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Video still from Community Action Center, 2010 – SD Video, 69 minA.K. Burns in collaboration with A.L. Steiner

Challenging the sexual norm with A.K. Burns

Capricious selects the radical trans-feminist artist straddling disciplines

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day. This week, State of Sex takes an all-encompassing look at sexuality, gender and all the flavours of the American rainbow.

“Ca·pri·cious – Given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behaviour”. Over the past ten years multi-disciplinary art platform Capricious has crept up on us, carving out an undeniable monopoly on erotic, queer and feminist discourse through art. It only seemed right then, to get them to round-off State of Sex. Today they'll be giving us an exclusive insight into their favourite artists raising the bar right now. Check back here throughout the day for their Dazed guest edit

A.K. Burns gets around – exhibitions at MoMA, co-founding activist group W.A.G.E and regular contributions to Ridykeulous and RANDY – the Brooklyn-based, trans-feminist artist is on the front line when it comes to the art world's discourse on sex and the body right now. Flirting with all manner of art disciplines – her work has the sexual 'self' at its core, from joining forces with A.L. Steiner for the wildly ambitious, wickedly NSFW film Community Action Center, a socio-sexual skin flick to her video installation series Touch Parade, which relentlessly looped re-enactments of fetishes found on youTube. We caught up with A.K to find out why collaboration is always at the heart of her work and why feminist porn isn't all that but is a necessary interruption.

What's your art background? Has sex and the body always had a strong creative pull for you?

A.K. Burns: I grew up around it. My maternal grandmother was a painter. My paternal grandparents were photographers. My parents didn't have creative professions but they were hippies, so my upbringing wasn’t traditional. And I don't think I ever considered being anything but an artist, except when I got side tracked with graphic design in my 20s to pay the bills. I would say the body has always been central to my work. And sexuality is a major factor in how the body is valued and marked by culture. So I’m often, but not always, working with the intersection of body and sexuality. For me, being in the world as a queer androgyne is inseparable from confronting sexual prescriptions, gendered orientations, limits of language, presentation of self, power and marginalization.

What drew you to Capricious? The artists they feature are often very sexually-focused, was that a factor? 

A.K. Burns: Sophie Mörner (founder/owner of Capricious). We shared social circles and became acquaintances not long after I arrived in NYC, in 2003. By about 2008 we had grown closer and Sophie kept asking me to create a magazine with her. That’s how Randy (published by Capricious) started. I think of Capricious as primarily a photography publisher with an additional focus on queer feminist content, because that is what we are. What drew us together were many affinities both sexually-focused and otherwise.

“For me, being in the world as a queer androgyne is inseparable from confronting sexual prescriptions, gendered orientations, limits of language, presentation of self, power and marginalization.” – A.K. Burns

How important is collaboration in your work? 

A.K. Burns: I believe the creative process is always a collaboration. It’s just a matter of who takes/gives credit, and what your personal ethics are. Nothing is invented out of thin air. There are just some people who are better than others at capitalizing on the next collective mutation. That was Warhol's ‘genius’. I have worked in tandem on particular projects over the years because the ideas for them emerged jointly through conversations with artist friends out of our shared politics and curiosities. No one could or wanted to claim ownership of those projects. Collaborations, when they are working, are messy organic monsters you could have never created on your own. And it is essentially feminist to have a collaborative world-view and to challenge organization of power around the individual and ego. Though, I also do a lot of work as an individual. Mutual collaboration can be a pain to coordinate, it is taxing to be responsible to another in your decision making and sometimes I just have a strong desire to be selfish. That just means I’m working on my own projects that develop through conversations with culture, history and friends. I am not alone unless I pretend to be.

If you could collaborate with any US pornstar who would that be? 

A.K. Burns: Well, I’m not that interested in working with professionals. Not to mention I have so little clue about who's who in the porn industry. I thrive on a kind of engaged naivety; I’m more interested in what a performance artist or painter might do in a pornographic context. But if I had to work with pros I’d choose an all female and trans cast with the prerequisite that they all be over 70. And I’d want to shoot a melodrama, not a porn.

How would you describe your artistic process? 

A.K. Burns: Read, collect, converse, enjoy and gripe about other peoples artwork, teach, eat, shit, sex, read, collect and converse some more. At some point while living life I start to fixate on an idea, often around a cultural trope like porn, fetish, science fiction, minimalism, etc. Then I ask myself, what are the elements that make up our perception of trope ‘X’? And what qualities will I borrow or alter to construct my own corrupt vision of ‘X'? A vision intent on exposing the slipperiness of such terms. Somewhere in the questioning phase the medium and shape it will take become clear. Then I start work on a video or sculpture or installation with the assumption that nothing looks like it does in the fantastical realm of my mind, and that all the variables that materials, scale, performers etc. offer are part of the process and work. Eventually the thing feels done, or I have a deadline. A deadline/show can just mean a stopping point for that work at that moment, so some works have finite ends and some evolve, break into parts or get reused.

“Read, collect, converse, enjoy and gripe about other peoples artwork, teach, eat, shit, sex, read, collect and converse some more.” – A.K. Burns 

Tell us about the feminist porn Community Action Center, how did that come about? 

A.K. Burns: Community Action Center is a video work I made in collaboration with A.L. Steiner and about 50 performers, artist and musicians. The title punning connotes both an orgy and a political agenda. Steiner and I were complaining about the lack of porn that represented ourselves, our sexuality and that we wanted to watch. Then we started ‘research’ by watching a bunch of gay male porn from the 70s like Fred Halsted, James Bidgood, Joe Gage and Wakefield Poole. These works were beautifully shot, rich cinematic experiences, regardless of the X-rated content. What we created was inspired dually by feminist performance art and the possibility that porn could be a beautiful and meaningful document of a cultural moment. 

We spent most of the first year hanging out making notes on what we thought would make a better porn. Things like natural lighting, no dialogue, pubic hair, not shooting in bedrooms, eccentric fashion, humor, blood, witches, using only our friends and lovers as performers. Also creative sexuality became a basic premise. That meant sex toys had to be invented or found, not purchased. And that the whole body is a sex organ, which requires a total rethinking of what qualifies as sex.

We didn't take the project seriously until after we shot the first scene. A remake of a scene from a Halsted film, starring myself and Pony. There were just three of us, two cameras at Steiner’s house upstate. And from there we started to inquire with other artists we knew who were comfortable with their bodies and being in front of the camera. Some said yes and some said no. We built each scene as we went, Steiner and I would get performers, choose the location, pull together the general aesthetics of the scene. And then we would soft direct the action, mostly letting the performers decide what they wanted to do within the constructed scenario. After shooting for three years and what felt like a million hours of editing we ended up with a 69-minute, socio-sexual artwork.

What are your thoughts on the feminist porn scene? There seems to be a growing trend for feminist porn to be deemed an art form while regular porn isn't. Would you agree with that?

A.K. Burns: In general I’m not a fan of much porn, which is why we made one. And I think feminist porn can be as annoying to watch as hetero porn at times. Regardless it is a necessary interruption in the porn industry and I think anything that brings diversity is imperative. The porn industry is biased, dominated by the preferences of less than half of the population of sexually active adults and that produces a skewed and often violent culture towards woman, queers and sexuality in general. With regards feminist porn dubbed as art, I think this is a marginalizing tactic, as though it’s not real porn? Feminist porn is regular porn from another perspective. Also the line between art and porn is slim, so I think it's a conversation that could be had about all pornography.

You used to run a trans-feminist arts mag called Randy – who do you admire artistically from the trans-feminist world? 

A.K. Burns: I admire endlessly, but a short list comprised mostly of Randy contributors are: A.L. Steiner, Barbara Hammer, Chris Vargas, Colin Self, Edie Fake, Emily Roysdon, Eve Fowler, Genesis P. Orridge, Geo Wyeth, Ginger Brooks Takashashi, Gordon Hall, Gregg Bordowitz, Harmony Hammond, Harry Dodge, Jen Rosenblit, Jibz Cameron, Jules Gimbrone, Juliana Huxtable, Justin Vivian Bond, K8 Hardy, Kathe Burkhart, Katherine Hubbard, Lee Maida, Leidy Churchman, Malin Arnell, Martha Wilson, Math Bass, MPA, My Barbarian, Nao Bustamante, Nicole Eisenman, Niv Acosta, Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz, Pauline Oliveros, Ron Athey, Sadie Benning, Sheila Pepe, Stanya Kahn, Ulrike Muller, Vaginal Davis, Wu Tsang, Wynne Greenwood, Yve Laris Cohen, Zackary Druker, Zoe Leonard...