Words matter to artist Nico Athene. She chooses them carefully as we talk over email and Skype, aware of their potential to be manipulated, of their power to construct the stories that shape our lives, of their ability to essentialise things in a way that is not useful to understanding our complexities.
Nico's journey to her research, photography, video and performance project "In Bed With Artists" is the stuff of a novel that's happened via bedrooms, film editing suites, strip clubs and lecture theatres.
How did you arrive at the residency?
I'm interested in intimacy and art, and whether we can reach people or one another intimately through art. Can we find love through art, for example? What does it mean to make art about being in an intimate space with other people? What does it mean to take something we normally call sex work and call it art?
It was also about taking the things I loved about stripping – the excuse to be in a state of play with another person as your "work", the excuse to break the rules, to be sexual, or mundane, performative or authentic, and in a constant negotiation with yourself and this other body that has its own agendas and desires in an incredibly immediate and conscious way.
I don't think I'm special in thinking about the work in this way just because I come from an academic background. I think all women who are in the industry by choice do to some extent, but we are so used to framing women as disempowered in their choices about their bodies that we immediately frame them as victims, or working from a lesser place of consciousness than, say, someone who works a desk job or is a successful businesswoman or ballet dancer...
But why do some people get to claim the title of artist and others don't? How does privilege work in deciding? The Artists' Residency is a recently popularised institution that can buy your legitimacy into the art world – and often self-funded – thereby perpetuating normal axes of artistic theorising and privilege. I wanted to disrupt that a bit, by holding a residency in my bed.
You were a film editor when I first met you. Why did you choose stripping?
As my move to art from a space of sex work can be framed on many levels, so can my move away from film. Sex work is like every other job – are all women not sex workers to some degree, even if unconsciously, constantly battling expectations of our conduct and worth according hypersexualised markers? And, of course, sex work is nothing at all like any other job for many reasons, but most of them are entirely political in the sense that you are always negotiating the stigma attached, from inside, from outside, from the patrons, your family, friends.
At the time I think my conscious reasoning was that what I was doing in the professional world of creative media was sex work anyway, but less stable and less well paid. I was frustrated by systems that privileged male money, talent and agendas, and that insured that success on any real, creative level was almost exclusively gate-kept by men.
There were multiple examples of meetings that turned out to be dates and bosses whose abusive attitudes could only be ameliorated by stroking their, um, sexual egos.
If I was going to pawn (porn?) myself, I figured, I may as well do it explicitly and be properly paid. Also, I was hating the work – it felt like a creative sell-out and I loathed being isolated in front of a screen all day. Stripping was also an excuse to be a dancer and be in work that was in my body, and buy me time to figure out what "art" or living through practice meant to me.
So, you became a sex club stripper, a lap dancer. Tell us, please, about that game and what it taught you about men?
You call it a game, and so I'll respond to that. I went in there assuming that I could be my normal queer self, albeit with a flirt, but discovered quickly that what worked best in terms of monetising interactions for me was a particular performance of "woman". The job is exhausting in that you are in a state of deep improvisation with each client, trying to interpret what they are looking for (which is often not even conscious to them) and persuade them subliminally that you are offering that thing. This is tricky because most of them consciously think that they are looking for a heteronormative idea of sex, which is the one thing you can't offer in the space of the club.
What you mostly do offer is a surface for these men to project their image of who they think they are, consciously and unconsciously, their sexual shame and self-worth – in exchange for money. Stripping is a sales job. You're not selling your body. You're selling a performance.
What I learnt about men? Many things. Perhaps most prominently that men are looking for confirmation of their belief or hope that they are somehow more special than the rest. I think this is a very human need, so there is nothing inherently shameful in it – it only gets dangerous when this belief is used to project shame (if rejected, for example)or enact entitlement.
What did you want to be when you were a schoolgirl?
I've thought about this a lot. I was raised with enough privilege to believe I could be anything. I think, perceptually, I've always been an artist, but was too scared to do it. I did not believe it was a career. I studied anthropology, which really informed my club experience, which was like a big phenomenology of being in a queer female body in a hypermasculine space.
Did you make good money stripping?
(Laughs.) Excellent money. But you pay them to be there and it's like gambling. You could come out with less every night. Which is another layer of extreme stress. I was paying R1 100 per night and then you make 75% of every dance. And then you make tips. But you sit around for 10 hours waiting for clients and it's a gamble. And they fine you for everything. Early-leaving fee, missed-day fines. If you're sick you have to go to their nurse. The psychological pressure from clients is also intense as they constantly try to transgress your boundaries. Initially, the job was exciting because it was transgressive and it was empowering to put a price on every nuance of gendered labour, which made me feel like I'm taking back ownership of my body.
Internet memes from the #FantasyFriday series.
I imagine people would act differently when you told them you do 'sex work'.
As a stripper/sex worker you hold the archetype of "whore", which is still incredibly loaded and essentialised. People tend to turn you into an object of either desire or shame. Not all clients or people do this, however, although you'd be surprised at how many do, including women and other strippers. Over time, I realised that I have a hand in perpetuating confusion over my humanity by presenting a surreal version of myself – a doll-like hologram of a woman – like a character from Westworld, although not any more or less than an actor or a model. Or any human, really. We are all presenting and performing, and our boundaries should be respected, even whether or not you think we are presenting as a "hologram".
What was the journey from stripping to the residency?
I have difficulty separating life from art and I'm fascinated by life in art. Stripping was such a break from academia or film. Being in the world instead of talking about or approximating it. I voice-noted my whole way through the experience. That translated into a blog that I ran for a while. The photographic projects became a way of interrogating why people weren't looking at it as an art, even though it consisted of dancing and improvisation and performance, and to disrupt how their projection of all this stuff onto it that other artists aren't subject to.
I started building this narrative that I was co-opting other artists' capital in exchange for intimacy and inverting the gaze so that the artist, or title of artist, becomes the fantasy – my fantasy – the fantasy of the historical muse. Ninety percent of art subjects across history are women. In the club the gaze isn't that different. That's where the bed comes in, and the invitation for artistic collaboration. It's all related... It's about the process and play, desire and disgust. It's about the nuances between intimacy and pastiche, discourses of bodies, presentation, negotiation... Not unlike stripping.
Nico Athene, supported by nonprofit organisation ALMA MARTHA, invites local and global artists, curators and cultural practitioners to participate and engage in a body of research as a performative residency in her bed. The In Bed With Artists Residency will be held over two weeks in late November. Artists can apply to participate for periods between three to 48 hours on vansa.co.za/opportunities/residencies/in-bed-with-artists-a-residency or Nico's Instagram account @nicoathene