Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Masturbators


“After opening our library’s link to JSTOR, I searched for ‘masturbation AND art’. I came up empty-handed.”

PART 1

This morning I was surrounded by nine masturbating men. It’s not as strange as it sounds. It was at Foxy Productions gallery in Chelsea, the men were paid porn stars, and it was life-size projections that encircled me.

New Media Studies faculty member Shaka McGlotten joined me for the closing of Sterling Ruby’s The Masturbators. As we made our way through the space separately, I found myself wondering what opening night would have been like. For one thing, as a viewer passes by the projectors, the image becomes eclipsed, which means the visual experience could have been fractured dramatically. It would also be nearly impossible to hear the virtual circle jerk of audio—the circular arrangement of speakers emitting smacking noises, groans, grunts, and expressions of self-approval (then again, seeing a man give two thumbs up after ejaculating into his own mouth communicates self-approval just as effectively). One benefit of being there on opening night would have been escaping the sensation of being outnumbered, of being surrounded on all sides by pornographic performers.

Challenging the distinction between art and porn, turning the gallery visitor into an unwitting voyeur, and assuming the hybrid role of artist-capitalist by paying performers are all issues that have come up in my previous blog posts. So the question is, does the work bring something new to the discussion? Shaka argued that it could be seen as turning the gallery into a peep show, which he aptly saw as fitting for an area with an extensive history of public sex. I feel like the public private divide is actually the most intriguing element of the show. The recordings were taken in the artist’s studio, in a white cube that mimics the gallery space, disrupting the distinction between public and private. I have to say, I picture the gallery-going demographic as being more liberal than their non-gallery-going counterparts, which makes me curious about the impact this show would have if it were unavoidably public (say, as projections in storefronts).

PART 2

Before visiting the exhibition, I spent some time researching the place of masturbation and pornography in visual art. My intention was to situate the work in what I found, but I have decided instead to use the experience to explain research strategies.

Although it is tempting to begin every search on the Web, there are significant differences between academic sources and less regulated sources. You have to be aware of the kinds of sources you want to end up with. In this case, searching a database at your educational institution will turn up articles written by professionals but searching online would probably lead you to porn. Scholarly journals are more likely to use medical terms, whereas popular journals or lay press are more inclined to be crass. Always remember to select your search terms accordingly. Allow me to demonstrate.

After opening our library’s link to JSTOR, I searched for ‘masturbation AND art’. I came up empty-handed. ‘Masturbate AND art’? That’s the ticket: 16 results. Now that’s a great opportunity for truncation: a wildcard symbol, like * or ? accounts for variants in spelling at the end of a word—i.e., masturbation and masturbate. Truncation symbols vary from database to database. As to why ‘AND’ is recommended for databases when Google doesn’t require it, again, not all systems are alike.

In expanding my search to reflect the artist’s use of porn stars as subjects, I had a few options: I could search ‘masturbation AND art’ and do a separate search for ‘pornography AND art’. Alternatively, I could combine them: ‘masturbation AND pornography AND art’. However, the more detailed you are, the less results you’re likely to receive. I settled on the Boolean operator ‘OR’. Searching ‘masturbation OR pornography AND art’ would hypothetically bring up articles on art that address masturbation and articles on art that address pornography, but not necessarily both.

Half of the research battle is in articulating a topic. I had a feeling that visual art would have embraced masturbation well before society in general, so I was interested in learning the timeline of social acceptance. While it might seem logical for me to look at history databases, I wasn’t really looking for the history of masturbation per se. I am not actually interested in how our ancestors were passing their time. So really, this subtopic is the history of the perception of masturbation. In this case, databases that focus on psychology or sociology might be more suitable.

From there, I chose my search terms: soci? for the words ‘social', ‘societal’, and ‘society’; accept? for the words ‘acceptability’, ‘acceptance’, and ‘accept’ in combination with masturbat?. When my steps were repeated back to me, it excluded my ANDs, and I noticed that the search string looked vaguely like texting to my Generation X eyes: soci? accept? masturbat? Beyond considering synonyms, it’s also useful to brainstorm antonyms. For example, I could use ‘masturbat? AND stigma’. There’s no need for truncation with ‘stigma’, unless I have an interest in stigmata and masturbation. I don’t even want to envision the scenarios where those two concepts would intertwine.