Riding the Wet, Wet Wave: An Interview with A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner on Community Action Center – Anthea Black

After the late-night screening of Community Action Center at Frameline International LGBT Film Festival in San Francisco, I stood outside the Roxie Theatre with about 30 others from the largely gay-male audience, vigorously discussing the movie. That night, I was completely vindicated. For so many years, I’ve attended queer film festival screenings that featured gay cock and steamy men’s shorts, and like many dykes and trans men, imagined myself into those charged scenes. Seeing A.L. Steiner and A.K. Burns’ movie in a theatre packed with gay men reversed that dynamic, and for a rare, thrilling evening, we were on screen.

CAC Movie Poster - A.K. Burns & A.L. Steiner

Immediately, I knew that a screening of Community Action Center and the resulting conversations, debates, and questions about representation, play, art, porn, and collaborative authorship in queer communities needed to happen in Canada. In September, Toronto artists Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue of the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) teamed up with Pleasure Dome for a spectacularly fun weekend of programming centred around the work. For the FAG exhibition opening of posters, photos, and ephemera from the filming, performer Kitty Neptune pole-danced in the gallery. After the feature screening, filmmakers A.L. Steiner and A.K. Burns appeared topless for a Q+A with the audience. Conversations, excitement, and fiery political questions continued that night and into the next afternoon during an exhibition walk-through, group discussion, and afternoon tea at the Feminist Art Gallery.

When we got settled in Mitchell and Logue’s upstairs guest room, my conversation with Steiner and Burns began with the acknowledgement that we’d all spent a lot of time processing their feature-length art porn together that weekend. We also agreed that feminism – an issue that frequently comes up in relation to Community Action Center – is a constantly evolving continuum. The idea reappears throughout our conversation, where feminism is cast as a gigantic flea market where everything is free, a dusty old labrys found in a labyrinthine archive, and by Burns, as series of “wet, wet waves” to ride. Of course, as she says, “the continuum of practices, politics, and actions are essential to us being here now.”

Anthea Black: I hope you don’t mind if I re-pose a question from the Q+A last night to begin. Which is that the feminist collaborative ethic of Community Action Center, in addition to fueling a great work, also seems to propose terms for how we can be in the world as queer artists. Our cultural production goes beyond the boundaries of our material practices. How does this work go beyond those boundaries?

A.K. Burns: We would say that the production is the video, the potential installation, the group screening experience, the artist’s talk, and that is a constant process, not a product.

A.L. Steiner: Generally, production has been minimized to this idea of the product itself, as if there is an end point. We both have a problem ending projects, or making things to present in a more typified way, to a market. In that way, [Community Action Center] feels queer, open-ended or questioning of what the limitation of that identity is, being an artist. Space between the process and the product doesn’t end; it is similar to how we’ve talked about feminist history. There isn’t a conclusion, where now it’s this and we have to fight for it to be recognized as a certain thing.

The idea of queer identity is that you’re not fighting to have to be something, you’re fighting to not have to be something. Rights and liberties and civil rights really rest on the idea of someone deciding that you’re valid enough, and they give you something. Then you’re complete. For me, philosophically, that is a fallacy. That extends into this art practice. Production and capitalism also rests on these ideas. We are afforded these ways of thinking about systems, but then when we question those systems, is it queering them?

We’re participating in this system that says “make this product,” and we want to promote it [as an artist’s object.] Then we’re also showing it in different spaces. And we’re also saying that it’s not over and it’s never going to be over, because we feel really connected with it as a political treatise and proposition for queer bodies.

A.K.: …even to the extent that it would generate conversation after we’re gone, or the video is gone. I hope, those are the deepest…[A.L.: manifestations] or wishes for any work. But in particular, this work.

A.L.: That it has a resonance beyond us.

A.K.: I also mean that in relation to the Halsted work, LA Plays Itself. You could see something, and be so generative [that you would] make your own proposal from it. That relationship to histories and other practices, is part of the continuum, I can only hope that Community Action Center is generative.

A.L.: Or flexible: because Halsted was recontextualized. He made it for porn consumption as a videotape, but now the Museum of Modern Art owns the film. So we accessed it there, because we were having a hard time finding it. We couldn’t find anyone’s VHS tapes to borrow, and the easiest access was through the museum collection. So the piece was recontextualized from commercial, or arthouse porn, to a museum artwork. If our piece has that fluidity it means that it will be a continual process.


Production still 2- CAC2010 - By A.L. Steiner

Anthea: Deirdre Logue brought up the important question about the necessity of our production to morph into these different spaces. Why is it important that Community Action Center can be a museum work, an installation at the Feminist Art Gallery, and something that you screen in a smaller community centre space?

A.L.: …and an educational piece at school.

A.K.: Each space offers a different agency and access point.

A.K.: One of the big questions or purposes of the piece is [to bring up] questions like what is pornography and/or what is art? One is that people always want to place it in one category. We’ve been told it’s not art and we’ve been told that it’s not pornography.

A.L.: We have, literally. People say, “well this is great, but it’s actually not pornography,” and “that was amazing, but it’s not art.” As if there is not a multiplicity that’s queer.

We have a lot of questions. We made it with the question “What even constitutes pornography?” Is it explicit nudity, does there have to be some level of exploitation involved? Or does there have to be commerce?

A.K.: Who knows? We don’t have an answer to that. But the purpose of the piece was to put all those questions into play.

A.L.: In the Cliff Notes zine, another question we were proposing was about the architecture of the homosocial space. The porn theatre is disappearing from queer culture. [A.K.: Very specifically in New York, for us.] Women don’t and didn’t have those spaces.

A.K.: Well, one, women have never really had those spaces, and two, the whole city has been cleaned up and there is only one porn theatre left in the city. This is a contemporary situation, which is that you go home, and you jerk off in front of the computer and you download porn in this privatized space. One of the important manifestations of Community Action Center is that it is communally viewed.

A.L.: That’s part of the title, which is also tongue-in-cheek.

A.K.: Privatization is also changing the relationship to the body, even with the reference to private parts, that term is in question: what is private? There is a kind of body shame that is produced out of that way of consuming pornographic material, and I think we’ve regressed culturally by getting rid of the porn theatre.

A.L.: Well the term “pornographic” is a way to separate oneself from one’s body; that’s how it has been utilized essentially. Because [the term is] about consuming other bodies, and it’s been used to censor and limit space, and to segregate. The etymology of the term pornographic comes from prostitution and commercialization, the origins of commercial exchange.

Anthea: One of the things that is so wonderful in the scenes where you see the singing and the intimacy of certain activities that are not usually visually represented in porn, is that they open up the kinds of representations that we think of for queer bodies. Maybe one of the reasons why they are so striking is that they are never part of pornography, the ordinariness of them.

A.K.: Yeah, even a lot of radical porn doesn’t include that kind of visual material.

A.L.: Or other parts of the body other than the genitalia. You have to get right to some genitalia, because the money is in the specific tropes of porn and it all leads to that point. A.K. brought that up last night when she was talking about how there is a certain trajectory of how post-porn politics discusses pornography. We’re discussing what women and what feminism has gotten caught up in: the patterns of those representations. We can rework them, but actually, how do we just create a new platform? How do we utilize the whole body as an erotic playground? The voice is sensual and emotional, that is how that moment played into the film.

A.K.: One of the many orifices to celebrate!

A.L.: Peter Berlin, when he just walks down the street in San Francisco…

Anthea: …in his outfit! There is such an eroticism in that, it can’t be commoditized. He is proposing a different way of moving through space.

A.L.: Posing and posturing is a sexual act, it’s cruising. All that work, happened during what we call the porn liberation romance phase, when it was so interconnected to queer politics, and gay liberation. All of that production is so connected to that agency and that sensuality. It has moments that don’t seem to exist right now, even in radical porn.

Anthea: One thing that I’ve consistently lamented is that there is an amazingly rich history, and there seems to be a historical break. Artists are looking at that time period of gay liberation porn, art, performance art, activism, the whole politic, now, with a contemporary feminist voice in the present moment, and thinking about what it has to offer in the ways that we move forward. Coming out of that lineage, what does feminist revisioning of that history add?

A.K.: We have enough distance from that moment to see what has and hasn’t changed. In that timeframe, the propositions that were generated were very specific, and it was a very specific cultural breakdown that was happening. It’s a place that gets looked at a lot, and it is personally, between us. That moves forward of course, into the 80s and 90s historically, but because both gay liberation and second wave feminism were really emerging – not that feminism didn’t exist prior to that – it’s a really generative site of politics that are core to our being now, and it’s hard not to look at that site. We’re already done our first decade of the 2000s, and what has really changed? In particular, for women’s bodies? It’s shocking. I think we both feel a real urgency to revive, rethink, and move those politics forward.

A.L.: …in a really sensory, stimulating way, in a way that also embodies our aesthetic.

A.K.: …and recognizes we’re in a contemporary moment.

A.L.: José Muñoz wrote Cruising Utopia (2009).

Anthea: He is definitely what I am thinking of with the past-present-future circuit.

A.L.: And [he discusses artists] Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, who we stayed with and had long conversations with, especially Pauline. These ideas come out of Judith Butler’s writings and feminist writings, postmodern, postcolonial writings too. We are reworking and restructuring, but essentially politics and aesthetics are never separated. There is no way to make something that is not political. It’s really impossible. If you don’t recognize the politics, that is one thing, but inherently because of the systems we are working with, your messaging, your visuals, your products, your process, are all politicized.

A.K.: Anything that reaches a public is political.

A.L.: So in Cruising Utopia, Muñoz is proposing how we discuss politics and aesthetics as a fusing, not as something that you can say, “It’s this, it’s art, it’s porn, it’s trans, it’s straight, it’s queer, it’s feminist, it’s environmental, it’s economic.” The multiplicity is something that both of us are trying to comprehend [A.K.: grapple with], and this piece reflects our notions or our effort to comprehend and fuse something together that is entertaining – because we don’t want to discount that – and aesthetic, and political. We’re just trying to be conscious about what those choices and constructions are. The conversation, back to your question, is why the live presentation plays into it. It’s all of those things without us, of course, in some way or another, but when we’re there, voicing that makes those concerns pertinent, makes them part of the artwork.

Anthea: …and part of the continuity of engaging.

A.L.: Yes, the continuity. It’s not necessary, it’s just something we’re interested in. Doesn’t mean that someone couldn’t enjoy the politics, aesthetics or entertainment value of the piece itself.

Anthea: Even though we have forums for gathering in a feminist sense, this kind of work feels like our bathhouse culture. Cultural production is one way that a feminist culture could construct a sexual subculture, which hasn’t yet emerged as something that has the same kind of consistency as male bathhouse culture. I’ve always wondered, where is the gap? Why has the queer feminist community not been focused, for whatever reason, on creating a sexual subculture that exists in space in a consistent manifestation, where we can hang out in?

A.K.: I have these questions too. When we were on Fire Island, there is [a men’s only hotel called] the Belvedere,. [A.L.: It looks like a castle from the water.]. Katie [Hubbard] and I were having all these fantasies: How would you manifest that for women and trans people, because we could not go in there, there was all this debate. We were women, we have vaginas attached to us, everyone was going to go limp if we got in there, I don’t know what kind of crisis could happen if we got in there; but we could not go.

A.L.: Which made you wanna go!

A.K.: Because of the world we live in, it requires the economy to have the real estate, the maintenance, somehow inherently, for the “vag-packing populations”, as I like to say, economy just is not something we have access to: we’re terrible capitalists.

Anthea: We haven’t wanted to, or haven’t been able to prioritize that direction.

A.K.: We could have an attachment to the side of the male bathhouse, and they could fund the women’s side. Women could just come and go as we please, and not have the pressure of maintaining the economy. What would the strategy be?

Anthea: Like a barnacle. That would be the best name for a women’s bathhouse!

A.L.: The Barnacle Women’s Centre. You should open it! The one in the Mission in San Francisco, that amazing space, closed down.

A.K.: This is the thing, we all want a women’s bathhouse space to happen. They have happened and existed over time.

A.L.: The bathhouse was a women’s space in historical and religious culture, and not just a queer space. The sexualized public space also poses questions about how women consume pornography and the material that we’re talking about. Exploitation and relationships to our own bodies are things that I talk about when we find out that women around the world aren’t even participating in pleasurable sexual creative activity. However women’s lives are structured worldwide, it’s hard to generalize, but I feel like it’s similar to the debate about the sex wars or porn wars as they are called. It’s really complicated, those types of spaces, to maintain, to economize, and to perpetuate aren’t necessarily inherently a part of how were thinking. So is it because we’re not thinking that way, or because it’s not what we want?

Anthea: Very good question.

A.L.: Just as much as we made this piece and are utilizing this space, and specifically Deirdre and Allyson planned all of these activities, so this made it a much longer conversation than we’ve had in one place. They thought about it very differently, to keep the conversation going.

I would really like to show it for a month at the Spectacle, a tiny art-house theatre in Willamsburg, or the Tiki Theatre, the last porn theatre that’s in LA: I really want to schedule it to be there for a month, and I want to know, who’s going to go? And will it interfere with those spaces?

So I thought about what it would mean to present in the bathhouse and explore those homosocial spaces. The bathhouse is interesting, but I also feel that the idea of the women’s bathhouse that is somehow reflective of all of these bodies, that we are dealing with in our lives internally and externally, what the new configuration of that is? The Belvedere [on Fire Island] is the oldest model, and what does that propose to us, besides just entering it? That’s an unanswerable question.

Anthea: To think about the issue of representation for a moment, one impulse that audiences seem to have in looking at queer work is to not just see the intrinsic value of the work, but also to see how we are being represented, what the representation looks like, and if we see ourselves in queer work. Which I think is one of the reasons it generates community beyond just art community – I was curious to hear about some of those conversations around representation that have come up around gender, body size, race, and something that came up in the Q+A , that the audience in Toronto was primarily white.

A.K.: They’re important questions that we asked ourselves as we were working. It was intentional that there are cis-men in the work. [A.L.: It wasn’t an accident.] It was intentional!

A.L.: It was a selfish endeavor, there is a choice to produce or not to produce. There is another piece that we’ve shown with, called Female Fist by Kajsa Dahlberg, it’s just an audio conversation. The lens cap was over the camera because the women did not want to be filmed, but they tried to make an art porn, essentially a similar process, a collective effort of a group of people to make a work, in Copenhagen. It just couldn’t happen. It was the story of them lesbian processing to make a porn, and it’s literally the discussion and discourse that manifested as the work. It’s interesting to watch Community Action Center and Female Fist together, with the black screen.

Anthea: Formally that black screen is really important?

A.L.: So we only see the black screen in this piece and its fascinating, because there is a breakdown, because there can’t be consensus that the representations will be adequate enough and that the collective will be okay with whatever is produced. This is part of what feminism is: the failure to agree about how to represent that multiplicity. We cannot have that multiplicity and cannot be all things to all people.

Anthea: In all the incredible work that people have done to deconstruct representations and systems of power, the process of actually making and constructing can be rare, the way you talk about Kajsa Dahlberg’s piece is a great example.

A.K.: The problematizing of our condition can lead to a kind of paralysis. The thing we were talking about in the Q&A, about this history of pornographic material made by women, for women, has tended to be from a reactionary space. In the sense that – [[A.L.: We’re thinking of the gaze, we’re thinking of who is looking]] – I don’t want to be defined by hetero-culture in this way, or, my body is being seen in this way so I have to make the opposite of that. The thing about the gay liberation porn of that period, that was made typically by men, was that they had this really significant autonomy [A.L.: because nobody wants to look]. That is the privilege of being fully rejected by the patriarchy or the larger system…

A.L.: …It allows for a creative autonomy.

Anthea: This is the exact space that your piece claims.

A.K.: This was a huge agenda for us: can we as women, queers, trans community produce something that is autonomous, creative and not in reaction to, but truly about what we want? And it doesn’t matter if you like it or you don’t. It was a disregard for the PC. We actually had to throw some shit out the door and say we can’t follow those rules, we have to follow rules about our own set of desires, but not without a consciousness.

A.L.: The other part of that is the declaration that Annie Sprinkle still calls for: to make your own work. This call is not to like our work, or not like it. Judgment seems irrelevant to us, it’s more about saying “please continue to make, please bring more of this work to galleries, and put it in festivals”. We have always looked at work that also demands that.

Of course we all consume, so if we’re responsible, active, conscious consumers, we’re going to be inspired by something. The call to make the work that you feel represents you is just as important as making sure that you satisfy as many people’s needs as possible. This needs to be negotiated in your own space. I think the paralysis that you’re talking about is what Kajsa’s piece speaks to, and it is also a really important part of dealing with and being conscious of that, of allowing it to be useful. It’s a precarious space.

A.K.: Another extension of being present is how we take responsibility for the decisions that we’ve made. Which are selfish, on some level, but we understand that the work shows things that are digestible and critiqueable and problematic, and repulsive and attractive that are happening.

A.L.: And to claim that they’re not would be disingenuous to our project.

Anthea: The ethic of the work proposes a way of being in the world and a way of being responsible for what we make.

A.L.: And that autonomy goes deep into that. Once we were talking about it with collaborators and friends; that is when all this conversation came out. Because we were just working, moving forward in the creative process. [[Anthea: As you do.]] Yes, you know.

This also came up on the personal level with the performers, because there were a lot of conversations that straddled the exact concerns we are talking about. People were concerned about what this is, throughout, and conversations are still ongoing. This was a collaboration.

A.K.: We are so much more emotionally responsible for this piece than anything legal, if someone came from the group that made this and was upset, the friendship and emotional breakdown and ties are so much more significant than any legal issue.

Anthea: That’s an incredible subversion.

Anthea Black is a Canadian artist, art writer and cultural worker. Her work in printmaking, textiles, performance and video is preoccupied with setting a stage for queer collaborative practice and inserting intimate gestures into public spaces. Her recent exhibitions include: PopSex! Responses to the History of Sexual Science at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery in Calgary, Gestures of Resistance at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, and QIY: Queer It Yourself – Tools for Survival at the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco. She has written on contemporary art, performance and politics for several publications and her collaborative research with Nicole Burisch is included in new publications The Craft Reader (Berg Press) and Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Duke University Press). She has curated SINCERITY OVERDRIVE, SUPER STRING, and Echo+Response: lipsynchs and remixes for critical queer geographies. 

A.L. Steiner utilizes constructions of photography, video, installation, collage, collaboration, performance, writing and curatorial work as seductive tropes channeled through the sensibility of a skeptical queer eco-feminist androgyne. Steiner’s projects and collaborations are celebratory efforts in dismantling notions of normativity and the sources of constructed truths. Her interventions, sensory advertisements and highly-regarded affects on happenstance have been featured worldwide, subverting and sabotaging the language commonly used to define queer/feminist/lesbian art. She is a collective member of Chicks on Speed, co-curator of Ridykeulous, co-founder/organizer of Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) and collaborates with numerous visual and performing artists. Steiner is currently visiting core faculty at University of Southern California’s Roski Master of Fine Arts Program.

A.K. Burns is an interdisciplinary artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She received a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design 1998 and an MFA from Bard College, Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, in 2010. A.K.’s practice explores interpretation and implications of sexuality, power and language, often taking the form of sculpture, video, drawing or social actions. A.K. has been a frequent contributor and active member of both LTTR and Ridykeulous. A.K. is a founding member of the artists activist group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy). Her work can be found in the The Judith Rothschild Contemporary Drawings Collection at the MoMA. This fall, A.K. will launch the inaugural issue of RANDY in collaboration with Sophie Mörner/Capricious Publishing.