‘No Human Involved’: Art by sex workers tells a complex story
The “No Human Involved: The Fifth Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show” turns the tables on a dehumanizing term
DECEMBER 6, 2019 // CULTURE, VISUAL ART // OREGON ARTSWATCH
By KYLE COHLMIA
“No Human Involved” is a slang term coined by Los Angeles police in the 1980s to signify the murder of sex workers, drug users, gang members and transients, the majority of those from Black and Brown populations. The term, while inherently used to dehumanize the violence inflicted upon these marginalized communities, has been turned around by artists in No Human Involved: The Fifth Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show to bring awareness to specific issues of oppression.
Spearheaded by STROLL PDX, a sex worker-led activist organization, this year’s exhibition is at Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), running through December 14. The exhibit features work by 16 artists, a selection curated from a competitive international open call by Kat Salas and Matilda Bickers of STROLL PDX and Roya Amirsoleymani, artistic director and curator at PICA.
Installation view of No Human Involved: The Fifth Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show. Photo credit Intisar Abioto, Photo courtesy of PICA
“The artists in No Human Involved rewrite the narrow narratives of sex work and sex workers, objects, and agents in art and activism,” Amirsoleymani says in her curator’s statement. “The resulting exhibition, publication, and symposium unapologetically insist that we question our assumptions, complicate our politics, reexamine our values, and recast our gaze.”
No Human Involved is an unapologetic representation of the complexities within the sex worker industry. Each piece of artwork stands out on its own, but speaks to the multiple narratives of sex workers—the desire for utopian societies, intersectional worlds, and the individuality and humanity of those in the industry.
The exhibit creates space for multifaceted artistic voices, sharing individual and collective stories through the exhibit design of exposed scaffolding which literally builds new walls and a hope for counter realities that dismantle systems of oppression in which all humans are involved.
While the artwork of No Human Involved includes a variety of 2D and 3D works, the videos stood out as dynamic narrations speaking toward the exhibit themes. For example, Evie Snax reflect her background as a queer, mixed Chinese-American/white femme in her compilation of new media-inspired GIFs, NO BAD WHORES JUST BAD LAWS, ¡Borikén Libre!, and I like your energy, I wanna experience it. Snax’s vibrant videos feature QTBIPoC and sex workers in a whimsical, colorful and luxurious world “free of binaries, shame, and oppression.”
Still from a film by Evie Snax/ Photo by Intisar Abioto /Image courtesy of PICA
In one scene, Snax depicts four nude women lounging on a colorful float in a bright blue pool of water, a repositioning of the canonized female nude. One of the women holds up a camera, which, from the bird’s-eye perspective of the film, points straight forward, recasting the gaze from herself to the viewer and shifting herself into the position of observer, not the observed.
In contrast, Amanda Lee, a queer artist based in Los Angeles, tells a more subdued story through her film Daughter, which features the experience of a mother and her transgender daughter as they navigate the world as immigrants from Hong Kong. Lee’s video interweaves images of the mother and her daughter as they stand on a scenic hill overlooking Los Angeles. Images of the daughter appear while the viewer is simultaneously able to hear and read their poetry on the screen. These images and texts are interspersed between the mother’s narrations of her love for her daughter and experience of bias in the United States.
Lee connects the two perspectives of the mother and her daughter in a non-linear, continuous manner, leaving the viewer with a sense of hope that is meant to celebrate, as Lee’s artist statement reads, “transgender resistance, gender identity, and the strength of the immingrant family across language and cultural boundaries.”
A still from “Daughter” by Amanda Lee/Photo by Intisar Abioto/Image courtesy of PICA
A third video installation, titled The Stripper Project, provides a documentary style, multi-narrative approach to storytelling, where sex workers are interviewed and given the opportunity to tell their personal stories about work, life’s successes and challenges, and personally hobbies and interests.
The varied voices in this documentary—Amira, a Palenstinian woman and spiritual healer; Jacqueline, artist and stand-up comedian; and Erin, pastry chef and social justice advocate—illuminate humanity, reminding viewers that people of the industry can be both sex Icons and humans. The Stripper Project, also a podcast and organization that supports sex worker led and/or supported businesses, addresses their mission on their website, stating, “we are creating connections and gateways to exisiting communities withing the industry, to dissolve stigma that has plagued this profession for centuries.”
Much of the artwork of No Human Involved, presented within PICA’s 2,200 square foot open gallery space, is displayed on drywall panels hung to newly constructed walls. The walls themselves are unfinished, exposing scaffolded wooden beams above and below the panels, providing a structural space that invites viewers to stop and view each work as if in a gallery. The transparency of the unfinished walls also allows visitors to simultaneously engage with the rest of the collective exhibit, a nod to the curatorial emphasis on the multiplicity and varied representations.
The biannual Fall 2019 publication of “Working It,” published through STROLL PDX is also available at the exhibit and includes a Q&A section, poetry, and an essay collection from the voices of Portland’s sex worker community. “We are continuing to explore the ways in which we function and adapt to the world around us and the structures of white supremacy we’re caught in but trying not to be limited or crushed by,” curator and editor Matilda Bickers writes in “Working It.”
The constructed walls of the exhibit become a clear metaphor for the creation of new realities, built in response to the structures of white supremacy of which Bickers speaks. The construction of the panels, while seemingly incomplete, correlate to the idea of a work in process and the DIY nature of the history of sex worker exhibits. The exposed wooden beams, whose scaffolding displays a sequence of vertical lines, are analogous to how, as Bickers describes, “we’re living in between the lines, in the crevices we can steal for ourselves.”