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A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
Sex work and performance as virtual resistance: in conversation with Veil Machine
Tuesday, March 22, 2022 | Lena Chen

 

Digital still, E-Viction (2021), courtesy of Veil Machine.

 

 

My Zoom background depicted a Catholic confessional. Clad in a bra of dollar bills, I stood at the virtual pulpit, removing each dollar piece by piece, as a congregation of online audience members reported their sins via the chat window. Combining my experience as a stripper and my penchant for the unholy, this performance was one of several that made up E-Viction (2020), a “virtual arthouse/whore gallery” organized by New York City-based sex worker art collective Veil Machine. Produced through a grant from Eyebeam, the work took place entirely online through a platform mimicking the now-defunct personals section of Craigslist. Listings led audiences to art for sale, performer bios, and advocacy resources, while a chat window allowed people to interact with each other.

Designed to self-destruct 12 hours after opening, E-Viction vividly illustrated the impact of FOSTA-SESTA,1 bills passed by Congress in 2018 to supposedly thwart sex trafficking and which has instead made sex workers vulnerable to censorship and discrimination from social media and payment processing platforms alike. This digital gentrification process has led Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, and other websites to close down pages and accounts associated with the sale of sexual services, which has further isolated an already marginalized community and obliterated peer support networks where sex workers once shared resources and harm reduction strategies. Furthermore, increasing censorship of adult content has not only impacted sex worker communities, but artists as well. 

Merging virtual fantasy with real-world critique of FOSTA-SESTA’s impact, Veil Machine assembled a cast and crew of sex workers to create E-Viction, a temporal, imaginary space of free sexual expression. Taking place just months after the onset of COVID-19 brought the sex industry to a standstill, E-Viction gave a platform to a silenced community, while distributing funding during a financially precarious time. In the following interview, I spoke with Veil Machine about how this project emerged from their lived experiences and community organizing, and what lessons they have brought from the sex industry into their work in the art world.

 

 

Being a sex worker taught me how I could be an artist. I had always made art, but I felt that it was too intimate to be turned into an object that could be bought or sold or have some arbitrary value slapped on it. In art school, nobody will teach you how to do that. Sex work is like a school where they actually teach you how to put a price on your work.

 

 

Lena Chen: How did the formation of Veil Machine evolve from your friendships as sex industry colleagues?

Sybil Fury: Niko and I have been friends for a long time. We actually started doing sex work together. Two years before E-Viction, we hosted a show, Blood Money, with another curator, Caroline Caldwell.

Cléo Ouyang: The idea for Blood Money came up while we were working. There were sessions happening in the dungeon space, so we had to just roam 52nd Street in the middle of winter. At the time, I had recently shown in this gallery, and we noticed how there's so many correspondences between the art world and the sex work world.

SF: Yeah, you can feel very alienated and like something has been taken from you when people purchase your art. That negotiation can feel like selling a deep and personal part of you, and in the art world, that's supposed to be normal, but can actually feel quite painful. Then in sex work where it’s supposed to be painful, it can sometimes feel easier.

Empress Wu: We initially bonded, through mutual disdain over this dungeon that we all used to work for. 

SF: We had gotten fired and then Wu had started working there.

EW: I later got ghosted and fired too. It was a nightmare. There was a huge turnover rate, and everybody hated the guy who ran it. But I saw Sybil and Niko’s photos posted on the dungeon’s social media, and that’s how I found out about Blood Money.

SF: We met Wu at Blood Money and became friends through being in the same sex worker and art spaces. Originally, we were going to do a follow-up show to Blood Money. When COVID hit, we had to pivot and created the virtual concept for E-Viction. We developed Veil Machine as a collective that could hold this show and future work we do together.

Except for the developer, everyone on the crew was a sex worker we had worked with or someone we met through organizing. As for the performers, our open call circulated really widely, so we ended up getting amazing people we wouldn't have found otherwise, but who were just two or three friends away from us. Almost everyone on our team was a domme. Even if not professionally, they were kinky and a top. Someone pointed this out to me afterwards, and I was like, wow, that could have gone really badly.

LC: As the models, muses, and lovers of celebrated artists, sex workers have long been depicted in the art historical canon, yet have rarely been given the opportunity for self-representation or recognition as artists themselves. What was your relationship with the art world prior to doing this work? 

CO: My father was an artist. I have always drawn and painted. In college, I studied art and art history, but New York is very stratified when it comes to the art world. I didn’t feel confident about entering that world until I did sex work. Being a sex worker taught me how I could be an artist. I had always made art, but I felt that it was too intimate to be turned into an object that could be bought or sold or have some arbitrary value slapped on it. In art school, nobody will teach you how to do that. Sex work is like a school where they actually teach you how to put a price on your work.

EW: I developed a crush on my art history teacher when I was in high school and decided to pursue art history in college. For my undergrad thesis, I talked about the ways in which sex work and art are interrelated. Looking at artists like Andrea Frazier, Vito Acconci, and Marina Abramović, I was thinking about why it was okay for them to masturbate in a museum, but if I did it, I was called a whore. Even though I had been creating shows and doing performances since I was 20, it didn't feel like I was a capital A artist until E-Viction happened.

 

 

...we realized all the similarities between the experience of being evicted from public spaces of sex (like Times Square) and the experiences of being evicted online. We wanted to take that fear of being shut down into our own hands, dramatize it to turn it into art, and transform it into something that belonged to us.

 

 


Digital still, E-Viction (2021), courtesy of Veil Machine.

 

 

LC: E-Viction had a very poetic, transitory nature. You had to be there, or you missed it. I admired your willingness and commitment to destroy the entire website at the end of the show. It mimicked exactly the conditions under which sex workers are currently experiencing the Internet. How did that framework come into being?

SF: While organizing a rally for International Whores’ Day which was supposed to be in Times Square before COVID, we realized all the similarities between the experience of being evicted from public spaces of sex (like Times Square) and the experiences of being evicted online. We wanted to take that fear of being shut down into our own hands, dramatize it to turn it into art, and transform it into something that belonged to us. During COVID, this felt all the more urgent.

LC: I want to know more about the decision to mimic the aesthetics of Craigslist through the online listings, the Facebook Messenger-like chat window, the pop-up ads, and user experience of the project.

EW: When we were brainstorming what we wanted it to look like, I thought about Backpage and all those shitty HTML sites that feel like they might fuck up your computer, but you're willing to go there because you want that content. It had the feel of the early 2000s, before FOSTA-SESTA, when the Internet still seemed like a wild frontier, without any boundaries and restrictions—a time when you could literally put anything online and there's a certain anonymity to it, but you were also afraid because there was a sense of not knowing what the Internet could do, and how long it would hold on to things. 

LC: How did you go about thinking about compensation for the crew and performers?

SF: There's a real value in paying people for their labor. We agreed among ourselves that even if we didn’t meet the fundraising goal, we would make sure that everyone got paid the minimum that they were promised. It was really rewarding to know that if nothing else, sex workers we care about are making money.

EW: Our strategy included crowdsourcing and fundraising from clients and individual outreach. We each did that differently, but we all had a goal that was a certain amount. We guaranteed performers a base rate, plus whatever tips they made on top of that.

SF: A lot of our clients donated something. It was cool to see clients go to the show, see the performances, and form opinions on it. It was important that they be there.

CO: I had one client that was an artist who messaged me as E-Viction was about to happen. I fin-dommed the shit out of him and he covered over $2000 of our expenses. That felt really good, because it was so easy to fin-domme someone when you have something so amazing to show for it. At the end of E-Viction, he told me, “Mistress, I cried.”

 

 

Digital still, E-Viction (2021), courtesy of Veil Machine.

 

 

LC: With sex work, many of us assume personas as part of our work. Similarly, as artists, there's branding and presentation when it comes to how we present ourselves. How does performance specifically play into your artistic aims?

Veil Machine: The dynamic in a session can feel like an extremely transformative opening, because of the way the power relationship is structured around money, time, and desire. Using performance to make art about sex work seemed like the most obvious and effective format.

Our hope with Blood Money was that by doing performance and sex work in the space of the gallery, it wouldn't just be about viewers seeing a representation of sex work, but about putting them in a situation similar to our sessions with clients, so they could feel things and through those feelings, start empathizing or getting insight into what we experience as dommes. 

That’s how we hope to move people—by having them feel something in their bodies. On Twitter after the destruction of E-Viction, people were really feeling the sadness of that loss. Hopefully, those emotions can inspire action.

LC: E-Viction responded to a specific political situation, yet it is positioned as an artwork or experience rather than a form of direct advocacy. That said, you are also involved in community work. Do you consider your artistic practice to be a work of activism? Can you talk about how each informs the other?

VM: Veil Machine’s practice is animated by the contributions of sex working, queer, digital surveillance, incarcerated, and disability activists—and we’ve seen how our work contributes back to those movements. And you’re right that many of our members use art as part of their community work and activism.  

That said, while our art is political, we actually do not see it as activism. For us, there’s an important difference between the two. Activism has a clear objective that defines the approach, whereas art has a clear approach with many different impacts that can’t be prescribed ahead of time. If we limited ourselves to trying to achieve only one thing, we might miss the unexpected and unanticipated ways our work has been meaningful. For example, the goal of E-Viction was to create a virtual space where protest and sex worker gathering could be possible during COVID, but looking back one of the impacts we feel proudest of is creating a supportive and financially sustaining container for our sex worker crew and artists during a really hard time. 

LC: I’ve observed a much greater interest in sex work from the art world and media, as OnlyFans has entered the pop culture vernacular. How do you feel reception to your work has changed since you started working together? 

VM: First of all, we’ve only been a collective for about a year and a half. Even though the pandemic has felt like an eternity, it hasn’t actually been that long. On the one hand, OnlyFans has grown exponentially in popularity and notoriety since the start of the pandemic, which has led to increased interest in virtual sex work especially, and the sex workers’ rights movement has brought conversations around decriminalization into the mainstream. On the other hand, the staggering conditions faced by sex workers—including those E-Viction addressed—are the same. So we wouldn’t say reception to our work has changed. The message we’ve been getting from the start is that this is work that needs to be done. Maybe we’re just coming at this like pros who’ve been around long enough that we’re skeptical of the idea that every shift in the sex industry signals lasting change. 

 

 

The commercial art world will always go through everchanging cycles of acceptance and rejection, but that doesn’t feel so relevant to us. We’re more interested in creating the work we want to create, in creating our own world in which art and sex are the same.

 

 

LC: In what ways do you see the world of art and the world of sex converging? What can one learn from the other? What role might sex work play in the arts 10 years from now? 

VM: The two have never not been intertwined, but we’re not so concerned with the role of sex work in the art world. We’re not so concerned with being involved in the art world at all. The commercial art world will always go through everchanging cycles of acceptance and rejection, but that doesn’t feel so relevant to us. We’re more interested in creating the work we want to create, in creating our own world in which art and sex are the same.

LC: What’s in the future for Veil Machine? Can you share any details about upcoming projects?

VM: This is a period where all of us are going inward working with process, to eventually come back to creative collaboration more intentionally. There are so few spaces for sex working artists to make and share together, and we have the ability to create that.

We’re fascinated by the relationship of the whore to the institution and money as a force that mediates that relation. We have been thinking a lot about masks, ghosts, and mysteries. We are interested in teasing out the construction of a client. These are some ideas we hope to be exploring in the upcoming months and years!

LC: What would be your dream project to manifest?

VM: A museum gives us one million dollars a piece to make work. The contract itself is the work of art.

A well-funded sex worker artist residency one summer in a gorgeous estate. Sex workers paid well to have the freedom to share space with one another, roam, create, imagine. The residency culminates in a weekend-long show for other sex workers only, all expenses paid. 

A sex worker biennial where all the art is displayed in every strip club and dungeon in New York City, which we will have rented out—including covering potential lost income of workers. The venues full of sex workers crafting immersive, intimate experiences for everyone who attends.

LC: Drawing from your sex work experiences, what career advice can you offer to artists?

VM: Don’t isolate yourself from other workers. Learning from other artists—how they paint, where they fabricate, who they talk to, how they run their business, how they take care of themselves when business is slow, how you can take care of them—is going to help you survive. Community care is the only way out.

And always, always ask for more. Find the number that makes you uncomfortable, and ask for more than that.


1.  ​​Melissa Gira Grant, “The Real Story of the Bipartisan Anti–Sex Trafficking Bill That Failed Miserably on Its Own Terms,” The New Republic, June, 23, 2021.

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Lena Chen is a Pittsburgh-based Chinese American artist and writer exploring the impact of technology on gender, labor, and intimacy. 

Editorial support by Christina Hajjar.