PORTLAND—No Human Involved: the 5th Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show subverts homogenized narratives of sex work by showcasing critically engaged artworks by sex workers. NHI was collaboratively curated by Roya Amirsoleymani, the Artistic Director and Curator for Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), and Kat Salas and Matilda Bickers of STROLL PDX, a harm reduction, outreach, and education group run by and for sex workers. The exhibition’s title reclaims the derogatory slang term No Human Involved, often used by law enforcement to reference violent crimes against sex workers and other marginalized groups (particularly in regards to Black and Brown populations). By amplifying the voices of those directly affected by the dehumanization and criminalization of sex work, NHI has built a successful platform that highlights and challenges these intersections of oppression.
“An annual sex workers’ art show was an idea I got from Danzine, a former sex workers’ non-profit in Portland,” Bickers explained. “They changed my life; they made a zine for local sex workers with resources and advice, they had a needle exchange and art shows, they did outreach and lobbying and advocacy. When they were gone, a chasm opened. I knew I wanted to live forever in this amazing community making badass art and social change.” So Bickers did, curating sex workers’ art exhibits throughout Portland with Salas before connecting with Amirsoleymani and PICA for the fifth iteration of the show.
“Conceptualizing the exhibition, it was very clear that we would all have equal stakes as curators and organizers,” Amirsoleymani said. “I was conscious of the perceived power imbalance between an established art institution like PICA and a grassroots group like STROLL, and I was committed to the project as an exercise not just in collaboration with new people, but in equity, resource redistribution, making space and time, and learning and growing as individuals and as an institution.”
The installation of No Human Involved makes full use of PICA’s expansive concrete space, with movable walls radiating around a hub of couches and soft spaces to sit. The centralized seating area is illustrative of NHI’s mission, creating room in the crowded gallery for genuine listening. A selection of 90s-00s DIY publications circles the seating area, revealing a dense and varied history of writing by and for sex workers.
The Fall 2019 edition of Working It, a zine of critical and creative writing by sex workers, is a vital contribution to this library. Within, a wide range of topics are covered in interviews and critical essays — white privilege in strip clubs, respectability politics, boundaries, care labor, the politics of “enthusiastic consent”, the aftermath of FOSTA/SESTA, surveillance and criminalization of sex work, and the media’s glamorization of sex work (the recent blockbuster Hustlers comes up more than once.) Working It provides important context for the artworks on display with raw, first-hand accounts of how the dehumanization of sex work directly impacts the individuals involved. In one essay, a sex worker named Tilly describes how popular stripper aesthetics are often adopted by non-sex workers as an opportunity for fleeting, performative sexiness, while sex work is still not widely accepted or respected. Tilly challenges the notion that sex work is innately degrading, demanding that we “reassess what qualifies as intimate … and most of all, what qualifies as work.”
NHI was curated through an international open call, with sixteen artists ultimately selected. Although a wide range of mediums are represented in the exhibition, the video works are particularly strong. Evie Snax’s GIFs, “NO BAD WHORES JUST BAD LAWS,” “I like your energy, I wanna experience it,” and “¡Borikén Libre!” are technicolor, glitchy collages centering images of QTBIPoC and sex workers. Rapidly-shifting and mesmerizing, Snax’s GIFs reference texting and the Internet as intertwined entities within her fantasy scenes of shame-free millennial sex work.
Brittany Marie Chavez’s short film “Eating Ass” depicts a sensuous breakfast scene with extreme close-ups of mouths chewing, syrup dripping, and fingers being licked and sucked. Amid this scene, a candle lodged between one actor’s buttocks slowly melts. The film grapples with power dynamics as its central characters operate between the realms of “ordinary” and “perverse,” challenging the viewer to find connections between the two. Meanwhile, Ev Echovia and Bane Belladonna create a moment of psychedelic ecstasy in “Azulum Sylph Episode 1: The Pearl 2017.” The film is described as an “esoteric erotic journey” wherein two sex worker characters find surrender and belonging through fantasy, hinting at sex work’s role in transformative healing. Partially shot on Hi-8, Echovia cultivates the film’s mystical aesthetic through soft, saturated color and image layering.
Two more standout works are sean chamberlain’s “explicit adverts for 2020 #1 (Falcon Studios)” and “#2 (Spunk-boys)” — both heavily pixelated renderings of gay pornography advertisements printed on silk and hung, flag-like, from acrylic armatures. While the display choice initially seems commemorative or celebratory, the pixelated imagery suggests an increasingly censored future due to FOSTA/SESTA legislation. As a result of website shutdowns, sex workers are struggling to claim space in the digital realm; chamberlain’s works concisely illustrate this suppression.
In conjunction with NHI, PICA hosted “Art, Activism, and Publishing in Sex Work,” a three-day symposium, featuring several performances, panel discussions, and lectures that built a wider contextual framework around the artists’ works. Emi Koyama, a social justice activist, writer, and “coordinatrix” of the Coalition for Rights and Safety for People in the Sex Trade in Seattle with extensive first-hand knowledge of sociopolitical issues surrounding sex work, was the symposium’s keynote speaker.
Koyama posits that anticriminalization of sex work is sorely needed to provide an active, effective response to issues affecting sex workers. Rather than looking at the issues philosophically, “anticriminalization” would focus on harm reduction in local communities and limit criminal justice involvement. Decriminalization of sex work, while a positive starting point, would only change laws. Anticriminalization could change a community’s relationship to sex work. Koyama advocates for both tactical and foundational harm reduction (direct actions like needle exchanges and safe consumption sites, coupled with nuanced social views and respect for self-determination). Her initiatives include the SESTA = DEATH campaign, Aileen’s (a safe space for women working along the Pacific Highway), and System Failure Alert, which collects stories of systemic abuse to hold institutions accountable for their behavior.
Neither NHI or Art, Activism and Publishing in Sex Work are “about” sex work — rather, they intertwine to center the diversity of contemporary sex workers’ perspectives. The events are informative, highlighting the intersecting oppressions impacting sex workers daily, but they also twist dominant narratives around sex work toward a more dynamic and fluid definition. This reframing intends to challenge the assumptions of the outsider, and through presenting nuance, it succeeds.
No Human Involved: the 5th Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show remains on view through December 14, 2019, at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in Portland, Oregon.
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