"Orgasm as Art" in TORO magazine

This interview from 20 May 2008 between Cheryl Rondeau and Louise Bak is reprinted from www.toromagazine.com.

Louise Bak: Why a 100 serial portraits in Eclipse? Have you abstracted these images in any ways? What do you hope to convey in this series of portraits? Any sense of narrative in the impressions?

Cheryl Rondeau: Actually I could go on forever with this project. I decided on a hundred in order to have an end and to have enough portraits to create this feeling of repetition and destabilization. Through this repetition of so many women performing a similar gesture, as well as blowing them up and manipulating them digitally in the editing process, I am attempting to abstract this gesture, to denaturalize it, create a disconnect with its implied meaning. By focusing on a very specific micro-gesture and extracting it completely from its original context I am interested in showing its absurdity when devoid of content. In a sense I am taking to its extreme Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity where she describes repetition of certain behaviours and gestures as integral to the naturalization of sex and gender differences. My interest is in isolating these gestures and exposing their meanings as constructs. Actually Eclipse is the third video in a trilogy that isolates a number of gestures. The first one Blanc focuses on the toss of the female head as it turns toward the camera, and the second one, Les Petites Morts, isolates women in the act of screaming toward the camera.

LB: What do you think of the processes of people making mixtapes of their most effecting porn moments? How has this investigative process affected you? Altered your perception of pleasure?

CR: I think it is an interesting process to better understanding one’s own perception of pleasure. For me, I have actually questioned my own outward expression of ecstasy. How much of it is mimicked, or learned from watching porn, and how much of it is an authentic bodily response to those pangs of pleasure?

LB: In watching the porn material, did you notice any interesting shots of the male’s release facially? Like not just the money shot. Why do you think the camera cares to go there and not look equally at the way the male faces look?

CR: As I mentioned earlier the face is a substitute for visually representing ecstasy. Why go to a man’s face when his ejaculation provides such voluminously visual evidence.

LB: Porn seems to be everywhere, like ever-more available. The range of actions in it changes some times, as I’ve seen on the internet. Would you wish to see more male portraiture in commercial porn?

CR: I think it would be interesting to see how well received such porn would be if there was more focus on the portrait of ecstasy by both sexes. I would love to compare porn that is focused on the money shot and that which is focused on male portraiture as I think men in this type of porn would actually have to think about how their faces look in the throes of ecstasy. As you can imagine in porn the female actors are more concerned with their facial presence then their actual orgasm, since that is where the camera tends to be focused.

LB: In consuming porn, what would you wish to see, in terms of other bodily levels, that’s not really there?

CR: It might be fun to make my own porn. I could use this opportunity to focus the camera equally on male and female faces, and of course on the genitalia. This way I could better explore and examine how the actors respond (males in particular) and how such imagery would be received by the viewing audience.

LB: You’re also an active cyclist. You go on long expeditions, exploring art and spatial differences on the bike.

CR: My cycling projects like Art Ride or Cycles (web-based visual mapping projects) seem on the surface the antithetical opposite of projects like Eclipse. Yet at the core they share similar concerns. Embedded in its very origins: what gesture could be more endlessly repetitive than the pedaling of a bicycle; the lone figure of a woman on a bike is surely archetypal, a woman who may be fleeing, or equally, arriving. For me, these images offer a way out of the narrow perception of women offered up in popular culture.

LB: Have you thought of doing self-portraiture of your own erotic heights?

CR: Funny you should ask . . . I think that every art student goes through the sex phase – might be on film, tape, canvas or often a performance – something of a right of passage. I’m certainly no exception; I produced assorted self-portraits of my own erotic heights. I was studying photography and video at the time. Unfortunately I’m generally uncomfortable in front of the camera. I remember reviewing the footage and discovering it to be so flat and subtle. I suppose the way every-day sex actually looks. My homemade stuff just didn’t look right – no pitches and valleys, clever camera work or exaggerated panting and squealing. I remember lamenting that without the technical resources, staging and professional actors, it’s practically impossible to make the sex look real.

LB: Do you think the moment of female facial ecstasy is under-watched, compared to the other bits of porn? You obviously find it interesting, telling such moments?

CR: I don’t think those moments of female facial expressions in porn are under-watched or else the porn director would not think they were important enough to include them in the final product. I remember one female masturbation scene in particular, it was in a shower and she was using a vibrator. The camera was initially focused on her genitalia and her breasts yet these close up shots were interlaced with long shots of her face and upper body. As she became more excited the camera focused almost exclusively on her face to the point where all we saw when she reached orgasm was a close up of her face, eyes closed, teeth biting her lips and deep moans of pleasure.

LB: Having watched a lot of porn for this work, slowing it down, did you get a sense that there’s differences in the ways the female orgasm looks?

CR: Do you mean a difference in how female orgasm looks in relation to men, or in relation to other women? In relation to men I think there is an integral difference. A man’s orgasm is external; the evidence is oh, so obvious visually by his swollen member and the very demonstrative ejaculation. Why divert the camera to his face when he is at the point of ejaculating? In relation to other women I think there are subtle differences but ultimately since a woman’s moment of ecstasy is internal she needs to externalize her pleasure in order to provide something for the camera. Hence there is a certain iconic gesture that it seems all women mimic and it is this throwing back of the head. An interesting aside, having watched in slow motion the capturing of this moment in extreme close up the woman’s face disappears to expose her neck, throat protruding. These images have stuck with me as being incredibly phallic.

LB: Do you think they’re performing a certain model of what they think female sexual release should look like?

CR: To a certain degree yes . . . hell where did I learn to do that but through watching porn. As I mentioned there is an expectation, if only for the camera, that women need to outwardly express their moment of ecstasy. After all, the director needs something to work with and show the audience that women do enjoy and want whatever is being done to them. A part of the male pleasure is ‘knowing’ he is able to make the woman get off.

LB: I once talked to a guy who said he was frightened of the look on his girlfriends face when she came, when he saw it for the first time, out of the dark. Puzzling, I thought. How do you think porn influences the way women think they’re supposed to look and sound when they come?

CR: I think this fear comes from the fact that a woman’s ecstasy is internal and hence an intensely personal and inward moment of intense pleasure. In the case of this guy he may have felt excluded from her pleasure, removed from the experience. Her eyes closed, head pushed back, it is like she is far, far away communing with something, or someone, otherworldly as opposed to communing with him and his orgasm. I am reminded of Caravaggio’s painting of Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy. Caravaggio has painted her alone with a stream of light descending on her face, head rolled back and eyes half closed. This painting represents her communion with God. It portrays an ecstatic moment that fluctuates between mystical and carnal love, and where her lover’s presence is irrelevant.

LB: I’ve heard various talk about the elusive female “O” – some men boastful that they can tell that it happened. It’s interesting what portraiture of such moments can look like. Have you seen any differences in the way this moment looks in hardcore and the way it gets depicted in amateur, realcore?

CR: I think the difference is as much in the filming and editing of these moments as it is in the level of acting. Ultimately these two types of porn are made for very different reasons and thus what is captured, or what is focused on, is not the same. As for professional hardcore there is a crew of professionals, and the ultimate intent is to make a product for distribution and sale. With amateur porn, I sense more an interest in the exhibitionism of the “actors” as opposed to creating a finished product for an audience. I find the camera angles are different and there seems to be less close-ups in amateur porn so female ecstasy is portrayed somewhat differently, if at all.