Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure, a film by Dr Beth Stephens and Dr Annie Sprinkle which premiered at Documenta 14, defies any easy genre categorisation.
This film about H2O both charmed and surprised me. It is an artwork, a documentary, a sexy and outrageously fun (sometimes turbulent) love story and a valuable multi-layered chronicle of environmentalist activism. It incorporates a vibrant patchwork of film styles including: sweeping aerial landscape shots, experimental video art, animation and relaxed conversational interviews. These are threaded together by narration from the often aggrieved character of ‘their lover, the Earth’ (performed by Dr Sandy Stone, University of Texas). One of the engaging interviews is with the Distinguished Professor Donna Haraway during a visit in her garden.
Later in their Adventure, Stephens and Sprinkle (Annie’s feet clad with rather impractical shoes) are guided through the San Bernardino National Forest by Steve Loe, a retired U.S Forest Service biologist. Together, they battle through thorny bushes, on a steep dusty mountain side in the Strawberry Creek watershed, to witness for themselves the reckless and exploitative water extraction by the Nestlé corporation.
Through the duration of the film, Stephens and Sprinkle have embedded a trail of semiotic code that those ‘in the know’ will be amused to discover. To provoke and tease further curiosity, the film’s content warning declares that it contains “environmental destruction, explicit Ecosexuality and performance art”. In addition to focusing upon their own artwork, they generously platform the performances of several of their Ecosexual artist colleagues including: The Reverend Billy Talen, Dragon Fly (aka Justice Jester), Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Balitronica, Saul Garcia Lopez and Judy Dunaway. You might also spot a cameo appearance by Dr Laura Guy (Newcastle University).
For the initiated, Dr Annie Sprinkle (artist, sexologist, educator, researcher and activist) carries legendary clout from performance artworks and films that she produced in the 1980s & 90s, which includes a collaboration with renowned experimental composer Pauline Oliveros. Annie Sprinkle has shown her works at hundreds of festivals, museums and galleries such as the Guggenheim (NYC) and Glasgow’s Centre of Contemporary Art – during the Bad Girls Season (1994), which was curated by the trail-blazing Nicola White. The epic art, activism and education collaboration between Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens (interdisciplinary artist, researcher, activist and professor) began in 2002. Through their longterm partnership they founded the E.A.R.T.H. Lab (Environmental. Art. Research. Theory. Happenings.) based at the University of California Santa Cruz.
Throughout Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure, Stephens and Sprinkle gradually introduce the viewers to the E.A.R.T.H. Lab’s areas of research in which they are pioneers; ‘Sexecology‘ (which links sex and ecology) and ‘Ecosexuality’ (a previously undefined sexual orientation). In their words,
Ecosexuality [is] an expanded form of sexuality that imagines sex as an ecology that extends beyond the physical body. [… Furthermore] Ecosexuality shifts the metaphor ‘Earth as Mother’ to ‘Earth as Lover’ to create a more reciprocal and empathic relationship with the natural world.
In one film sequence, they ‘anoint’ the ‘E’ of ‘Ecosexual’ into the LGBTQIA ‘alphabet’ during a jubilant ceremony performance in the San Francisco Pride Parade. Although Stephens and Sprinkle live and work in California, they have performed marriage vows to their Earth “lover” in various places in North America and Europe. These exuberant and sincere wedding ceremonies have, on occasions, become socially engaged artworks because the artists have invited others to join them in taking these vows of love and commitment to the Earth. In this way, they have used performance art as a means of radically shifting perspective in order to re-invigorate interest in environmental protection and climate change.
Because California has been ravaged by drought, destructive flash floods and ever-worsening, catastrophic wild fires, Stephens and Sprinkle have seen, first hand, the devastating, unpredictable and extreme effects of climate change. Concerns for the Earth’s wellbeing, moved the filmmakers to take a tour of the watershed, ‘wet spot’, map of California, to learn more about their relationships with the waters of their beloved. They spent intimate time with the Pacific Ocean, immersed themselves in physical union with pristine Big Creek (Big Sur) and shared lamentation with lakes and parched wildlife. On their expedition, they discovered some upsetting truths about pollution and corporate water ‘mining’. Whereas, they were buoyed by the news of intervention methods which clean and recycle water in both domestic and agricultural sectors. Some of their stops included visits with water treatment plant workers, biologists and a party of elephant seals. There were also some sweet and tender moments when they dropped by to see Annie Sprinkle’s family. In this film, there seems to be a greater emphasis upon Annie Sprinkle’s life-long Ecosexual liaisons with water. But, they perhaps made this directorial choice because their first documentary collaboration, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story (2014), focuses upon the Earth’s Appalachian Mountain region, where Beth Stephens grew up.
Although Ecosexuality does not seem confined to the LGBTQIAE communities, and appears to extend through and beyond any (and all) sexual orientations and genders, it makes sense that Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle are pioneers in this pool. It is not only their own personal life histories that have led them to this place, but also the broader intermingling creative culture, communities and landscapes in which they have lived and loved. What comes to my mind, when listening to the recital of the Ecosexual Manifesto, is that these said “skinny dippers, sun worshipers and star gazers” (among others) populate the Radical Faerie Sanctuaries, the many Queer nude beaches, as well as the diligently sought out ‘secret’ swimming holes, deep in the forests. And those notorious Queercore punks in Olympia, who made a mud wrestling pit in their back garden (circa 1998), were possibly Ecosexuals too.
In some respects, there may be some cross pollination between Sexecology and Process-Relational Philosophy. However, Dr Sara Ahmed’s opening comments in her essay, Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology, may offer more immediate insights:
“If orientation is a matter of how we reside in space, then sexual orientation might also be a matter of residence, of how we inhabit spaces, and who or what we inhabit spaces with.”
But, for those who might be sceptical, it could be argued that the roots of Ecosexual representations are clearly present in Lesbian and Feminist experimental film & video such as Barbara Hammer’s groundbreaking 16mm film Dyketactics (1974) and Shani Mootoo’s video Her Sweetness Lingers (1994). In addition, the literary groundings may have been laid out in the writings of Mary Oliver and Rachel Carson.
Whether they are ‘marrying’ the Earth’s bodies of water in lavish performance ceremonies or playing with sexual innuendo, Stephens and Sprinkle use mischievous humour and absurdity as useful tools to allow respite from heaviness and to enhance audience engagement. Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure is a film in good company. In my opinion, it is among some of the most memorable and humorous screen-based Feminist performance art, a category in which I include Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno series (2008-2009). In a series that plausibly falls into Ecosexual territory, Rossellini has also demonstrated that absurd humour in performance art can be a remarkably effective tool for education.
Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure is aimed at, and has the potential to reach, a wide variety of publics. Even though there are ongoing intimate discussions, mild nudity and displays of Ecosexual affection throughout the duration of this ‘Adventure’, there is a surprising ambiance of innocence and a refreshing lack of cynicism. It will likely draw the interest of: Environmentalists, Artists, Art Academics, Intersectional Feminists, Wild Swimmers, members of the LGBTQIE communities, Geography students and perhaps Process-Relational thinkers. As a consequence, it would add much to programmes in: film societies, art galleries, museums and university class rooms. There may be some who will claim that this film does not delve down far enough into some of the topics that it covers. However, it could be seen as an access point to deeper discussions about climate change, pollution, the Anthropocene, settler colonialism, Indigenous Water Protectors, sexual orientations and socially engaged/activist art practice. And, perhaps it could be a primer for films such as This Changes Everything (2015) and Water on the Table (2010) which provide more in-depth analysis of multinational corporate control of water and the impacts of capitalism upon climate change.
But, there are some things that have been lingering in my mind. I have been reminiscing about what might constitute my own Ecosexual journey: Skinny dipping after sundown, our bodies tracing phosphorescent trails in the dark waters of English Bay. Night sky gazing, transfixed by the Perseid meteor shower, warm beach-sand at my back. And, scaling majestic snowy Seymour in the brilliant Spring sunshine, with a romantic Radical Faerie. For those who are feeling crushed by impending climate doom, I feel that there is something unusually hopeful and powerful that Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure offers the viewers. Near the end of the film, Katie Alderman (E.A.R.TH. Lab intern) attests that, for her, Ecosexuality is about “fighting the despair [of climate change] with joy”.
Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure had its New York premier at MoMA in February 2019. It is distributed by Juno Films.
Upcoming screenings include BFI Flare 2019 in London (March 23rd & 25th), where there will be Q & A with the directors.
15 March 2019 17.45 Link to Bad Girls Season updated.
17 March Nicola White is now trail-blazing