Interview with Katrien Jacobs

Interview with Katrien Jacobs by Mirjam Tola


An interview with Katrien Jacobs about netporn and identity. By Miriam Tola aka Synner.

This interview focuses on Katrien Jacobs porn activism and research. A scholar, writer, artist and activist Jacobs is assistant professor in digital media at City University of Hong Kong.
She has lectured and published widely on digital media, art, performativity and censorship. She is author of Libi_doc: Journeys in the Performance of Sex Art, recently published by Maska Publications ( Jacobs was guest/curator for The Art and Politics of Netporn (September 30 October 1 2005 Amsterdam). To know more about her check
A different version of the interview has been pusblished by Alias, an Italian magazine distributed with “Il manifesto”.

MT: In presenting your book you decided to split yourself in two: hot Libidot and cold Dr. Jacobs, and to use a friendly and warm writing style. Why? Is that a trick to dissolve hierarchical academic roles?

KJ: Yes that is right! It has become clear to me that academia is invested in presenting porn or sex in a very pedantic way (eg anti-porn feminism) or as a cold knowledge apparatus. I wrote my book in the first person as a diary, without any higher theoretical pretensions, and invited other artists to share freely and personally as well. I felt like I needed to be more of a ‘warm’ and ‘funny’ personality to approach sex artists and write this book, otherwise I would miss the point of the experiment. But after my initial period of doing this project as the ‘nice female’, something else came along, which was my desire to cross-dress and make appearances exactly as a cold intellectual who chastises the nice female. I was very influenced by the other cross-dressers in my book and also realized that my anxieties towards academia have a lot to do with its restricted ways of defining gender and power roles. The dominants of academia used to be those crusty senior professors who ordered around their assistant and students like slaves; now we have the university as corporation with presidents and middle-managers, who are equally interested in retaining power. Academia is indeed still a very hierarchical place, as much as we may think of it as one of the last pillars of critical intellectual culture, the pressure on its employees to be compliant with institutional expectations, is enormous. With this book, I was looking to embody both the slave and master role of this situation, just as a way of thinking through my personal hurdles as well as the system at large.

MT: Internet is the ideal space for the marketing of desire. Florian Cramer and Stewart Home argue that “indie porn is the pornography of this decade. It pretends to be different from the industry, but works with the same business model. It is the research and development arm of the porn industry. An industry that otherwise would go because everyone freely shares its products on the Internet”. I’d like to know your opinion about the so called indie porn, its trends and gaps.

KJ: The questions for me would be, who really are these indie porn producers and can we please talk to them about their web experiences and business models? In my book I wrote about, a small Boston-based porn site that features “intelligent girls” (meaning: girls with cute designer glasses) and has encouraged tons of young women in Boston to become webcam models. As far as body image is concerned, though, the site is not spectacularly overthrowing as the nerds are all young, skinny and toned. Honestly, the site should feature women like myself (39 years chubby, pale, nerd, overworked) and then what would happen to its little industry? Or would it be possible for a porn network to merge out of sites that feature truly ordinary body types? But for me the most revolutionary aspect of such sites, and here I agree with Cramer and Home, is that sex workers have ways of helping define the very notion of industry and work-they can be imaginative and creative with technology and they can use technology to supportive each others aspirations. A much more popular site eg. works with messageboards where one can often find intimate comments between the sex workers as ‘peers.’ These comments are for me part of the netporn experience. For instance, you, Miriam, decide to show yourself on an ‘indieporn’ webcam run by some business operator and I, Katrien, look at your picture and write you:”Way to go, Miriam!” And the line between exhibitionism/voyeurism and the desire for social support becomes blurred here. So perhaps we do not always have to assume that the contract between sex workers and clients has to alienating.

MT: P2P porn is a very important concept in your book. Could you tell us more
about porn P2P ?

KJ: ‘P2p porn’ as a name was actually first launched by American journalists when the FBI initiated a major crackdown on popular p2p file-sharing platforms such as Morpheus and Kazaa. As we know, p2p porn was part of the massive alternative exchange economy on the net, but now is being targeted in many countries by special police units, hence there is no more space for developing sex radical zones. Peer-to-peer porn in our definition is a new phenomenon and implies attempts at public culture where people share and discuss porn images and ideologies beyond the geekie and mostly male-oriented porn sites and usenet groups. Lost of micro-porn-girls ad boys have been actively re-routing the (a)sex drives of Big Dickie, and now we are talking these energies into an embodied space and time.

MT: Are there net peepzones where indie porn, sex art and sex working overlap?

KJ: My book focuses on a group of international artists who make quite ‘radical’ or ‘crazy’ work and also know how to share and distribute their work across high and low art, from indie to ‘real’ commercial porn. Perhaps they ought to be considered to be the sacred sex workers of our art and academic institutions. This is a specific niche of people who are very open about their sexual knowledge and collaborate with willing art institution and/or porn industries to develop their specific bodily aesthetics, and work with audiences. I showcase them as models of ancient robust energy and also find their aesthetics and porn more compelling than a lot of work I see in galleries and museums today. But believe me, it is still hard for this work to get solicited by the ‘Art’ world, let alone ‘Academia’. Of course, I do believe that these artists should obtain at least equal access to grants and uncensored exhibition spaces, but meanwhile the tide is one of struggle. Besides these ‘libi-doc’ sex artists, I believe that there are hordes of media/digital artists who have had a side-interest in home-made porn for a long time but no channels to exhibit the work beyond the net or the art coop/collaborative circle. I would love to organize an exhibit in a public space that regularly features this work for instance, just to see what kind of emotions and statements they would produce in viewers within this altered porn-space. My guess this is the kind of porn-space that makes people talk, just like what happened during the Art and Politics of Netporn’ conference, specifically in the evening hours, when the line between ‘porn artists’ and ‘porn audiences’ became truly blurred. And perhaps this is the kind of ‘sex work’ that I like to explore, but not in isolation from actual sex workers, that is just a new challenge.

MT: In a recent interview Cuban American artist Coco Fusco said: “I was concerned that the early celebrations of free floating identity were problematically apolitical and escapist, and that they tacitly promoted the notion that one could somehow escape gross political and economic inequities and actual dynamics of oppression by joining a MUD or inventing an avatar”. In which ways the sex artist you met approach gender exploitation in sex industry and in daily life?

KJ: The artists in my book are out and open about their ‘awkward’ sexual appetites and desires, even though they use alter ego’s or artist names. Many anthropologists (e.g. Victor Turner) have written about identity transgression being more available to the dominant class and gender, but I see it going on in queer communities and subcultures that would have blown Victor’s mind (e.g. In this book, I worked with artists from different genders and cultural backgrounds who use ‘nicks’ to negotiate aspects of sexual desires or sex work that are otherwise not clear to them. This is very complicated issue actually, and I believe that this ‘escape’ is not some kind of carnival mask, but showing an act of ‘being possessed’ by an idea or entity (the ‘ghostie’ in my book) to investigate deeply ingrained cultural anxieties. Like for instance the UK artist Oreet Ashery, who cross-dresses and makes appearances as the orthodox Jewish male, Marcus Fisher. She wants to test out her ‘inner orthodox Jewish male’ by visiting public spaces, some of which are pure male domains. She is a performance artists and thus makes art with the material body, which produces a different type of release or public resonance than the work of queer or post-gender net personas. Once again, I think it is time for the sexual net to manifest itsself in a new kind of social space, not to leave the net behind (that would be too painful) but to see how we can have a meaningful porn encounter beyond jaded moral debate, or beyond the jaded swingers orgy.

MT: I’m particularly interested in intersections between art, activism and sex workers rights. Do some of the artists you met focus on this issue too?

In my chapter on Belgium I write about the Belgian reactions to he US artist and activist Annie Sprinkle, who for many years used her art works and performances to process her experiences as a sex worker, porn star and then also as alternative pornographer. She has set the tone for a lot of artists in the book, like Barbara de Genevieve, who is a US media artist and professor at the School of the Art Institute Chicago. She makes compelling queer porn websites and videos. Besides that, I have included interviews with sex activists in Japan and Taiwan. For instance, the very well known Taiwanese sex workers activist Josephine Ho explains that the legal status and political rights of sex workers in Taiwan is going down the drain, and how she herself was sued because her support network and indeed almost got fired from her job (even though she is a full professor). But Josephine Ho I is made of steel, and still she writes openly and bluntly about sex and organizes actions despite these difficulties. I just look at people like her as an example and then realize that I cannot change myself nor my obsession with sex. Like Josephine Ho, I enjoy watching and processing porn and sex acts. This is my animal instinct and is hard to change. I am a voyeur and exhibitionist and also try to respect the sex workers who experience net porn and cyber sex differently, because they need to make a living. But I would like to hear their voices rather than those of conservative bigots who want to “explain their problems
for them.”