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com), though not the first alt porn site, has risen to be the most recognizable example of the genre. Billing itself as a webzine and a community that seeks to "redefine beauty" with its photo sets, since 2001 the site has grown from a 2person business operated out of an apartment in Portland, Oregon to a Los Angeles-based corporation with 1500 models. The site offers itself up as a portal to a world of women who are not afraid to speak their minds and show their nude bodies online. Unlike a traditional porn site, Suicide Girls is structured so that the models can speak for themselves in blogs and forums, suggesting that members of the site should not just ogle the girls, but also engage with what they think and feel about the world around them. That world around them, in the micro sense, is a world of subculture tastes in music, books and art, an alternative to the mainstream world of mass culture and adult content that mega-brands like Playboy and Hustler represent. Although many of the websites that fall under the ever-growing genre of alt porn feature women (and sometimes men) in various states of undress, their relationship to porn is a complicated one, as many of the sites and their models identify primarily with artistic and musical subcultures that exist outside of, and sometimes in contrast to, the big business of the adult industry. Suicide Girls is not the only site of its kind to shrink from the word porn. The site's owners prefer to refer to its photography as "modern pin-up," a new take on that coy and commercial genre of girly art that erupted onto the scene during the Second World War. Each photo set is made up of anywhere from 40-100 pictures of the model posing while peeling her clothes off. The fine line that many sites and models draw between porn and art - which sometimes is as simple as whether the model's legs are closed and obscuring her vulva or open and inviting looks and fantasies of penetration - is an important one for many who struggle with the "porn" in alt porn. So what is alt porn exactly? The definition is constantly being debated, and many of the sites -like Suicide Girls- that for all intents and purposes fit nicely into the category eschew the label. Essentially, the phrase is used to describe websites (and increasingly, DVDs) that present an alternative to mainstream pornography, which might include the appearance and styling of the models as well as the sex acts performed. The point of argument is, of course, how this alternative is produced and represented. Some argue that alt means adhering to a different body standard, which most often boils down to the presence of tattoos and body piercings, but can also include gender variation and diversity in body shape and size. Others take a more philosophical approach to alt and view it as a genre that is womanfriendly, sex positive and open to different kinds of sexualities. Lux Nightmare was an early adopter of the genre with her website That Strange Girl (thatstrangegirl.com), which was online from 2001 through early 2004. She says that, “The whole point of my site was to celebrate healthy sexuality, to prove that objectification was not automatically tied to exploitation, and to promote healthy body image among both men and women.” The term “alt porn” solidified as the name of the genre in 2004, when Jonno D’Addario,
editor of the popular porn blog Fleshbot.com, suggested that it was more accurate than the phrase “indie porn,” especially since the Larry Flynt-owned VCA Pictures (a subsidiary of Hustler) was releasing the debut DVD of director Eon McKai, titled "Art School Sluts." There’s nothing independent about a production funded by Hustler money. Alt porn sites and DVDs have become a much more visible and profitable part of the pornography business over the last several years. But as much as the genre is tied in with this commercialized form of sexuality, many participants in the genre are very engaged with the struggle between art and porn, while still others operate in art and porn as neighboring spheres of influence. The Alt Porn Site as Art Courtney Trouble is the founder of the alt porn site No Fauxxx (nofauxxx.com), which launched in early 2003 and is one of the few early alt porn sites to still be online and maintaining a dedicated following. What started as a personal erotica site became more of a phenomenon when Trouble’s friends started asking her about modeling for the site. In an early incarnation of the site, the “about” page declared that, “No Fauxxx is for models who are sick of not seeing people like them in mainstream porn, and for members who appreciate real bodies and real people.” The site has maintained this ethos and has demonstrated a commitment to radical queer culture and politics. Though sites like Suicide Girls claim to be reclaiming beauty by presenting young, white, thin women with tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair, No Fauxxx’s models often weight more than the average porn performer and do not conform to the gender binary. Among its models are a variety of queer artists, including Juba Kalamka, a founding member of "homohop" crew Deep Dickollective, and Nicky Click, an electroclash performance artist. For these models, posing for the site is an expression of their personal and real sexuality, not a posture worn for a paycheck. On Bella Vendetta’s eponymous site (bellavendetta.com), this sense of the model’s commitment to sexual and artistic freedom –and the place where the two meet– is pervasive. Many of the models on the site are people who are also participants in the Body Modification Ezine (bmezine.com) community, where Vendetta is a central figure. For Vendetta, who leapt into nude modeling as soon as she turned 18 eight years ago, art and porn are equally important, if not distinct from one another. “As a model,” she says, “I see myself as an artist, especially when I collaborate with photographers to achieve our shared vision of a shoot.” Vendetta’s site is one of the more explicit sites in the alt porn genre. While sites like Suicide Girls and That Strange Girl typically show nude pictorials that lean towards being sexy in a cute way without showing genitals, Vendetta’s photo sets don’t shy away from explicitness, often laced with the intensity of BDSM. Recent sets on the site have depicted a model’s kidnap and rape fantasy played out with her reallife husband, a man anally penetrating himself with a gun, and two naked women tickling each other. When asked why some alt porn people shy away from positioning their work within pornography and cling to more artistic aspirations instead, Vendetta says “When you say porn, people think of one thing: a blond girl getting fucked and acting like she likes it, whether or not she does.” While there may be a lot of value in distancing one’s work
from that particular kind of porn, clinging to art as the answer belies a fear of branding themselves with the stigma of sexually related material. Vendetta sees art and alt porn being very much unified on her site, which she describes as “an artistic interpretation of kink that is both arty and porny without being snobby about either.” Vendetta has discovered however, that her work, and alt porn in general, can be different things to different people. “Women who write to me think they’ve found an artistic place to express themselves,” she says, “while guys think they’ve found cool pics of hot girls.” Zak Smith, a painter who performs in porn under the name Zak Sabbath, concurs with this statement, and boils things down to a pragmatic marketing perspective. He points out that men “want to look at the pictures and jack off to them are made to feel as though the site is porn and was made just for them,” and on the other hand, “women who want to be in the pictures think of them as essentially a kind of way to make money by getting called pretty are made to feel as though the site is a fashion thing and was made just for them.” Smith began appearing in porn in 2005 after making a crack to a director who wanted to feature his paintings as part of the set of one of his upcoming films. Alt porn director and performer Benny Profane had been admiring Smith’s art from afar, especially on the boards of Suicide Girls. Smith is an active participant on the website, where he maintains a blog in addition to offering reproductions of his painting for sale in the shop alongside t-shirts he has designed. When Profane asked Smith if he would consider lending his art to the set of “Barbed Wire Kiss,” then in pre-production for VCA Pictures, Smith agreed and then said, “And if you need me to fuck any girls for you, I’d be into that too.” Though Smith could claim that porn is part of his artistic expression he laughs at the idea instead, and scoffs, “What kind of prick would I be if I did? “ Off screen, however, Smith spent several years painting pictures of women who work in the sex industry, with resulted in a book entitled “Pictures of Girls” (Distributed Art Publishers, 2005) In February 2007 Smith showed a series of drawings at The Armory Show in New York City called “Drawings From Around the Time I Became a Porn Star,” and has started work on a book in words and pictures about his adventures in the adult industry. Porn has certainly had an influence on his body of work, though he sees the porn itself as an auxiliary to his artistic expression, not the core of it by any means. He describes the relationship between art and porn in his work as being, “Roughly equivalent to the relationship of Cezanne to a bowl of fruit. It's there, I paint a picture of it.” Record-producer-turned-photographer Bob Coulter, like Smith, captures porn like a bowl of fruit, but he sees no line between art and porn, and says that, “It either looks cool or it doesn't.” This coolness is the defining feature of his work Coulter, who shoots colorsaturated, gritty photographs of naked and partially-clothed women in the sleaziest hotels he can find. His work has included a subscription-based website Crazy Babe (crazybabe.com), online since 1999; two fine art books, Crazy Babes (Goliath Books 2003) and Bad Girls Hotel (Goliath Books 2006); and a porn video he is currently in post-production on for porn company Bad Seed (a subsidiary of Adam and Eve Pictures). Though each of these projects can be named differently, Coulter sees them all as part of a natural progression for his work.
For Coulter and other engaged with alt porn –whatever they think of that term– the relationship between porn and art is complex, though it isn’t always taken seriously. Each of my interviewees acted slightly burdened by questions about the delineations between porn and art, because especially in alt porn, the difference matters less and less. Images that, in Bob Coulter’s words, “look cool,” take precedence over the quest to tease out the differences between art and porn. In alt porn, all forms of visual culture are relevant and useful, regardless of where they reside on the continuum of high and low culture.