TLD contributor Robin Schatell spoke with artists/activists Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens about their new EcoSexual work — EcoSex Walking Tour of Central Park, and the NYC premiere of their documentary, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, set to open the 4th annual Queer New York International Arts Festival at Abrons Arts Center this Wednesday. The festival runs September 16 – 26.
RS – The first thing I want to ask is, if I am a “tree hugger,” does that make me an “ecosexual?”
AS – Absolutely! Do you like to skinny dip?
RS – When I get the opportunity.
AS – Do you like to smell plants?
RS – I do.
AS – Then I would say without a doubt! If you gravitate towards hugging trees – that is the one that is kind of taboo — “tree hugger” has a negative connotation. We are in West Virginia where Beth is from and they call environmentalists “tree huggers.” It is just like pleasure seeker. It is kind of a negative term. So, absolutely. And we can give you a card that would make it official!
RS – Wonderful!
AS – We also talk about consent on the walking tour that we will be doing. How do you know the tree wants to be hugged? How do you know which tree to hug? Does the tree consent to be hugged?
RS – Right like, do trees have feelings or do they sense people?
AS – And some don’t want to be hugged clearly. We think so, anyway. They can’t talk but we try to tune in energetically. Ecosex requires a lot of imagination.
BS – We are just trying to learn the language of trees. We do know what the harm we do to them does–which is, kills them. What the consent thing really does is make us slow down and think about what would a tree like, instead of what do people like all the time. It is really trying to envision a different point of view than our own.
RS – Can you tell me about Ecosex and SexEcology. Where did that idea come from?
AS – We coined the term “SexEcology.” Ecosex was out there kind of as a dating term. People would say “male ecosexual looking for woman who likes… tree hugging.” No one was doing much with the term. Because we are “scholars” and hang with academics, we felt there needed to be a new field of study. So we formed SexEcology, and it explores the places where sexology and ecology intersect in art, theory, practice and activism.
RS – I don’t think that the average person thinks there is an intersection. How would you describe that?
AS – There are all kinds of examples. You have Queer studies, or LGBT studies; or Feminist Studies, or Biology, and now you have Sexology. It is a field of research. Some examples would be people who have nature fetishes – we’ve made charts of some of those.
It would include research–who are the ecosexuals and what do they do? Or it could be an artist. For example now in the sex industry there are people like Madison Young who are making adult entertainment that is embracing if you will, nature, and is pornographic and erotic, like a sex toy that would be a tree…or a corncob.
RS – Or a cucumber..
AS – Exactly!
RS – But that is old stuff.
A S – But if you study people who use vegetables and identify as “ecosexual,” that would be in that field. Or people who use aphrodisiacs like marijuana and identify as ecosexuals. Anywhere where ecology and nature intersect.
BS – There are also PHD dissertations on the topic now, for example the growth of the whole Ecosex movement and how it intersects with different movements: the environmental movement; gay and lesbian, bi/trans movements.
RS – What about intersecting with heterosexuality?
A S – It totally does. Absolutely. You can be heterosexual and be ecosexual. It is more just like a model – an alternative sexuality model. You can be a-sexual and be ecosexual. You can be eco-curious or eco-sensual, where you just like the sensuality of nature but are not willing to call it sexuality, because a lot of people imagine the earth as their mother. Kind of this “mother nurture figure.” We switched it to lover to make it more mutual.
RS – That’s really interesting. Why did you do that?
AS – To access, and get closer to, nature. It is an environmental activist strategy. If you can’t dance at the revolution…then hell! We are trying to make environmental activism more fun, sexy and diverse.
Someone like me might not get into the Sierra Club or more conservative or militant groups, or I couldn’t fully be myself. As multi-media artists, we use visual art, performance art, theater and installation art as our activism. So we are creating new audiences for environmental stuff. And it is really working. It is incredible how it is growing really fast.
In fact, on the walking tour in Central Park, people can come at 3:00 p.mm and we can take an hour and a half walk. By the end they will have the ecosexual gaze and they will really understand our take on it. It is really fun and they will never see nature the same way again. So it makes it more proactive.
RS – What can people expect from the walk?
AS – It is kind of a performance art walking tour. It will be short, around the southeast corner of Central Park. We will be in costume. It is theatrical. We have a script but it is also in a public space so there will be lots of surprises. We introduce 25 ways to make love to the earth. And then we sort of act them out. People will find their “E spots.”
RS – Ahh…
AS – Any spot they find ecosexy. If we have 25 people and everybody finds what they think of erotic in nature, you start looking at nature differently. The walk is largely about water – we are starting at the lake, because our work is largely about water and being from California, we have a drought. We (as a culture) don’t appreciate water. Without water there is no life.
RS: Why make it about an erotic connection to the earth?
AS – It is not all that. We will also be exploring other environmental issues. But mainly it is to garner more love or appreciation for nature. If people don’t love water or the soil, they are not going to take care of it. If you have a new lover, you are going to bring them presents and your gonna treat them real good right? You don’t want to keep giving your mother your dirty laundry and expect her to keep taking care of you.
We can’t always relate to our mothers. We take that relationship for granted. And the mother is in menopause and she is cranky. If she is battered—right now the mother – mother earth, has been used and abused and exploited. We are using a new metaphor and it is helping a lot of people, especially those who don’t have the best relationship wit their mothers.
It is also an exploration of a new idea, and also gets people outside appreciating nature. It is really conceptual sex in a way. It is an expanded concept of what sex can be, more of a fantasy, energy exchange.
BS – We love sex. What can we say. And I think nature does too. That is where that connection is. Ecosexuality is really a way to bring these two things together. In fact Annie and I always say human beings are nature too. And we get into trouble when we disconnect with nature and think we are superior to it.
AS – And we are just seeing that sex is everywhere, anyway. We are just not taught about how to see a flower as a plant genital. We are taught to suppress it. When you see a bee pollinating a flower, that is a kind of sex.
RS – Annie, it is interesting when we look at your personal trajectory – from prostitute to porn star, to performance artist, and now the artist as activist. It really isn’t about you and your body anymore is it? Your work is about the earth. How do you feel about that?
AS – It is and it isn’t. Where does the body start and where does it end? If we really think that we are all part of the earth — we are all made up of the same stuff. And our body is mostly water. So if my body of water gets mixed with your body of water and we have bacteria jumping back and forth, which we do — all sex is “ecosex.”
What happened for me personally was about my particular flesh and blood body, and water – I guess I am more water than blood I suppose. It became about collaborating with Beth and then we started collaborating with the wider community and then we started collaborating with nature.
BS – In terms of progressing through life you start to realize what is important to you and how unimportant you are in some ways. My work started out being about personal narrative. I was very involved in personal politics and feminism and queer politics in the 90’s, and I still am, but flash forward 20 years and I come back to West Virginia and I am seeing this horrible coal mining technique called mountaintop removal. And I am thinking my God, this is so beyond anything so personal.
RS – Can you tell me about the film, Goodbye Gauley Mountain – An Ecosexual Love Story, which is getting its NY Premiere at the festival this Wednesday?
BS – The film is about what has already happened. Annie and I come back to West Virginia and we learn about coal mining. In some ways it is a little bit educational. I don’t think many people know about coal mining or how their electricity is generated. It all seems very clean when you plug something into the wall. But what happens to the earth and to millions of people’s lives around coal has been really tough and not very clean.
We look at coal mining together and direct action activism as a way of confronting those environmental issues. But we take a completely different approach to how we address this issue of mountaintop removal, which is not just coal mining it is literally tearing the tops off mountains. Our activism is really rooted in art and in love.
I personally think the Appalachian Mountains are just the most beautiful place in the world. We use this love for a place to motivate us, along with kindness and humor too.
BS – I am a professor at UC Santa Cruz, and I when I preach to my students about how bad the world is, they glaze over. I think we are going to have to figure out new ways to deliver the message. It is something that entertainment does. I am really concerned about the future of the environment and so how do you get people to stay open to that?
RS – Do you feel it is a job to send a message as an artist?
BS – That is what is so great about our work. It is not really instrumental like that. We both love what we are doing. It feels more like a calling. We are really privileged to get to do the work we do. And we know that. It is an honor and delight taking people on tours through Central Park and hugging trees!
We are so lucky to be alive and we are very excited to be coming to New York.