Artist Maya Gurantz on textual pornography and her installation The Whore's Dialogue

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In Maya Gurantz's latest piece, The Whore's Dialogue, she presents a collection of stories about women -- but she also offers commentary on the role of women in the history of the pornographic tale in a very upfront and captivating way.

Gurantz will be leading a discussion on the exploration of how women acquire and transmit sexual knowledge at Thursday's closing installment of the Feminism & Co. series at MCA Denver. In advance of that event, Gurantz spoke to Westword about the in-depth research involved in her latest installation, and how 120 Days of Sodom as a text influenced the content in this multi-screen video piece.

See also: - Professor Melinda Barlow talks boobs in film and Jayne Mansfield's genius IQ - 100 Colorado Creatives: Feminism & Co. co-curator Elissa Auther - Artist Ellina Kevorkian on taking the academia out of art and growing up a Gilman Street punk

Westword: Can you talk about yourself as an artist and how you became connected with the Feminism & Co. series?

Maya Gurantz: I'm an artist in video and installation -- I spent the first ten years of making work as a director of experimental and movement-based theater. The transition into visual arts is a little recent -- It's been about four years. I was connected to Elissa (Auther) and Gillian (Silverman, co-curators of Feminism & Co.) through Nicky Beer, who is a professor of poetry at UC Denver -- she's done a couple of Mixed Taste talks, and she told Elissa about the piece (The Whore's Dialogue) and she was interested.

I was visiting Nicky in Denver and I just met with her (Elissa) and had coffee and that was it -- it was a very sideways thing. But I really admired the MCA Denver's programming from a distance for a long time -- they do such exciting programming. I'm excited to show here.

The Whore's Dialogue, the piece you'll be presenting at Thursday's Feminism & Co. and that will be showing at the MCA Denver through June, was informed by Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. Can you briefly describe that particular text?

That text -- basically, the plot is four corrupt nobles staged a horrifying orgy. They take a bunch of their wives and boy and girl virgins into a castle, along with these four older women, old madams, as storytellers -- to sort of keep the excitement up. He (de Sade) wrote it in the Bastille, and what is interesting is that for him, pornography was almost a political act, in two directions: de Sade was anti-Royalist, and so at some point he was put into the Bastille by the nobility.

In that respect, writing porn about nobles was a way of undermining them. The nobility said, we have been granted this by God; we have access to a non-physical body. At the time, the king was supposed to be an agent of God -- so when you write porn about them, you reduce them to a body.

In another way, it's not like he (de Sade) was part of the republic or a democrat; in this way, he was actually anti-republic. (Philosopher Jean-Jacques) Rousseau was all about the natural sort of goodness of man, and de Sade wrote these things where man is terrible. And the republic put him in jail. He didn't really fit in with either, in terms of what was going on politically at the time -- instead, he wrote these things that cut against both of them.

Continue reading for more from Maya Gurantz.

So, do the four madams in 120 Days of Sodom sort of create the story within the story?

They end up taking the focus and they are very much like these Shahrazad figures. Their narration of their own sex lives -- from the time they are six years old, literally, all of their stories begin with being abused by priests -- they tell the story. While that's happening, all of these terrible things are happening to the people who are brought there to be despoiled. They (the madams) sort of keep the erotic energy up by narrating their own biographies.

The thing about the piece, The Whore's Dialog, is that it is inspired by them -- but none of the text is from de Sade. It was that the de Sade inspired me to start researching things. That's when I found the whore's dialogue as kind of the dominant literary form of pornography from the late 1400s through the 1800s in Europe;it would always take the form of the older woman telling the younger woman how it's going to be.

To me, that said, clearly, that must have inspired these characters of the raconteuses in de Sade's work and inspired all of the first literary erotic novels like de Sade or Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) by John Cleland. They all take the form of a woman telling her story, and I think that must have been based on the fact that the whore's dialogue was sort of the main literary form of written pornography.

So, the 120 Days of Sodom was the basis for your exploration of the woman's narrative. What's interesting to me -- and maybe this is a naive assumption -- is I would guess that a madam would be a more of a caretaker than an observer?

Yes -- I went backwards and found what 120 Days itself had been based on. It's interesting because I feel like there is a lack of that role -- this idea of "mother wit" used to be much stronger. The incredible, intelligent source of knowledge that comes from being a woman and living a life. I don't see that often anymore.

I was thinking about actors in L.A. -- because I live in L.A. -- I was thinking there must be so many incredibly brilliant women actors who are invisible. But no one can do what they can do. A big part of this piece was providing a frame to elevate their virtuosity. Talking this porn out loud is difficult, but they (the actors in The Whore's Dialogue) do it effortlessly. As you'll see in the piece, it is so easy for them and it is because they have experience; no young actor could do what these women do.

Having these older women perform this text elevates them and makes them visible and that all kind of synthesized around all of this other research I was doing.

Continue reading for more from Maya Gurantz.

It is really powerful to watch the women in your piece speak these pornographic images. This idea of "textual porn" is so intellectualized and so different from what would be considered modern commercial pornography.

First of all, the text (I use) is completely mine, but at the time (of 120 Days of Sodom's penning) that was just porn. It's sort of like when burlesque artists do burlesque now, they try to elevate it into this art. It's like, no, when the burlesque artists were originally doing it, it was just stripping. That's it. It was the stripping of that era.

It's sort of the same with these whores' dialoguess -- that was what passed for porn. Of course, there's also visual porn throughout. (Pietro) Aretino, who wrote some of the first very famous whore's dialoguess in Italy, his first piece were called "the postures" -- (they were) these poems he wrote to go along with these totally pornographic etchings. The artist who made the etchings was put in jail and Aretino got him out of jail. He was actually a political satirist. His whore's dialogues sort of inspired a lot of what came after.

It's interesting how, on a basic human level, the way that visual pornography and textual pornography connect differently.

Absolutely. Or just reading the language and having the pictures be in your own head, you know?

The Whore's Dialogue is a video installation featuring several different women. Who are they?

They are just professional actors in Los Angeles. They are just really excellent actors -- they are actors on T.V. shows and movies. They are sort of recognizable in that way, but you don't know who they are. There are a lot of working actors like that in L.A. -- all of movie and T.V. industry is built on these incredibly talented people who are totally working. This is how they live and pay rent. But they aren't superstars.

As a viewer, I appreciate the sort of anonymity -- or rather, that the women aren't recognizable. I could see it detracting from it, if the viewer was trying to figure out who the actor was instead of just focusing on the piece itself.

At first I was thinking about trying to get more famous actors to do it, but I felt like that would actually get in the way or add another layer I didn't want the piece to be about. But these women are for real: working actors who have been honing their craft and being effortless with it. You really have to respect commercial actors; they come in and they are just so present and ready. They can just be there and be whatever you ask of them and that takes skill. That's a lot of years of work.

The Whore's Dialogue is an installation at the MCA that will be up through June. What will you be presenting in particular at this edition of Feminism & Co.?

My work tends to be an interrogation or an investigation; taking something really complicated and, well, there isn't a moral to this piece. (It's not) the moral of this piece is "pornography is bad." For me, I'm just really looking forward to having a conversation and seeing people's responses to it and answering questions for them and kind of getting into the many contradictory impulses in it.The link between pleasure, complicity and corrupt systems (happening) all at the same time.

I feel like that is something that all of my work is interested in: locating places where these contradictions perform themselves. Sometimes it can be a tricky conversation because it doesn't give you the answer. I don't even pretend to know the answer at all.

Doors for the final edition of Feminism & Co. open at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11, at the MCA, 1485 Delgany Street; the program begins at 6:30. Tickets are $17, $12 for members. For more information, visit www.mcadenver.org or call 303-298-7554.

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