This essay reads the work of two experimental feminist video and performance artists in the 1960s and ’70s (Yoko Ono and VALIE EXPORT) alongside concurrent transformations taking place within their urban landscapes, in particular the widespread emergence of pornographic media arcades. The sets of practices examined here are situated within mutually implicated urban economies, systems of exchange that were undergoing unprecedented renegotiation during this period. Within the ecosystem of the 1960s metropolis, public sexuality served as a mobile force that shifted the aesthetics and traffic of city life. Mapping these shifts sheds new light on the material conditions that engendered feminist approaches to media, performance, and site specificity. Resonant between each phenomenon is a burgeoning affective economy that rewrote the architectures of commerce in the city, creating entirely new systems of service labor and amplifying the circulation of images, particularly images of women, as privileged commodities. Reexamining Ono's and EXPORT's performances in this context, this essay suggests that vulnerability and risk provide artistic and political strategies for negotiating shifting cultural terrain.
Historical narratives regarding feminism, pornography, and public space have tended toward accounts of the rise of the antipornography movement in the 1970s and subsequent decades of polarization between “anti-porn” and “pro-sex” feminists. Lost in this trajectory are the more nuanced specificities of public pornographic arcades and the wide range of practices and responses that they cultivated. Popular reactions to performance-based works such as Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1964) and VALIE EXPORT's Touch Cinema (1968) often demonstrate a similar myopia, reading the works within certain disciplinary traditions (e.g., contemporary performance art or feminist film theory) without fully considering their rich and contradictory sites of origin. Resonant between each phenomenon considered here is a burgeoning affective economy that rewrote the architectures of commerce in the city in the 1960s, creating entirely new systems of service labor and amplifying the circulation of images, particularly images of women, as privileged commodities.
What follows is an experiment in contextual rereading that situates the work of Yoko Ono and VALIE EXPORT, two experimental feminist media and performance artists in the 1960s and ’70s, alongside concurrent transformations taking place within their urban landscapes, in particular the widespread emergence of pornographic media arcades. My reading juxtaposes five historical events, pairing Ono's and EXPORT's performances in Kyoto, Vienna, and New York with the development of the peep show industry in New York and Pierre Klossowski's theorization of the “living commodity” in Paris.1 Rather than positing a causal link between these sites and sets of practices, my objective is to locate them within mutually implicated urban economies, systems of exchange that were undergoing unprecedented renegotiation during this period. Within the ecosystem of the metropolis in the 1960s and ’70s, public sexuality served as a mobile force that shifted the aesthetics and traffic of city life. Mapping these shifts sheds new light on the material conditions that engendered feminist approaches to media, performance, and site specificity.
Artists such as EXPORT and Ono created expanded media architectures that redirected the flow of exchanges made possible within their environments. Play is of primary importance in these works, as is the serendipitous anonymous encounter and a ritualized acknowledgment of the desire of the “other,” often via the act of gift-giving. The politics of display, surveillance, surrender, and trade deployed in collaborative events gave participants access to modalities often inaccessible in more entrenched social economies—modalities of public exchange often foreclosed to many female urbanites. These modalities included those practiced in pornographic marketplaces where female participation was heavily restricted and rarely existed beyond the role of laborer or commodity.
The alternative models for exchange enacted in Ono's and EXPORT's performances are founded on encounters of mutual vulnerability. These encounters are freighted with substantial material risk, particularly for the performers, who, in works such as Cut Piece and Touch Cinema, offers her clothing, her body, herself to an anonymous audience. Framed within a series of ritualized gestures, these performances deploy a series of provocative, and perhaps counterintuitive, artistic and political strategies for negotiating their shifting cultural terrain: pliancy, exposure, acquiescence, vulnerability, and surrender.
On July 20, 1964, Yoko Ono performed the work that would come to be known as Cut Piece as part of the “Contemporary American Avant-Garde Music Concert: Insound and Instructure” at Yamaichi Hall. One of Ono's contributions to the recital was Striptease for Three, in which a curtain rises and falls to expose three empty chairs. Later in the recital, Ono, wearing a finely tailored dress suit, walks to the center of the stage carrying a pair of scissors. She issues an invitation: “Won't someone in the audience please cut my skirt with these scissors?”2 She then sits down, assuming a seiza position, a traditional formal pose with her legs folded to one side. After a long pause, members of the audience, male and female, slowly approach the stage and begin to snip pieces of fabric from her suit. Ono remains silent and still throughout the performance, even when an audience member theatrically wields the scissors over Ono's head in a suspended, threatening gesture. The overwhelming majority of this event, however, as well as the second performance, held in Tokyo on August 11 and billed this time as the “Yoko Ono Farewell Concert: Strip-Tease Show,” was reported to be reverent and respectful, punctuated with hesitation and long silences.3
Ono's Cut Piece has been extensively analyzed, celebrated, and critiqued. It has achieved canonical status in the history of feminist performance art and has been performed by myriad artists, including Ono herself in a reworking of the piece in Paris in 2003. Cut Piece has been variously interpreted as a feminist rebuke to the male gaze; as a response to the visual culture of war, in particular the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; as a significant, or alternatively derivative and minor, Fluxus event; as a ritualized restaging of an act of sexual violence, with Ono's body standing in for all women; as a reflection on the global traffic in images of Asian femininity; and as a dialogue with Buddhist teachings and rituals of gift-giving. Cut Piece is an event score or “instruction work” that can be performed in a variety of configurations and contexts, allowing it to successfully accommodate such diverse and at times seemingly contradictory interpretations.4 In concert with more recent scholarship on this work, I suggest that Cut Piece, when viewed as a set of virtual instructions as opposed to a singular spectacle, is best understood as a collaborative project framed around issues of mutual vulnerability and ritualized offering.5
Ono's scores for the performance illuminate several facets of the work that might not be evident in documentation of the performed event:
* The title of the piece is to be the word which the announcer has choosen [sic] to say has been released or hidden. Whatever it is, it should not actually be released or hidden, but only announced to that effect.6
In this version of the score, Ono uses male pronouns to indicate what we might presume is a universal placeholder for the performing subject. She was explicit in later writing that the performer in Cut Piece does not necessarily have to be a woman, and it has been enacted by male performers on numerous occasions, as early as 1966.7 The cutting begins with the issuing of an invitation and ends at the determination of the performer or performers. I'm particularly fascinated by the possibilities engendered by the second version of the work, for the audience, which to my knowledge has never been performed and which is rarely mentioned in critical writing on the piece. As conceived, Cut Piece is a deeply collaborative event, one that relies upon an ambiguous exchange of offering and desire.
Ono's own reflections on Cut Piece have undergone shifts, with explicitly feminist motivations emerging only later in her career, but the notion of the gift or offering has recurred as an organizing principle from the outset. Ono stressed that she wore her best clothing for each performance as a gesture of generosity and respect: “To think that it would be OK to use the cheapest clothes because it was going to be cut anyway would be wrong. I felt that it was my genuine contribution.”8 That the value and quality of the clothing the performer offers to her or his audience are so important to Ono complicates readings of the work as an act of violent unveiling, shifting focus away from the exposure of the body and toward the scrap of fabric as a talisman or gift.
In interviews, Ono has drawn from several Buddhist jatakas that outline the perfection of enlightened giving.9 In versions of these stories, the Buddha gives away earthly possessions, as well as his children, his wife, and, in some tales, himself as an offering to a hungry tigress. As Sayumi Takahashi Harb and others have argued, Ono's framing of Cut Piece in relation to self-sacrificial, transformative giving complicates Western feminist readings that limit the work to discourses of sexual violence.
It is surprising, then, that Ono would repeatedly frame Cut Piece in relation to a “striptease” in the 1964 to 1966 period, given the way in which this phrase tended to encourage readings that glossed over the nuanced offerings exchanged during the performance. Critics in Japan and the United States played up the prurient in their coverage, in a manner that seems to presume that striptease transactions are universal and transparent. For instance, TAB, a New York–based gentleman's magazine, included a brief notice for Cut Piece under the headline “The Hippiest Artistic Happening: ‘Step Up and Strip Me Nude’”:
Though Time magazine called her performance “music of the mind” … Yoko Ono's “art” striptease still seems like a striptease to excited viewers. The difference here is that Yoko, a Japanese lovely now performing on the continent, does not take her clothing off … the audience does it for her. Guys who used to sit back and yell “Take it off!” now have the golden opportunity to take it off for her.10
As numerous scholars have noted, this “golden opportunity to take it off for her” demands a far greater investment from the audience than TAB magazine seems ready to acknowledge. Each audience member must decide how to respond to the artist's invitation, and if they choose to accept, they are implicated, visually, as performers themselves as they mount the stage and begin the process of cutting.
In Albert and David Maysles's short film documenting Ono's performance of Cut Piece in New York in 1965, the crowd is almost unbearably flummoxed by the challenge. A male participant mounts the stage (this is his second appearance cutting during the reel). He exchanges some snide and vaguely threatening banter with the audience (“very delicate, this might take some time … not too long, all right, well, I don't wanna cut her”). Unlike some of the previously depicted participants, this man cuts for a sustained time around her breasts, scissoring through her dress and slip before slicing through the straps of her bra. We hear the sounds of male and female voices laughing, egging on the cutter, then registering nervousness and alarm, heckling the cutter and calling him a “freak.” It is a highly charged scene in which this particular audience reveals a great deal about themselves and their own anxieties, particularly when faced with Ono's highly visible discomfort.11 This sequence, one of the few audiovisual documentations of her 1964–65 performances, has understandably generated readings of the work in relation to misogyny, racism, and sexual violence.12 At the same time, I suggest, the response captured here ought to be read as evolving, unpredictable, and mutually implicating rather than taken as evidence of a fixed interpretation Ono intended for the work. Moreover, it is important to recognize that this moment may not be indicative of each iteration of the piece as it was performed in different national contexts, and that the response of the New York audience to the work as performed by a Japanese female artist is marked racially and in terms of gender and nationality.
While fine distinctions between North American and Japanese pornographic traditions would likely have been unfamiliar to the Carnegie Hall audience, it is possible that Ono consciously engaged with striptease culture as it existed in 1960s Japan when she crafted this script. The Pink Film industry was hitting its first boom in the mid-1960s, expanding the public presence of striptease films and “nudie cuties” in Japan's urban areas. Kyoto and Tokyo each had thriving red-light districts with storied histories, and Kyoto had a reputation for pushing the boundaries of strip performance at its clubs.13 Taro Nettleton has read Cut Piece in dialogue with certain Japanese striptease practices, particularly the tradition he identifies as akuto, or acts, popular since the early 1950s, that involved varying degrees of audience participation. These ranged from relatively demure sake services to teases in which audience members apparently prodded dancers with sticks festooned with tampons.14 The connection to Cut Piece here may not be direct, but it is important to contextualize Ono's references to stripteases, and a “stripping of the mind” during this period within the intersections of North American and Japanese pornographic cultures.15
The point I want to press is that the terms striptease and pornography are often thrown out as descriptors of practices or artworks (such as Ono's) as if those terms alone indicate everything we need to know about their operations. I suggest, to the contrary, that stripteases in particular and pornography in general are deeply misunderstood, undertheorized practices. The existing scholarship on pornographic arcades, for instance, says very little about how these sites of exchange function for each of their various players, and it often fails to recognize that their specific historical and geographic locations matter significantly in terms of understanding their meaning. I am unaware of any studies that address the aesthetics of striptease films from a comparative perspective, delving into the nuances of performance style, gesture, and modes of address across venues or genres. Moreover, there are hosts of complications introduced when pornographic practices are taken up by different sets of artists at different times and in, and across, different geographical and cultural locations.
Jieun Rhee has suggested that the seeming dichotomy between the striptease and rituals of giving might not have resonated as contradictory for Japanese audiences, citing the traditions of the Kumano bikuni nuns from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who sometimes engaged in prostitution, or the mythical figure of the Eguchi courtesan, who is depicted as having achieved spiritual divinity. Rhee cites here, too, the Shinto myth of Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, the goddess of dawn and revelry, who engaged in an exaggerated striptease and, as she exposed her sacred genitals, elicited the raucous laughter of her fellow deities, luring the sun goddess Amaterasu from her self-exile.16 In short, there is ample historical evidence to support the intertwining of both sexual and spiritual offerings.
It is also critical to bear in mind Ono's precarious position as simultaneously Japanese and American, continually billed as the other depending on where she performs and subject to divergent forms of sexism and racism in both national contexts. The framework of the striptease, from this perspective, provides a platform for her to redirect the structures of exchange—artistic, sexual, racial, national—that enmesh her to reveal something thoroughly unexpected: to enact, through a displacement of expectations, a stripping of the mind. Through the act of giving away, Ono upends the foundations of the existing economy by interrupting and transforming the sets of relations and signs that define actions and values; as Harb posits, “the ultimate gift is that which transforms established values by letting itself be transformed, in turn, by the new.”17 Ono's reflections on Cut Piece have incorporated seemingly incompatible motivations simultaneously, framing the work as both a critique of sexism and racism and as an exercise in mutual trust.18 Rather than contradictions, we might read these divergent motivations as responses to material conditions to which Ono is particularly attuned as a transnational female artist. Ono's score and her performative persona render Cut Piece open to a wide range of unpredictable cultural responses. This openness reflects not only a critique of those material conditions, but also an attempt to respond to and reshape them, to imagine new sets of relations mobilized through the performer's self-positioning as a mutable and vulnerable body.
NEW YORK, 1964
Martin Hodas was a vending-machine servicer who, in 1964, was inspired by an old Panoram film jukebox he encountered in a New Jersey gaming arcade. The Panoram was produced in the 1940s to play “Soundies” musical shorts on a large glass screen. After the Soundies Distributing Corporation collapsed in 1947, the abandoned machines were often adapted with binocular viewers and stocked with burlesque “girly” films (fig. 1). The adaptation of the machines had occurred primarily on a limited scale, in the context of nonpornographic coin-operated businesses. Hodas's innovation was to use this technology as the foundation for a new type of marketplace, one devoted to explicit pornography. He launched a new franchise, installing and stocking large numbers of retrofitted 16mm machines in adult bookstores in Times Square. He began producing films exclusively for the machines, initially making “solo girl” striptease loops and later expanding into softcore and hardcore seminarrative films.19
The arcades proved enormously popular, serving for many years as the economic engine driving the transition of Times Square into a pornographic marketplace (fig. 2). And just as Hodas strategically adapted the abandoned guts of the Soundies Panoram in pursuit of his entrepreneurial goals, the architecture of the peep arcade provided space for other kinds of adaptations. In particular, the arcades served as centrally located, highly visible sites for gay male cruising in pre-Stonewall New York, even when the content of the films being screened was still limited to heterosexual fare. There was something unique about the interfaces of the Panoram-style cabinets used in New York in this early era, which required viewers to peer into the machines through binoculars (the machines were fairly quickly replaced by booths with curtains and closing doors by the end of the 1960s). Here the commodity of the filmed female body remains hidden (to protect its value) while the body of the viewer is fully exposed, on display to other patrons in the arcades, in effect enabling a secondary, and more loosely regulated, corporeal economy.
This is a narrative that is at once completely specific to New York and part of a larger transformation of the urban pornographic marketplace, a transformation reverberating across North America, Europe, and Asia, as evidenced by the proliferation of well-demarcated red-light districts with peep arcades, explicit book and media shops, and adult film theaters in cities around the world. The peep arcade was an unsanctioned adaptation of public space, emerging at precisely the moment when New York City was undergoing enormous shifts in urban planning in the wake of the devastating impact of Robert Moses's highway projects and a sweeping 1961 zoning ordinance that incentivized larger, taller development projects and the privatization of public plazas.20 The arcades’ appearance coincided, too, with transformations in the regulation of sexual content on film (including the exponential rise in independent film production and exhibition and the establishment of the voluntary MPAA rating system) and with massive changes in the cultural politics of gender and sexuality as a whole. We might read the evolution of the pornographic arcade as occurring within the broader mutations of an increasingly postmodern global economy (fig. 3). As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, this period was driven by a growing dependence on “immaterial” modes of service-oriented and symbolic labor.21 Their theorization of affective labor is particularly salient in relation to the arcades; the production of affects is core to the service industry, advertising, domestic work, and the sex industry. It is labor that is typically corporeal and overtly gendered, work in which the identity of the laborer is difficult to disentangle from her identity and her physical being.
The architecture of the peep show arcade was designed to traffic in and profit from the generation of affect. The intimate, privatized interface of the booth proffered the possibility of a sensual, cinematic encounter, while the porousness and anonymity of the arcade itself, open to the street and to a flow of unpredictable patrons, structured a secondary platform for other, more participatory transactions. In short, the marketplace of sexual exchange engendered by peep arcades, porn theaters, and other adult venues in red-light districts provided conditional spaces that accommodated a range of interactions.22 These included the intended (and profitable) sale of heterosexually oriented media, in addition to a host of ancillary practices reliant on different models of trade: public masturbation, prostitution, hustling, cruising, and drug dealing. The affects generated here, then, were multifaceted, some concurrent with a heteronormative and misogynist economy (whereby an affect experience was reduced to an equivalent deposit of coins) and others that diverted or entirely sidestepped the connections between affect and monetary exchange.
Within the wider ecosystem of the North American metropolis, then, the peep arcades of the 1960s and ’70s were pornographic microcosms transected by the same cultural, economic, and political forces transforming urban existence as a whole. Whether these currents manifested themselves in sympathy with, or countervailed, the dominant economy, they left the patrons of the arcades marked by varying degrees of vulnerability. Within the cruising and hustling scenes, arcadegoers partook in the pleasures and risks of unsanctioned partnering, offering themselves over to intimate encounters with unknown partners, often transgressing social boundaries that would be more difficult to negotiate outside the red-light district. Yet even the most “straight” of arcade practices bore the taint of social deviance and, as such, social risk (of being seen, of being seen masturbating in public, of being seen as an object of desire, of having one's own desires put on display). The architecture and interfaces of the peep show masked a more entrenched vulnerability as well. The structure of the arcade, with its warrens of booths and wide selection of sexual offerings, suggested a marketplace in which the patron exerted mobility, agency, and free will. Looking beyond this plywood façade, however, it becomes clear that the customers, channeled into ordered rows, were themselves being played, indeed pumped, for a steady stream of coins. The bait of choice and affective satisfaction served as distractions from the pervasive exploitation that late-stage capitalism exerted on all the bodies that traversed (and adorned) the arcades.
The peep arcades were undoubtedly deeply compromised venues, and often relatively closeted—even as sites for cruising, the arcades were difficult to romanticize, seemingly a world apart from the West Side Piers or Paradise Garage in the 1970s. That isn't to say that the arcades didn't offer some kind of liminal openings, perhaps falling within the realm of what Deleuze might call an any-space-whatever or of Foucault's heterotopia, which, like a mirror, is at once placeless and virtual and “absolutely real,” exerting a “counteraction” on that which it reflects:
It makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.23
The pornographic arcade functions according to nearly all Foucault's principles for heterotopic spaces. It is a real space but one structured around the sale of fantasies, in which norms of behavior are suspended and deviated, yet in ways that are tethered to and limited by the anxieties and desires of its host culture. The plethora of styles, genres, and fetishes on offer within banks of peep machines juxtapose a multitude of incommensurable spaces and transitory temporalities. Peep arcades are not fully public, but they are anonymous, penetrable, liminal spaces with their own rites of entry. Like the brothel, the peep arcade creates “a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory.”24
In short, the peep show arcade structures a space that is at once real and virtual, a parasitic economy that feeds from, mirrors, and perverts the “legitimate” economy it resides within. The architecture of the arcade is one that accommodates a range of practices and activities, many of them exploitative and in line with oppressive politics of the dominant economy (foremost among these the sketchy labor policies surrounding the production of many of these films, the pervasive objectification of the female body in most loops, and the commodification of sexuality that is the foundation of the entire peep industry). At the same time, it is an architecture that allows for imaginative, playful subversion (found most directly in the cooptation of arcades for queer cruising and free public sex via glory holes and buddy booths, but also via occasionally irreverent and excessive performances on screen and in creative acts of repurposing demonstrated by certain pornographic producers). The arcade is a highly ritualized space, one governed by its own sets of customs, a space in which the norms of everyday behavior are deviated and new roles and practices are activated. The public performance of these rituals, and their potential subversion through acts of unsanctioned sexual exchange, renders the arcade a charged space of mutual vulnerability where patrons are on display for one another, each one a potential partner or potential threat, depending on one's desires or anxieties.
Voyeurism, I argue, is not the key operative modality of the peep arcade. This may seem a counterintuitive claim given the peeping interface that defines this technology. But the viewing that takes place in the arcade has little to do with a protected, privileged visual mastery. Instead, I point to risk, receptivity, failure, shame, and chance as definitive characteristics of the peep arcade. The vulnerabilities that govern many of the interactions within the space of the arcade are often exploitative, but they also create openings and strategic hijackings that have the potential, particularly when they are queered or otherwise coopted, to upend the terms of the existing economy and restructure the economy of sexual exchange.
VALIE EXPORT described her Tapp und Tastkino (Touch Cinema) as the “first genuine women's film.” Performed in daylight in ten European cities between 1968 and 1971, this experimental “skin film” featured EXPORT wearing a box over her naked torso, with holes for her head and arms and a curtained front panel (fig. 4). She was accompanied by Peter Weibel, who, via megaphone, issued an invitation to the crowd to visit the “cinema.”25 Each cinemagoer had a thirty-three-second time limit, enforced by EXPORT with a stopwatch, during which time they were allowed to fondle EXPORT's breasts through the curtained panel. Cinema artist and toucher often locked eyes during the short screening, although the tenor of the interactions was not always predictable and always held the potential for antagonism, particularly given the public spectacle of the performance. Each event incorporated an improvised speech about voyeurism in the traditional cinema, in opposition to the openness of this new street-based cinema of touch.
Whereas Ono did not initially frame Cut Piece as a feminist work, EXPORT explicitly committed her work, and this project in particular, to freeing “men's products, that is, women, from their thing-character.”26 I quote here from EXPORT's 1989 “Aspects of Feminist Actionism” manifesto, a text that presents a complex take on questions of sacrifice. In it, EXPORT mourns a historical list of women (including Dorothy Wordsworth, Caitlin Thomas, Zelda Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath) who sacrificed their talents, and even their lives, in the face of an intractable and often familial patriarchy. At the same time, EXPORT takes up this brutal history as core to the project of Feminist Actionism, her counter to the male-oriented concerns of Viennese Actionism:
Cuts, deformation, blood … They are historical scars, traces of ideas inscribed onto the body, stigmata to be exposed by actions with the body. If they are interpreted as pathologies of self-hatred, poor self-esteem, sorrow, subjugation, or even identification with the oppressor, then they are part of the truth of women's history. And the truth is such that only very few women are ready to scrape away the veneer concealing it. Many prefer the illusion of meaningless glamour to the sovereignty of fully exposed pain and to the painful energy of resistance.27
The most productive response, for EXPORT, to the double bind of external and internal oppression is an act of revealing, an avowal, a confession publique, one that is directed as much to the self as it is to the other. Feminist Actionism explicitly acknowledges and critiques misogynist violence, at the same time framing that resistance within actions that mutually implicate performers and participants, that acknowledge the internalization of oppression, and that disturb stable identity categories on both sides of the power divide.
EXPORT's interventions into practices surrounding cinema spectatorship are particularly challenging in this regard. If we are to regard Touch Cinema as a confession publique, the “truth” it exposes is difficult to unpack and, I argue, inextricably linked to its bidirectional address. The performance clearly draws on a painful history of misogynistic objectification in film, now played out in daylight, in a public square, directed not at an image but upon a living female body. EXPORT is taking a material risk in making her body available in this manner; the latent aggressions of a sexist gaze now have the potential to be realized. At the same time, by giving herself over as the object of cinema, EXPORT acknowledges the painful internalization of these power structures via an almost perverse identification with this apparatus of desire. The ritual of exchange between spectator and performer becomes a poignant act of mutual (and self-) recognition.
Several of EXPORT's other performances grapple with the oppressive politics of spectatorship, similarly complicating presumptions about violence and agency. Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), for example, has been typically analyzed in relation to a narrative first presented by EXPORT in interviews and subsequently recounted in the press. In this narrative, VALIE EXPORT enters a Munich movie theater in 1969, wearing pants with a large triangle cut out of the crotch, exposing her genitals. She walks around the theater with her crotch at face level with the audience, creating havoc and causing a number of theatergoers to leave. This story has been repeated in numerous essays and descriptions of the piece, although there is no documentation of the event itself, which is associated instead with a series of photographs by Peter Hassmann that feature EXPORT in the “Action Pants” and a leather jacket, her legs spread, holding a machine gun and gazing confrontationally at the camera (fig. 5).
Mechtild Widrich has meticulously documented the inconsistencies and revisions related to the description, interpretation, and reenactments of Action Pants: Genital Panic.28 These include direct contradictions in EXPORT's own recollections of the event, which shifted from a 1979 interview in which she describes herself as walking through a theater that showed pornographic films, carrying a machine gun, to 1999 and 2007 interviews in which she describes the theater as an art house and denies the presence of a gun. Widrich carefully (and, I argue, accurately) frames these discrepancies as a productive means of understanding the complex relationship between the photographs, which EXPORT conceived to be printed and displayed in public spaces, and the speculative event that they rely on to attain meaning. The malleability of the event itself, which may not have, in fact, occurred, is bound up in the circulation of the photograph-as-sign, and it is in the virtual place between the two that we can locate the performance-event. Within this scenario, the categories of performer, performance, audience, and interpreter are thrown into question. EXPORT first published the photograph with the gun in a 1970s volume on Actionism, with a caption indicating this is a work that “should” happen, yet Widrich notes that “this indicates the work's preliminary status; but should (in German sollte) could also be taken as an imperative.”29
The ambivalence and duality tied up in EXPORT's performative self-offerings, however, have not always been manifest in responses to her work. Here is Régis Michel (chief curator at the Musée du Louvre) on Action Pants: Genital Panic:
The artist represents the … aggression [of the male castration complex] in the most literal way: she displays the thing like a reversed rape. A rape of the gaze. And the cutaway in her jeans does indeed have the ocular form of a makeshift peep hole. Which takes the viewer as witness. That is to say, as hostage.30
And on Touch Cinema:
The box invites the use of touch. But this use is conditional…. The dissociation of eye and touch ruins all the eroticism of the undertaking…. I touch. But I do not see. I do not have pleasure…. The artist is impassive…. You touch me. But I do not feel anything.31
Yet EXPORT's own description of Touch Cinema contradicts this kind of reading in stark terms:
As usual, the film is “shown” in the dark. But the cinema has shrunk somewhat—only two hands fit inside it. To see (i.e., feel, touch) the film, the viewer (user) has to stretch his hands through the entrance to the cinema. At last, the curtain which formerly rose only for the eyes now rises for both hands. The tactile reception is the opposite of the deceit of voyeurism. For as long as the citizen is satisfied with the reproduced copy of sexual freedom, the state is spared the sexual revolution. Tap and Touch Cinema is an example of how re-interpretation can activate the public.32
Here EXPORT asserts tactility in opposition to the deceit of voyeurism, and material mutual contact as a potential agent of sexual revolution in opposition to the mediated copy. The intimacy exchanged in Touch Cinema acts as a counter to paradigms of visual domination—the results are unpredictable and not always productive, but they are far from impassive. “The quality of the gaze,” EXPORT recalls, “was a completely different way of looking than the one you find in film. My gaze as well as the gazes of the visitors—who were both men and women—were incredibly powerful.”33
There is a productive tension mobilized between the repeated gestures performed by Touch Cinema and the speculative mythology of works, such as Action Pants: Genital Panic, that should have been, but were not, fully realized. Each mines the scars of history but does so in order to rehearse or imagine an alternative, less oppressive model.34 By shifting each of these projects off-screen and into the theater of the city (be it real or virtual), EXPORT forces participants to acknowledge the burdened intimacy of the anonymous encounter. EXPORT's performances, photographs, and films as a whole are deeply informed by space, and in particular by the contours and rhythms of urban environments. Her 1972–76 project Body Configurations, for example, consists of photographs of the artist contorting her body around and next to architectural structures in Vienna (fig. 6). Her body conforms to the shapes of traffic medians and nineteenth-century edifices, mimicking their geometry. It is an act of subversive compliance in which she both submits to and challenges the entrenched architectures of the European metropolis. There is an obvious resonance between Body Configurations and EXPORT's cinematic performances in that she activates the street as performance space, self-consciously positioning herself or her avatars as troubled objects caught up in the broader urban marketplace. The pliancy and confrontational passivity of EXPORT's corporeality work to open spaces of indeterminacy and of mutual vulnerability, newly exposed fissures within the cityscape.35
The French philosopher, translator, and artist Pierre Klossowski published La monnaie vivante, or Living Currency, in 1970, a hybrid book interspersing an economic treatise with a series of sexually explicit photographs and drawings.36 Produced in collaboration with the photographer and filmmaker Pierre Zucca, the images in the volume are based around the fictional character Roberte, drawn from Klossowski's novels. The photographs feature Klossowski's wife, Denise Morin-Sinclaire, along with Klossowski and other actors in erotically charged tableaus. (This project would evolve into the feature film Roberte , directed by Zucca in collaboration with, and starring, Klossowski and Morin-Sinclaire). The text, seemingly disconnected from the imagery, maps the dependency of capital on a secondary, often-unacknowledged economy rooted in human exchange.
Klossowski points in this book to the mutually imbricated operations of abstract commodity exchange and a libidinal economy based on emotional pulsions, an economy whose currency is the body itself. While the market economy strives to render neutral the objects it exchanges, Klossowski argues that it is driven by a more unruly simulacrum, one that traffics in phantasms and “voluptuous emotion.” Within this simulacrum, that which is, or ought to be, inexchangable (e.g., the human body) is recast as an exchangeable object. Subject, object, use, and value undergo a series of inversions and perversions, with the body as a fulcrum point. For Klossowski, the body is not “owned” by a subject; instead, it is the outcome of a series of larger, highly complex events and forces.37 Severing the vicious circuits through which industry appraises the value of a person according to her or his “productive yield” requires a radical objectification, a dissolution of the notion of a “self”:
As soon as the bodily presence of the industrial slave is absolutely included in figuring the appraisable yield of what he or she can produce (their physiognomy being inseparable from their work), it is specious to draw a distinction between a person and their activity. Bodily presence is already a commodity, independent of and over and above the commodity itself that such presence contributes to producing. And now, industrial slaves must either establish a strict relationship between their bodily presence and the money it brings in, or replace the function of money, and be money themselves: simultaneously the equivalent of wealth, and wealth itself.38
As Nigel Dodd has argued, by eradicating the distinctions between monetary and symbolic exchange, and by positioning singularity, excess, and the voluptuous emotions that resist easy equivalence at the very center of capitalism, Klossowski perverts that entire system, opening it a host of irreverent, “impulsional” interventions.39
While Klossowski's text does not explicitly elaborate on the sexed and gendered ways in which living commodities circulate, his photographic stagings visually foreground these dynamics, as does his primary example of an industrial slave, the actress whose physical being, activities, and value are indistinguishable. Following Klossowski's logic, there are hosts of living commodities who assert the burdens of race and gender as corporeal commodities, the slave and the sex worker foremost among them. But the perverse interventionist strategies Klossowski seems to be proposing here are attended by a high degree of risk. To embrace one's status as a living commodity is to put one's self in circulation according to precisely the same oppressive objectifications that drive the system as a whole.
Claire Bishop engages with the problematic posed by one such intervention in her analysis of curator Pierre Bal-Blanc's itinerant exhibition La monnaie vivante, first staged in Paris in 2006. Inspired by Klossowski's volume, Bal-Blanc brought together a number of international works that Bishop identifies as “delegated performances,” performances and installations relying on contracted laborers. The delegated worker-performers are typically selected to represent some aspect of their “real” identities (e.g., homeless person, police officer, teenager) within the context of the piece. Bal-Blanc's project paired several 1960s and ’70s conceptual instruction works and performance pieces with a number of new performative works, many of them employing delegated performers. Whereas he positions the 1960s and ’70s works, following Klossowski, as inversions of the (inherently perverse) industrial system, the contemporary works engage in a further inversion, “redefining transgression by making a dual appeal to the reification of the body on the one hand, and to the embodiment of the object on the other.”40 This juxtaposition of historically divergent works points to what Bal-Blanc identifies as a shared “interpassivity,” the veiled ways in which capitalism subordinates desire within the market economy, often under the guise of “interactive” will. Delegated performances are an obvious outgrowth of the accelerated pressures of contemporary global capital on the art industry, self-consciously commenting on these conditions and often, as Bishop notes, superficially participating in them. Bal-Blanc's exhibition is, for Bishop, a rare instance in which an artist simultaneously foregrounds and restages the reifications and perversions of capital, giving rise to enormous discomfort. “Interpassivity,” she writes, “is the secret language of the market, which degrades bodies into objects, and it is also the language that artists use to reflect on this degradation.”41
Bishop frames her argument regarding contemporary delegated performance art in opposition to 1960s and ’70s body art, contrasting projects in which the artist's own body serves as the primary performative vehicle with those influenced by a new economy of displacement and outsourcing. Whereas the solo body art performer can be easily accommodated within a broader economy of celebrity, authenticity, and singular authorship, delegated works trouble each of these categories. As such, delegated works are, for Bishop, best executed when they directly answer Klossowski's provocation, rehearsing and renegotiating “the tension between structure and agency, particular and universal, spontaneous and scripted, voyeur and voyant.”42 While I agree with Bishop's reading in general, my interest in particular projects such as those by Ono and EXPORT discussed here complicate that trajectory, anticipating many of the tensions embodied in the later delegated performances. Moreover, Ono and EXPORT foreground the centrality of gender in the construction and circulation of living commodities. In works such as Cut Piece and Touch Cinema, the role of the instructional script and the interchangeability of the performance roles require a collaborative acquiescence that is at once ritualized, mutual, and, to relative degrees, unpredictable. At the same time, each artist structures her encounters in relation to entrenched economies that rely on highly predictable constructions of gender. Acquiescence, in this context, serves to expose those systems, implicate each participant in her compliance to them, and to suggest, at the same time, possible routes for operating within them differently.
The emphasis in Ono's and EXPORT's work has less to do with a spectacle of transgression or with the singularity of a particular body. Rather, their performances depend upon a certain pliancy, a shared receptiveness, and a series of transactional offerings that problematize the relationship between living subjects and objects of value or exchange. In each of these works, the artists delegate themselves as both laborers and living commodities, and in doing so implicate the audience as similarly embodied and employed. Obviously each artist deploys these interactions toward different ends (and EXPORT is more explicitly suspicious about the ramifications of this move within a feminist context); nevertheless, both Ono and EXPORT remain highly self-conscious about their projects as imbricated within, and intervening in, these larger economies.
These artistic interventions coincided with shifts in the broader libidinal economy of the 1960s and ’70s, shifts grounded in a series of paradoxical inversions: the privatization of the public, the commoditization of affect, a façade of interactivity and choice enveloping an increasingly interpassive, all-encompassing subjugation. And this is the primary connection to be drawn between these performances and the pornographic peep show arcade (figs. 7–8). This is not to argue that what took place in the arcade was art per se, or that it should be identified as necessarily liberatory, but rather that the pornographers, artists, and participants discussed here were all engaging in a marginalized economy of excess, one that adapted and perverted existing technologies, artifacts, bodies, and tendencies, muddying the boundaries between currency and voluptuous emotion and creating structures in which dominant market practices were suspended, allowing for the exploration of alternative modes of intersubjective pleasure.
What makes Ono's and EXPORT's works relevant from a feminist perspective, as distinct from the quasi-sanctioned marketplace of the peep operators, and in resonance with the unsanctioned marketplace of queer arcade cruisers, is the manner in which they upended dominant systems of value by inverting the terms of exchange, such that what ought to be coveted and sold is now offered up for free. To offer one's self as a gift, to submit one's body to the contours of the city, to surrender to another with no expectations in return, for no gain, is to pervert the core premises of capital. Beyond an unveiling or a critique of the status quo, we can find within these performances strategies for intervening in corporeal economies that are not based on resistance, agency, and negation, but instead on something perversely counterintuitive: pliancy, vulnerability, mutuality, pleasure, and surrender.
NEW YORK, 1983
On January 24, 1983, Yoko Ono placed an advertisement in the New York Times under the banner “Surrender to Peace.” In it, she recounts her and Lennon's call for a conceptual country, Nutopia, first issued in 1973. Nutopia “was just another concept, as were concepts such as France, United States, and the Soviet Union”; “its flag was the white flag of surrender.” “At the time, the idea of ‘surrender’ did not go down too well,” Ono recalled:
A radical friend of ours expressed that he, too, disliked the term. “Surrender sounds like defeat,” he said. “Well, don't you surrender to love, for instance?,” I looked at him. “No, he wouldn't,” I thought. “Are women the only people who know the pride and joy of surrender?” I wondered.43
Of course, women aren't alone in recognizing the pleasures and potentials of surrender. But surrender, as a political strategy, requires engaging with tactics associated with, and disparaged as, feminine and queer. Feminist and queer surrendering, I argue, acknowledges the hopelessly entangled registers of the corporeal, the erotic, the psychological, the historical, and the political. To choose to surrender, to take joy in surrendering to another, particularly an anonymous other, is to throw into question ideals of political agency and strength that have remained embedded even within feminist, queer, and other minoritarian activist paradigms.
Ono's invocation of surrender resonates strongly with Nguyen Tan Hoang's recent work on bottomhood and queer Asian masculinity, in which he posits bottomhood as a critical category centered on vulnerability and receptiveness. More than just a sexual practice or an identity category, bottomhood for Nguyen serves as an ethical modality and a potential avenue for social alliances.44 Paying critical attention to the centrality of race in constructions of power and sexual identity, Nguyen frames his project via moving images as sites that “mediate the pressures between bottomhood's ideological and carnal effects,” with a particular focus on “subjects that do not seek to overcome injury but those that have learned to live with past and present damage, and in particular, everyday injuries marked by gender, race, and sexuality, that cannot find relief or make amends through legitimate social or political means.”45 Nguyen adapts Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's paranoid and reparative reading modes as a means of reconsidering the pervasive stigmatization of effeminacy, passivity, receptiveness, and vulnerability in relation to queer Asian men across a spectrum of heteronormative and queer, mainstream, and delegitimized forums. I take up Nguyen's call to rethink, both paranoidly and reparatively, the politics of vulnerability and pliancy as political strategies that could be mobilized from a range of marginalized positions.
Toward that end, then, how might a renegotiation of surrender and self-offering suggest new queer and feminist modes of critique or new modes of reciprocal pleasure? Is there a reparative reading of vulnerability that might challenge the alignment of political engagement with masculinist notions of agency and resistance? Could we imagine a queer/trans/feminist reparative economy? And what kinds of reparations could we demand in a libidinal economy that has historically relied on female, feminized, and racialized bodies as living commodities?
My reading of Ono's and EXPORT's feminist performances and 1960s peep show culture via the modality of offerings, risks, and vulnerabilities is an attempt not only to better understand the full complexity (and the broader intersections) of these historical practices, but also to reinvigorate contemporary discourse about feminism, sexuality, and public space. By foregrounding acts of surrender, vulnerability, and self-offering as feminist praxis, I'm obviously taking a risk—this is a move that might be condemned as defeatist at best or dangerous at worst. Given the myriad and pervasive ways that misogyny manifests itself in different cultural contexts, how much more can women be expected to give up? What kinds of privilege are wrapped up in surrender, in giving one's self as a symbolic act, myopically overlooking all that is being taken in other, parallel economies?
At the same time, I argue that most women have an enormous stake in transforming the terms of existing erotic economies, and an urgent need to interrogate the roles that class, race, orientation, religion, and ability play in determining value. How long has the rhetoric of empowerment and assertiveness set us up for continued cycles of self-policing and self-flagellation while leaving the premises of masculinist privilege and the neoliberal subject intact, if not further bolstered? How better to dismantle the premise of the subject that lies behind that entrenched economy than to find new ways to take pleasure in giving it freely away?
In her treatise on Feminist Actionism, VALIE EXPORT critiques the limits of Touch Cinema as a political intervention:
In the long run, however, this campaign of women's sexual self-determination, which clearly demonstrates the shift in the relationship between the sexes, occurs at the expense of the woman actionist. Art—any art—needs its breaks. The event was repeated several times and then stopped. In the future, the goal of “getting out of the established trade as an object of exchange” (Luce Irigaray) should be pursued much more radically.46
Surrender and acquiescence cannot serve as political endpoints, and they are strategies that come weighted with significant political and material hazards. But they can serve as contingent, tactical means of disrupting existing systems, and they suggest alternative models for building alliances across entrenched divides. These are tactics that draw attention to matter: to the materiality of the urban architectures that we distractedly traverse, to the materiality of the others with whom we interact, to our own materiality as consumers and living commodities. Strategic adaptability can work in limited ways as a means for coopting, or finding pleasure in, unaccommodating environments—for instance, in the tacit agreements between peep show entrepreneurs and gay male cruisers to adapt the structures of the arcades to allow free public sexual exchange. As evidenced by this reading of Ono and EXPORT, there is a rich history of feminist work that deploys vulnerability and confrontational passivity as political tools, even if this work has not always been categorized in these terms. Contemporary artists and activists have the potential to mobilize these tactics anew, ideally pushing them in even more pointed, sustained, and radical directions.