Christen Clifford reports from the New Museum and her close encounter with Karen Finley.
She was in the NEA 4. She was “the chocolate smeared woman.” She was one of the reasons I wanted to move to New York.
Conservatives called her work “filth,” but she was proof to me that there were sexy, uninhibited, wild, angry, beautiful women making performances, dances, plays and videos–and I wanted in. Fast forward 20 years, and I am a professor of performance art and a curator at Dixon Place and I could not resist the New Museum’s installation/performance Sext Me If You Can, an opportunity to sext with Karen Finley.
For $200 (paid online, in advance) I was given an appointment at the New Museum. I showed up late (Babysitter!) and was given a card with an order number and format, with a phone number written on the back. I was to text the number and wait for instructions. There was also a bright yellow handout of “Sexting Tips”, which I personally found hilarious, but also understood. “#5 Ease into it. Manwhore.com reminds men that you must ‘penetrate her mind before you penetrate her body.’” When I first started sexting I read online forums about how to do it, too.
But then, just as I was ready to start, I realized my phone battery was about to die, and having a bit experience with sexting, I knew I would need more juice. (Har.)
The curator, Travis Chamberlain, (who, full disclosure, I have met before, he’s a friend of a friend, but I don’t know him) kindly offered his phone.
“But I want to use my phone!” I whined.
He said, “You can delete them!”
So I took his as a back-up.
I received a coy text, “Meet me at the top of the stairs.” My “Sext Worker” led me downstairs and into a small private room with two guards outside the door. I later realized why- there were no locks on the door. I joked with guards that I would be thinking of them when I was inside. I mean, how uncomfortable for them to be sitting outside that room knowing what was going on in there? One of them smirked at me, but kindly. I think he felt sorry for me; that I would buy into this hoopla.
It was a small, white walled dressing room, with one chair and a mirror and a small sign with the shows title and another phone number. I was informed that I would have ten minutes in the room, and that if I went over they would “send someone”.
“How many sexts can I send?”
“As many as you can in ten minutes, and if you have trouble with reception, you can finish upstairs.”
I took my dress off and posed myself on the desk area in front of the mirror in my special underwear (earlier I had felt like I was getting ready for a date). I took some close up vagina and anus selfies, some kissy faces, some breast shots, as well as some artier ones of my strappy bra from behind, and of my arched back on the tabletop. The chair was in the background so, feeling naughty, I just kicked it over, knowing it would make a loud noise and the guards would wonder what I was doing in there. (#9 Set the scene for a good photo. Make sure you are the star by removing any distractions.)
Sending them was rather antiseptic however. Texting them into the ether as participation in an art project, not to a human that I genuinely knew and wanted to arouse, was, well, a little desolate. With time it became a sensual experience. My partner was out of town so I starting imagining forwarding these texts to create a triangle between me and the artist and my love; I was intrigued by the erotic space between Finley and me, she was just across the room, I have admired her for so long, was I trying to seduce her?
I started adding text to my photos, “Missing you.” “Hi Karen, this is for you. I’m thinking of your mouth on me.” “This is making me hot –you are across the room.”
I was the unrequited lover, of course, because Finley doesn’t sext back.
After I had texted “Done” to the number, I started sending my photos to myself from the generous curators phone. I copied and pasted the number, but one time forgot and just typed “Karen” out of habit. Because it was the curator’s phone, “Karen SEXT” came up― but also, “Karen Finley Cell.” I fantasized about sending some selfies to her personal number, about becoming her stalker and sending photos of my cervix until she finally paid attention to me!
But I digress.
A few minutes later, I stood near Ms. Finley herself, gorgeous in a coral paisley dress, no plastic surgery (thank god, and sad that I even have to comment on it, but I do), long auburn hair curling around her face. She sat at a table surrounded by art supplies on a platform in front of the wall of windows to the sidewalk.
Karen Finley was looking at my sext to her.
Karen Finley was looking at my sext to her, and she was painting a picture of me.
I was standing three feet away, photographing Karen Finley looking at my sext to her, and she was painting a picture of me.
The photographer from the New Museum was taking my photo, while I was photographing Karen Finley looking at my sext to her, and she was painting a picture of me.
I was deleting photos from the curator’s phone, while the photographer from the New Museum was taking my photo, while I was photographing Karen Finley looking at my sext to her, and she was painting a picture of me.
Crowds of people were outside, titillated and watching and taking pictures with their cell phones outside the window, I was deleting photos from the curator’s phone, while the photographer from the New Museum was taking my photo, while I was photographing Karen Finley looking at my sext to her, and she was painting a picture of me.
If part of the exhibition is about how removed we all are from our own sexualities and bodies, then there it was. I felt a billion times removed from my nakedness in that clandestine room downstairs, separated by screens upon screens.
After she was done with my portrait, she took a quick break, and I was there, like an eager puppy (or stalker, take your pick) saying, “Thank you, thank you.”
“Great session. I loved it.”
“Oh, I loved it,” I gushed.
“I can’t do all of the shots you sent,” her deep voice crashing through me. “I might go back and do more. Thank you.”
She was lovely and gracious. She went back to the table and I watched her swipe through her next batch of sexts. Her face went from shock to awe to “Aww sweet” in milliseconds, before she picked up her brush and started again, painting the genitalia and bodies of those of us who had subjected ourselves, willingly, to giving her images of our secrets.
And I thought how happy Finley looked, jamming out to the music, painting, dipping and swaying and in tune with her own body. I wanted the Sexters, myself included, to have that experience, of being in ourselves, feeling wholly a part of the world, useful and desired.
When I got home, I took out Lenora Champagne’s classic book of feminist performance texts, Out From Under, which Finley is featured in. I had carried it everywhere as a young wannabe in New York. It was a talisman. Remember, there was no Tumblr then. The phrase “slut shaming” didn’t exist, but slut shaming sure did. Karen Finley, Lenora Champagne, Robbie McCauley―in 1991, amidst the AIDS crisis, the William Kennedy Smith rape acquittal, the porn wars― these women reminded me that my fear and anger and rage and sex mattered.
I get to go pick up one of the watercolors she made of me at the end of the exhibit. It’s collectible feminist art about sex and money, but still, I wish she’d sext me back.
Christen Clifford is a writer, performer, curator and scholar. She teaches performance art at SUNY Purchase and is a curator at Dixon Place. Find her online at http://christenclifford.tumblr.com and on Twitter @cd_clifford