Conventional wisdom says that sex sells and the best way to keep a secret is to put it in a book.
“I like fucking with people,” Clayton Cubitt says. “I like subverting expectations.”
Cubitt’s newest project is Hysterical Literature, a series of videos featuring a female subject reading aloud while being simultaneously masturbated with a Hitachi Magic Wand, the so-called “Cadillac of Vibrators.” The videos begin with the subject introducing themselves and the text they have personally selected for presentation. The session lasts as long as the reader. When the subject has an orgasm, she stops reading. The longest so far is 11 minutes and 42 seconds.
Cubitt, a native of Louisiana, broke into the public consciousness for his photojournalism in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The photos he took—called Operation Eden—were a direct reaction to the journalistic images that disseminated throughout the United States by traditional media outlets.
“For years I've done projects that were about photographing or filming people when they were distracted,” Cubitt says. “Partly this stemmed from my controlled experience of making celebrity portraits, and seeing how the tendency toward ‘branded personality’ was starting to metastasize into the larger culture, as everyone started developing what we now we call selfies.”
The first Hysterical Literature video posted in August of 2012 and featured adult entertainer and writer Stoya giving a reading from the Necrophilia Variations by Supervert. Subsequent guests have included comedian Margaret Cho and self proclaimed “hurricane of intellectual sexuality,” Stormy Leather. The project has received some coverage in the press, including an in-depth analysis by medium.com and varsityonline.com, but Cubitt considers the majority of stories “shallow” and more focused on the participation of a celebrity like Margaret Cho or Stoya.
For all its filthiness, Hysterical Literature is clean to the point of precision. There is no nudity. “Foul” language is kept to a minimum by virtue of the works chosen. And Cubitt is neither seen nor heard in the diegetic space. Insofar as the videos perpetuate a restricted visual pleasure in narrative cinema, his absence allows the viewer the autonomy to reproduce that objectification at their peril. “I sat the readers at a table,” he says, “and I showed what society wants to see on top of the table, and I hid the sex under the table. I wanted to see what people would react to more: what they could see, or what they imagined.” YouTube is renowned for its strict censorship, (the first rule of its community guidelines reads “YouTube is not for pornography or sexually explicit content… [i]f this describes your video… don't post it on YouTube”) an attitude that influenced last year’s decision to remove the controversial “Blurred Lines” video (and its many imitators). But the over corrective nature of the policy made it an attractive target for Cubitt’s experiment in pushing boundaries. “Any controversy it courts is just on the edge of YouTube's Community Guidelines,” he says, “and rests as much in the hang-ups of the viewer as it does in the work.”
That there is cultural pushback to the selfie is natural. Oxford Dictionaries named selfie the 2013 Word of the Year. President Obama generated a minor controversy when he took a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Even the Sochi Olympics could not escape controversy as Canadian speed skater Brittany Schussler landed in hot water after taking a selfie with Russian president Vladimir Putin. And yet if the selfie is the most idealized image of the self, then Cubitt has worked to break through that frozen representation. But at least part of that pushback has to do with the people taking the selfies. A recent study of the artform by selfiecity.net found that “there are significantly more women selfies than men selfies (from 1.3 times as many in Bangkok to 1.9 times more in Berlin). Moscow is a strong outlier—here, we have 4.6 times more female than male selfies!”
Conventional wisdom says that sex sells and the best way to keep a secret is to put it in a book.
“I don't remember exactly when I decided to combine this with reading.” Cubitt says, “At some point it occurred to me that the choice of books is such a personal one, that it could serve as a proxy for our idealized personality, while the physical distraction could try to destroy it. And that also allowed me to poke fun at the idea that our mind is somehow ‘better’ or more ‘us’ than our body. How nobly we view the act of reading, compared to the act of sex.”
Noble is overly generous considering the rich tradition of graphic sex in literature. Try as they might, American pornographers such as Max Hardcore and Joe Francis, who have been found guilty of violating obscenity laws, are insignificant compared to the depravity of de Sade and the Bible. The literary additions to the Hysterical Literature project come from similarly infamous texts: Leaves of Grass, Beloved, A Clockwork Orange; each famous to this day for the controversy they attracted. “It's the sexuality,” Cubitt says. “The audience for straight readings of books would be vanishingly small without the controversy (or fun) of the sex under the table.”
The trope of a woman with her head dreamily stuck in a book has appeared in diverse literary works from Alexander Pushkin’s Tatyana to J.K. Rowling’s Hermione. And though the character has undergone some reform (see Hermione), there persists a concerted effort to dismiss literature with a strong appeal to women as frivolous or less than serious. This despite Romance Novels, the bodice ripping paperbacks that have adorned supermarket shelves for generations, earning $1.4 billion in business during 2012, the largest share of the U.S. consumer market. Even Shakespeare only earned lasting fame by appealing to Queen Elizabeth (and then doubly so to Queen James).
Literature may account for some of the controversy, but female sexual pleasure enjoys a far more problematic relationship with 21st century society. American films that unflinchingly show dismemberment and sexual assault have a much easier time in front of censors than those which focus on female orgasm. Last November, actress Evan Rachel Wood protested the final cut of the film Charlie Countryman for removing an oral sex segment from a sex scene but leaving in the graphic violence that culminates in a third act attempted lynching of Shia LaBeouf. Wood tweeted, “It’s time for people to GROW UP. Accept that women are sexual. Accept that some men like pleasuring women. Accept that women don’t have to just be f–ked and say thank you…We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves.” Even where female sexual pleasure is visually explored in the cinema, such as Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, a significant number of male filmmakers continue to present men as the bearer of Laura Mulvey’s look “with [women’s] appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”
Cubitt’s idea for the project evolved out of those attempts to free perspective from a more traditional narrative. “These were created specifically for an Internet presentation. They're Internet-native. I'd rather millions of people see them and think or laugh or get turned on, than have a few thousand people pretend to watch in a gallery.”
The most recent session was released in February and featured Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by poet John Ashbery as read by Marne. “I'd love to have more women of color read for it,” says Cubitt. “I'd love to have more older women read for it. I'd love to have women read for it in languages other than English. There's a contact page on the project site for people to volunteer.”
Subjects for the project have contributed essays on the website describing their involvement, reluctance, and other thoughts on the series, but comments on the videos have been disabled since the beginning. “No one has ever regretted disabling comments on any art that relates to sex. Sex has a tendency to make smart people dumb.” Cubitt says. “So does visual art in general, though. Most of us aren't taught how to write intelligently about visual art, much less depictions of sex in art.”
The reaction has been overwhelmingly one-sided. “Although I never mention this detail in any of the YouTube titles or descriptions…the sexual aspect is the single most mentioned thing in blog titles and press articles about the project.” Cubitt says, “I prefer it when people experience some mystery and magic and ‘WTF’ when first seeing them, but I understand that life is busy, and bloggers want to get their readers to look at what they post.”
Although Cubitt expresses a love of pushing boundaries, he acknowledges the nuances involved with both controversy and sexual content: “Brands walk a very fine line when working with controversy. Good controversy sparks conversation or even debate, but all towards reinforcing the brand's concept of itself, and its target audience. Bad controversy gets out of control, and can work counter to a brand's desired reputation. This is why many brands try to steer clear of any controversy at all.
“It's impossible to avoid, though. Even relatively safe campaigns that aim for inclusion can find themselves in controversy, especially online, where there's much less control over who does and doesn't see a message, and much more feedback from audiences. I'm aware of this in all my work, and try to anticipate it as much as possible at the very beginning conceptual stages. It's no longer enough to say ‘How will this be seen by my audience?’ Now artists, and brands, have to say, ‘How might this be seen by every audience?’ and allow for that chaos, and use it to better focus what you're making.”
But for Cubitt, a celebration of self need not be sounded across the world’s roofs to be a barbaric yawp. “That means making work that’s not just about controversy, although it flirts with it.” The intimacy is not limited to the sessions, or the act of reading, but “something strong and simple and visually compelling,” he says. For Cubitt, Hysterical Literature survives because of its style.
“It's not literally showing any sex,” Cubitt says. “The sex is hidden. The viewer would have to object to the very concept of sex to object to Hysterical Literature. And in so doing, what does that say about them?