For the majority, our comprehension of sex begins through the plethora of imagery filtered into society by the media, the porn industry and education. Whether directly or inadvertently, we come into contact with this image-heavy sexual landscape which, after decades of existence, is difficult to shatter and revisualise into something that acknowledges all bodies, identities and sexualities. While artists may not appear to be an obvious choice to tackle its unbalanced portrayal, artists, with their visual literacy, are able to facilitate new dialogues and decipher another, more collective understanding. The Bedfellows project is a platform forged from the personal, political and professional perspectives of three practitioners who are dismantling contorted sexual constructs to build an inclusive future.
Last month, artists Chloe Cooper, Phoebe Davies and Jenny Moore hauled 25 vacuum-packed duvets, stacks of books, zines, fetishist objects and an oblong table displaying feminist porn from their studios in London to AirSpace Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. This was the beginning of Bedfellows’ next venture, which, following a recent commission at Tate Exchange, was in search of a place to nest, incubate, reflect and grow with the material that they have been gathering for the last four years.
During their residency, the resourceful trio created an intimate haven from which members of the public could discuss sexual identity and sex education today. A public-facing Open Weekend enabled the artists to have frank conversations with local residents and organisations such as Galaxy – a group for people aged 13-18 who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or people questioning their sexuality or gender. Discussions were also shared with sexual health experts from The Piccadilly Project and support workers from Savana, who provide support for anyone who has experienced or is affected by any form of sexual violence.
The Gallery’s street-level window provided an ideal point of engagement where passersby stopped to notice the array of sexual paraphernalia that had replaced the more familiar aesthetics of a visual art gallery. Perplexed or intrigued, most pondered to consider whether these items were inviting or confrontational. Inside, visitors found Clubhouse – an open access research centre where white duvets offered a cosy shelter; a podcast provided the friendly voice of a radio talk show host as she recounted her ongoing journey with the concept of sexual consent; a monitor showing videos spanning topics of sex including disability and definitions of queer; and a brightly coloured bookshelf – adorned with a Humanifesto – summed up the project’s mission. So, what drives these artists to challenge the taboo perspectives that distort our associations with sex?
Phoebe Davies recalls the moment and sentiments that brought them together four years ago: “I remember we were all frustrated about recent experiences we’d had concerning pornography and sex education. These concerns felt urgent and we began having conversations in pubs, studios, over breakfast and dinner.”
Jenny Moore adds, “We were talking about porn: we’d all had experiences of having discussions with people about what porn was or wasn’t for.” She comments “And it was our shared experiences of being in the same place at the same time that helped us to grow a solidarity where we were confident to say ‘Yes, we’re frustrated by how we are allowed to enact our own politics as artists’.”
Sex, of course, is a central part of the project – as is making it accessible to multiple audiences beyond its stereotypical taboos. So, what does the word mean to the artists? A humorous response from Chloe Cooper kicks things off: “It’s a portal between my clitoris and politics!”
This frankness is key to the delivery of the project – here are three women who are prepared to speak out and discuss a range of sex-related topics. Moore tells me that “Sex is a prism in a room of mirrors, where someone can see behind themselves or another person without being aware of what they’re looking at. It’s a spacious landscape that the rules of my body can really explore.”
These two exuberant responses are complimented by Davies’ connection with sex as “complicated and something that is also very private. It’s dangerous when you don’t have the right tools to talk about it. Sex is also a release – it is similar to running, dancing or raving: spaces where you can let go.”
Much of Bedfellows’ research centres on feminist porn, sexual identity, desire and consent in order to stimulate conversations with young people in schools and members of the public.
“Feminist porn is a sex education topic that people aren’t addressing. Everyone we talk to agrees that we can look at porn to learn things. But it’s also a $97 billion dollar industry.” Moore’s awareness of its synchronic use and risk enables porn to be broken down into other topics: “It can be argued that mainstream porn is heterosexist – it shows only one type of sexual identity.”
The same could be said of sex education, which has become archaic in its exclusion of LGBTQ identities, as well as its bashfulness in discussing desire: “Porn is mixed with a lot of confused emotion about lust – it’s important to address the issue of how do we really know what we desire? How do you learn and express it? Desire is stuck in people’s bodies with no language.”
Consent is another topic that many individuals are apprehensive to speak about. “If you don’t give your consent people assume that you don’t have desires. And it’s important to ask, why did no-one tell me I was allowed to say no? Or how to say no, or how to decide that I knew we wanted to say no?”
Moore stresses the fact that mainstream material tends to provide examples of the extremes, with no alternatives. “That’s why we’re calling it a sex re-education project. It began with re-educating ourselves – beyond what the media, mainstream porn and schools teach us.” This search for alternative imagery opened up the artists’ perspectives on porn.
For Davies, “I didn’t necessarily start with a porn positive perspective. I saw mainstream porn as a dangerous tool for learning about relationships. Finding out about alternative imagery opened that up. And the desire thing is interesting – once you know what you want, then you can be more safe in figuring out how you want to do that.”
The question remains, what can Bedfellows bring to the conversation alongside sexual health experts? Cooper responds, “Meeting people who work within sexual health in Stoke-on-Trent has shown us the overwhelming generosity of those involved in the sector. We are not experts in this – we’re merely saying let’s talk about it. Our work is a sex re-education: it addresses the way that things are reduced to basic classifications such as you’re this and you like this, that’s ok, and you’re this and you like that, that’s not ok. We need to be more creative – something which I took from a Heart radio podcast called No.”
The artists’ modest admission that they are not experts leaves room for non-hierarchial learning, growth and communication. Moore is mindful of what, as artists, they can provide, “We’re not trained in public health; we’re trained in images, in making and in thinking. We can do the visualising, imagining and experimenting alongside sexual health professionals who are dealing with practical solutions for STIs, HIV, abortions and sexual assault.”
During their time at the gallery, the trio hosted an Open Weekend where they got to know professionals, the public and local support groups – some of whom told the artists “you should be proud of what you’re doing.” Their response to this was “But it’s nothing compared to what they’re doing.”
With an expression full of excitement, Moore highlights the synergy between art and sexual health, “That moment of coming together felt like art really matters! And sexual health matters, and the project matters. These two things give life to each other. To me, the best kind of art can exist in slower, smaller ways. It reminds me of the 1980s Artists Placement Group, where they were trying to boost art’s social value by placing artists in government departments, oil companies and transportation boards. This is the first project that I’ve worked on where we’re actually working in a field that is not ours. And yet, we are doing so successfully as artists; adding to a conversation that is not just art.”
Davies reflects on the fact that all three artists also have backgrounds in education. And there’s the added bonus of creativity: “We are performers, movers and writers, bringing skill sets that might not otherwise appear in traditional workshop settings. We can work with focus groups to make zines and prints, promoting different ways in which to access sex education.”
These alternative ways of learning which litter Clubhouse have enabled an equally wide ranging audience to engage with Bedfellows. The artists are also keen to point out that none of it is new – they are merely unearthing pre-existing material. “It’s about acknowledging the material” says Cooper, “All of the resources that are in the Gallery are out in the world – and all we’ve done is googled the hell out of it, spoken to lots of people, and tried to spend time bringing it together. We’re providing points for people to pull on.” The variety of different media and perspectives means that there is something for everyone, “if someone doesn’t like reading, they can watch a video or listen to a podcast. If someone wants to have a conversation, there’s space for that as well. It’s also important to have a multiplicity of voices – that also contradict each other.”
This is true in every sense. There are articles and videos on sex and disability; zines on rape and abuse; podcasts on consent and acceptance. “It would be ridiculous for the three of us to represent sex education alone” says Moore, “We’re three white women, all of a similar age, and if you think in a feminist porn context, our voices have been quite well heard. We benefit from feminism as it is right now. I question whether we can use this privilege to change the conversation.”
They’re keen to highlight the collaborative nature of their work, Davies stating “there were over 60 people in our credits list for an iteration of the Clubhouse at Tate Exchange.” Adding to their conversation and replenishing their confidence in the project is their encounter with Jo Bradley, Commissioner for Sexual Health in the area. “We’ve never been taken seriously by someone who works in public health before” says Moore. “Personally, I will take away a sense of solidarity against what seems to be a wider network of mainstream culture, patriarchy and capitalism. Meeting other people who are doing the same work but differently, is heartening.”
Sparked by their conversation with Bradley, Bedfellows is looking at how they can contribute to the sex education curriculum. “The bill for compulsory sexual and relationships education in schools from 2019 has recently been passed. But, we don’t know what they are actually going to teach.”
Cooper describes the potential in this vagueness: “We [Bedfellows] should ask people what should be taught – and we should tell the government what people want and need.”
The foundation of this collectively written curriculum is reflected in Bedfellows’ Humanifesto, as Cooper points out, “… something that includes all our bodies, our desires, our complexities, for it to be feminist and queer.” Moore adds that the curriculum should “make space for different types of bodies, and also to make space for those surviving sexual assault.” The list is constantly growing as Bedfellows collates responses from people of all ages during workshops and residencies. “The conversations we had with 14-16 year olds from Galaxy are an example of the intergenerational thing that we’re trying to do. Knowledge transfer comes from all sides [and generations]. It’s important to provide a place for people’s own versions.”
As artists, they are looking to be innovative, and develop more experiential ways in which the curriculum could be taught such as movement, sound and physicality. “The body learns things that the mind will only understand later. What if guided meditation could be used in sex education? What if writing – your own life story, own sex story, your own sexuality – was a part of sex education?” asks Moore.
Davies also points out that they lead discursive sessions called SEX TALK MTGs with a wide range of ages. “We want sex education to be a lifelong thing.” A major part of the project is setting up frameworks where adults and young people can interact with each other without having to be teachers or students or parents. “Could we create these scenarios – the SEX TALK MTGs where an 18 year old is having a conversation with a 40 year old? And how do you pay attention to all the details so that it’s not age specific or discriminatory? Earlier this year, we ran the same workshop with two generational groups at Tate Exchange. It worked a charm because both groups don’t know how to talk about sex” says Moore.
Bedfellows uses bodily, sexual imagery – photographic, filmic and drawn – to explore its subject. “I’m constantly referencing queer sexy ladies” laughs Davies, who clarifies that, whilst depictions of sexual body parts and activities are featured, the objectification of bodies, specifically those of women, is not on the agenda. “We are focusing on opening up conversations about both ‘male’ and ‘female’ body parts.”
Davies reflects on how important it is to acknowledge every part of women’s bodies, not just “tits and waist” or “the parts we find attractive,” as well as men’s bodies and intersex people’s bodies. “It’s important to acknowledge that there are other types of bodies and that it’s not a binary.” Cooper separates her imagery from art historical objectification through a clear comparison: “‘Female’ figures in art history are alone, a bit naked and looking out – they’re available for us. The people that I’ve drawn are having sex with people that they’ve chosen. They are not here for us.”
While Bedfellows is keen to differentiate itself from, as Moore puts it, “the nipped and tucked white vulvas on the Internet,” the artists are aware that they can’t erase these references. “The best thing you can do is agitate and complicate. The work is a fine line as it comes from frustration of objectification.”
Providing an alternative are the visual and literary aids of Clubhouse. “There’s a great video of two people with physical disabilities calling up careworkers and sexworkers to assist them in having sex called #gettingsome: Disabled and sexually active” Cooper reflects on a key resource. “It’s important because people don’t talk about sex and disability – or the different ways that we experience intimacy.”
Davies selects Make Your Own Relationship User Guide, a zine by Meg-John and Justin as one of her favourites. “It suggests different shapes and options on how you may choose to have relationships with sexual partners.” Moore angles towards John Barker’s Men Unlearning Rape from the 1990s. “It just blew my mind – where are these men? I’d never heard of a men’s group creating a space for other men to discuss what society tells them about sex.” Another of Moore’s favourites is the Scarleteen. “It’s an American sex education website with an amazing sexual inventory which talks about all the possible things that you could ever want to do. If someone had shown me this as a teenager my whole life would be different.”
Continuously learning and building on their archive through conversations and workshops, Bedfellows is focusing their efforts towards the realisation of a collective consultation document for the 2019 sex and relationships education curriculum. “I feel really inspired about being this other voice – getting all of these artists together who come to our research groups to contribute to a consultation document” says Moore.
With their next public event taking place at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool as part of Coming Out – an exhibition that marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales – the artists are looking to make waves in the sex education sector. Be on the lookout for Bedfellows’ creative activities that unmask a multitude of sexual identities, options and desires for a plethora of generations.
Bedfellows will be at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool on 28 September 2017.
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