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09.10.10

Art or Porn?

A new movie by Matthew Barney and other artists that's playing at the Los Angeles Downtown Film Festival is so graphic that it took four years to get U.S. distribution. Craig Stephens on the art world's cause celebre.

This week’s Los Angeles Downtown Film Festival, which will bring together sex and art by some of the world’s most innovative and provocative  artists and directors, is shadowed by controversy with the screening of the much-talked-about art/sex film series, “Destricted.”

Gallery: Click here to view footage from the controversial film shorts

Destricted, an art-based film in which multiple directors—among them Larry Clark ( Kids),  artists Matthew Barney and Marina Abramovic, and photographer Sam Taylor-Woods—explore modernistic views of sex, sexuality, and pornography in modern film.  

Formed in 2004 as a brand (instead of strictly as a film) and originally released in September 2006 in the U.K., Destricted won awards at a range of international film festivals, including Cannes, Sundance, Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Locarno. Despite Destricted’s successful debuts, the film would have to wait four years for its U.S. release.

All this time, Destricted has been tied up in American laws governing pornography, which dictate that anyone who appears in a sexually explicit film must be legally documented as over 18. Because some shorts were filmed overseas, under disparate conditions, and perhaps without the artists’ foreseeing the necessity of such documentation, some didn’t have proper papers, thus they could not be released for profit (which is why admission to the festival screening is free). Just this year, Destricted amassed the necessary documents to clear eight shorts for commercial distribution in the U.S., which will happen in November, via DVD and a small theatrical release (theaters have not been confirmed).

Destricted’s (somewhat confusing) roster of shorts varies from the international release, to the U.S. release, to what is screened at the festival: the U.S. version features eight short reels, all of which are explicit in nature; six short films, including some not on the U.S. release, will be screened at the Downtown Film Fest; and seven shorts, a mix-up of the previous lists, appear on the U.K. version.

While porn is now a mainstream commodity, its shock value challenged by saturation and corporate marketing, and, some might say, the loosening of American mores, the films comprising Destricted aim to explore and underscore a still-vibrant polemic: to “highlight controversial issues about the representation of sexuality in art, opening up for debate the question of whether art can be disguised as pornography or whether pornography can be disguised as art,” according to the film’s creators.

Rex Bruce, a key organizer of Digital Art LA, a component of the Downtown Film Festival, says the festival is the perfect vehicle to show the film. “I was approached by the Destricted people some time ago and have been waiting for the right time to screen it.”

Bruce adds, “This collection of videos had difficulty finding a screening venue due to its controversial nature. Most museums and institutions will steer clear, though we have the kind of environment that will gleefully run it. In fact, our initial screening sold out within hours, hence we had to arrange another screening to meet the demand.” 

The six films that comprise the Destricted screening at this week’s festival, including two that aren’t on the U.S. DVD, are each unique and visionary.

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Craig Stephens is an Australian born freelancer based in the US since 1999. More about him at craig-stephens.com.