BD Owens reviews ‘Assuming the Ecosexual Position’ by Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle

Photo credit Julian Cash and Design Credit Sandra Friesen

Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle have taught us all more about ecosexuality than perhaps any other artists. Their new book Assuming the Ecosexual Position: The Earth As Lover, reviewed by BD Owens, opens up their development of this practice in new, joyful ways. BD’s review of their film Water Makes Us Wet has been very widely read and reposted, so we asked him to give us the low down on this important new publication. He also highlights Beth and Annie’s installation as part of the NEoN Festival in collaboration with Sharing not Hoarding. BD draws on his reading of academics who make art, poetry and writing which is firmly positioned in decolonial thinking.

2021 Guggenheim Fellowship recipients Beth Stephens & Annie Sprinkle have written, with Jennie Klein, an extraordinary new book. Assuming the Ecosexual Position: The Earth as Lover (University of Minnesota Press)is a romping chronicle of love, art and research collaborative practice. It weaves together: memoir, art texts, photo collage, artwork archives, self-reflective criticism, theory, and stories of love, care, grief, threat, censorship and nail bitingly exciting mischief. Even before I had finished reading Una Chaudhuri’s immensely delightful forward, titled “Foreplay”, I had already cuddled this book. Thank you, Una Chaudhuri, for encouraging me to cuddle it again! Being dyslexic I am a slow reader, but this has been an advantage. Spending time with these packed pages has been hugely pleasurable. By the time I had read Paul B. Preciado’s “Afterward” and Linda Mary Montano’s “Postscript” I found myself having a dreamy and cathartic wee greet.

Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle’s collaborative art and activism practice has reached a broad range of audiences through their feature length films Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story (2014) and Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure (2017). Their performance works, and happenings, have been presented at documenta 14, the Venice Biennale and many other art festivals, galleries and venues across the Earth. Their socially engaged performances have included: “Ecosexual Wedding” extravaganzas, “Sidewalk Sex Clinics”, “Ecosex Walking Tours”, “Cuddle” sessions and “Extreme Kissing”. The stories in Assuming the Ecosexual Position: The Earth as Lover detail some of their behind-the-scenes adventures while making these projects. Readers from Scotland will be thrilled that the Glasgay! Festival (and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow) played a “juicy” part in their love story. Stephens and Sprinkle have been in a relationship, and collaborating, since 2002. The founders of the E.A.R.T.H. Lab at UCSC, describe themselves as, “two ecosexual artists in love, in a relationship with each other as well as with the Sky, Sea, Appalachian Mountains, Lake Kallavasi in Finland, the soil in Austria, the Sun, the Moon, Coal, [their] late dog Bob and current dog Butch, and other nonhuman and human entities.” Although they acknowledge the long-established position framing the Earth as mother, they assert that the Earth can also be a lover. Reconsidering the Earth as a lover, creates a shift in the dynamics of responsibility and mutual respect.

Sprinkle and Stephens tread gently and respectfully when addressing serious subject matter; especially since at the core of the “Ecosexual Position” is a conversation about climate crisis and ecological devastation. However, for some, it can be difficult to absorb the hard truth of things. With that in mind, using the device of comic relief, the authors have planted puns, playful semiotics and outrageously high camp throughout. In this way, they are using humour as a desirable pathway into territory that may be challenging or unfamiliar to some readers. Joy is central to Stephens and Sprinkle’s ecosexual practice, process and purpose. It was Paul B. Preciado who “introduced [them] to the work of the Argentinian social activist and conceptual artist Roberto Jacoby, who advocated for what he called “strategies of joy”: small actions that face down and confront the fear in people’s minds.”

In the early chapters, Sprinkle and Stephens answer some burning questions: What were the circumstances that led them to meet in the first place? How did they end up in artistic collaboration? How did ACT UP and “third-wave, sex-positive feminism” influence their thinking? What was the genesis for the seven year project “Love Art Laboratory”? How did they cope behind the scenes of the “Breast Cancer Ballet”? Why did they choose to make performance art weddings to marry the “more-than-human”? What sparked their interest in developing Ecosexual and Sexecology research? And, what shaped Beth and Annie’s childhoods? As a rural Queer myself, I very much related to Beth’s account of her adventures while growing up in Appalachia. “The mountains and woods inspired [her] ecosexual desires. The hills were the commons where food was free if you could find it and the water was so clean that you could count the fish for dinner while they were still swimming.” Even before Beth and Annie had unearthed ecosexual orientation through their art practice research, it had always been there. In the same chapter, Annie recollects her early love of swimming. “I took in the sound of the splash and then the silence of being underwater. I became one with the water.” Reading their “Ecosexual Herstories”, a quote from Mary Oliver’s Upstream comes to mind, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

In their devotion to “Theoretical Ground”, the authors draw upon theory and scholarly illumination from Greta Gaard, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway and Kim TallBear (amongst others). Donna Haraway’s book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, and “[her] ideas about science, posthumanism, new materialism and contemporary ecofeminism have been tremendously influential for [Stephens and Sprinkle] as [they] have formulated ecosexuality and sexecology.” Stephens and Sprinkle interview Haraway in their film Water Makes Us Wet. Kim TallBear “has also been generative to [Stephens and Sprinkle in the] formulating of [their] theories of ecosexuality.” TallBear’s “work examines the historical and ongoing roles of technosciencein the colonising and subjugation of Indigenous peoples.” In the chapter “Between the Covers: Related and Recommended Books and Movies”, Stephens and Sprinkle have provided an extensive list of scholarly writing from the aforementioned thinkers (and many more). I was thrilled to see the essay “Imagination and Empathy: Artists with Trees” by Glasgow based artists Tim Collins and Reiko Goto -Collins in “Between the Covers”. For additional reading on decolonial thinking, I would also recommend the work of Zoe Todd, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Sebastian De Line.

In addition to working with Annie and Beth on this book, art historian Jennie Klein (Ohio University) organised The Purple Wedding to the Appalachian Mountains on the university campus in Athens, Ohio. Some readers may be familiar with Klein’s work through her collaboration with Deirdre Heddon, University of Glasgow, co-editing the book Histories and Practices of Live Art (2012). From an art historical perspective, I found Assuming the Ecosexual Position to be a web of delights. One of the things that I hugely appreciate about Beth and Annie’s feminist practice is that they generously platform all who contributed to the performances and projects. The book opens with a very sweet dedication “to two beloveds”, Madison Young, curator and performer, and Paul B. Preciado, curator, writer and Queer theorist. In most chapters, there are cascades of credited project collaborators including: curators, artists, designers, directors, performers, writers, musicians, sexperts, scientists, academics, activists, Radical Faeries and technicians.

They pay tribute to notable artists who have shaped their approach to their practice such as Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Linda Mary Montano and Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. Significantly, Geoffrey Hendricks and Martha Rosler were two of Beth’s professors while she was pursuing her MFA at Rutgers. It is remarkable that, even before Beth and Annie met, they both had mentorship from different Fluxus artists, a chosen Fluxus family tree of sorts. Willem de Ridder on Annie’s branch of the family tree and Geoffrey Hendricks on Beth’s branch.

Throughout the book, the project-related texts give great insights into the blossoming of the Ecosexual Position. These texts could stand alone for use in classroom or group discussions, they include: artist statements, manifestos, wedding vows, wedding homilies, how-to-guides, lyrics (by Peaches), protest chants and protest signs with slogans such as: “FUCK DON’T FRACK!”, “COMPOSTING IS SO HOT!”, DIRTY & PROUD”, “ECOSEXUALS UNITE!”. In another kind of protest, readers who are firmly against marriage will be pleased to see Barbara Carrellas’s Top Ten Reasons Why Marriage Should Be Abolished!!! included with the account of the Red Wedding. Furthermore, the selection of full-colour archive images, and the diagram of the “Sprinkle/Stephens Scale: How Ecosexual are you?” will also be revealing to the uninitiated.

Another section that greatly amused me is the “Ecosexual Glossary” which ends with an invitation to the reader to add to the collection. This glossary reminds me a bit of Alec Finlay’s chapter ‘From A Place-Aware Dictionary’ in the Antlers of Water anthology, but Annie and Beth’s “Dirty Words” are a newly fabricated lexicon, and certainly more tongue in cheek than Finlay’s. Traveling through the pages, there are many behind-the-scenes stories from their projects including some things that didn’t quite go according to plan, but they tell us how they rolled with it. Reading their accounts of rolling around in earth during their performances Dirty Sexecology at Bone II—A Performance Saga: Encounters with Women Pioneers of Performance Art (Bern), Dirt Bed at Emmetrop (Bourges), and their Dirty Wedding to the Soil at Donau Fest (Krems), brought the last line from Love Poem: Centaur by Donika Kelly into my head. “Love, I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth.”

It appears that Scotland is a hotbed of fertile earth for ecosexual art practice and poetry.

Rachel Plummer’s poems Titan Arum and Iris, the oldest particle physicist at CERN breathe sexecology and “part-tickle theory” into the LGBTQIAE+ community.

Meanwhile, Kate Clayton’s glamorous performance character Pearl Compost stars in a new film Pearl & Theory Make Compost. It “is a soil-based, earthbound, intergenerational collaboration between Kate Clayton and Sophie Seita.”

Cloudberry MacLean also has a new film in post-production. In Low Rent, MacLean examines the politics of land ownership, drawing on her experience of living secretly in her community garden allotment for the duration of the pagan calendar year. Both of these films contain scenes of nude garden-frolicking, demonstrating that gardening in Scotland can be political, intellectual, glamorous, sensuous and sexy.

In November, Nosheen Khwaja showed Invocations for Love and Loss as part of the RotU Collective (en)countering crisis + re:making futures exhibition series. If you didn’t get a chance to see the RotU series, watch out for Nosheen Khwaja’s upcoming expanded version of Invocations for Love and Loss in Newcastle, 2022.

Meanwhile, Alberta Whittle, who will represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale, currently has her work featured in the marvelous Sex Ecologies exhibition (and exciting MIT Press publication) at Kunsthall, Trondheim until March 9th, 2022.

This year, curators in Scotland have been programming Stephens and Sprinkle’s projects. NEoN Festival 2021, entitled Wired Women*, presented the Assuming the Ecosexual Position exhibition in both an online gallery space, and also as a public art poster installation in collaboration with Sharing Not Hoarding at Slessor Gardens in Dundee (there is a great slide show if you follow this link – Ed.). In addition, NEoN presented a screening of Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure, which included a Q&A with the filmmakers.

‘Assuming the Ecosexual Position’ posters installed on Sharing not Hoarding, Dundee. Photo: Kathryn Rattray

Earlier in the year, Glasgow Artists’ Moving Image Studios presented an outdoor screening of Goodbye Gauley Mountain with a fabulously fun short film by Emma Bowen called Feminist Economics Football: A Cooperative Game (a game created by Ailie Rutherford, Sapna Agarwal & Mandy Roberts). Feminist Economics Football highlights the “overlaps in common ground” between the 3 teams: “Decolonisation”, “Degrowth” and “Climate Activism.” It is clear by this curatorial programme that there is a recognition in Scotland that Ecosexual art & activism make a great partnership with the Feminist Economics movement!

Adding the “E” to the LGBTQIAE+ alphabet makes perfect sense to those who have felt excluded from the established environmentalist circles. Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens have created a much needed “space outside the environmental activist mainstream” where people can be themselves.

“[A] tributary alongside the mainstream where people of colour, drag kings and queens, sex workers, freaks, queers, experimental artists, punk rockers, genderqueer, trans people, and others could be part of a creative, fun, friendly, environmental justice activism community and movement together.”

In these times of compounding crises, the grief and anxiety that many people are grappling with can cause paralysing despair (or worse). This book is a reminder that there are joyful strategies for, what Donna Haraway would call, ‘staying with the trouble.’ Assuming the Ecosexual Position has the potential to encourage a wide variety of individuals (and communities) to imagine and to create hopeful possible futures.

If you missed NEoN Festival 2021, you can still see the Assuming The Ecosexual Position exhibition at Sharing Not Hoarding until January 16th, 2022.

In addition to some new vibrant artworks, the 18 installation posters feature some of the gorgeous photos, digital collages and texts from the Assuming the Ecosexual Position: The Earth as Lover book. The place, space and surroundings of the exhibition site, including the trees, sky, park space, River Tay, rolling hills and Dundee Urban Orchard’s Edible Garden, bring additional layers of interpretation to these works. For example, from a historical context, public parks are locations in which LGBTQIAE+ communities have generated a collective sense of belonging, or even a radical mindset of ownership; whether it be in parks in Dundee, Montreal, San Francisco or Istanbul. As a former resident of Dundee, I am elated to see Stephens and Sprinkle’s uplifting, humorous, ecosexy artworks embedded next to public park space at Slessor Gardens. This installation is such a fabulous companion piece to the book. Assuming the Ecosexual Position: The Earth as Lover is now in my selection of beloved books that I desire to return to over and over.

B. D. Owens is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Shandon, on the Gare Loch. Owens holds an MFA in Art, Society & Publics from DJCAD, University of Dundee, and a BFA in Sculpture from Concordia University, Montreal. Since 2012 he has shown his artwork internationally; including in festivals such as MIX NYC, NEoN Festival and Ars Electronica. His writing has been published in We Were Always Here: A Queer Words Anthology; New Writing Scotland: Talking About Lobsters; eco/art/scot/land; Media-N: The Journal of the New Media Caucus; and Bella Caledonia. He serves on the Executive of the Scottish Artists Union.

For their 2021 festival programme, NEoN Digital Arts commissioned B. D. Owens and layla-roxanne hill to write a collaborative think piece, titled Bread, Roses, Coal, Water and the Ecosexual Position which is published by Bella Caledonia.

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