In a recorded iMessage chat, David Kravitz and Frances Stark satirize Silicon Valley culture and sext about creative labor.
David Kravitz and Frances Stark, Opening the Kimono, 2014. iMessage conversation
When artist Frances Stark and Snapchat developer David Kravitz discussed the idea of having sex on stage during a public presentation at the New Museum last spring, it wasn’t entirely surprising.
This proposal came as part of Rhizome’s Seven on Seven Conference, which pairs artists and technologists for a one-day collaboration with the prompt to “make something” and then present it to the public the following day. During their presentation, neither of their bodies was on view on stage (Kravitz came up alone for the Q&A). Instead, they appeared onscreen via a live iMessage conversation.
Soon, Kravitz was telling Stark about his friend’s suggestion that they have sex on stage. After further flirtatious repartee, Stark suggested that they “open the kimono,” a phrase used in Silicon Valley to describe an open sharing of business information. The oversexed exchange—fashioned in the style of a demo-day presentation—continued as the duo unveiled their main project: to “cut out the middlemen” from the “sublimated” sex orgy that is our economy. It was pure vaporware as absurdist critique.
Titled Opening the Kimono (2014), a screen-capture video version of this performance is now presented as part of First Look, an online commissioning program organized by the New Museum and Rhizome.
The presentation’s comedic tone and salacious content were unsurprising: Kravitz is not only a developer, but also an amateur comedian, while Stark has employed sex chat in her studio practice in the past. Perhaps most notable among these projects is her 2011 work My Best Thing, a feature-length video based on her chats with two online suitors/cam-sex partners, re-performed by generic 3D-animated avatars with text-to-speech voices.
In that earlier work, Stark drew an analogy between art-making and masturbation. As unproductive acts, both can be seen as forms of resistance to an economic system that demands constant productivity.
Where My Best Thing celebrated unproductive acts as a form of resistance, the Seven on Seven collaboration had a stated goal to “make something,” to be productive. The resulting chat shifted the focus from masturbation to sexual promiscuity, drawing an analogy between the latter and, in Stark’s words, “certain forms of creative labor.” One could take this to mean that, for example, being a professional artist demands an openness to emotionally charged collaborations with strangers, and a public performance or display of personal labor. The observation also maintains its acuity beyond the art world—sharing intimate moments on social media, for instance, could be seen as a promiscuous behavior as well.
Promiscuity is the promise and threat of digital culture. It represents a possible freedom, the potential to reinvent our social roles in fluid, polymorphous fashion. But it also brings us into relationships with myriad “middle men“—all of the systems and websites and apps we use, which structure our interactions for worse and for better.
At the end of their chat, Stark mentioned the title of an exhibition that she staged at Nottingham Contemporary in 2009, which had come up in a talk she gave at MoMA the night before Seven on Seven: “But What of Frances Stark, Standing by Itself, a Naked Name, Bare as a Ghost to Whom One Would Like to Lend a Sheet?”
“hmm cool,” Kravitz replied flippantly, “what does it mean?”
Instead of bringing up the visual identity of her collaborator’s employer, she offered this explanation: “in order to make visible what you cannot see, you have to throw a sheet over it. that is why ghosts look that way.”
Like the ghost, digital culture has long been described as “immaterial.” This concept can be seen in the tech world’s promotional language, with airy terms like “the cloud” standing in for the massive labor force and physical infrastructure that support our online activities today. Recently, though, commentators and critics have taken great pains to cut through this kind of obfuscation, arguing that digital culture relies on physical infrastructure, that it structures our physical world, and that code itself can be seen as a kind of material.
But the outlines of the digital, networked culture in which we live cannot be fully glimpsed in these materials. Our bodily actions, our performances, our promiscuous behaviors remain at the center of digital culture. The objects and files we create are merely the side effects of these actions; to make them visible, we must throw on a sheet.