text: Janne Saarakkala
Portrait of Julius Elo: video by Nora Rinne, roping by Amy May
Sleeping Beauty trailer: Alisa Javits
After participating in the Xplore07 festival in Berlin and spending the whole year 2008 investigating ”the body of the spectator-experiencer in a performance” at the Reality Research Center, Finland, performance artist and researcher Julius Elo found his niche. Since then he has become an advocate of sex-positive culture and one of the pioneers of haptic and sexually oriented participatory performance in Finland. Sleeping Beauty, his latest work for the Reality Research Center, in cooperation with performance artist Xana, premiered at the Baltic Circle International Theatre Festival in 2017 causing a vivid debate on whether the piece was groundbreaking art or prostitution in disguise.
”In Sleeping Beauty, we wanted to bring sexual experience into the art context and see if it’s allowed to stay there, is it accepted as art”, Julius Elo tells me as we start the interview. He concludes that from the artistic team’s point of view, who met the audience members individually in a very intimate setting, the piece was accepted as art. Even the newspaper supplement that first questioned the motives of the artistic team in it’s article and warned the public of Sleeping Beauty‘s proximity to prostitution, wrote a positive follow-up based on journalist’s experience as a participant in the performance.
As one of the participants myself I couldn’t agree more. But I’m not just any participant. I’ve been a close associate with Julius since 2001 when we were, among six other colleagues, setting up the Reality Research Center. Afterwards I have participated in quite a few of Julius’ performances.
When I entered the Baltic Circle festival lounge, I spotted the Sleeping Beauty characters among the crowd in fantasy costumes. I picked up a Kabuki character and negotiated with him, whether there was any common ground in our sexual fantasies. There was. I would be the sleeper and he would be the active party who’s awake. I bought a ticket and was guided to the Sleeping Beauty reception room where, with the help of an attendant, I filled in a detailed multiple choice contract with Mr. Kabuki to state what was allowed and what wasn’t during our forthcoming encounter.
It was not until reading through the contract that I realised that the performers were prepared to go as far as penetration, if they felt like it and if the participant was willing.
In a way, it isn’t that far fetched to call this prostitution, I thought, you buy a ticket to get a sexual experience. What else would it be? But then again, instead of just buying a service, like in prostitution, in Sleeping Beauty you have to be more considerate towards the performer and their fantasy. You have to find consensus of fantasies to be able to proceed from negotiation to making a deal. Also the understanding of fantasy is wider, more fanciful and possibly unknown. Yes, someone may still define it as prostitution, but if we agree that consensual sex between adults is acceptable and art is essentially an act of framing, then, to me, Sleeping Beauty‘s sexual nucleus was well framed as art. It took place within a performance as a part of a theater festival program; the performance had strong visual design, an elegant structure and Mr. Kabuki was skillful and sensitive. Besides, even though I was nervous, after all the precautions I felt safe enough to lay my ”sleeping” body in his hands. Taking care of the participants and performers alike, their physical and emotional safety, making the participants aware of the content and the stages they go through, are all important parts of an artistic framework. Precaution is there to help the participant to feel safe when facing the hot spot, the unknown, the nucleus, and to be able to enjoy the risk one is taking.
In the midst of my encounter with Mr. Kabuki I did reach a moment when I felt relaxed, fully present in my body and, yes, aroused. So I had a sexual experience in Sleeping Beauty, even though, in my case, I was fully dressed all through.
According to Julius, I hit one of the targets of the performance. That is to recreate sexuality.
”There’s more to sexuality than, for example, being naked, more than touching the genitals, having an orgasm or penetration. We are sexual beings and the whole body can be a source of sexual pleasure. It’s all about broadening the sexual experience to include all kinds of sensations and sensuality. That’s recreating sexuality.”
Is that your aim, Julius, a world more sensual?
”I hope people could be more open to sensuality. I’d like to fill the world with a little more pleasure and sex-positivity.”
We live in a time that tries to forget that we have bodies, don’t we?
”Bodily appearance is more central than ever, but at the same time, we don’t pay attention to the messages nor the wisdom of the body.”
So your fight, for example, in Sleeping Beauty, is for sensuality and listening to our bodies, right?
”Yes, in the center of the performance there is the participant’s experiencing body, vulnerable and sensitive. The whole material consists of two bodies, the participant’s and the performer’s, with all their desires, fears, feelings and sensations. Sleeping Beauty deals with sexual experience in a performance and raises questions of its possibilities, of the boundaries and the taboos.”
Besides recreating sexuality, the performance aims to question what kind of effect the public display of sexuality has on us. Did the participants of Sleeping Beauty try to recreate the fantasies portrayed in magazines, on television and on the internet?
Julius doesn’t think so, quite the contrary.
”People had an endless variety of fantasies, all very individual. Some had elaborate schemes, some just precise details. I can assure you, the general imagery of sexuality does not dominate people’s imagination.”
That’s a relief to hear. How about my moment of arousal in the performance, was it art, or was it just sex?
Julius rolls his eyes and reminds me of the origins of aesthetics, how earlier it meant sensibility to the stimulation of the senses. A distanced look at art, objectification and contemplation started later. Also in classical antiquity, in Ars Erotica, sexuality was regarded as an artistic skill, something to develop, refine and cultivate. Julius seems to think that if the audience is aroused by art, in a performance, for example, it is as viable a feeling as any other reaction. And why shouldn’t it be?
Actually, both aspects, getting excited and contemplation, took place in Sleeping Beauty. In my case, the contemplation started when I decided to participate, weeks before the actual performance. I was electrified with continuous questions, such as what is the fantasy I dare to share with a stranger in a performance, should I come to the performance with a straightforward proposal or should I meet the performer with an empty head, and, most of all, what is it that I really, really want?
Many people told Julius they went through a similar phase of contemplation even though they didn’t even participate. So, if we include the pre-contemplation as part of the process, Sleeping Beauty is a performance that lasts for days, if not for weeks.
Journey to Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty achieves exactly what Julius is looking for. Even though he is the sweetest and one of most sensitive people on earth, he’s also driven by dauntless ambition.
”Antonin Artaud and the Theater of Cruelty were my points of reference”, he reminds me of his origins in performing arts. ”I thought that the theater should make a strong impact on the audience, it should provoke people, give total experiences – and I still think so. The traditional divide, the apron between a passive audience and active performers on stage, was never enough for me. I erase the divide completely by doing participatory performances.”
Julius has always combined theory and practice in his work. In 1990s, he studied Theater Research at the University of Helsinki and ran an avant-garde theatre group Lobotomiateatteri (Lobotomy Theater) with theater director Eero-Tapio Vuori.
Besides Felix Ruckert, German choreographer known for his Xplore festivals of creative sexuality, intimate performances and interest in BDSM, Julius mentions Eero-Tapio Vuori as one of his main influences. Already at the turn of the millennium, Vuori emphasized the experience of the audience members in performance and created a concept of experimance to promote what today is called participatory or immersive performance. The Reality Research Center was also established from Vuori’s initiative and Julius makes most of his performances there.
”It seems like the only place where I can propose my ideas for production in this country”, he says.
Since 2008, Julius has been working on his doctoral thesis ”The Body of the Spectator-experiencer in a Performance” at the Theater Academy of the University of the Arts, Finland. The title is the same as his Reality Research Center project he did with performance artist Tuomas Laitinen the same year.
”I felt there’s so much more to explore in that field, it’s so interesting. So I wanted to keep the title and continue.”
What have you learned during the ten years of intimate performances and physical interaction with the audiences?
”You cannot escape your body. The body is inevitably present in everything you do and experience. It is impressed by everything around you and it expresses itself, whether you want it or not. In your mind, you may think differently and you might want to act or experience things differently but it’s hard to fool the body. It has a will of its own, inhibitions and fears of its own.”
Emotions are deeply rooted in the body, of course, but Julius prefers to talk about physical affects rather than emotions when we discuss bodily influences.
”You might not recognise affects as emotions and that’s why affects guide us so powerfully.”
To my mind, Julius started his research with two slightly conflicting aspirations, both of which have to do with power. He wanted to yield the power of performers to spectators, turn them into active, self-reliant participants. Yet again, on the other hand, he thought he could control the participants’ reactions to the physical interaction involved.
The unpredictability of participants’ reactions was a surprise to Julius. Now he says there’s no way of knowing what will happen in another person. It cannot be manipulated.
”When you work with someone’s body and you don’t know the history of the person, unpredictable reactions can emerge from the body and it can turn the encounter into something pleasant and invigorating or it may become distressing. Unprocessed traumas may come up. Professor Lauren Berlant writes insightfully about intimacy and defines it in one sentence ‘I didn´t think it would turn out this way’”.
To Julius, it’s connected to personal boundaries. The participants are not always able to take care of their own boundaries and limits in a performance; they might be unaware of their boundaries or unable to express them and that’s why participants sometimes transgress their limits involuntarily. That’s always traumatic to some degree.
”Almost anything can cross the limit. For example, in one performance me biting a participant was too much. For him, it was a violent gesture. Or just putting on a blindfold can be too much for someone. And this applies to performers as well. There’s been cases when my fellow performers haven’t been able to take care of their limits.”
These are situations Julius has been forced to deal with and sort out. But he also finds them a vital part of the artistic process.
”Otherwise, if you want to control the effect of your art completely, that’s service culture to me. Like booking an appointment with a masseur or hair stylist; you know what you are going to get. That’s not exactly art. It should be an encounter with the unknown and contain an element of the unexpected, I think.”
What was unexpected to Julius, in his pursuit to yield the power of performers to the audience, is that usually it’s not possible.
”The more performances I’ve done and tried to make it happen, the more I’ve come to realise that the power stays with the performers. Even when the audience members are willing to take an active role as participants, most of them are not ready to take the initiative in their own hands, the responsibility is just too much. Of course there are exceptions. Participants can take the power, they can make an intervention, for instance, but it tends to break the framework of the performance. Normally participants don’t want to do that. In order to act within the framework, they need suggestions or at least hints from the performers, they require dialogue to make up their mind. This was implemented in Sleeping Beauty. Ergo, the participant is mostly subordinate to the performer. And if performers don’t use their power, participants may feel helpless.”
BDSM culture, introduced to Julius by Felix Ruckert, has made an enduring impact on him also outside the art world. Julius is doing a tangential journey to sex-positive culture as a private person. He speaks up, he participates and he has been organising sex-positive happenings such as the annual Wonderlust Festival since 2014. It’s not an art festival but a place to celebrate diverse and conscious sexuality.
”To me Wonderlust is sex-positive activism, it’s my political gesture”, Julius stresses, ”a way of saying that I find sexuality a positive resource, a taboo that ought to be broken. The more you talk about it, the more enjoyable is the sex.”
Julius points out a general misunderstanding that being sex-positive would only mean promiscuity.
”You can have lots of sex with lots of different partners but also an asexual person can be sex-positive. It means exploring one’s own and other people’s sexuality and being open about it and accepting all kinds of sexualities.”
And there is still work to do.
”It’s still quite rare for people to use their own names while organizing or working in sex-positive events. Many use pseudonyms. By doing so, people protect themselves and their loved ones and relatives, which means that the activity is not free from stigma, not yet fully approved.”
Your Fantasy Isn’t Necessarily What You Want
Much cited intellectuals, Slavoj Žižek and Yuval Noah Harari, both point out how important it is to distinguish reality from fantasy in our times. Harari finds it increasingly difficult but essential. Žižek goes as far as to claim that the real is the inconvenient truth that can only be tolerated through fantasy. To me this means that fantasies can reveal our hidden aspirations, how we shape our reality through fantasizing and, vice versa, how fantasies mould our aspirations. I’m curious to hear how Julius perceives the connection of the real in fantasies in his performances.
”In BDSM, fantasies play a big role. The heart of BDSM is theater, sexual theater. In Sleeping Beauty, we were interested in sex fantasies in a situation where the other one is pretending to sleep while the other is awake and active. By sex fantasies, I mean dreams or images which engender sexual pleasure. In that sense, fantasy can be the larger framework in which the reality takes place as improvised execution. This way the real in fantasy includes an element of the unpredictable, the element of danger; you act in a fantasy world, yet the interaction between the participants is real. At best, the action correlates with the fantasy, but it can also be an antithesis of your dreams, or anything in between.”
Like you said in the Baltic Circle interview in 2017, ”your fantasy isn’t necessarily what you want to see realised”.
”Yes, that can happen. I think the real in fantasy is the spot that fulfils what you are looking for – you might not even be conscious of it in advance. It’s not necessarily the whole encounter, perhaps just a tiny fraction of it, a brief pop up of what you really want. If you can pinpoint it, you can start broadening that reality into your life.”
What do you think about psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan‘s famous statement that there is no such thing as sexual relationship?
”Meaning that while having sex in reality you actually just masturbate with your partner? Well, I believe there’s a chance for mutual sexual reality.”
But is it possible without fantasies?
”That´s a tricky question, because fantasies can sneak in so easily and quickly. But I think there is a possibility for a shared fantasy, if you both try to keep yourself as present as possible, in the now, in the moment, and you decide not to let one another disappear in private fantasy worlds. Then there’s no chance for fantasy to sneak in between the two of you.”
I’m not sure if I agree with Julius, I’m prone to think that some level of fantasy is always needed in order to reach sexual satisfaction, but be that as it may, this is a fine example of debate that takes place in the Reality Research Center.
Reality Researchers – Liberators or Agents of Intrusive Capitalism?
From the beginning, we thought that culture has become a mere performance. You are constantly aware of your appearance and how well you play your roles in the big show of life. Julius puts it bluntly, ”Spectators perform as spectators and participants perform as participants. In Sleeping Beauty, we strove to release the participants from it, at least at some point during the encounter.”
One of the principles of the Reality Research Center is that we should pay particular attention to the audiences and their individual experiences and create performances for participants to free themselves from performing. There should be a space and time for not performing at all.
For example, I was released in the hands of Mr. Kabuki, for a short while. I call it a moment of ”passing through”; you break away from the social roles but also from the fiction of the performance and to me it feels like reaching a moment of pure existence.
But is it obtained only by buying a ticket to Sleeping Beauty, or some other show, I wonder?
My last question to Julius is the following: By aestheticizing, designing and elevating everyday experiences – for instance, turning hugs into art products – aren’t we not, like philosopher and performance arts theorist Bojana Kunst suggests, assisting capitalism to infiltrate into the most intimate areas of our abilities and turning human communication and interaction into business?
”In a way that’s true”, Julius answers. ”But art can be one of those places where it’s possible to stop and meditate your own perception.”
Perhaps we should always present the objectives of the Reality Research Center and their pitfalls to the audience before a performance and stress that anyone can do these things for free. You don’t need to pay to get a different point of view or a hug!
Julius reminds me of Fluxus performances in the 1950s and 60s where perception and the change in perception was central. One could get written instructions to achieve it, and you could go and do it anywhere, anytime you want. That tradition is still alive.
”We must also remember Allan Kaprow, the creator of Happening, whose mission was to get rid of art and turn such experiences lifelike. And who became one of the most canonized artists? Kaprow himself! Oh Janne, I’m afraid capitalism can take over everything. Art is part of the capitalistic system, there’s no escape from it.”
Julius thanks me for good questions and leaves me with a hug. I’m dumbfounded.
“It’s highly unlikely that a participant in the framework of a performance takes the initiative in their own hands. Participants are mostly subordinate to performers”, Julius said. What if the same logic applies to me and us all as individual human beings and citizens? Don’t we have the guts, or the time, the interest, to change our perception by ourselves to reach what we are really looking for in this world?
Culture is not only a performance, it’s a hypnosis led by those who perform.