Sidsel Hansen Explores the Repercussions of Oculus Rift on Pornography and the Female Form
Looking down while wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, the viewer sees a computer-generated torso gyrating erotically around an abstract shape. Pulsating music blasts in the background as the camera angle automatically shifts to view a sexualized avatar’s unmistakably female face.
The work in question—Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s Second Sex War Zone (2016)—is currently on view at Gasworks in south London. The artwork, once one straps on the goggles, provides a decadent, enchanting spectacle—but with its urgent collision of virtual bodies, is unconventionally pornographic. In advance of Oculus Rift’s commercial launch on March 28th, artists such as Hansen, whose exhibition “Second Sex War” opened at Gasworks last Thursday, are already preempting, and playing with, the technology’s likely effects on its users’ online identities.
“It’s very interesting how the porn industry has had stakes in certain developments of technology,” said Hansen in the gallery, discussing the relationship between computer-generated female “avatars” and the growing market for virtual adult entertainment, where female 3D models are designed and sold as assets to be viewed on Oculus Rift’s immersive headsets. “When I started looking into Oculus Rift, trying to understand what it was, it seemed like the female, virtual body would be the default object you would be looking at. There needs to be a remaking of such default objects. Female avatars textured with scans of real bodies will change the porn industry completely, I think, but the question is who is scanned for consumption and who is directing and profiting from virtual porn.”
Oculus Rift has already been utilized by countless artists—from Rachel Rossin, a virtual reality fellow at the New Museum, to Jon Rafman with his exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection during last year’s Frieze Week in London. Much attention has importantly focused on the technology’s potential to provide an almost unprecedented level of immersion in a virtual space. But as with any new technology, it is also useful to question the entrenched value systems upheld by those who design and market it, and the mechanisms masked by the spectacle they create—the wave of media attention, the queues of eager early adopters—as they unleash an unpredictable wave of influence upon consumers. Naughty America, one of the largest U.S. producers of adult entertainment, launched what it claims is the first VR adult entertainment series earlier this month. In a world where the links between pornography engagement and sexism are well evidenced, a new wave of consumption may exacerbate existing gender divides.
Hansen’s previous work considers everything from the art market, the notion of the institution and how that might infiltrate an artist’s subjectivity, to the use of labor in creative practice. In a 2014 interview with Mousse magazine she described her art practice as “invested in the micro-political and the question of how capitalism enters our relationship to ourselves.” Her Gasworks show is similarly broad, but clearly extends her practice’s concerns into VR.
Some of Hansen’s artworks wrestle with traditional pornographic conventions, many of which are conceived by and for men, by highlighting feministic problems. Her computer-generated animation No Right Way 2 Cum (2015) shows a female avatar ejaculating abundantly onto a virtual camera in what Hansen called a “feminist reconstruction of the cumshot,” made in response to a recent ban by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) on female ejaculation in pornography produced in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Dickgirl 3D(X) (2016), produced with digital arts studio Werkflow Ltd, uses a gaming console to showcase the kind of readymade objects used in virtual adult entertainment. Again to a thudding soundtrack and the sound of digital gasps, a sexualized CGI body of indeterminate gender can be seen interacting with an amorphous shape. One of these is a pre-built female avatar that can be obtained by digital designers online. Hansen is exposing that avatar’s gender, size, and animated behavior to scrutiny.
“I feel that the virtual reality production that I’ve seen so far is devoid of feminist discourse, queer theory, and critique,” added the artist. “My work is a way to insert a piece of sex activism into that context.”
While it may be too early to fully understand the repercussions of Oculus Rift on the general public, artists such as Hansen are already questioning the capitalistic motives of the world’s gaming and pornography behemoths as they prepare for a fresh public onslaught. Hansen says that the male 3D designer who initially made and sold the female avatar she has implemented “is profiting from reproducing the gender binary in VR,” again highlighting the inherent biases—and those standing to gain from creating certain stereotypical depictions of gender—that may play out as Oculus Rift hits the mainstream.
“I’m somehow interested in the space that the headset opens up,” concluded the artist. “But I know that space as reality is conditioned by economics and there’s a set of politics connected to it, and that’s why it’s interesting to move into that space, to somehow contest the branding of the tech industry.”
“Second Sex War” is on view at Gasworks, London, Mar. 17–May 29, 2016.