“Okay, Big Time”
Second Male: “You dragged us honey, way beyond.”
Female: “all right, I’m willing for more.”
Second Male: “You’re willing for more. What’s more? First time you get turned down tonight?
Female: I’m quite pleased.
First Male: What’s more? Explain what’s more.”
Female: You know, some nudity and some fondling.
First Male: Lets talk ahead. Is sex okay
Female: Sex is okay, big time
The first video in the trilogy Beyond Guilt by Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir takes place in the bathrooms of nightclubs in Tel Aviv. It begins with two men addressing the camera. The first to speak reveals that he is taking a break from sex because it is controlling him, as he puts it, “like the tail wagging the dog instead of the dog wagging the tail.” A female voice off asks, “What are you interested in now then?” He answers sophomorically “a good beer.” His friend is getting bored and tries to end the conversation, so the woman ups the ante. She uses herself to entice them to stay engaged, thus increasing the stakes sexually. We don’t see what happens next as the video cuts quickly through to other scenarios. Music gets louder and activity increases with various men and women in their underwear cramming into bathroom stalls. The pace of the video slows again when the same female voice (Sela’s voice) negotiates for a necklace worn by a handsome young man. She offers to perform sexual acts in exchange, increasing the incentives when he turns down her first and second proposals. This upping of the stakes is at times met with suspicion, but it always succeeds in sustaining interest and maintaining the conversation. Sela and Amir seem open to and comfortable with performing any of the propositions presented to them and more. The encounters are provocative and frequently titillating, but negotiation and language make up the crux of the action.
Sela and Amir are the instigators behind the camera and it is clear they are looking for more than sex; rather using it as a starting point in order to capture an expanded social dynamic, including their participation and roles. To varying degrees, they inverse author and subject, encouraging others to lead the process of documentation, putting themselves in front of the camera, at times handing it over completely. As catalysts, they potentially put themselves at risk pushing the situation in directions that move content beyond surface topic and the act of sex. Sex is the primary reason why each of the interviewees is engaging in conversation or willing to be recorded, but Sela and Amir’s work is about much more. Beyond Guilt #1 hinges on a turning point, where sexual evocations give way to explicit political opinions. An arrogant female character asserts her sexuality, by describing the two ways she wears her black cap: down for tough military style and up with her tussled hair for a chilled, ‘I drank all night’ look. This brief reference to her army experience leads to an aggressive tirade, where she establishes her and her friends as loyal Israeli nationalists and expounds her anti-Arab prejudice.
Transitions in subject from sexual to political identity is most direct in the second piece, for which Sela and Amir used an online sex chat room to invite men to a hotel. Over several evenings the artists set up a number of meetings at thirty-minute intervals, leading to overlapping situations. Its not clear what has been negotiated or how explicit the discussions has been. Some men come with bondage paraphernalia and all talk openly about their preferences and prowess. All have agreed to be documented; those who stay seem to enjoy performing for the camera. There are some playful moments – two men dance on a bed, another does a handstand, some drinks are poured — but most often the camera is focused on one guest directly addressing the artists. The men appear very relaxed in their speech and poses; some are fully naked or partially clothed lounging on beds, talking about themselves. The conversation always starts with sex, but repeatedly turns to military experiences. One visitor, while holding metal handcuffs relates his position as sergeant as being perfectly suited to his sexually dominant role play. But even under these charged conditions Sela and Amir capture the everyday nature of the whole situation from the sex talk to descriptions of being citizens in disputed territory that has been at war since the formation of Israel 63 years ago. What is remarkable is the tone of general ordinariness. The candour with which each man speaks, the seamless blending of sex and war is just such daily routine. This reaction is captured perfectly in the last scene of Beyond Guilt #1 where Sela, who topless, watches a man and woman kissing. The artist casually touches a spot on the other woman’s chest with her finger, as if nonchalantly pointing out a freckle. This mundane quality runs through all the videos. The artists manage to make illicit scenarios of sex with strangers in public places and descriptions of combat into something unsensational yet tense with possibility. These charged acts are made to seem commonplace and matter of fact.
In the last video, they invite a sex worker to a hotel room, give her their camera, and ask her to document their meeting. Here, more than the previous videos the artists themselves are the subjects. We learn much about their guest, but we barely see her. While focusing on Sela and Amir who direct the woman to use the camera, they interview her about her profession and personal life. The piece is very intimate as the three woman develop an understanding of each other outside of the financial transaction. It ends with all three of them lying on a bed together wearing bunny ears, feather boas, doing little more than looking listlessly into the camera or at each other. Sex and desire remain to the bone as with all the works, but this scenario is the least sexualized, the most staid, and in its simplicity is the most emblematic of the series. Sela and Amir have managed to anaesthetize a situation that is out of the ordinary, filled with unknowns and potential risk.
In their work, the artists create situations that could easily become aggressive and it is this tension between the scenarios they construct and manner with which they interact that is compelling and sometimes arousing. Many of the scenes are tough to watch. For example, seeing one of the artists tied to a couch while a stranger looms over her pulling out bondage tools — describing what he can and has done with them — carries a tangible air of threat. But Sela and Amir disarm the situation. Their readiness and ability to continually negotiate ultimately speaks of an attempt at developing understanding. Living in Tel Aviv, in a nation continually at war, surrounded by violence, this seems a viable tactic in moving through life. In Beyond Guilt, sex begets talk; talk creates intimacy; intimacy eliminates tension; and without tension things can seem ordinary.