The Untitled Body Project Takes Shape
In coordination with Level Ground, we’re covering the artists who are presenting groundbreaking art at the Level Ground Festival in October.
Below, Courtney Trouble writes about their experience as a model for artist Rae Threat’s new work, #THEUNTITLEDBODYPROJECT.
#THEUNTITLEDBODYPROJECT is debuting as a large 3D installation of photographs of fat activist Simone Mariposa, LA adult performers Lotus Lain, Tyler Knight, Karla Lane, plus size sexuality advocate April Flores, and myself (a queer, non-binary sex worker) all taken by the DIY underground artist of color Rae Threat, who works largely with “fringe” adult performers, queer people, people of color, and fat bodies like her own.
“I create art,” says Rae as she preps for the October 19 opening, about what she sees as her role as an artist in a divided cultural climate. “The art holds the conversations for us. Whether it's bringing light to destigmatizing sex work or embracing body positivity and fat positivity, art creates that thousand word discussion to the table.” The art show itself will consist of a massive LED panel wall projecting 3D video art, as well as suspended portraits from the ceiling, video installations, live performances, and discussion panels.
The large-scale 3D photography and documentary installation makes connections between the constantly overlapping communities of fat activism, social justice, and porn. The project also includes a documentary with interviews and footage of each of the muses and models, coinciding with Rae's personal story of body acceptance, health and healing.
I can’t help but think of everything in my own life that’s changed since Rae asked me to pose for a photo that would be shown at the size of an arena concert backdrop.
Rae’s often an invisible photographer in her work, but she’s doing something many people don’t have the nerve to do: blend autobiography and documentary about the body. But as a model of hers, I can put it differently. She is often the listener, and her models the loudmouths gracing the internet and world with oft political opinions, personal vulnerabilities, and naked bodies. If empathy is learning how to listen, the point of the show is displaying the art of conversation. The models talk to each other and to Rae, and Rae talks to herself and to the viewer. Leslie Foster, the director of Level Ground’s artist-in-residence program, puts it this way: “The artists are all really putting themselves out there in really intense ways, saying: Let us be powerful in this space and you will learn from our power.” This show is a testament to vulnerability, and a collection of futuristic monuments of that power.
The 3D technology allows people who are oft told to hide themselves to give the finger back to society. As Leslie puts it, “It creates a massive wall where you’ll see these images, there’s something really confrontational about that.”
Yet an underlying theme in all of the work is empathy, something the artist and gallery are concerned with. “Empathy is my entire existence. I know the struggles I've gone through with my own body image and recognize that sort of pathology in other people of color. The effects of colorism and intrinsic racism in our own communities stemming from Westernized standards of beauty and power does huge damage to the way we view ourselves and others.”
I can’t help but think of everything in my own life that’s changed since Rae asked me to pose for a photo that would be shown at the size of an arena concert backdrop. I’ve started collaborating with her other muses in deep and meaningful ways. We’ve stayed on each other’s radar through the production of these images.
Threat has written an open-ended narrative with an ensemble cast – we are all representative of conversations around gender, sexuality, body, and mind that dominate the mainstream atmosphere, but in rather ignored and silenced ways.
Among the performers chosen as Rae Threat’s subjects is Lotus Lain, an advocate for the Free Speech Coalition, recent graduate, and occasional porn professional. She’s worked with Threat before on collaborative photoshoots. “I know sometimes it’s easier for womxn to just do what the dominant voice or presence is saying or telling us to do,” Lain says, describing what it often feels like on photoshoots – even Rae’s – when one or more elements aside from Model and Photographer is introduced.
Lain said it was “powerful to see Rae, not in a violent or forceful way, take charge.” She and I are in agreement there. Lain describes one day on shoot when a “dudebro” was present. He kept figuring out how to put himself into Lain’s photoshoot in ways that made sense to nobody on set, she describes. Rae recoiled for a moment, as most women do, before taking charge and forcing “dudebro” to get off set so they could continue.
“I think it’s just so important that men give womxn the space to create what is in their fucking brains,” she concluded.
Another subject, famed adult performer Tyler Knight, discovered Rae’s photography through social media. Knight, who no longer uses social media after long holding space as an outspoken and controversial (and totally beloved) Black Man In Porn, described Rae as “a person whom you keep in your life. Her skill as an artist and vision of what the world could aspire to become through art is inspiring.”
Rae's personal “untitled body” story is interwoven into the stories of the other participants. Knight worked on racial inequity in the adult industry before Lotus Lain came into it. Another model, April, coached me through becoming a BBW model. A fifth model, Karla Lane, catered April's wedding. Model number six, Simone, paved the way for people like Karla, Rae, and myself to be more political in our fatness.
Threat has written an open-ended narrative with an ensemble cast – we are all representative of conversations around gender, sexuality, body, and mind that dominate the mainstream atmosphere, but in rather ignored and silenced ways. It's that underground network of collaboration that rests at the center of this project. Samantha Curley, the executive director of Level Ground, adds, “I think it’s going to provoke people to see and think differently about bodies — their own, others, and especially those they see presented in public spaces.” Curley developed the residency program as a way to develop and fund new work by artists “working at the intersections of identity: experimental, multi-media, and collaborative.”
Threat is the cliché “force to be dealt with” in the sexist LA photography scene. She takes these experiences to heart, working towards bigger and better gigs for herself in nightlife, fashion, and adult industries. She has become, as Lotus put it, like one of those “no-nonsense NY Fashion photogs,” a warrior in a cut-throat battlefield. That means she’s been defeated once or twice.
I wanted to talk to Rae about how idea theft and sexism create an underlying foundation of struggle for her–one that she shouldn’t have to deal with on top of all of her originality, and one that perhaps also drives to her bigger heights. She recently had one of her most personal ideas–portraits of sex workers that overlap into movement–copped by a male artist who not only took her style, but her models as well.
“My ultimate goal is to show that representation matters,” explains Threat. “That the standardized model of beauty isn't the mold to define society, that all of us are are hugely affected by how society, media, and culture irresponsibly grooms us, and that we can break that model.”
Her work fighting those mainstream forces is part of her underlying DIY art practice: part of any plot to get bigger, browner bodies into the mainstream is going to involve interacting with these larger worlds and taking risks, like, say, a 20-foot image or a few.
But I had questions about how to perceive a project like Threat’s through the eyes of “empathy.” As a model, how should the audience of this work empathize with me? How should they empathize with Rae?
When I was talking to Samantha I couldn’t help but think that the use of the 3D photography medium could elevate the usual 2D printed portraiture we are accustomed to. In Rae’s case she is able to give an experiential depth to the shadows she put in her work and that changes the context of how we look at them. It’s also made the act of looking at a digital image an even: the panels allow for a digital representation of a digital photograph with no need for paper or fiber, the chance for a glitch to pop up and affirm the movable, dynamic personalities and bodies of those she represents.
“Rae sees potential in art and makes it happen through technology. It’s a way that I think both the arts and tech not only see things that are unseen, but actually birth them into the world,” says Curley. “The way she rigged together cameras for the 3D photography sessions was unreal. When she talks about it, I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, this makes no sense to me, but okay, cool, I trust you, let’s do it.’ And then I see it in progress and I’m like, ‘What? Really, this is going to work?’ and then I see the final product and it’s such an amazing experience. Like how did you get that all to work in that way? How did you see it happening that way before it existed?”
As for how Rae got involved at Level Ground, she met Leslie met via Crushie, an online network that was loosely connected to alt-porn studio GodsGirls and had parties at the Roosevelt. Rae’s connection with GodsGirls goes back a few year, having shot for site manager Jenna Valentine and various altporn models in the area. Leslie and Rae may or may not have been matched up on the Crushies app but as Leslie, recounts it, “Rae had exciting ideas about how to push challenging work. I also thought it was beautiful work.” Leslie himself is a filmmaker, becoming the first resident at Level Ground to create the film installation 59. Rae recalls, “I've known Leslie for a while online and was mesmerized by his work. All of his films are so emotive and inspiring! Having him approach me to collaborate on 59.11 was one of the biggest compliments ever. It was also my introduction to Level Ground and the impact of their reach, especially during his residency.”
The poolside hotel schmoozing led to the strong connection. “We’re both filmmakers, and the friendship just developed over the years.” Leslie suggested that Rae apply for the residency program, and the board at Level Ground approved her for a year-long 2018 residency to expand upon and exhibit her concepts on body, vulnerability, and presence. The program culminates in the October 19 show.
According to Foster, Rae stayed remarkably close to the original concept pitched over a year ago to Level Ground to document the stories of fat, black, and genderqueer models in her multiplexed community. “The idea of large scale photographs and a documentary, and very shortly 3D photographs came into the conversation pretty quickly,” says Foster.
“We’ve always been mixed-media, having visual art galleries, dance, live music, and theatrical performances,” says Curley of the Level Ground attitude towards the art scene. “We’ve always cared deeply about the content and conversations that come out of art. We wanted to be a festival where the audience wasn’t asking ‘what was your budget? or what camera did you shoot on?’ but ‘why did you make this? how do you hope it changes people?’”
Samantha Curley expects that the show will bring in “a crowd you won’t find gathered anywhere else in LA.” After the October 19 opening, Level Ground will seek to continue the show in other mediums and venues, hopefully alongside a festival run for the documentary.