The art school student making porn avant-garde

The industry’s most experimental artist talks to us about soundtracks, sexual alchemy and challenging straight dudes

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Watching Vex Ashley’s videos is like no other erotic experience you’ve ever had: bodies weave in among one another like smoke, skin becomes milk, and the little intricacies of sex – the bitten lips, the moans, those wavelets of pleasure that electrify our limbs the moments before we come – are captured in all their poetic simplicity, in vivid and visceral snapshots of fucking. It’s no wonder that Ashley, half-jokingly, refers to her work as “magical realism porn”, because it kind of is. Other terms don’t quite do it justice. Avant-garde. Alt. Erotica. As Ashley says herself, definitions are one of the things she actually finds hardest.

“I always say porn, because, well, it is and there’s already too much stigma put on to the adult industry from the outside to start playing respectability politics from within,” Ashley told me. “I make porn. There’s fucking in it. But it doesn’t necessarily look or feel like the porn you imagine inwardly when that word is commonly used.”

Ashley is equally elfin and vivacious; she has a pierced septum, “cat ears” and the colour of her hair changes with the seasons. She’s fiercely intellectual and attuned to the changes within her industry with the wisdom of someone well beyond her 26 years. Ask her about censorship, shame or what to call the leather harnesses she wears around her legs, and there’s an opinion as arresting as the art she creates.

Her journey into pornography isn’t typical. The craft of her art came first, sex on camera second. Studying fine art at university, she had always put her naked body in her work, and when she started personally experimenting with filmmaking, shooting softcore pictures, she soon realised that if she pursued it seriously she could actually make some decent money. “At first (it was) more of a personal challenge – to see if we could put the same focus on visuals and concepts that I would in my artwork into videos with sex,” she says. “I couldn’t see that gap being filled anywhere.” By the time she had left university, her online sex work (she’s been camming since 2012, although she hasn’t performed for nearly six months) had given her the “time and income and freedom to start to devote to learn how to make films”, and she soon “fell in love with the creative possibilities and potentials of the medium.” And this was how Four Chambers, Ashley’s “creative pornography project making films with sex and cinema”, was born.

“It’s the curse of art school I guess!” Ashley tells me when I ask her about the literary theory, art history and fiction influences in her work. The writing of Roland Barthes is referenced in the eye, for instance, and Plath’s The Bell Jar in lurid third interval. “It’s all symbolism and allegory,” says Ashley. “I’ve always been fascinated by collecting and connecting references and using their relationships to tell stories. It feels like a kind of alchemy, and sex always felt alchemical to me.”

Such symbols and connections play a huge role in the production of Ashley’s art. A self-proclaimed magpie, she collects and catalogues any interesting ideas or snippets, hoarding references, quotes, theories and images that she thinks will inform her work. She then works out an idea based on the particular concept she’s interested in, taking into account the people she’s booked for the shoot, because it has “to feel right for them” too. Then she plans, but doesn’t storyboard, instead giving the performers, including herself, freedom to run with the idea, telling the story they want with their bodies and breath.

“Shoots are at their best when they’re strong conceptually but the performers can work organically,” she says. “They shape and mould an idea to their chemistry. We don’t storyboard sex, we don’t have requirements for positions, acts or orgasms. What actually happens is directed mostly by performers, which is why we’re particularly picky about who we work with, they bring a lot to a shoot.” Her list of ‘contributors’ includes male BDSM kink.com models Owen Gray and Mickey Mod; alternative porn model and artist Blath; and AVN Award winner, writer and founder of trenchcoatx.com, Stoya. And they are contributors – they even have a say on the final edit. “We send a rough cut to our performers who can change or ask for anything to be removed if they’re unhappy. Then we polish it up, cut a more SFW trailer and publish.”

“Watching porn with the sound off never did it for me, it feels flat and stale. In the same way that you turn the sound off watching a horror movie so it stops being scary. It’s the heart”

Another part of Four Chambers’ content are the soundtracks. The “right music” takes days of searching and emailing to find, but “when it’s right, it’s right”. In fact, Ashley’s sound sourcing has led to an appearance on the acclaimed Pitch Podcast (on the ‘bow chicka wow wow’ porno groove episode). The music never drowns out the sound of fucking, though; I don’t think I’ve ever seen porn that captures the noise of sex quite like Four Chambers does. “The sounds of sex on film are so important they’re what make it visceral. It transforms something from being just a spectacle, something that’s just an image to something that’s more of an immersive experience,” says Ashley, who claims that sound, not sight, is her most immediate sexual trigger. “Watching porn with the sound off never did it for me, it feels flat and stale. In the same way that you turn the sound off watching a horror movie so it stops being scary. It’s the heart.”

Ashley attributes a lot of her success and popularity to social media, and it’s something that her team has had to rely on, having elected not to work with established porn studios or traditional industry practices. “Without platforms like Twitter and Tumblr fighting for NSFW content to be freely expressed and shared, we really wouldn’t exist,” she says. Yet it’s also this detachment from the mainstream and the unpredictability of her work that makes her such a fascinating pornographer to follow. “We’ve never marketed ourselves as a straight, queer, anything studio. I think we’re deliberately ambiguous. That gives us space to be surprising.”

Last year, when Four Chambers shot its first all-male shoot, between queer feminist performer / Oh Boy creator Damien Moreau and female-to-male “transmale adult entertainer” Viktor Belmont, in a short called proximity IV (most of Four Chambers’ content runs to between 10 and 15 minutes in length), Ashley admits that she was a little cautious, “because people tell you that porn is only for “the male gaze”, and stepping outside of that would alienate the only guaranteed porn consumer, straight dudes.” It wasn’t the case. The short was well-received. “I actually think straight dudes don’t get enough space or credit to look outside of the huge mass of male gaze-y media they’re constantly being fed. Hot sex is made by the chemistry between people, not just bodies or genders. It’s more complex than that,” she says. “We didn’t come from a traditional porn shooting background. We didn’t learn about ‘opening up’ for the camera (where the performers fuck on an angle so the camera can see the penetration) or money shots. We shoot close up so the bodies of performers can seem like they’re merging or interchangeable. We try to shoot bodies as equals.”

As Ashley says herself, working outside of gender is near impossible because as “a construct it informs so much about sex and sexuality”, but that doesn’t stop her from playing with it, subverting and embracing gender without ever escaping it – and Ashley isn’t the only one. Heteronormative porn is finally being a challenged by new, adventurous and independent porn producers eager to rewrite labels and celebrate the human form in whatever way it comes.

This was evident recently when Emma Watson said the world needs more ‘feminist alternatives’ to porn, and the internet’s reply was, ‘It’s already got a load, thanks.’ But Ashley admits that it’s not easy. “Independent porn and sex work are unfairly discriminated against in financial and social ways that no other small business would be. The setbacks you have to get over to actually get your work out there and make any money holds new, diverse work back. That’s the answer to the age-old question, ‘Why isn’t there more interesting porn?’ The difficulty isn’t the lack of creativity.” But, she adds, the future looks promising nonetheless. “We’re only just beginning to see the rise of new perspectives and visions from people who don’t fit comfortably into the ‘bankable porn stereotype’. You can call it a new wave, but that almost limits its scope. It’ so much more self-directed and exciting than that.”

 

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