Sleazy Inner Tubes
Laura Carton created the photographs collected in her book Stripped by downloading images from a variety of porn sites, removing the people, and then digitally rebuilding the backgrounds. Porn devotees may find this a heinous act of vandalism, but for the rest of us, her acts of erasure and reconstruction are acts of discovery; beneath what’s blatant, she’s uncovered a world of enigmatic subtleties, and her encouragement to contemplate aesthetics in this context, of all places, makes one consider how deep the gulf really is between what we usually think we’re looking at, and what we’re really looking at. Her presentations of these manufactured landscapes are sometimes hilarious, sometimes melancholy, but always thrilling in their ability to prod the viewer’s imagination into unpredictable directions, which perhaps tell us more about ourselves than we’d like to know. It’s that rarest of achievements, a simple idea that provokes complex reactions.
I just typed three more paragraphs, explaining this concept in copious detail, but in salute to Laura’s work, I have deleted them so you can figure it out for yourself.
Steve Danziger for Open Letters Monthly: A friend of mine told me that I wasn’t ready to write about your work because I didn’t understand Yves Klein’s concept of The Void. What do I need to know about this concept before I can engage with you in a meaningful dialogue?
Laura Carton: Nothing, other than to tell your friend that he or she needs to lighten up by drinking some International Klein Blue cocktails. On a more serious note, my hope it that anyone can look at the work and be able to understand it. However, if a viewer is more versed in art historical concepts, there are certainly added layers of meaning that address some of those ideas.
OLM: Then I guess my most important question is, why did you take out the good parts?
LC: To torture my audience! Actually, it was because I became fascinated with the environments where these staged sex acts were taking place. In some cases they were very elaborate constructions, in others they were quite simple. I began to question how these settings were contributing to the construction of desire. I started working backwards and asked myself why weren’t fornicating bodies shot on white backgrounds? That certainly makes for a cheaper and easier production, but it’s rather boring and clinical for an audience. I began to see that these backgrounds communicated different experiences, appealed to a variety of different types of viewers and added a level of fantasy or implied narrative to the scene.
OLM: And what inspired you to take this idea further, into creating a whole body of work?
LC: It was a confluence of several events that inspired this work. One, quite simply, was technology. I had just purchased a slide scanner (ouch – this dates me!) and an early version of PhotoShop and was randomly experimenting with the program. Around the same time, I happened to find a sheet of slides of provocative images of semi-naked men on the street outside of my apartment building. I decided to scan one of these images of a young boy in an apartment and started to explore various PhotoShop techniques. In the process, I started to redraw the apartment and discovered that the apartment mirrored my own. I realized that I had forensically reconstructed the intimate life of one of my neighbors!
By this time, the Internet had become the wild west of free porn – it was everywhere, and one couldn’t avoid it. So one day, I received an image in my email of a couple in a living room doing their thing on the couch, but all I noticed was the shelf above the couch. Two items sparked my interest. One was a model ’68 Corvette – I love classic cars. The other was the book, The Grapes of Wrath. I thought to myself, ‘What does The Grapes of Wrath have to do with porn? Was there anything mildly erotic in this book?’ It seemed so out of place and context to me. I had seen enough porn to realize that this was not an amateur image, but a highly produced one, and that these props were placed there for specific reasons. It really was this inquiry that prompted me to focus on the backgrounds of porn to understand the subtext of the images. After this, I was off to work, and haven’t looked at porn the same way again.
OLM: Nietzche said that, “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” Would it be accurate to say that your philosophy is that if you gaze long enough into the abyss, it will make you horny?
LC: It’s not my philosophy, but it sounds like it’s yours!
OLM: Actually, I found that the whole book makes for a complex viewing experience, especially if you’re prone to guilt. This is the first time I’ve ever felt sleazy looking at inner tubes.
LC: That’s the first time I’ve heard that one…I like it. What’s interesting about the work is that each viewer brings his or her own experience and interprets it according to very personal thoughts about sexuality/desire, and how they interpret it reveals more about themselves than it does anything else. When viewers realize that these images contained fornicating bodies, they are forced to re-read the work from that perspective. Automatically, their associations with the images change, they become more involved with the details, and they often question exactly what sexual acts were taking place there. The work becomes a screen onto which they project their own reactions and ideas and, possibly, their desires and fantasies. So, the work might be offensive to one person but humorous to another. I leave the interpretation open ended so viewers impart their own values, judgments, or critiques.
OLM: So what would you say to someone that finds your work is a kind of Rorschach Test of viewer perversity?
LC: Thank god for a vivid imagination!
OLM: Speaking of humor, it’s one of the most surprising aspects of the work, and one of my favorite qualities. In several of the pictures, there are weirdly anthropomorphic flourishes – insistently phallic shovels, mailbox lids hanging like panting tongues — as if any context for pornography, even absent participants, wills inanimate objects into arousal. This is deadpan humor of a very high order.
LC: Thanks — I’ll take that as a compliment of a very high order. I chose the images with two requirements in mind. The first was that I had the drawing skills to restore the backgrounds once the bodies were removed. The second was that the image had to be graphically/aesthetically strong enough to stand on its own, and while I wanted to show a variety of settings, I was most attracted to ones that had a sense of humor or are a bit quirky. Often it seems with some of the exaggerated imagery that the producers are even parodying themselves – as with the three old-fashioned mailboxes with panting tongues you mentioned, the miniature golf ball waiting to be putted for a hole in one, and the two twin beds pushed apart in the shape of a upside down “V”… At times, there is also a correlation between the titles (which are the websites from which I took the images) and the actual scenes that are quite funny – at least to me they are! I think the filmmakers are having a lot of fun, not only by adding these visual puns but also finding new and creative settings so no one gets bored. Lest we forget, sex is fun!
OLM: But fun being subjective, is there some sort of porn semiotics that I’m not aware of? For instance, why, if one enjoys watching ebony playas [sic] go at it, would a graveyard with Ed Wood production values be an optimal setting? Or why, if you were a fan of, say, jackstroker.com, would you want to see said activity take place in a skee ball parlor?
LC: Different strokes for different folks (pun intended)! I think the viewer brings his or her own associations to the various settings, to the objects in the room, and to the style of furniture placed there, etc. Of course, these objects service as signifiers. For example: fancy silverware and serving dishes on an antique wood period dining table, an old master painting, a gilded bed next to a marble fireplace – all connote wealth or a certain socio-economic status. A room that contains an American flag, a desk outfitted with a globe and books, set against a chalkboard wall with portraits of Washington and Lincoln denote a typical high school classroom, and by inference, fantasies about teen girls and boys. My feeling is that the producers placed various objects and created these environments specifically to appeal to and enhance various sexual desires, fantasies and fetishes. Some are more universal than others and some are certainly niche marketed, but what I’m most interested in is the viewer taking all of these elements — the settings, the titles, that feeling of ‘why skee ball, of all things?’ — and experiencing a shift in the general reading of the work. For example, upon first glance the photographs appear to be very banal images. However, on closer inspection, the titles of the pieces, the objects, and the negative spaces within the frame all offer clues that there might be something more to these images than meets the eye. So I shift the viewer’s focus to the sets, which are the real protagonists or subject matter of my work – they revealed more to me about class, race, desire and sexuality than did the so-called protagonists in all their naked glory.
OLM: And how have you contextualized the work to allow for all of these variables?
LC: I’ve decontextualized, recontextualized and mecontextualized the work!
OLM: Decontextualize it how, recontextualize it from what, and what is the LauraCartoncontextualization?
LC: I’m decontextualizing the images by removing them from their original context. After I perform my erasure and reconstruction, I have recontextualized them both in content and context, as I then present them in a public forum – the art museum, the gallery – for which they were not originally intended, therefore bringing a new audience to the new work. And, um, the mecontextualization was a bad attempt at being funny.
Laura Carton’s work has been exhibited at Kunstmuseene Bergen, Norway, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, the Queens Museum of Art, NY, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. She was awarded a residency at LegalArt Miami (2013), an LMCC SwingSpace Grant (2008), a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant (2007), a Creative Capital Foundation Grant (2006), and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Computer Arts (2001). “Stripped,” a monograph of her photographs, was published by Nazraeli Press in 2010. Her work is in public and private collections in the US and Europe. Born in Los Angeles, Carton received a B.A. in French Literature from UC Berkeley and attended the Whitney Independent Study Program in Studio Art (2001-2002). She lives and works in New York.
Steve Danziger is the managing editor of Fiction magazine. His story “A Life Better Than Brooklyn” will be published by The Brooklyner in May, and his review of Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp also appears in this month’s issue of Open Letters Monthly.