Universes in Universe / Columna de Arena / Nr. 52
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José Roca:
The Remains of the Real: Laura Carton's Absent Porn

One of the contemporary forms of public space is the Internet and it is no coincidence that pornography constitutes the vast majority of the visual content of the web, a form of space that has effectively inscribed the public into the realm of what always had been private. [1] The relative anonymity of web browsing (which was embraced in the beginning of the Internet as innocently as the supposed objectivity attributed to early photography) makes it the seemingly ideal vehicle to visit sites where acts that are considered to be outside of decency or even normality usually take place. [2]

The term "pornography" entered the English language in 1850 at the height of the Victorian era - a period commonly perceived as puritanical and prudish - through a translation of Karl Muller's Manual of the Archaeology of Art, where the term is used to refer to the pornographoi or "painters of whores." [3] Etymologically, pornography comes from the Greek word for "prostitute," whereas the latter comes from "to exhibit publicly," thus implying that any form of public exposure is "pornographic" at its core. [4]

During the Victorian era, artists were able to bypass censorship by framing the nude body through the filters of mythology or high art, "negotiating taboos by camouflaging forbidden acts in fancy dress," as Peter Schjeldahl has observed. [5] A similar foil would be used a century later by referring to an anthropological gaze that allowed one to portray "primitive" women nude in the pages of prestigious scientific publications such as National Geographic.

The definition of the concept of pornography roughly coincided with the invention of photography (which, although patented in 1839, did not become widely used until a decade later). The artist's field for agency appeared to subside; as the new technology was able to capture the "real" in an objective, direct manner, photography lent itself to being perceived as pornographic since any mediation from the artist - the space where the legal and social taboos could be negotiated - was apparently left out. Thus, photographs of nudity were deemed lewd or improper and relegated to the realm of the illicit. During that early period when nudity and sexually explicit material were banned from public display, parameters were drawn to define what was socially acceptable and what was obscene and thus not apt for public consumption. The task of the law was the construction of consensus (from "common sense"), its corollary to be able to single out the deviants. Predictably, the law was drafted to support and protect the social values of the ruling class, or more precisely, of wealthy white heterosexual males, thus leaving aside any consideration on whether this material might be offensive to individuals belonging to other social class, gender or race. As history has shown again and again, social categories, far from fixed, are constantly mutating in order to accommodate changes in society. Even today, although the definition of "pornography" remains more or less fixed, [6] its interpretations vary from one cultural context to another-i.e. what is permissible in Europe is censored in America, and images that are commonly used in Western countries for the purpose of advertising are suppressed in some Muslim countries where Fundamentalism deems them improper on religious grounds. Even in more or less “tolerant” societies like the United States', was it not for interpretations that have placed art in a state of exception, a vast number of artistic practices would fall in the realm of the illicit. This special status of exception attributed to art was the argument of the defense in the much-publicized case involving the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. [7]

The discussion of what constitutes a pornographic image is necessary when addressing the work of Laura Carton. Carton's photographs are hermetic at first glance, since they depict the most banal of settings: interior or exterior spaces devoid of any human presence. But this apparent banality is deceiving, since the photographs have a built-in uncanniness that elicits a close reading from the viewer. They also demand careful contextualization in order to be fully understood. In the case of Carton's work, such contextualization is often elaborated by virtue of an exhibition's theme. Urban Pornography, for example, addressed the ways in which pornography has pervaded the urban realm, while Second Glance presented works that, according to the curator, "play with initial perceptions [and] share a necessity for reexamination." [8] But even within these biased contexts, the work resists easy interpretation. It is usually the titles of the photographs which provide the absent text: www.smutlab.com and www.dirtydomains.com, for instance, send viewers back to attentively scan the images to try and find what has been overlooked on first approach: namely, that each one of the empty architectural or outdoor spaces, completely devoid of any human presence, had been the setting for an explicit sexual act. [9]

This second look that Carton's photographs demand is anything but neutral; it is always charged with curiosity, lust and morbid expectations: "You as the viewer rewrite the narrative - where were the bodies, what were they doing?" (…) "There's a bodily presence in their absence." [10] And the images do not disappoint this avid gaze. On the contrary, like a paid lover, they lend themselves to scrutiny, and what were originally perceived as photographs of nondescript spaces come about as uncanny, charged images imbued with an auratic presence.

Laura Carton's method is simple in concept but very complex when actually dealing with the images, and it is always extremely labor-intensive. She downloads images from porn sites on the Internet. Using Photoshop, she digitally removes the human figures, filling the blanks with textures culled from the immediate context (just one of the capabilities of this software) and something that can be tricky when the backgrounds are intricate or even relatively sparse. When the empty or negative space is too big, there is literally a wide field for interpretation: completing the image involves much more than merely extending the adjacent textures, demanding the re-creation of whole areas based on tidbits of visual information, extrapolation and assumptions. The final output is a digital color photograph that is produced by submitting a Photoshop file to a lab for conversion, exposing the photographic paper with a computer generated laser light source, and then developing it by conventional color processing methods.

The first thing that comes to mind when looking at these photographs is trying to discern if their oddity stems from the fact that the viewer knows what is happening (thus establishing a connection between what is seen and what is expected) or if the images are capable of conveying by themselves the operation that has taken place. When examined attentively, it becomes apparent that, however painstaking the erasure of every trace of human presence, something is nonetheless left there. The images are deceivingly banal at first glance, uncanny when scrutinized. Since the filling-in cannot account for the minute changes in the way light incises the surface of things, the eye might be fooled but overall perception is not, resulting in a visual deprivation, a sense that something is wrong with the image. The lack of "proper" indexicality in the part of the photographs that is filled-in is, I would contend, not seen but somehow felt. The auratic presence of the missing subject is to be recovered in the minute traces that might linger after the artist has performed her intensive work of erasure.

Another consequence of the removal of the figures is that the viewer's attention is shifted to the empty architectural spaces, and those complex mise en scenes -which were never conceived to be the subject- come out as precise, loaded constructions. As Carton has stated, the original impetus for this work came when surfing through pornographic sites on the web and finding her eye drawn not to the bodies but to two details in the background of one particular picture: a model Corvette and a copy of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. "I can understand the car, but I'd never seen any literary reference in porn before," she said. "It grabbed my eye. At that moment, I started saying, 'What does this have to do with desire?' I started looking at the details in a different way." [11]

There is a play between Carton's images and their titles, sometimes a direct correspondence, sometimes an unnerving distance. Whereas www.roughriders.com, www.manhole.com and www.teendreams.com show, respectively, a horse, a group of mailboxes with their lids wide open and a classroom, www.pinkchocolate.com depicts a desert dune where only two footprints alter the pristine surface of the sand, and www.truevoyeurs.com shows what would otherwise be the perfect image for a tourist postcard: a cliched view of the Dutch countryside, complete with a windmill and tulips. But, what are those titles suggesting, and what stories are those constructed sets telling? Pornography, as many other art forms, involves a narrative, but in most “mainstream” porn the plot is provided by the context, not the action itself (which tends to be fairly conventional –sexual intercourse in all of its variations)

This would explain the detournement and sly appropriation of titles from well-known movies to name the porn versions of them, suggesting specific narratives while offering the expected sexual acts for consumption [12]. In the case of the Internet, the logic of the market has also played a part in the foregrounding of the context: the proliferation of porn websites has made it necessary to provide a particularity that will allow a given site to stand out among many other similar ones, and the settings, props and graphic design of the webpages are conceived to appeal to precise viewers, and to entice them into entering the site. The range of tastes (I refuse to use the word "perversions") is as wide as there are individuals. And the relative ease of web publishing allows this huge industry to respond to most any desire - webmasters track the typed-in requests - and to cater accordingly. [13] This "cartography of desires" [14] maps out a wide and expanding territory, an episodic and disembodied conglomerate of sites and their dwellers, more often than not isolated bodies that substitute direct interaction for an experience with the interface in long and solitary onanistic cruises. Those lonely forays into cyberspace are anything but anonymous, as pornography stares back through surveillance: there is a double play of penetrations, private into public, public into private.

The question of where to situate an artistic image that uses the codes of or makes direct use of sources commonly deemed obscene or pornographic is a debate that has not lost its currency. But these discussions almost always deal with artworks where a discernible figure is present. For example, when making reference to Jeff Koons' Made in Heaven series (which depicts the artist and his then-wife, porn-star-turned-politician Cicciolina, in explicit sexual intercourse), critic Jim Lewis argued that Koons' works are "obscene, not prurient or pornographic, because an art work becomes prurient only when it ceases to be a representation of desire and instead becomes the impetus for it." [15] Laura Carton's cartography is devoid of any moral judgement, as she represents a space between the obscene and the pornographic that effectively bypasses those binding categories. In The Return of the Real, Hal Foster raises the question of "the possibility of an obscene representation, that is, of a representation without a scene that stages the object for a viewer." And he asks: "Might this be one difference between the obscene, where the object, without a scene, comes too close to the viewer, and the pornographic, where the object is staged for the viewer who is distanced enough to be its voyeur?" [16] Carton does not stage an object (the latter, although implied, is missing) nor show the object without a scene - indeed, she does precisely the opposite. Through their negation of the implied image, these photographs of staged spaces posit themselves at a site between those two categories. By obscuring the original subject, Laura Carton makes the eye focus on the cultural conditions that frame the (missing) action.



1.According to critic Rana Disgupta, “’Sex’ is the most frequent search term on the Internet and searchers can be gratified by an estimated 15 million pages of hot sex graciously provided by an industry that rakes in an estimated $1.1 billion dollars a year”. Disgupta, rana, “Sexworks/Networks: What People Get From Internet Porn?, 2002 (www.klimate.com/XXXpornXXX/).

2.Although by now most people are aware that web browsing is heavily tracked for several purposes (marketing, polling, control, law enforcement), it is still a more anonymous form of accessing porn than visiting a strip bar or peep show, renting a video or buying an X-rated magazine, all of which require a physical presence (even ordering a pay-per-view movie requires some kind of placedness, such as a billing address). Through pages such as anonimizer.com, it is possible to bypass tracking, and besides, most Internet tracking for "casual" uses of porn are devoid of the social stigma of being physically observed in possession of pornography.

3. Muller, Karl Otfried, 1797-1840. “Ancient art and its remains; or, A manual of the archaeology of art (London: A. Fullarton and co., 1850.) I am grateful to Colombian artist Carlos Salazar, an erudite in this theme, for pointing out this reference to me.

4. Prostitute: from the Latin Prostituere < pro-, before + statuere, to cause to stand, akin to stare. Webster's New World College Dictionary (Cleveland: IDG Books, 2000), p.1152.

5. Peter Schjeldahl, "Nothing On: Sex and the Victorians," in The New Yorker, (September 30, 2002), p.144. This is a review of Exposed: The Victorian Nude, an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

6. Pornography is defined as "Pictures, writing, or other material that is sexually explicit and intended to arouse sexual passion" in The American Heritage Dictionary (New York: Laurel, 1994), p.645 and "The presentation of sexually explicit behavior, as in a photograph, intended to arouse sexual excitement" in Webster's New College Dictionary (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1999), p. 860.

7. In the case against Dennis Barry and the Cincinnati Museum of Art for exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, the defense built a case around the formal qualities of the work. They succeeded in emphasizing their artistic quality (which distanced them from obscenity) instead of making a case for the right of the artist to address certain issues such as political or social concerns (pornography itself being one of such issues) through sexually explicit imagery. This, as Connie Samaras has argued, bypassed a more complex discussion where aesthetics are not part of the equation. "[T]he defense relied heavily on the argument that a masterful command of formalism and precluded Mapplethorpe’s images from being obscene. This tactic is understandable given that one of the three prongs of the governing Miller test for obscenity is whether or not the material in question has literary, artistic, political or scientific merit. It is also understandable given both that none of the jurors had ever stepped into a museum and that Mapplethorpe himself conceived his work in these sorts of terms. However, for many photographers and artists working to frame social issues like sexuality, aesthetics are a part, but not the sum, of their work. Arguments that emphasize formal issues to the exclusion of others relegate art primarily to the role of timeless visual entertainment, and preclude it from being a form of cultural elucidation." Connie Samaras, "Feminism, Photography, Censorship, and Sexually Transgressive Imagery: The Work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jacqueline Livingston, Sally Mann, and Catherine Opie," in The New York Law School Review Volume XXXVIII, Nos. 1-4, (1993), p.p. 75-82.

8. The exhibition Urban Pornography was curated by Lauri Firstenberg for Artists Space, New York, October 25 - December 1, 2001; Second Glance was curated by Sara Meltzer for APEX art Curatorial Project, New York, July 16 - 31, 2002.

9. Until recently, all works by Laura Carton were untitled; the medium was indicated as "digital c-print of erased figures from Internet porn." She now titles her photographs with the URL of the website in order to indicate the original context they have been taken from. In so doing, she makes explicit the relationship of her work to pornography, suggesting that one can trace the images back to their sources.

10. Napoli, Lisa. "All the Sex Has Been Edited Out. Or Has It?(New York: The New York Times, December 26, 2002).

11. Ibid.

12. I am referring to titles such as CinderFella, Boldfinger, Clockwork Orgy, Edward Penishands, Ejacula, Flesh Gordon, Great Sexpectations, An Officer & His Gentleman, A Tale of Two Titties, Saturday Night Beaver or Snow White Does the Seven Dwarves, among many more.

13. Most categories (those that refer to race, but also gender, age or specific tastes like bestiality, fist-fucking, necrophilia, etc.) were probably brought in from previous forms of porn like magazines or videos.
But several articles on the subject have stressed the fact that in order to stay in business "you have to find a specific niche," which would explain sites that specialize in interracial intercourse, "cum shots," "golden showers" and the like. Laura Carton considers, though, that the only form of pornography that is specific to the Internet is cyber-swinging, interactive virtual sex over the web (with the aid of webcams) - although one could also find the origins of this in phone-sex.

14. I borrow the expression from critic Sylvere Lotringer. When he was putting together the issue of Semiotext(e) on the theme "Polysexuality", he set out to identify every form of sexual identity he could think of. In Lotringer's words, "'Polysexuality' was an attempt to confuse the issue of sexual difference and identity by making any reference to a norm or a normality impossible. For this we created ad hoc categories - corporate sex, soft sex, liquid sex, etc. - that overlapped all moral or biological distinctions. We were taking Freud's assertion that libido has no gender literally." Sylvere Lotringer, "Representations ofViolence, Violence of Representations". Interviewed by Ruben Gallo in TRANS > arts.cultures.mediaNo 3/4, p. (New York: ) Also available online at www.echonyc.com/~trans/Telesymposia3/Telesymposia3introeng.html>.

15. Jim Lewis, "A Modest Proposal," in Jeff Koons, Ed. By Fronia M. Simpson, (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992), p. 26.

16. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996): 153 and 156. He uses the distinction when discussing abject art.


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Text and Columna de Arena: José Roca
Presentation in Internet: Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art, Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder