It sounds like a setup, but it is adult film history: three women filmmakers meet in an adult novelty store in Coconut Grove, Florida. The year is 1994. One is Peggy Ahwesh, the New York–based avant-garde filmmaker. In works like Martina's Playhouse (1989), The Scary Movie (1993), and The Deadman (1989), her feminist, sexually provocative, Bataillean, punk-inflected cinema embraces bricolage, found footage, performance, and portraiture, often of women in states of abandon, refusal, and jouissance. With her is M. M. Serra, experimental filmmaker, curator, teacher, director of the Film-Makers' Cooperative, and advocate of and pedagogue on the cinematic possibilities of female sexuality. They are there to see the third: sexploitation auteur Doris Wishman, then a historical novelty for a coterie of cult video collectors. Wishman had been profiled in the RE/Search book Incredibly Strange Films (1986) and was one of few women working in the largely male-helmed cottage industry of New York–based sexploitation production in the 1960s.1
Beginning with a copious string of nudist-camp romance films in the early 1960s, Wishman steadily proceeded to make sex melodramas with the quotients of nudity that sexploitation's box-office formula required, yet infused them with her own preoccupations and sensibilities, delighting in the promise of a unique title, premise, or gimmick. Her films often featured women trapped in scenarios of maddeningly patriarchal design, taken to dysphoric, absurdist extremes. Swirling, spiraling camerawork; a copious array of women sporting black lace undergarments; cutaways to shoes, stockings, and marginal decorative objects; and loose post-synching produced films with great dynamism and a touch of delirium. Wishman's works were testimony to the ways women's bodies and spirits were shaped by the demands of a rigid patriarchal order, internalized as ineluctable law. Over the course of the next four decades Wishman produced thirty sex films, varying across genres from “nudies” to “roughies” to sex-horror films about the “somatic betrayal” of errant body parts (cameras implanted in breasts, transplanted penises) on to a quasi-documentary about transsexuality, Let Me Die a Woman (1977).2 By the late 1980s Wishman had sold most of her film prints to interested collectors for fast cash, not foreseeing the interest they might have for future audiences, after struggling to finish her maudit-slasher A Night to Dismember (1983–89), itself a Frankensteinian work of collaged bits and parts.3 Something Weird Video, a VHS mail-order distributor established in 1990, had bought up many Wishman prints and was distributing them in the niche cult video market.
Ahwesh and Serra had learned that the filmmaker lived and worked in Miami, selling lingerie and sex toys at the Pink Pussycat Boutique. They flew down to meet her, recording an interview with her on video while she attended to customers at the shop, peppering her with their burning questions about her enigmatic films. Two generations of “underground” women filmmakers converge here in this moment, a fulcrum point in Wishman's resurrected career. Coaxed by a new and growing fan base and greater exposure in the mid- to late 1990s, Wishman tentatively reentered public life, soon becoming a truly outsize cult figure. A retrospective of four of her key films featured at the New York Underground Film Festival in 1998, and she appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 2002. She produced her three final films in the 2000s, well into her late eighties, before her death from lymphoma in 2002 at age ninety (Wishman long lied about her age, shaving off a decade).
Ahwesh would go on to dedicate to Wishman her groundbreaking found-footage film The Color of Love (1994), made of decaying Super 8mm anonymous stag film reels, itself a reinscription of feminist genealogies across the materiality of adult cinema's forgotten bodies. These bodies—of the stag films, of the performers, of Wishman and Ahwesh's respective corpuses—superimpose and intertwine. They also materialize, in the doubled-over absence meted out by the film strip's florid decay, a testimony to the blind ravages of history as well as to film history's myopias about both women's films and sexual representation.4 But in this encounter between like-minded women across generations of filmmaking on the margins, we see reimagined what might matter or be made to count as a viable film historical object and as a history of women's film practice.
This recollection is occasioned by Ahwesh's own revisiting and retelling: a 2019 republication of a zine she made in 1995 (the original print run was seventy-five copies) in honor of Wishman's work and in conjunction with screenings she programmed at the Other Cinema and the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco (fig. 1).5 In this zine another set of material conditions are reconstructed, in the print culture that is associated with the space of the micro-cinema, in which alternative histories of film propounded by independent filmmakers' own revised canons flourished. Ahwesh had planned to make a film about Wishman and had shot footage in 1997 with cinematographer Lynn Shelton, but the project never came to fruition. Ahwesh's perspicacity about Wishman, then and now, reminds us that women's film practices are often written and rewritten from the margins, frequently by fellow travelers. While dissertations and articles have emerged and an edited collection is in the works, no monograph exists on the work of either Wishman or Ahwesh. Their film practices are no less powerful for that fact, even as the specific materiality of these two grand bricoleurs' works remains woefully under-studied. Wishman's work in particular also remains undervalued by classifications of genre, by ideology, by canonicity, and by an association with a sex cinema that is too embodied, formless, illegible in its fleshiness and air of disrepute. A final frisson of exchange, solidarity, reverence: during the interview, Ahwesh and Serra, with delightful mischief, try to buy a vibrator from Wishman, asking her if she will autograph it. Wishman feigns refusal, instead signing a lacy stuffed heart (fig. 2).
Beginning with this story—about a meeting that is equal parts feminist advocacy, fandom, homage, and film-historical recovery—is a way to foreground the curious historicity and materiality of sex cinema. But there are many long-forgotten women like Wishman whose names require invoking if only as a reminder of the massive historical work yet to be done, and the untold women and countless queer makers and performers who filmed, produced, distributed, presented, and performed in sex films. Many come to mind. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s US sex film industry alone, we might consider the Times Square restaurateur, theater owner, and lesbian sex film producer Chelly Wilson; the distributor and sales manager of Audubon Films, Ava Leighton; the cinematographer, actor, and sex-horror director Roberta Findlay; the feminist pioneer of porn for women, Candida Royalle; and under-recognized director and actor Ann Perry, the first female president of the Adult Film Association of America. Expanding beyond this industry to consider sexually expressive independent and experimental productions, the names continue to proliferate.
ADULT MEDIA'S MATERIALITY
This issue's contributions bring together approaches that expand and complicate distinctions between high and low forms, commercial porn industries and independent productions, and queer and straight sex media, contesting the purisms of what can count as cinema, art, and value by instead foregrounding the materiality of the sex film. They suggest that we must contend with how sexual representations—across practices, communities, publics, and counter-publics—have always revealed adult media to be vexed sites of materiality. To say that materiality defines our understanding of cinematic sex acts is hardly a provocative claim. But there is some force to the profuse ways that sex media is figured as material through an incontrovertible fleshiness, one that is difficult to refute or disavow.
Many have aptly noted the premise of the “peter meter” utilized by the late-1960s sex weekly Screw, which measured the level of a film's sexiness by the index of its capacity to arouse a definitionally and physiognomically male viewer. Alternately, the rhetorical valence of the definitions of “softcore” and “hardcore” as genre markers discursively index the kinds of bodies—erect or flaccid, rigid or lax—that these films expose, anatomize, put to work, and produce. Via arousal, disgust, residue, absence, clutter, or decay—of bodies on-screen and our own bodies, as well as of the technological formats and filmic objects themselves—the primacy of embodiment plays out as a constitutive factor of the adult media text, perennially tarrying with the seduction and threat of the mimetic. Cinematic sex troubles representational ontologies and catalyzes historical methodologies and modes of interpretation. Susanna Paasonen usefully writes in her argument for affective approaches to online porn's materiality that its application ranges from
the materiality of the bodies performing in and viewing pornography; the technological objects, protocols, networks, and platforms through which porn materializes as certain kinds of objects; the materiality of perception; and the textures of pornographic images. This also means that studies of online porn cannot be confined solely to the representational.6
Does the adult text matter as much as past critics have suggested? Indeed, recent work on adult media has moved beyond the representational to consider censorship and regulation, format, distribution, and circulation networks.7 Thinking through industrial organizations, labor infrastructures, legal conditions, exhibition histories, and production cultures offers valuable and expansive context, securing an understanding of adult film and media practices at a wider scale and in terms of material processes and networks that operate beyond the text. At the same time, the very weight of representation—and, I would suggest, its dense materiality—for sex media does and must remain a central subject of analysis, especially when tethered to political and economic considerations.
Decades of feminist, queer, phenomenological, and historical research into the importance of the sexualized, performing, and laboring body to cinematic history also bear out some of these trajectories of the text's materiality: from Linda Williams's conception of the leaky viscerality of body genres to Laura Kipnis's readings of the incitements of the fat body in porn; from Thomas Waugh's account of pre-Stonewall illicit production and circulation of gay male erotica to Ariane Cruz's account of practices and representations of BDSM kink and its implications for Black women's sexualities.8 The gendered and sexed work that bodies do, before and behind the camera and in the space of viewing, supports and props up the very identity of the adult text as object, as experience, as commodity.
Of course, the import of materiality for sexual media registers in multiple ways. In addition to the sensorial and concrete relation of bodies to one another in diegetic and extra-diegetic terms vis-à-vis the sex act, materiality also references the concrete, contracted, or provisional conditions of labor, performance, and production in which performers work and make their livelihoods. For example, Mireille Miller-Young's research on African American women performers and sexual subjectivity and autonomy foregrounds the racialized complexities of performance and sex work; and Heather Berg's research on the conditions of sex work in the new precarious digital economy emphasizes a supple engagement with twenty-first-century labor as a field of self-determination as well as exploitation in a climate of austerity.9
Materiality as framework also points to media objects and texts themselves at the level of form, format, grain, pixel, and glitch. Laura U. Marks discusses how certain films that chart disappearance invite an affective mournful relation; Ahwesh's The Color of Love in its image decay invites such a reading.10 Lucas Hilderbrand treats the erotics of bootlegging and the aesthetics of excessive VHS image degeneration as phenomena that reveal palimpsests of collective memory and the circulation of affective contacts with sexual media.11 Attending to materiality can also highlight processes of making, use, transformation, exchange, and affective economies, including places where the reworking and recirculation of porn generates supplementary meanings, as in practices of queer collage or the replaying of a loved object. For instance the film KIP (2002) by Nguyen Tan Hoang considers an obsessive relationship to porn star Kip Noll via the filmmaker's own self-representation in the reflection of his degraded video on-screen.12
By invoking materiality in this way, we might perhaps bring the notion of “vulgar Marxism” into an entirely new terrain.13 This issue perversely courts and snakes together the legacies of the “old materialisms” of political economy and feminist “new materialisms” of object thinking (explored in Feminist Media Histories 1, issue 3, edited by Caetlin Benson-Allott), but redirects such inquiries toward alternate imaginings and analytics of mediated sex acts. Juan Suárez, in his research on the queer underground and the ribald, deliriously licentious, scatological films of brothers George Kuchar and Mike Kuchar, provides one such route as he identifies a “new materialist turn” in queer media studies, citing work by Karl Schoonover, Rosalind Galt, and Lucas Hilderbrand that
examines the (often unspoken) material horizons that subtend sexuality and its representations—be it the “thingness” of the body, particular objects and substances, or the renderings and distortions unique to various media—and shows that the range of the sexual exceeds interiority, individuality, and anthropomorphic embodiment to affix itself to textures, surfaces, and things; indeed it is in relation to this material interface that many of the political consequences of queerness arise.14
This exceeding of interiority points to a tension between queer and feminist approaches, but also perhaps to a vanquishing of that impasse—one that projects possible sexual futures and ways of being together that don't adhere to either the possessive or the property relation as conditions of autonomy. Gay film critic Parker Tyler, in his landmark work of proto-queer theoretical cinema analysis, Screening the Sexes (1972), assertively proclaimed that “in sexual matters, more than other matters, the movies become profound.”15 This mattering, in the way that sex films and other adult media move spectators and publics, is central to the inquiries herein.
SEX MATTERS, ARCHIVES, HISTORIOGRAPHIES
Attending to the variety of sex cinemas, queer and straight, a new generation of historically minded scholarship has emerged under the institutional rubric of adult film and media history.16 Writing about the problems posed by adult film's contested status and artifactuality, David Church and Eric Schaefer describe how the “adult film has historically been cordoned off from the rest of popular entertainment through censorship, alternative production and distribution channels, separation in physical space, etc., resulting in challenges in its historiography that are seldom confronted in other areas of media history.”17 An emphatic precarity attends any repository—digital or analog—of adult moving-image media. Sexual expression across media practices has long been made on the one hand overly material, and on the other a zone for dematerialization; prone to disappearance and suppression due to its cultural, social, and political marginality; and perceived as a threat to the social order, public health, and “moral values.”
The texts and objects that go under the banner of adult film and media are continually inscribed by material processes: historically marked as obscene; subject to censorship, regulation, redistricting, zoning; proscribed by formats and obsolete platforms as well as drivers of new technological modes; and prone to other forms of policing, including aesthetic coding (“art or porn?”). They are both incredibly profuse, accumulating in physical private collections, and equally in danger of disappearance without proper preservation or well-resourced archives for their devoted care.18 Adult media further poses specific challenges to historians due to poor documentation of production and reception, and the uneven, unsystematic, and often scant preservation of adult films outside of the work of commercial video distributors and a rather fickle profit-driven industry.19
Sex films and sex media are themselves documents subject to decay, fragmentation, florescence, opacity. The affective archive has long been a subject of considerable examination, especially in queer studies of pornography, localizing and intersecting with activist histories and identifications around the stakes of public culture after Stonewall. Hilderbrand argues that pornography was one of the key sites of shared cultural identification for gay men in a liberationist moment, constituting the public culture of gay collective life.20 An archive of feeling, as forwarded by Ann Cvetkovich in her argument for the importance of trauma to the work of activism, also yokes the archive of lesbian sexuality to loss and mourning.21 Such accounts of affect have made their way into thinking about porn collections in terms of a retrospective and nostalgic gaze of the adult media spectator and collector.22
Feminist, queer, and critical race scholarship on pornography expanded considerably in the twenty-five years between the publication of Linda Williams's field-defining 1989 book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” and the establishment in 2014 of the journal Porn Studies. Recent work like the collectively edited Feminist Porn Book (2013) as well as scholarship by Mireille Miller-Young, Constance Penley, Ariane Cruz, Heather Berg, and Jennifer Moorman has also moved toward infrastructural and scalar analyses of production cultures, foregrounding women as performers, workers, and makers as well as pleasure seekers in the domain of adult media practices.23 Without question, the adult film has been a difficult, animating, and foundational subject for feminist media studies, as articulated by Laura Helen Marks in her recent essay in this journal, indicating that “pornography is such a politically fraught topic of discussion, especially for feminists, that efforts on the part of porn scholars to provide valuable interventions in feminist media studies are often met with hostility, dismissal, or polite silence.”24 Even as the field has developed, embraced, and built upon the work of feminist media scholars such as Williams and Penley, there is still a rather notable disconnect between the presumption of feminist approaches to media forms and a cautious embrace of the adult media text as a viable object of analysis.
Queer scholarship, perhaps one of the most bountiful domains for work on pornographies and adult media, has approached pornographic expressivity as a site for the formation of communities and counter-publics, a terrain of “contact zones” (as eloquently described by Samuel R. Delany), a place to make visible and palpable the articulation of transformative desire, self-determination, and sociality.25 Post–third wave feminist engagements with pornography—as representation, as industry, as mode of circulation, and as site of labor—have dramatically expanded, but the questions posed by feminist scholarship and queer scholarship on adult media just as frequently diverge as converge across fault lines of gender identification and sexual expression. Furthermore, considerations of agency, power, expressivity, and labor resonate quite differently in each outpost of research.
Queer studies has multiple genealogies with complex but important relationships to feminism. In the best-known version, foundational work such as Gayle Rubin's “Thinking Sex” (1984) and Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990) posed challenges to feminist political orthodoxy and essentialist identity categories, but another important intellectual history roots queer studies within women of color feminism, as articulated in Michael Hames-García's “Queer Theory Revisited” (2011).26 Such intersectional approaches have in fact yielded some of the most materialist historicizations of pornography among scholars doing work on the conjunction of racialized subjectivities and sexuality. Cruz, Miller-Young, Amber Jamilla Musser, and LaMonda Horton-Stallings have drawn on varied histories of racial subjugation, sexual demonization, and antiblackness inscribed in adult media's hierarchies of desirability and sexual scripts, and all in their own ways grapple with the question of the flesh as a racialized category of knowledge and object of cathexis.27 But they do not foreclose on the possibilities of queer, and non-heteronormative pleasures for Black women and women of color to emerge from these apertures of performance and labor. Likewise, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Nguyen Tan Hoang, and Juana María Rodríguez each in their own way consider the complexity of subjectivation and objectification in Asian American and Latina sexual representations.28
Editing this special issue illuminated the field to me in various ways, among them the revelation that feminist and queer approaches to adult media sometimes ask fundamentally different questions reflective of different positionalities and investments to the politics of screen sexuality. Although my impulse is to reconcile them, perhaps it is more productive that they exist in tension, alongside each other and in dialogue. Rather than belaboring the fault lines between the gender/sexuality axis or competing claims on power and pleasure, the essays here seek new ways of putting into conversation approaches across diverse histories and geographies, examining a wide array of adult material and sex media through attention to their material realities, urgencies, and exigencies.
GUIDE TO THE CONTRIBUTIONS
This issue's contributors consider how conceptions of materiality both trouble and cohere practices across that uneven archive of adult film and media. They aim to articulate the stakes of studying adult media in an intersectional conversation between feminist and queer approaches to pornography, sex films, and adjacent sex media. The essays pursue such concerns through case studies, microhistories, archival reorientations, and historical recoveries. The material force and contingencies of erotic performance, labor, and corporeal expressivity, as well as political economies, production histories, and archival and historiographic retrievals, can be opened toward new avenues of comparative analysis. The essays are marked by a commitment to understanding the devalued forms of work and life among women and queer makers.
Taking on the challenges of format to any account of adult film, particularly “golden age” 1970s classics of the porno-chic era, Whitney Strub considers how the history of pornography has long been circumscribed unwittingly by the hidden practices of porn producers and distributors who transferred many 1970s 35mm films, now considered “classics” of the period, onto VHS for rental and purchase in the adult video boom of the 1980s. Via a historiographic detective plot that scans and scours the varied formats and shifting versions of many films significant to the period, including several by Radley Metzger and Joe Gage, Strub reveals industry attempts to edit out more transgressive sexual acts that defied the congealing boundaries being established by the flourishing commerce for hardcore on video. Tracking the erasure of specific sexual acts and sequences from numerous films, many involving fisting or pissing, Strub contends that these elisions complicate distinctions between gay and hetero porn in 1970s adult film practices. In suggesting that our understanding of 1970s hardcore need not adhere to the principles of markets tidily defined by sexual orientation and films that conform to a normalizing uniformity of sexual desire that cordons off queer and straight pleasures, Strub unveils how pornography's materiality has long been yoked to a market principle that prioritizes commercial viability over the preservation of sexual expressivity, therefore silencing the history of 1970s hardcore as a polymorphically perverse and unfixed site of sexual exploration.
If adult media's materiality also signals an implicit precarity, one both technological and ideological, as Strub's essay demonstrates, Darshana Sreedhar Mini's contribution explores the precarity and circulability of the definitive and emblematic softcore porn star of Keralan cinema, Shakeela, through circuits of exchange in Malayali cinema from the 1980s to the 2000s. Describing the emergence of softcore as genre and mode in Keralan cinema, and its suturing to the embodied image of Shakeela, whose body many distributors thus also pirated and spliced into their own products, Mini considers the peculiarly visible and invisible status of Shakeela and her star text. She elaborates on how Shakeela's fulsome corporeality signified generic specificity and flouted cultural attitudes about female independence and autonomy. In thinking through the question of a star body as a site for sexually inflected labor, Mini's essay also echoes the interest of many other scholars in this volume in the interrogation of performance labor. All emphasize the necessity of new approaches to histories of filmic production that do not sever the materiality of screen performance from the conditions of that performance's capture, exhibition, and circulation, a polysemic terrain of shifting meanings. Mini and the other contributors answer Amy Herzog's call for methods that might link performance and political economy when she asks that we consider “how historical work on labor and industry structures could be brought into dialogue with figural analyses of cinematic bodies when studying a specific media work.”29 Mini's analysis attests to how close readings can advance thick description alongside a robust theoretical framework, since industrial questions of accumulation and circulation need not be opposed to concerns regarding form and representation.
Thinking through the implications of directing adult cinema in the Japanese context as a practice of social reproduction, Kimberly Icreverzi examines the work of one of the most prolific female filmmakers of the sound era, Hamano Sachi, who has made approximately three hundred pink (softcore) films in a career spanning back to the late 1960s. Utilizing Hamano's autobiography as a framework to explore the material realities of female authorship within this mode of production, Icreverzi draws on the work of feminist social reproduction theory to unravel how the dynamic of visibility attached to adult film for a woman director works paradoxically as a logic of invisibilization, blotting out the import and significance of her wide corpus of films, many of which remain lost. Icreverzi recovers in Hamano's extant films a specific circumnavigation and refutation of the phallic, masculinist economies of pink cinema as genre, seeing in the director's preoccupation with female desire, social exchange, and aging sexuality a means of negotiating and reorienting the genre's male-driven myopias and fetishes. Poignantly recounting Hamano's autobiographical narrative of experiencing herself and her own legacy as a site of obliteration, Icreverzi restores to the filmmaker an investment in the vitalizing capacities of cinema to make life through the sustaining processes and ineluctability of labor.
The powerful labors of performance and their import for understanding women's sexual expression interlink with histories of an emergent gay male adult sexual culture in the hardcore era in Ryan Powell's acutely materialist account of the 1970s New York–based nightlife magazine After Dark. The magazine signaled a domain of sexual performative creativity that produced alliances between straight and queer women and gay men, on the page as well as in artistic and erotic collaboration. Considering the development of a style of performative self-presentation visible in the era's print venues, and associated with the border-crossing and genre-defying nature of these sites of queer print culture, Powell asserts the force of a “hardcore style” in terms of what Chris Straayer in another context has called a “seduction of boundaries.”30 A magazine that catered to a largely gay audience, but avoided explicit exposure or the penetrative act, After Dark mobilized its star-powered profiles of theatrical personae, celebrities, and musical performers as a domain of florid yet inexplicit gay eroticism. Powell details the interrelations between 1970s queer nightlife and specific female stars who appeared in the magazine, such as dancer and nightclub performer Chita Rivera, actress and musician Dana Gillespie, and singer and dancer Re Styles, who performed with the musical group the Tubes. Powell argues that these moments of eroticized play and staged gay-straight coupling emblematized a form of “queer heteroeroticism” in which women and gay men were positioned in a scenario that “elects and sponsors opposite-sex coupling as sites for the reconfiguration of nonnormative sex and gender practice.” Representing a specific moment in the era of porno-chic, and capitalizing on its performative frisson, the erotic play and experimentation with an imaginary that joined the sexual expressivity of women and gay men created new configurations and possibilities of a liberatory world beyond hetero-sexist, binary, cisgender conceptions of gender, sexuality, and social roles.
Performance and collaboration also animate the historiographic and archival intervention of Alissa Clarke's reexamination of Niki de Saint Phalle's Daddy (1973), made with British documentarian Peter Whitehead. Clarke revisits the Whitehead archives at De Montfort University to reconsider the largely psychoanalytic analyses that have attended de Saint Phalle's forceful filmic collaboration. Diverging from psycho-semiotic arguments, Clarke takes a performance studies approach, deploying media historiography to think through how de Saint Phalle's film extended her creative practice from her paintings, installations, and performances, as well as built on a series of collaborations with not only Whitehead but also the other women who performed the role of Niki in the film. Clarke proposes that considering the gendered performance labor of de Saint Phalle's vision and practice allows us a new way into some of the overtrodden and fatiguing debates about the film's psycho-dramatic elements and oedipal intonations in its staging of sexual trauma. In her richly descriptive reconstruction of forms of friendships, sexual relationships, artistic training, and aesthetic genealogies, Clarke looks at Daddy with new eyes and a refreshed understanding of the complexity of the shared erotic endeavors and collective labors involved in its making. Asserting the potency of de Saint Phalle's performative and collaborative gestures, as well as the skill and training of its female performers, Clarke puts Daddy's indulgence in psychosexual play and iterative catharsis of trauma into conversation with the artist's broader aesthetic concerns. She considers the film as continuous with de Saint Phalle's materialist preoccupation with specific ways of working, crafting sculptural objects, and treating sculptural materials, among them bodies and camera. Clarke thus builds an original and necessary methodological riposte to considering representation in a vacuum, asserting the necessity of examining women's performance labor, the complexity of their self-representation, and the specificity of their sexual expressivity.
A similar impetus drives Benjamin Ogrodnik's micro-historical investigation of Sharon Green's film Self Portrait of a Nude Model Turned Cinematographer (1971), made during her student years amid Pittsburgh's early-1970s avant-garde scene. Green only made this single work, then left film to become a psychoanalyst. In a poignant account of how women's roles in underground scenes were often narrated through their positions as merely secondary to the male filmmakers in these worlds, Ogrodnik sets Green's story of developing aesthetic interest in film against her work as a model for filmmakers Robert Haller and Stan Brakhage. Enlivened by the work she was seeing, while also circumspect about her position within Haller's work, Green took the contact sheets Haller gave her from her own modeling and made her film, a retort to and remediation of Haller's framing. Her own work of self-portraiture offers ways of apprising herself as both subject and object of her own and others' gazes. Ogrodnik places Green's film in the richly textured context of Pittsburgh's experimental film network of the day, and in relation to proximate women artists who experimented with filming their own bodies, such as Carolee Schneemann and Yvonne Rainer. His account of Green's film contends with what it might mean to tarry with the fragments of a women's film history that could have been otherwise. Employing microhistory to recover and reframe women's roles and difficult positioning as erotically charged objects in the avant-garde scene, Ogrodnik foregrounds, through careful historical detail and interviews with the filmmaker, Green's own voice and the materiality of her confrontation with the horizon of what was in that moment possible for her creatively, and what was foreclosed.
As Ogrodnik's narrative of this single work attests, materiality also inscribes absence—what cannot be registered in the visual field and around which only fragments, traces, and counterfactuals remain. Such contingencies and realities of absence also orient John Paul Stadler's approach to the material histories and creative imaginaries channeled by the practice of phone sex in the era of AIDS. Stadler's essay examines Robert Chesley's 1986 play Jerker, or the Helping Hand through a media-archaeological lens, thinking through how the performance on stage, and audio reproduction and circulation of the play on radio, archived and traced anxieties and possibilities resonant in phone sex's ascendance as a form of intimacy through distance. Phone sex, Stadler argues, became a sex act suitable to the difficulties of erotic contact posed by the AIDS crisis, as well as activist initiatives toward safe sex. Chesley's Jerker dramatizes a relationship between two men that occurs across the divide of this communication technology so redolent with the loquacity and creative production of queer lifeworlds, but also a manifestation of erotic possibility through narrativity. Exploring the differing versions of the play across theatrical and radio stints, and its subsequent censorship and suppression in the transfer to broadcast media, Stadler reveals the knotty and fascinating histories that rest in sexual mediation by the telephone in an era that saw an incredible loss of gay lives. The affective pull and erotic charge of phone sex as mode of contact relies on a specific historicity and materiality, and Stadler suggests that Chesley's work ultimately reveals the mode's capacity for the making of collective dreams and fantasies.
Desirae Embree's archival reflection closes the issue with a moving call to consider the fate of sex media and adult films in archives through yet another site of absence and inaccessibility—that of the remains and traces of lesbian porn. Embree discusses her difficulties tracking and accessing lesbian pornography, and the problems of lesbian sex media's invisibility in the sexuality archive. She considers the materiality of archives as site, centralizing the very political matter of the objects that they contain. Describing her attempts to watch rare VHS copies of lesbian porn at archives that have not been able to digitize the work, the questions of economic and ideological precarity, technological formats and social legibility, posed by Mini and Strub return to the fore with a different set of implications. How can these works be cared for, but also viewed and accessed? No doubt a familiar paradox for any archivally engaged scholar, such tensions between privacy and publicity, marginality and legibility, play out in specific ways in the case of lesbian adult media, as it is frequently lowest on the radar for preservation, as well as for acknowledgment of its very existence at all. To recover works of queer women's sexual expression requires a set of protocols to negotiate our blind spots and myopias about lesbian pornography as culturally and historically significant in its own right, erotically charged, and without compromise.