Last August, a video appeared on YouTube featuring a fully clothed porn actress seated at an empty table reading from a book about necrophilia. Over the next seven minutes, she gradually stopped reading, started laughing, then shrieking, and eventually, experiencing an orgasm on screen. It was the first entry in “Hysterical Literature,” a video series by New York–based photographer Clayton Cubitt that explores the lines between art and porn by inviting a subject to read a book on camera while an unseen vibrator stimulates her from below.
An expanded website for the project debuted last week, featuring a new session with comedian Margaret Cho. (She reads from Sleeping Beauty by A.N. Roquelaure, until she doesn’t anymore.) I emailed with Cubitt about pornography, portraiture in the age of the selfie, and personal massagers:
Slate: In "Hysterical Literature," your subjects struggle to read a book while a vibrator, uh, distracts them from under the table. How did you come up with that concept?
Clayton Cubitt: This particular project evolved out of my attempts to fatigue portrait subjects into showing me something real in the era of the ubiquitous selfie. I started doing video portraits ("Long Portraits") that had my subjects just sitting there, looking into the camera for five minutes or more, long enough that they couldn't try to look a certain way—just how they are. (The concept was initially explored by Warhol in the '60s with his "Screen Tests"). It was interesting, but it ultimately didn't say enough for me.
A different series I had done involved interviewing female subjects while they were being distracted by an unseen vibrating personal massager ("Magic Interviews"). It was entertaining to watch, but the aesthetic was too much like an interrogation. I had to bark questions at them in order to get them to focus on answers. I wanted a way to achieve the "realness" of the "Long Portraits" with the joy and distraction of the "Magic Interviews," while at the same time removing myself from the immediate on-screen experience.
It occurred to me that someone's choice of literature is one of the most personal reflections of him or her as a person. I could take the single-long-take concept of the "Long Portraits" and apply it to this modified version of the "Magic Interview" and achieve more than the sum of its parts. Using the format of a book reading as the excuse for the exercise allowed me to illustrate a battle between mind and body, between "high art" and "primal urge," between culturally acceptable and unacceptable. Which led me to its feminist aspects—a modern recasting of the control of women in history through the medicalization of their pleasure. The title, "Hysterical Literature," is a nod to the old quack medical treatment for massaging women to orgasm in order rebalance their uterus and "improve" their behavior.
Slate: The project was a bit of a mystery when it launched.
Cubitt: I wanted the viewer to start watching them as one thing and only in the middle start to understand that it's a different thing, and at the end not really know what it was they watched. I put the videos up with no description of what's happening in them at all, aside from the book reading. And I wanted to put it somewhere they'd never expect to see it. YouTube is the new television, so I decided I wanted to release it there for maximum democratic access. Using YouTube also enabled me to play with pushing the boundaries and loopholes of Community Guideline–based online censorship. The basic mechanics of what I'm portraying would tempt the service to ban it, but the presentation and conceptual framework protect it from that neo-Victorian prudery. I love seeing people say, "I can't believe this is on YouTube!"
Slate: How do you settle on your subjects?
Cubitt: For this series, it has more to do with their bearing and intelligence than any particular look. I only cast women with a strong sense of will, playfulness, and independence.
Slate: What are your conversations like with them before they sit for you?
Cubitt: We typically have a cup of tea and just make small talk for a few minutes. I like speaking with all my portrait subjects for a while before I ever photograph them. I think it's necessary for a good portraitist to establish that human connection between the minds before any photographs are taken. After the sessions are filmed, I roll camera and chat with them about their experience while they're still on set. Perhaps some day I'll release these as extras.
Slate: Do you discuss the logistics of where exactly the vibrator will be going?
Cubitt: No. They know exactly what will be happening, of course. Some subjects are generally more sensitive than others to vibration, and we're aiming for "distraction," not "torture," so we ask them beforehand if they'd generally describe themselves as preferring hard or soft touch. That's the extent of it. There's no advance choreography and no instructions to act or react a certain way. And once the session starts, there's no cutting, editing, or direction.
Slate: Some have characterized the project as anti-feminist, saying you're just another man videotaping women masturbating.
Cubitt: The vast majority of feminist reaction has been that the work is pro-feminist. Only a minority seems to think that because I'm a man the work can't be feminist or that my "male gaze" is damaging to the execution of the concept. While I believe that the identity of an artist can provide metadata that can enrich or inform a work, ultimately I think the work rests on its own merits. It’s potentially interesting that I'm a man, creating this project that comments on the role of men channeling and controlling female pleasure throughout history.
You learn pretty early on as an artist that most criticism of your work doesn't really involve your work, that it's more about the baggage of the critic. Your work is just a spark that sets off whatever fuel they're already carrying. I try to keep this in mind whether the criticism is positive or negative. I have "This Too Shall Pass" tattooed on my arm for a reason.
Slate: What exactly is going on underneath the table?
Cubitt: Messy, human, primal, animal things, unfit for public presentation to decent moral people.