…in which your host reveals more than just her shady past.
I worked once for a guy who made porn movies. I did not particpate in the making of, but I was in customer service — just not THAT customer service. He owned two condos, one on top of the other, in a non-descript, ugly building in West LA — which just described all the building in West LA, pretty much. All the filming took place in one condo, and I worked in the one below, where I processed all the DVD, online video and membership orders that came through his website. While I never saw any of the filming and very rarely met any o f the performers, I… well, I heard it.
One time at the porn office, there was a young girl — about 19 — who had “auditioned” for a role in the producer’s next film, and needed a lift back to her youth hostel. Because the producer knew I lived in the same part of town, he asked me to give her a ride, and I obliged.
At the time, I drove this avocado green 1976 Chevy Malibu. A true classic I had picked up in Arizona on my move to LA: two tons of American steel, original radio with casette player, bench seating and inside and out: everything a remarkable shade of avocado green, including the fabric upholstery. My brothers called me Susie Malibu.
The girl rode in the passenger seat, of course. She’s a pretty girl, very quiet and it seemed a little shell shocked over what she had just done. She was not very well spoken, and not very well educated, but she seemed nice enough. Capable enough. Intelligent enough to do… anything else. I asked her why she was wanted to act in porn films. This is what I’m good at, she said. This is what I know how to do. 19 years old. And that’s what she had already decided for herself.
While one part of my heart was breaking for this girl, the other part was hardening. She sat in my passenger seat in her very short skirt, and every time she shifted her legs, or turned to face me, knowing what she had just been through, NOT knowing if she was wearing underwear, I wondered with increasing disgust whether she was going to stain my seat.
Some women choose to be sex workers. But these women often come from bourgeois backgrounds, have educations, and through stripping or pole dancing or working for an escort service, they are exploring their sexuality and systems of power. But it’s still a choice — they don’t have to let people whoop and call them names, or stuff money into their panties, or grope them, or gangbang them. It’s a choice. For so many other sex workers, though, it’s a necessity. They are doing what they have to do to survive. I am not strong enough for that. I don’t have the strength to sell my body for sex, and still buy groceries and have friendships and exercise and care for myself and keep myself alive. I wouldn’t last a day. But then I come from one of those bourgeois backgrounds that so often serves as a safety net of choice… but more often is a veil, a curtain to be drawn over inconvenient truths.
Although galleries in Berlin are spread all across the city, there is a cluster of them around Postdamer Strasse, near the Kurfurstenstrasse Ubahn. It’s an unlikely neighborhood for galleries at first glace — there are large discount stores on the corner, you walk by a strip club called LSD in pulsing purple neon, make your way past the hookers working the corner of Kurfurstenstrasse and Potsdamer Strasse, and try and figure out where all the art is. But only a block away, on Pohlstrasse, is the Tanja Wagner Gallery, for starters.
The Tanja Wagner Gallery is pretty spacious, as far as the galleries around Potsdamer Strasse go, and the space here is used sparingly but intelligently. You enter into the traditional white space, this one being one of those galleries with wide plank floorboards that give a satisfying creak when you walk around. On one wall is a cluster of photos and texts and electrocardiographs — the spiky lines of living hearbeats, some thick and steady, others moving in delicate bursts. The photos are of women, of various ages, ample bosoms, hand tattoos, rings on swollen fingers with painted nails. No faces. They are each in the act of holding a baby doppler, an ultrasound device for monitoring heartbeats in the womb, but here being used to listen and record the hearbeats of these women. The texts are the stories of those heartbeats.
The German artist Anna Witt, in her second solo exhibit at Tanja Wagner, and who has also, no doubt, made her way past teh sex shops and prostitutes many times on her way to the gallery, decided to look for the art on the streets instead. She got to know some of the prostitutes working on Kurfurstenstrasse, and recorded their heartbeats. But not just the heartbeats — she also recorded the women’s reactions to being recorded, snippets of their stories, their emotions, their fears and wonder — all the things that makes those heart beat, and makes them beat uniquely, individually, each marching to the beat of her own drummer. The photos displayed on the wall document those recordings, the women holding the baby doppler which, by the way, is pink and white and bears the product name, not unironically, Angelsounds.
Witt then took those heartbeats, amplified them, and brought them to a local strip club. She asked the women there to choreograph movement to each individual heartbeat — to dance the song of the street. But of course who better to hear deep melody of the heart, the challenges and tragedies, the everyday joys and sorrows than someone else working in the same industry?
In the other room of the gallery, supported on a pole dancing pole installed for this exhibit, are three video screens, that graduate in size from small to medium to large, the smallest at the top. Pole dancers, their bodies split in three on the screens — like magicians assistants who are sawed in half — writhe and slither around poles in a strip club. They are beautiful women, their bodies strong and muscular, and offer a range of fantasy, from leather and steel corsets to white negligees with ostrich feather fluff, a hula hoop to top it off. Hair pulled back into a severe bun, long hair falling in waves on soft shoulders. All of them in ridiculously high heels, all of them moving only to the sound of a heart beat.
From a critical point of view, it would be easy to say that the video sculpture itself is easy: pole dancers on a dancer’s pole — how obvious. And I am really resisting the urge to make that most obvious of comparisons of that dancer’s pole to a male body part, by the way. But I would say that the simplicity, the obviousness of it here serves the greater piece, it underscores what we’re watching and why we’re watching it, and reinforces the environments and conditions of both the strippers and the streetwalkers with that simple, phallic statement.
The dances, like the individuals they portray and the dancers themselves, are sensuous and sexual, of course. But they are also angular, terse, the muscles in the pole dancer’s bodies rippling with power and tension, like the violence that ripples just underneath the surface of these women’s lives. These are not the creative, acrobatic pole dances taught in sports clubs; the movements of these women — the REAL professional pole dancers — have the fluidity not of creativity but of survival. One of the things that strikes me most is how repetitive they are. By design or by accident, it is a brilliantly simple illustration of these women’s lives — and their work — is really like.
Back in LA, I wish I could say I quit my porn job next day, after I gave that young girl a ride, but I didn’t. I needed the job. I distanced myself, and I never drove anyone home again. I processed the orders, I collected my paycheck, and then I went home. I turned the volume up in my headphones at work so I couldn’t hear what was happening upstairs. I disinfected my passenger seat for good measure, and I told myself I would never, ever sink so low that I would sell my body for money.
Just being in the vicinity of that environment, though, messed with my head. Sex became something disgusting and vile, instead of the loving, romantic or even just fun and silly thing we like to imagine it to be. The truth is, it is all those things, and it is at the very foundation of everything we do, and it is the one trait we share with all other life forms on Earth – sex.
For the record, the guy who produced and starred in those porn films — not a horrible guy, really, educated but a little helpless too — also believed this was the only thing he was good at, the only thing he knew how to do. Which, if you boil it down, means the only thing both he and that 19 year old girl really knew how to do was profit from a system of exploitation, from the most basic of human needs, from our own humanity. And I had done it too.
Anna Witt calls Beat Body a performative monument, a term I like very much to be honest. The press release says it is “a tribute to the women of the street and emphasizes the value of each individual human being.”
For a monument, there’s really not much to see at the gallery, overall. A wall with some photos and text, a video sculpture, throbbing sound.
But the gallery pulses with life. The women fill up the room with their heart beats, the women on the video sculpture more like back-up dancers than the main attraction. And heartbeats, you know, — it’s probably the most recognizable sound in our human experience. Although just like the heartbeats of these streetwalkers, we almost never listen to the subtle melodies and rythms, the stories and histories they contain. But we all have one, and to an untrained ear, they all sound pretty much the same. So I wouldn’t say that Anna Witt’s Beat Body emphasizes the value of each individual human being; rather recognizes the value of sameness in all of us.
Beat Body is on view until 18 January at Galerie Tanja Wagner, located at Pohlstrasse 64 in Berlin.
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich from Artipoeus.