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UNCENSORED Festival: A hot weekend of art, porn and activism

[Image: Lidia Ravviso, Artistic Director, UNCENSORED Festival 2019]

Lidia Ravviso is an Italian writer, director and producer extraordinaire. She's also the Artistic Director of UNCENSORED Festival, a three-day programme focusing on the crossover between art, pornography and activism. We all know the relationship between sex and culture runs deep, from the statues of Ancient Rome and the Kama Sutra right up to present day pop-culture, mainsteam entertainment and high-end arts. How does the relationship between culture and sex evolve? Arts Council England have done well to support UNCENSORED in curating a festival swollen with haut topics designed to stimulate both body and mind. Over the weekend, participants can attend workshops to uncover the art behind making their own erotic videos, debate how to achieve and maintain a long overdue 'culture of consent', and witness fetish cabaret at its most unique. One of the headlines of the festival is a screening of Erika Lust's film 'Female Pleasure Circle' which deals with the topic of group female masturbation. It is a story from Erika’s 'XConfessions', a site taking sexual confessions and/or fantasies from users and turning them into films – ethically made ones that are a world apart from more traditional male-centric pornography.

Festival-goers certainly have a treat in store. This isn’t your average London weekend but one that hopes to enlighten, inspire and provoke debate about traditionally 'taboo' topics. Run-Riot caught up with Lidia to chat about sex and feminism, pornography in the modern age and the goals UNCENSORED hopes to achieve.

Kerenza Evans: It’s exciting to see that UNCENSORED is encouraging dialogue and promoting and exploring sexuality instead of willfully denying its existence. Tell us a little more about what those who attend can expect to uncover.

Lidia Ravviso: UNCENSORED is a three-day interdisciplinary art festival at the intersection of art, pornography and activism bringing together more than 35 artists, sex practitioners and activists from the UK and abroad.

Expect an immersive all-day experience with an exciting programme consisting of performances, workshops, film events, talks, an exhibition, a roundtable and even a party. A space where we will celebrate freedom of expression through a dialogue among art, pornography and queer-feminist discourses and create a platform for collective reflection, exploration and enjoyment with an uncompromising critical approach to the politics of pleasure.

I'm particularly proud of the workshop line-up that I curated after attending several European festivals focusing on sex practices, for example the last edition of Xplore in Copenhagen. It's a novelty for London and it enriches our programme, differentiating it from the traditional ‘art festival’ format. The festival will take place in three different venues in Hackney Wick, one of my favourite districts of London. It is a hub for artists and creatives who are struggling to preserve this vibrant community against property speculation.

Kerenza: The world has come a long way in understanding, appreciating and celebrating women as active, sexual beings as opposed to passive objects of male desire. This said there remains an assumption that pornography is very much centered on the male viewer. How do you seek to change and challenge these expectations? How will UNCENSORED Festival tackle them?

Lidia: I would add that it is not only pornography that is predominantly male-oriented but also the institutions responsible for regulating adult content – such as the British Board of Film Classification -  who keep on de-legitimising female pleasure and sexuality in the name of what's acceptable to see on screen.

The festival was conceived almost one year ago as an attempt to rethink what is considered offensive and abusive with regard to sex and pornography. This was done in the context of the existing and forthcoming legislation regarding sexually explicit content in the UK. In 2014, Audiovisual Media Services Regulations banned certain consensual sexual acts from being depicted in online adult content produced in the UK - face-sitting and female ejaculation amongst them. The former was even classified as a life-threatening practice - obviously only for men!

The centrality of the (white) male gaze in pornography is problematic, not exclusively from a female or feminist perspective, but also in general society, both cultural and institutionalised. This, in turn, has led to exclusion and censorship of diversity and limitations in the depictions of different gazes and fantasies in sexuality and art (in this case, cinema).

Fortunately, there's a huge international scene of pornographers who are popping up all over the world and bringing to life multifaceted visions of desire and sexual identities whilst sharing the visual languages and purposes with traditional porn. These productions contaminate this monolithic, heteronormative, and often abusive approach to sex with other artistic and political perspectives.  

UNCENSORED wants to embrace these challenges by offering a multidisciplinary programme through which we can collectively explore and enjoy non-normative and powerful gazes in erotic art and pornography, inclusive of difference and - not to mention – hot!


[Photo credit: Vex, Blath and Kiff, courtesy of Four Chambers. Event details, 19 May. Vex Ashley, independent porn producer and performer, will present to UNCENSORED the platform 'Four Chambers' and talk on the sudden spate of suspensions she faced by the hosting crowdfunding site Patreon.]

Kerenza: And what would you say are the key differences between male and female-led pornography?

Lidia: They all stem from the overwhelming dominance of male directors and producers in the mainstream industry who steer the focus to male pleasure - that’s the key difference between movies directed by men and women. This is the reason why female pleasure is a political statement and of artistic urgency for female porn.  

Female-led pornography in its best moments (and we are not even mentioning here the many queer approaches to porn that sometimes completely reject every notion of binaries) shakes and subverts the codified representation of desires and bodies conveyed by the traditional male-oriented adult cinema which answers to specific demands and imaginaries produced by our white patriarchal societies.  

Most of the female-led pornography seems less tied to the rules and clichés of the industry, and more willing to exercise its right to freedom of expression. 

The question is if all the female-led porn embraces feminist discourses – and how. Madison Young (pornographic actress, director, founder of Femina Potens Art Gallery) sums it up well: ''Feminist porn takes a cultural form that has historically been seen as the purview of men. It reworks sexual images and conventions to explore new and more diverse kinds of desires." Can we say that all the female-led pornography shares the same approach? It's hard to tell. 

Once I met Rocco Siffredi and I was impressed by the comment he made after watching my first movie, Insight. I was then part of 'Girls of Porn', a Rome-based collective of female directors working on porn and sexuality, and he had invited us in an episode of his show 'Casa Siffredi'. He first took the piss out of me, asking me if I had done drugs before filming it, but then he admitted that he envied the freedom we had to film what we really wanted to say and show it to the viewers. Being involved in traditional male porn as producer and performer, he couldn't do the same.  

I see more space for natural bodies, diversity, storylines, cinematic languages and different points of view on sex in contemporary cinema that is now more free to express itself.  

Kerenza: A lot of pornography made is legal, consensual and respectful. Unfortunately, on the flipside, much of it is exploitative and dehumanising and there can be a murky crossover between the two. Someone can technically give consent but under the influence of drugs or financial pressure, how can you tell what is truly 'free choice'? What measures are in place to make sure that there is a safe and respectful environment for those involved in these films?

Lidia: It's very hard to understand the context in which a movie has been filmed or the conditions that the performers have worked in - especially nowadays when pornography is largely consumed in dribs and drabs on free sites. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get information about the productions conditions and the margin of choice of the cast. The actors and actresses working in the mainstream porn industry face multiple pressures: they are exposed to some of the risks related to any form of sex working and at the same time they also deal with the harsh demands that characterise the fashion and the showbiz industry (we know that models, especially women, are often pressured to jeopardise their health and safety as a prerequisite for their ‘career’.)

Perhaps we might rethink our consumption of pornography in a more 'ethical' way, demanding and obtaining more information about the companies producing the porn we want to watch and making choices that reflect our stances. As a director and producer, I embrace what we call 'ethical porn'. For me, ‘ethical’ is more about the process behind the creation of a movie than a matter of content. I make sure that the performers can work in a safe and respectful environment taking all the precautions to preserve their sexual health, such as getting them tested and discussing the use of condoms. I also provoke regular conversations with them about boundaries, filming conditions, roles/characters, etc. 


[Photo credit: Marnie Scarlet by Al Veryyard. Event details, 18 May. Marnie Scarlet will bring to UNCENSORED her fetish cabaret-genderfuck performance Total Banker exploring the relationship between masculinity, today’s economy and the nature of finance capitalism.]

Kerenza: The #metoo movement has allowed women to speak out in areas where they were previously silenced. Have you noticed an upsurge in women wanting to assert their rights and value in the erotic film industry as well?

Lidia: Speaking out about abuse and sexual harassment in porn is even more difficult due to the pernicious idea that sex workers are by definition “unrapeable”. The stigma that many women have to bear, which is even more prevalent in porn, is the reason why so few come forward about sexual assault. 

In November 2015, the pornstar Stoya shook up the world of porn by accusing the actor James Deen of rape. After that, multiple performers came forward with allegations of his sexual misconduct. It's funny to think that the boy-next-door Deen had been regarded by some female audiences as a ‘feminist’ male porn star, while he personally insisted that he was not a feminist at all. Deen’s career crumbled soon after these allegations, and some leading studios cut ties with him, even if recently he came back to work.

Many porn critics used the story as evidence of what's wrong with porn. However, I think that the value of Stoya's action has been the creation of a dialogue within the industry which astutely points out that rape culture permeates the whole of society and women are sexually assaulted everywhere.

Kerenza: You've directed two films from ‘XConfessions’ after a career in more traditional film-making. What made you want to take the leap into exploring eroticism and pornography as an art form?

Lidia: Sexually explicit art has always existed and has constantly faced censorship. This battle has always fascinated me and, paired with a passion for unapologetic cinema that is often politically controversial, it triggered my interest for pornography.

This mouthy 'obscenity' exposed by pornography in the search of the truth, and even for the sole purpose of the viewer's arousal, made me sink into 'the sweat and skin' of the genre.

As a huge fan of the 80s Italian erotic cinema, my teen imagination has been massively inspired by movies led by a male gaze (i.e. Tinto Brass cinematography), that brought an undeniable artistic value in terms of narrative, atmospheres and cinematography. Unfortunately, these films also had a deplorable portrayal of certain female characters when seen through a feminist lens.

I gradually approached more extreme visual gazes to sexually explicit content. When I was studying cinema at university, I discovered directors like Nick Zedd and the early Richard Kern, along with the other protagonists of the Cinema of Transgression, which became the subject of the final thesis for my degree. In the following years, I consumed a lot of traditional porn and researched the European and American so-called Golden Age, to eventually meet the post-porn scene when I got involved in feminist and queer political collectives in Rome. At that time, I discovered the performative work of porn activists such as Diana Pornoterrorista and the short film collection 'Dirty Diaries', the work-manifesto produced by the director Mia Engberg in 2009.

Point 7 of the manifesto reads: ''Censorship cannot liberate sexuality. It is impossible to change the image of women's sexuality if sexual images in themselves are taboo. Don't attack women for displaying sex. Attack sexism for trying to control our sexuality''.

Alongside my work as a director, writer and video editor in more traditional fields of the visual entertainment, I decided to start to make porn - but in my own way. I felt that I had found my ground of expression.

After a few years, I took part in 'Girls of Porn', which has produced two porn short-films and many events focused on female adult cinema, and in 2015 I directed Insight, co-written with the porn activist, writer and performer Slavina (who is also the movie's protagonist), now distributed by Erika Lust Cinema.

Then I started my work as a guest director with Erika for Xconfessions, for which I directed two short films, one shot in London, where I live, and the last one in Rome. I love the idea behind the project, which is to give space to people's fantasies and bring them on screen. I‘ve spent hours reading the confessions that are constantly being uploaded on the website from all over the world. Sexuality is so diverse!

I'm grateful to this collaboration with Lust Productions as I can bring to life my projects making movies in an ethical way. This means that performers and crew members are fairly paid and can work in a safe and joyful environment.

[Photo credit: Bishop Black by Yuliang-Liu. Event details, 18 May. Bishop Black will co-present with Lina Bembe the talk 'Porn and sex education. Why it is so hard to tell the difference?' regarding 'Sex School', the Berlin-based platform of explicit sex education films.]

Kerenza: You're usually behind the camera but if you were to submit a confession on Erika's site, what sort of scenario would you like to see play out?

Lidia: I have to admit that I have already submitted a few stories to Xconfessions as I love to write and I always work on the screenplays of my movies. Each story plays out different scenarios, characters and atmospheres and every project is different. However, I've always been inspired by stories grounded in crude reality, portraying daily life situations, with a strong cinematic aesthetic and narrative behind them.

Kerenza: UNCENSORED Festival is timely as April (at the time of writing) marks the month where the government will request age verification details for those wishing to view online pornography. While the intention is to prevent under 18s from being exposed to harmful material, there are other concerns. This is an internet savvy generation and it will not be hard to find away around these restrictions. Additionally, I wouldn't trust the current government to locate itself on a map let alone be in charge of thousands of people's personal and extremely private data. Do you envisage problems for the industry as a result of this new legislation?

Lidia: UNCENSORED is timely indeed. In addition to this, in January the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines defining ‘obscene’ pornography were significantly relaxed. Regarding the request for age verification, I find this to be a horrible idea in general. But talking about the industry, I believe that we should always specify which ‘industry’ we are referring to. With regard to the companies that distribute mainstream porn, MindGeek, the company who monopolises the online porn behind Pornhub, YouPorn, and Redtube (to name a few), is currently developing AgeID, a product through which this ridiculous idea of age verification can be implemented. So no, this industry won’t be affected. The others, significantly smaller, porn industries - call them ethical, feminist, queer - yes, they will probably be affected. It remains to be seen how exactly.

Does the government really believe that it will be so difficult to bypass it and access online porn? I assume that most teenagers will find a way to do it in less than 15-minutes. Remember that this will be a UK legislation so you can just experiment with your VPN and pretend you are based in another country. It is very hypocritical; we’re talking about the most tech-savvy generation that ever existed. Also, the thought of any company gathering information about people’s tastes in porn, along with their real names and ID (and potentially credit card details!) sounds dystopic for reasons we can all imagine. Let’s just remember the Ashley Madison data scandal.

Above all though, I have another concern. This is a typical case of state control and suppression, with all their implications. Every time the state ‘bans’ something – from drugs, to sex working, to porn - more sinister methods of access will develop. Teenagers (and adults) won’t stop accessing online porn. But it’s interesting what the reasoning behind this legislation reveals: why is porn considered ‘harmful material’ for teenagers?

Kerenza: What age do you think people should be restricted from viewing online pornography? Can artistic porn be educational as well as thrilling or is there a danger that learning from a screen can inhibit the exploration and natural discovery of the real thing?

Lidia: I think that to censor pornography, or restrict the access to it, is not the way forward. We cannot stop this content being made and spread in the society we live in – it will just become illegal, which won’t stop it from being watched. I believed in the idea that porn could be a sex educational tool, but I have to admit that I reconsidered my positions reading Stoya's book 'Philosophy, Pussycats and Porn' that offers a very thoughtful reflection on this subject.

If we consider porn to be a genre for adult entertainment then we pretty much lack a definition of what is ‘ethical’ or even what 'good pornography' is. This is precisely the reason why it doesn’t share the same intentions with sex education at all.

Pornography can't dictate sexual practice or replace the often non-existent sex education system operating at school or in the family. It also can't provide the tools to understand the intimacy and the empathy of sex in real life.

The feminist scene deals with a specific type of audience and takes porn beyond sexist content. Producers, pornographers and performances belonging to traditional, male-oriented porn can and should take action to minimise the potentially harmful effects of the depiction of sex in their work, particularly when it does not appear to be consensual. The latter can have a severely dangerous impact, particularly on a younger audience.  

Pornography is a performance and if put in a proper context, viewers can see it for what it is. As Stoya suggests and puts into action in her project ZeroSpaces it's possible to do that by providing the consumers with interviews, behind the scenes footage, and articles where directors and performers can be seen talking about their work, how they negotiate boundaries in a sex scene - this way we learn more about their choices.  

Most of the time it’s difficult, if not impossible, to access this type of information and context, as it is stripped out when a movie or a scene is uploaded on free sites. The young viewers don't pay for porn, don't subscribe to channels and platforms, and mainly consume random and free porn online. This is why I am reluctant to any form of censorship and restriction of adult content and I think that some of the dangerous consequences that come with the consumption of porn seem to be inseparable from the way it's distributed.

[Photo credit: Lina Bembe by Karyn Hunt. Event details, 18 May. Lina Bembe will co-present with Bishop Black the talk 'Porn and sex education. Why it is so hard to tell the difference?' regarding 'Sex School', the Berlin-based platform of explicit sex education films.]

Kerenza: In addition to talks and discussions, UNCENSORED Festival will involve screenings of pornographic films and eroticism throughout the weekend. How do people usually react to watching such films in such a public environment?

Lidia: This is an occasion for the festival goers to explore the relationship between visual arts and sexuality.
I have attended many film festivals and screenings programming porn and I can say that the viewers' reactions have always been very positive, especially those audiences that are not familiar with pornography. This shows that there is a big interest for movies produced in different contexts from traditional porn.  

Our screenings at UNCENSORED aim to offer a varied programme, including titles that celebrate the golden age of the industry, thanks to the collaboration with the Erotic Film Society. We will also present premieres of contemporary directors expressing different approaches to porn and new works selected through an international open call. They will be accompanied by a strong line up of talks, performances, and workshops based on bodywork, to experience a safe sex-positive space. Our key goal is to reinforce human bonds and promote a culture of consent.

Kerenza: The Festival must be taking up huge amounts of your time at the moment. What can we expect to see from you once it's wrapped up?

Lidia: I‘ve written two screenplays for porn movies that I hope to make after the summer and that will probably take me back to Italy for a while. I then plan on returning to London, of course. And after a much-needed break, who knows, we might even begin preparing for the second edition of the festival.
lidiaravviso.net
 

UNCENSORED festival takes place from 17–19 May at venues across Hackney Wick. You can find out more information and book tickets here.  

UNCENSORED Information

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