E.L. James' infamous Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy challenged the world's view of erotic literature, a genre often dismissed for its sexual or "smutty" themes, as it quickly topped the New York Times bestseller list and pushed erotica into the mainstream — for better or for worse. The artistry and sensuality of such works allow the reader to engage in a sexual experience without visual aids or self-stimulus, all the while intertwining the innocent act of reading with the taboo of sex.
But in the last year, New York City filmmaker Clayton Cubitt has masterfully deconstructed the art of print erotica with his video art series entitled "Hysterical Literature." As women read works like Toni Morrisson's Beloved and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange out loud in front of a camera, an unseen assistant (usually Cubitt's girlfriend, Katie) physically stimulates them with a vibrator, until the subjects are too distracted or fatigued to continue reading. While the literature choices may not be erotic themselves, Cubitt hopes the addition of masturbation forces the viewer to consider his intended themes of "feminism, mind/body dualism, distraction portraiture, and the contrast between culture and sexuality."
In the same manner that Fifty Shades of Grey urged libraries across the country to reconsider their stance on stocking erotica, "Hysterical Literature" introduces the dichotomy between classic novels not generally considered to be provocative in nature and the controversial themes of human sexuality. And while the obvious association of these unlikely forces may seem offensive at first, participants were pleasantly surprised at how well it works.
"I'm sitting in a brightly lit room, with two strangers whom I can't help but find myself loving, in a space I seem to love more than my own bedroom, holding a book that has loved me through my awkward adolescent years," wrote Solé (pictured above) of her offbeat experience with her chosen work, Beloved. "In this space, in this moment, I am love, in its most complex, beautiful, and visceral state. Meditating with a magic mantra that only Toni Morrison could fabricate, I let this love envelop me, hold me, and rock me to ecstasy."
While the connection between reading, sex, and any of the other themes of "Hysterical Literature" might appear superficial at first, Cubitt hopes viewers see past the obvious. Sure, these women are essentially being interrupted in their reading by orgasm, but there's an awful lot more to consider beyond what is on screen.
He implored, "What if the women could in some way have a conversation with themselves, through the reading of a passage from their favorite book? This would allow self-expression, without the pressure to pose or sound a certain way in a formal portrait or an interview. It would also remove me from the on-screen experience, and make for a fascinating battle between the mind and the body, and create a conceptual contrast by blending two areas that society tends to want to view through different lenses: art, and sex."
"You couldn't feel or sense a person there; I felt very safe. You're seated, it's so not sexual — it's almost like your body is a switchblade, it's sort of closed up at that point. I had never even thought about that, how different your sexual response is [depending on] the position your body is in. And then with the lights and the cameras — it's not a very sexy situation."
Indeed, Cubbit stressed his desire to make the sessions of "Hysterical Literature" feel "as 'unsexy' as possible" in order to drive his views of these intersecting themes forward. Not only does he achieve this by shooting in black and white to create an "austere and clinical" set, but he also tells the subjects to wear whatever they want while reading a work of their choosing. By only adding the element of masturbation to an otherwise straightforward task, he is able to remove himself entirely from the scene and allow these themes to manifest themselves in both the subject and the viewer.
"It was pretty intense nonetheless," added Cho.
Similar ideas have also been explored in "Naked Girls Reading," a Chicago-based project that has made its way around the world. Quite simply, events consist of women reading aloud in public while not wearing any clothing. And, like "Hysterical Literature," the selections are not inherently sexy: One event featured readings from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Frank Herbert's Dune. But the creators don't want to attract people who just want to see naked women, but rather for them to treat it as they would any other traditional reading.
"There's something beautiful, something altogether more intimate, about a woman reading pretty much anything in her, well, altogether," reads the project's website. "It's just that simple. So why are we still talking about it? Because people can't seem to accept its simplicity."
In the end, "Hysterical Literature" isn't about any one of Cubitt's intended themes alone, but how participants and viewers alike interpret the project for themselves.
"Do [viewers] respond to the salacious physical aspects (Sex,) or to the concept and literature (Art?)," said Cubitt. "Some people get the whole nest of levels [the practiced poses of modern media-savvy portrait subjects, the battle between the mind and the body, the relationship of female sexuality to society's concepts of shame, and the cultural contrast between art and sex]. Others only see the surface. This is all part of the experiment."
When explicit mentions or visuals of sex are not present, do the videos feel at all pornographic? In what ways might the women in the videos experience backlash from the public — or from their own friends and families? Is this a societal issue or a personal one? You can view all of the "Hysterical Literature" sessions on the official website and decide for yourself.