MoSEX’s Universe of Desire: When Porn Becomes Art

Lindsay Blair, 2013

Lindsay Blair, 2013 photograph by Alex McLaren

I very recently had the pleasure to visit The Museum of Sex (MoSEX) in New York City. Although I’ve heard about the museum before I really had little knowledge going in what to expect. Me and my girlfriend were originally attracted to the hilarious display window and the lure of Black Friday discounts on sex toys and figured once we were inside why not check out the exhibits? Both of us have long been sexually active, adventurous, and curious, (or in other words in takes little to shock us).

The first floor of the exhibit immediately sustained my interest. I began frantically making circles around the space trying to make sense of the dark room with projections, screens, textiles, and photographs. I had serendipitously walked into a room that had significant connections to my research and interests: porn and art. The exhibition, Universe of Desire, revolved around the theme of the  digital experience and modern sexuality. The theme of the exhibit is best articulated by the museum itself who claims that the collection enacts the new verbs of desire: type, swipe, search, upload, download, post, and stream. Intimacy is now at our fingertips as our fantasies can instantly be transmitted across great distances at great speed to a worldwide audience. Its these kinds of transmissions, from Facebook private messages to webcam cybersex, anonymous to extremely personal, collective and individual, nowhere and ubiquitous, we are in a new age of sexuality with more mediations and materializations than ever before.

Dare not speak it? Google it instead!

Dare not speak it? Google it instead! Photography by Alex McLaren

Mark Synder, Director of Exhibitions and Co-Curator of Universe of Desire  argues that “[as] human behavior becomes more clickable than physical, we can’t help but wonder what this means for our most basic, biological impulse: sex.” This kind of wonder inspired the exhibition and prompts a kind of research-creation engagement with the artefacts dispersed inside the gallery. We are left with a question: can we ever really examine what is  searched for on the internet and  find what was left behind?

This question made me think of Beatriz Da Costa’s “Reaching the Limit: When Art Becomes Science” and her characterization of an artist as a specific intellectual. The emergence of the artist as a specific intellectual emerged in the early 1990s as net art, robotic art, and interactive art became more common (367).  These artists were a new generation of students versatile in both technical and aesthetic aspects of digital media, were more interested in collaboration, and a huge respect in knowledge production. This generation of artists represent a move away from the Modernist utopian view of artist representing truth towards the contemporary celebration of contributors (Da Costa’s specific example is the Wikipedia Contributor). But their engagement in technology makes them dissenters in the pure aesthetic arts as well as irrefutably amateurish in the sciences. As ultimate outsiders in both fields, these artists specific in a particular knowledge or intellectualism as a means to make themselves better contributors.

Walking throughout Universe of Desire, each work reminded me of this cross section between technology, art, and sexology. A particular example that jumped out to me was the work of neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, authors of the best-selling book A Billion Wicked Thoughts. The two researchers provided much of the inspiration for “Universe of Desire” as they  gathered and coded 400 million internet searches, 55 million of which (or roughly 13 percent) proved to be searches for some kind of erotic content. The findings mined from analyzing the internet habits of tens of millions of people worldwide is scrolls across the entrance walls of Universe of Desire.

A projection of the research of anonymous porn searches by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam.

A projection of the research of anonymous porn searches by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam. Photography by Alex McLaren

Synder argues that these “anonymous searches bring to question our identity by revealing both the expected “kinks” and “squicks” (squirm-inducing kinks), as well as the broad categories of shared desire that account for 80 percent of internet searches, including “cheating partners”, “youth”, “mature” and various genitalia.” And when we enter the exhibit and are radically confronted with Ogas and Gaddam’s research we can make the connections and differentiations between ourselves and humanity. But without the curatorial legwork, artist reconstructions, and necessary research the particular project would not materialize in a productive and evocative presentation. We can finally see precisely what others are looking at on the internet.

Digital Diaries by  Natacha Merritt

Digital Diaries by Natacha Merritt. Photograph by Alex McLaren

Photographer Natacha Merritt, author of Digital Diaries, digitally documented herself for the last 14 years. She was one of the first photographers to capture erotic imagery in a digital medium and a selection of her work is exhibited for the first time in its chronology, “offering a visual timeline as example of photographic evolution, serving both as record and expression of our sexual desires through the last decade” (Synder). These photographs remind us of our relationship with self creation, sexual fantasy, mediated representations, and the artifice of the digital image.

Facebook conversation between Rep. Anthony Weiner and Blackjack Dealer Lisa Weiss

Facebook conversation between Rep. Anthony Weiner and Blackjack Dealer Lisa Weiss. Photography by Alex McLaren

Additional artwork and artifacts include selections from The Sex Diaries Project: What We’re Saying About What We’re Doing by Arianne Cohen,  a giant patchwork quilt of orgasms faces  by Laura McMillian + Kristin Reger, and a blown-up Facebook conversation between Rep. Anthony Weiner and Blackjack Dealer Lisa Weiss. These pieces of work and contributions were  provided by Dirty Pillowz, Jesse Edwards, Hiroshi Kumagai, Tony Moriello, Janos Stone, PornHub and Wasteland.

Universe of Desire is a visualization of the work of billions of users online. The result of of this manifestation is an imaginative space to reconsider the role of pornography in contemporary lives as well as tensions between art and pornography in today’s heavily mediated and sexually-saturated visual culture. In many ways, the exhibition just two floors above Universe of Desire called The Sex Lives of Animals provokes another final thought: we like our companion species are sexual by nature. That being said, there are many manifestations of human sexuality that require a mirror for us to see our own hypocrisies, complexities, and perversity because without that mirror we can only see the world through our personal screens.

The Sex Lives of Animals

The Sex Lives of Animals. Photography by Alex McLaren.

Works Cited

Beatriz DaCosta “Reaching the limit: When Art becomes Science” in Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism and Technoscience. Beatriz da Costa and Kavita Philip (eds.). pp. 365-382. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008.

Haraway, Donna “Sowing Worlds: A Seed Bag for Terraforming with Earth Others” in Margaret Grebowicz and Helen Merrick Beyond the Cyborg: Adventures with Donna Haraway. pp. 137-146. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013

FemTechNet Video Dialogue: Transformation (Catherine Lord, Donna Haraway about the legacy of Beatriz DaCosta

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