Curator Eva Neklyaeva works at the intersection of sexuality and art. In a series of three articles, she talks to colleagues who are active in this intersection as well. Part 2 of the series – again accompanied by images by Milan-based illustrator Filip Adrian – focusses on the concept of “containers” to establish a set of rules of engagement.
Read Part 1 on consent here.
Luke George, an artist who makes performance and visual-based work, defines himself as a maker whose work is about the body: relationships among bodies, intimacy, and the negotiation of space between people familiar each other and between strangers. I know that Luke George is a rope practitioner; I saw his virtuosity in tying people up in Bunny, a performance made in collaboration with Daniel Kok. Bunny explores the dynamic between the person who ties and the person who is being tied and how this dynamic allows people to navigate consent and pleasure. A lot of audience members get tied up during this show, or they try their hand at tying up the performers. Luke is brilliant in sensing both the openness and the boundaries of the audience.
He introduced a new term into the discussion of consent: “I have always liked the idea of a ‘container.’ The container can be anything – a room, a duration, a fee, a set of rules. My job, then, is to know where everybody in the container is – if they are on the edge or if they are pulling from the edge; pushing too hard towards the edge; whether they are hovering somewhere without knowing where the edge is. If everyone involved knows enough about what the container is, then what happens in that container can be quite adventurous.” I asked Luke how he knows where the edge is? “My history is one of a dancing body, of a queer body. These two experiences are my guides,” he answered. “My sense of empathy and sensitivity to other people is very high; the volume is always up. At times, this can be quite exhausting! I am always sensing and reading people, and I’m always aware of how I position my body in relation to another person or to a crowd. This ability, to read people, particularly when language is not involved, is something I have decided to tune consciously. Because whatever conversation might happen beforehand, pleasure might change. Consent might change. It is my job to be constantly listening to what is happening in the room, whether it is in a theater space or during a sexual encounter.”
I know very well what Luke is saying about the container. After I started organizing play parties, I was surprised to hear how many people said that they felt much safer there than in a night club, where the rules of engagement are much blurrier. Containers offer a familiar setting, the confidence that you know where you are and that you have power over the situation. This confidence gives you the courage to take a risk. Containers can consist of a transparent set of rules for a sex party, a clear position of the audience in the participatory performance, or a familiar space or even practice that makes you feel at ease.
Sophie Guisset, a performer and performance maker, is great at using familiar practices as this kind of “container.” She joined our video call from Berlin, where she is working on a new performance. Her previous show Plus One was an intimate encounter with one spectator at a time. It is based on the practice of solving a jigsaw puzzle together while an erotic image on the puzzle offers a prompt to talk about desires, affinity, and gaze. Sophie confessed that making puzzles was her mental-escape practice during lockdowns. In Plus One, she uses this calming practice as a container for an intimate encounter with the spectator. For her next show, Sophie will invite the audience to a tennis court.
“I am very interested in the notion of places where one can let go: how these kinds of places are organized in order for people to let themselves go safely,” she said. “So, when we talk about letting yourself go sexually, it would be a cruising area, for example. I asked myself: In which space do I move the best? Where can I really give in to my emotions? And the answer was on the tennis court! I have been playing tennis for many years, so my body knows exactly what to do there. I can let go of all my anger and all my frustration. In my upcoming show Wilson, I make this connection between the tennis court, a cruising space, and a performance space. I think it is important to constantly reimagine these kinds of places.”
The term “container” is the first word to appear in the description of Hedon House, the most luxurious venue for fucking and resting in the world. On the venue’s website it says: “First and foremost, she’s a container. She’s here to hold you. In rest, in desire, in ritual, in vulnerability. She’s a living installation space for artful intimacies with self or with others. She’s for playing nice. She’s for playing dirty. She’s for catharsis. She’s for staring blankly. She’s for slowing time.” Hedon House in Sydney is a beautifully curated space for hedonism, offering anything you might need for pleasure – from the dungeon to the bathhouse.
This type of “container” is sometimes also called a “safer space” – a much discussed concept that remains difficult to achieve. A safer space means, theoretically, an environment where we stop putting each other down, shaming the shit out of others and assuming things about other people. Both arts institutions and sex-positive spaces have a tendency to declare themselves being “safer.” Often, however, they end up reproducing the same dynamics of discrimination as the rest of society.
I talked about safer spaces with Gala Vanting, the founder of Hedon House, who is investing a lot in making guests feel safe and welcome. She remains unconvinced by the concept of “safer space,” she told me: “The conversation about ‘safer spaces’ is fraught. The ‘-er’ after ‘safe’ goes a little way to make it better, but … safety is absolutely subjective, and the weaponization of ‘safety’ and ‘unsafety’ is the phase I think we’re all moving through. I have been pleased to see ‘the tenderqueer’ get rolled online recently! We’re not quite sure what to do with those frames right now. Our language is still too un-precise, and we’re rarely talking about the same things outside of our hyperlocal communities. I intentionally don’t host events where strangers meet for that reason.”
Gala says she tries to create a lot of opportunities for people to ask questions, tell her what they need, in order to get enough of a sense of the space to feel safe using it. “The hire of Hedon House is private, so the main safety issues are generally physical, for example your knowledge about how to use the gear. I also leave a copy of Betty Martin’s The Art of Giving and Receiving: the Wheel of Consent around the place. There’s a lot to take from her theory and practice about safety in ourselves, our desires, and the containers we can create to merge with others.”
Hedon House is an amazing example of a space created specifically for sex and rest. Look around in your neighborhood: How many places like this are there? While sex remains one of the most popular human activities, we still banish to the hidden realm of the “private sphere.” For this reason, declaring a space to be dedicated to it might already constitute a political act. But Hedon House does more: it deeply connects sex with rest, with the need to slow down, to dive into our sensual experiences. Asked why rest might also be a political act, Gala answers: “Rest is radical because it’s the very thing we’re constantly pulled away from. Rest redistributes resources away from productivity and competition and towards our whims and our pleasures. Play gives us opportunities to inhabit many selves that aren’t oriented to production. Also, saying ‘no’ to everything outside and ‘yes’ to whatever takes your fancy inside the House is just such a delightful, indulgent ‘fuck off’ to anything that isn’t immediately satisfying to you, which I think can be pretty tricky to access without the circuit-breaker of a new space.”