration – this live performance that could be seen by anyone with a computer anywhere in the world, and I would never even have to see their faces. I didn’t have to edit anything or send it to galleries to be accepted or rejected. I was an artist who was all about subverting the art business. And I was an actor by necessity – as a survival mechanism having come from abuse. Plus, when you can’t find an actor willing to pull off the crazy shit you want to see, you just end up doing it yourself. On web cam I could be as graphic as I wanted to be and no one could touch me. My sexuality could be both public and safe. As a filmmaker too, it allowed for multiple layers of narrative – the live “making of” performance as a companion to the film itself. Not only live interactivity with an audience, but the blurring of reality and fantasy.

As a woman in art (and especially in film) there has always been this sense that you have to work harder to be seen. And throughout the history of women in video art, you will find this common theme. This is my body – my corporeal existence. SEE ME!!! I am here. Video has always been a kind of safe space for women to be obscene. To playfully poke porn in the eye by taking it to weird extremes that make you say, “what did I just see?” To make the jerk-off material of the male gaze turn weird and confusing. The web made that anonymity and the potential for creating sexy dissonance even richer. The web became porn’s favorite domain after all.

Echo Transgression

The web also became the ideal place for creating a Bowie-esque collection of identities. One of my web personas was Echo, named after the mythological character who only wanted Narcissus to see her, to hear her. But he was too busy looking at himself. One of my web sites was called Objectifyme.com. Again that theme: LOOK AT ME!!! SEE ME!!! It’s a command. Make me a symbol, but let me be recognized.

Two women have stood out to me as having picked up the mantle in this regard. Showry who swims deep in the physicality of performance that is equally sexy and gross. She’s successfully takes obscenity to the absurd extreme.

And then there’s Poppy.

If YouTube were alcohol, Poppy would be 200 proof. So pure, refined, distilled down to the essence. She is entirely new but also the Max Headroom of millennials – the mirror of celebrity in the Internet age. She uses sexuality without even showing cleavage, without ever shaking her ass. She’s the nerd boy’s cute, virginal, kawaii fantasy.

She is a robot. An inevitable offspring of Ana Voog’s Mother of the Future Robots. Not only has she commanded, “Objectify Me!” But she’s taken it further. She has removed all but a few hints of personality to become whoever you want her to be. Just her, pretending intimacy, talking to you directly, but remaining untouchable against a clean plain white backdrop. And yet she’s still able to accomplish that one important thing: she makes the viewer, the consumer, ask, “What the fuck did I just watch?” She’s also adds the intrigue of Illuminati symbolism, and has repurposed every Internet video trope in existence. She is the perfect smirking, winking, pretty container of capitalism’s last gasps.

And that’s where we’re headed. When something that was an outlaw land of chaos starts to form its very own themes, tropes, even genres – it’s then that the artists really start to play. To use it as a medium.

Take for example the make-up tutorial, so ubiquitous on women’s YouTube channels. What happens when that is seen by a four-year-old girl and she begins to interpret it and create with it in her own manner, as my daughter Mun has done? The new “norms” now become something to bend and shape and subvert. What becomes hegemony must always be flipped, twisted, and made new.

On that note, I’ll leave this with my last thought. I have been seen enough. As an older woman I’ve had enough of being seen. I’m refocusing myself on writing, producing and filmmaking. For some, continuing to be seen is important and even revolutionary as they leave youth behind and offer something the young women can’t even imagine yet. As women, we all find out how much of the audience turns away once we pass a certain stage in life. To continue to command being seen after that is brilliant and inspiring.

But for me, I’m content to step down and let the next wave have this fractured faceted spotlight. For as I’ve always said – and this Cronenbergian refrain has been a motto of my art practice for so long –

“long live the new flesh.”

-Kristie Alshaibi


OPM – Artvamp Tells All

“I’m taking a cue from Caveh. I’m going to sit here and tell you all about it.”

Here are my video reflections on the making of Other People’s Mirrors (transcript below).
And WATCH THE MOVIE HERE.

Caveh Zahedi is one of my favorite filmmakers. For those who don’t know, he’s made films like I Am A Sex Addict, Tripping with Caveh, In the Bathtub of the World. He appeared in Waking Life. Even if he’s not a household name, he’s the kind of filmmaker that other filmmakers know about. Even Alison Bechdel, who came up with the imfamous Bechdel Test for films, did a cartoon about Caveh called Is Caveh Zahedi God?

And now he’s doing a TV series called The Show About the Show.

Cahed Zahedi

Cahed Zahedi

Anyway what has always interested me about Caveh is his confessional documentation of life mixed with re-eneactments. He’s very persistent in his efforts to remain authentic and examine the self, and sometimes it makes others really really uncomfortable. He’s the ultimate in oversharing.

Anyway, I met Caveh right after his film I Am a Sex Addict came out in 2005. I was at The Tribeca Film Festival, and my husband was receiving an award for our documentary, Nice Bombs. We saw I Am a Sex Addict, and at the time I was a sex worker, and so Caveh’s fascination with sex workers held a particular interest for me. Later he came to hang out with us in Chicago while showing his film to a sex addicts support group there, and I ended up interviewing him for a magazine called $pread.

Which brings me to why I admire him so much, and why I’ve told my husband that he’s basically the male and much more successful version – of me!

Rewind to 1998. I began writing the outline of my first feature film, Other People’s Mirrors. To understand OPM, you have to understand the structure that I had INTENDED for the film but that morphed into something totally different. It was supposed to contain three levels of experience.

The first layer was the fiction – the erotic stories I’d written that would be acted out by performers. The stories revolved around a female character named Echo, who had been implanted with a device that gave her instructions to break 12 different taboos. There was also a sort of overseer – a character only Echo could see who witnessed as she followed the instructions. His name was Narcissus and he was played by underground film legend Nick Zedd.

a performance as Echo

a performance as Echo

The next layer was the observation of myself and the actors during the filming of the movie via web cams set up at my place and the apartment where the actors were staying. We had an audience of about 5000 people on a web site called 12taboos.com. It was a sort of Big Brother, reality TV sort of situation. On top of it, I did a number of weird erotic performances in front of the web cam.

The final layer of experience was going to be me, using the stories as a template to go out and try to enact these scenarios in the real world, and to have a documentary cinematographer follow me as I do so.

So there was me in the real world, seeing how different my taboo sexual fantasies would be from the reality. There were the fantasies played out by actors. Then there were the actors and crew in reality, on display for an audience during the whole process via the web site. And I’d somehow cut it all together to make something beautiful that commented on porn and fantasy and voyeurism and everything.

At the time Ana Voog and Jenny from Jennycam were the best known internet celebrities, back when the internet was young. And Ana was doing stuff on her 24/7 live web cam that I found really inspiring. Her body was her art! Her images were amazing.

Ana Voog

Ana Voog

I had wanted Ana to play Echo in Other People’s Mirrors, but she declined. She wasn’t comfortable doing scripted work, or not having 100% control of her image. So I befriended another young woman who was also doing cam shows. Her name was Melissa, and she went by the name Shakti. She later called herself Beautiful Toxin and now she’s known as author Melissa Gira Grant, who wrote the book Playing the Whore. Anyway after a mushroom trip in Northern California, which doubled as a screen test, I gave her the role. Minds were melded, fears confronted, and contracts were signed (all on web cam of course). I write more about it in my on-line memoir Secret Colony of One.

Melissa was smart and self-protective ad we’d talk a lot about her limits and she wanted lots of reassurances that she would be respected while doing some pretty outlandish sexual acts on camera. And one day, I was having a terrible bout of PMS, and we were going over the expectations, and she was voicing some misgivings about some particular scenes.

Melissa Gira Grant

Melissa Gira Grant

Something happened in me, and I cannot explain it. I think I was stressed because one of my grad advisors in the film department at the School of the Art Institute was questioning every aspect of the project and suggesting it may cause me mental illness to put myself in these situations.

Anyway, in a fit of annoyance at everything, I said, “Look I’m not going to mother you through this, Melissa. Either do the role or don’t.”

Yeah, wrong move. It’s not like I was paying her a ton of money to do this. She was doing it because she liked what I was doing and trusted me. That trust was shattered in a matter of seconds. Because I had PMS, and I was upset at my grad advisor.

She pulled out of the project. And I was left without my lead just weeks before shooting. And so, I morphed two aspects of the movie experience into one, and a split happened in me from which I’ve never recovered.

I had to do the fictional role of Echo myself. And I had to skip the documentary aspect. I would play Echo,stage everything, with lots of improv, and shoot the whole thing against the backdrop of the city of Chicago with no permits or permission.

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

There has been a movie made recently that did most of this quite successfully called Under the Skin. That movie made me really happy. The almost expressionless alien female on the sexual prowl, followed by a male observer or helper figure, set against a background of the real world, shot with hidden cameras. Setting aside the obvious parallels found in VonTrier’s romantic catalogue of perversities called Nymphomanic, which also came out in 2014, Under the Skin is the only film that exemplifies exactly the concept and methods that I was after, only streamlined and much better executed.

But the result in me, in writing, directing, starring and editing OPM, while exhibiting myself on the web the entire time, was a sort of split as I said. My grad advisor was right, in a way. In the process of being watched all the time by an audience, and in the process of playing this role – I became Echo. And Echo became an escort, and the film and the web presence became a marketing device for getting more clients. And sex work took over my art practice and dissolved any objectivity I might have had in the beginning of this whole process. I saw myself as the product, rather than the work as the product.

cam imageIt’s only now, nearly 20 years later, that I can look back and say “Shit, what the hell happened there?!” Now I know why my art practice suffered. And I know why I’m not as successful as Caveh, and why I didn’t make anything nearly as good as Under the Skin, and why I have, in a sense become a little bit paralyzed at times from moving forward with my ideas.

Anyway, the good news is, everyone I worked with while making OPM are doing well. My DP, Richard Bluestein, who had never shot a feature in his life before OPM, went on to create his own on-line persona called Madge Weinstein, who’s had a very successful podcast for years now. Melissa has published a few books and lots of articles and has become an advocate and activist for sex workers rights. My BFF, who back then was calling himself Witchdoctor and putting out CDs, and who played one of the main characters, while at the same time acting as Producer on the project, is now Ceven Knowles who runs Cerus Media in Berlin and has done a lot of fantastic films and music videos of his own.

And I became a producer, and supported my husband’s film career, which has taken off and he’s gotten into big film festivals and has broadcast his work on Sundance and PBS.

But I don’t think I’m done. I’m still figuring this out. I have lots of ideas and just trying to find way to accomplish them. I kinda feel like I’m starting from scratch all over again. But now I know enough NOT to snap at an actor or, most of all, not to forget my vision. So there’s that.

I’ve just released Other People’s Mirrors for the first time as download or rental. Movie extras include two short films, “Blood” and “Crying” edited from the movie’s raw footage by Usama Alshaibi. Also included are the auditions for the gang bang scene, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and captured and edited into a funny short by the film’s DP, Richard Bluestein.


[WATCH THE MOVIE HERE]

69 minutes
First Released October 2002

Written, Directed, and Edited by
Kristie Alshaibi

Starring
Echo Transgression
Nick Zedd
Ceven Knowles
Vladimir Zuravel
and others…

Director of Photography
Richard Bluestein

Music by
Ceven

Synopsis
In a pseudo sci-fi trip of pornographic proportions. In Other People's Mirrors, the camera feels like an extension of the unstable characters it is following, taking on a near-home-movie style documentation of street performance and improvised art. It centers around the journey of Echo Transgression, a schizophrenic sex addict, who believes that if she follows the instructions being transmitted directly into her spine, then she will escape to her own version of nirvana. Underground legend Nick Zedd plays the alien phantom of Narcissus, a secret agent who makes sure she stays on course.


[WATCH THE MOVIE HERE]
– Kristie