When I got to the Brooklyn-based Dreamhouse venue on the first night of Chelsea Poe’s Queer Porn Americana tour in mid April, she was fluttering around the space with two radical faeries looking for a projector that had an HDMI input. Apparently the only ones they could find were antiques. I put my stuff down and grabbed the bottom of a projection screen, balancing it as someone in dumpster-dive glam used a staple gun to hang it from the ceiling. “MIX” was scribbled in fading Sharpie on nearly every piece of equipment.
Two years ago, Chelsea and I shot a Daddy’s Girl porn scene inside an enclosed satin space with shifting ambient light and sounds as an installation at MIX NYC Queer Experimental Film Festival in Brooklyn. Colors shifted around us in the tiny space, our performance mediated by constant flux. The darkness, saturated in orange and yellow, hid the cheap velour and foam, but not a roll of paper towels in the corner suggesting that this installation was meant for fucking — as long as you clean up.
Tonight, Poe was screening Queer Porn America. The lighting in the first scene reminds me of the installation at MIX: a tripped-out Brooklyn basement lovenest, though it was actually shot in Grand Rapids, Michigan, her home town. The whole film evokes the close connections — through film, art, nightlife, sex — between queer communities around the country. The way Poe sees it, “Queer porn people are from those same communities, so it only feels natural to bring it back to those communities. DIY spaces are where we are comfortable. We don’t have to bullshit. This is how and where influential work happens — in DIY space, we aren’t dealing with the mainstream world.” A scene from Vegas features two trans women scissoring, and one of the performers in Chicago wears Cruella De-Ville hair and giggles when she comes. Another scene was shot in New York City last summer; the boys are wrestling in their own sweat. Porn made during an NYC summer is a special challenge. In part of the scene, one boy’s head is directly facing an air conditioner.
Porn screenings in a queer punk world like this are what people go to the night after they overdid it at the club. Or at least, that’s what it feels like in New York. Or at least that’s what it feels like when tough punks finally feel safe in a sexual environment. Everyone cozies up, stays quiet — a little like watching Saturday morning cartoons with your best friend who just spent the night. It’s perverted, yet homey. Wholesome. I almost fell asleep on a bean bag while Cheetos From Heaven looped mumblecore narrative over imagery of Aelien, the artist, proclaiming her love in a bathtub full of cheetos and Donald Trump snapshots. Brilliant, hypnotising, and totally comfortable.
It has been four days since I left Brooklyn. Poe FaceTimed me earlier this evening to smoke a “face bowl” and talk about my personal life and her business. Right now she’s in Grand Rapids, in the home in which she grew up. She’s handling promotional work and e-mails under a blanket in the family room. “That’s the couch I came out on when I was 15.” She pans her iPhone across a fantastic ’00s couch: “Literally right there, I was holding my girlfriend’s hand. My mom thought I got her pregnant.” After a few days at her parent’s house, she’ll head to Chicago, then Tokyo on the Queer Porn Americana tour.
She considers her screenings art pieces in themselves. The lighting, the way people sit, what people play, how people talk about it. If she’s given full reign, she creates an installation. She’s using a few different systems to show her work on this tour. In Brooklyn, she gave five directors time slots and instructions to show whatever they wanted. In London, there was an academic-style crit and Q&A. In Chicago, she partied with event organizers and fans at her hotel after the show, which was held at the Pleasure Chest. In Providence, one of the performers in Queer Porn Americana was also one of the musical performers — two queer feminist noise metal bands played sets before the porn (and the punky soundtrack) came blasting through the same poor PA system.
“I never thought I would ever get to travel and see all these places, so it’s pretty unreal,” Poe tells me from the basement. I think it’s funny, and classic Chelsea, that she planned a three-night vacation in her mother’s basement during a world tour. “There’s a lot of amazing art that gets made [in Grand Rapids] but it never gets out. Even moving to Chicago is a big deal coming from this scene. I feel a responsibility to it.” So she comes back. She says her high school friends give her porn ideas whenever she comes home, and constant inspiration. “These are the people I hung out with four nights a week. We were in a metal band, we were ripping up bibles on stage, we wore corpse paint. I didn’t give a fuck what people thought, that wasn’t a thing to think of. I had shit shows where no one clapped. Once you get over that, once you get over the ‘this is as shitty as I can feel because of art’ feeling, you can build from that. You don’t have to fear it anymore.”
RADICAL SELF-CARE INCLUDES SMASHING THE PATRIARCHY
I followed her to Providence, Rhode Island after the Brooklyn opening night. On the bus there, she starts telling me about how her new project Fucking Against Fascism should go down: “I want to make shit on a DIY level and show it to my community — the punk community, the queer community.” She wants people to discuss what politics they care about and how queer sex on film can smash the system. “Queer artists are always being pushed out of mainstream spaces because we have to deal with the biggest bullshit all the time just to exist there. I could say ‘hey, this is kind of transphobic’ and they will respond ‘no it’s not Chelsea you’re wrong,’” she says.
I know she’s casting me for this film — I get nervous thinking about what I would say to the camera and realize she’s got me thinking about Kathleen Hannah singing “Stepping Up To The Mic” with Internal/External. I felt like all this could have a positive aspect on our political engagement somehow, even if in reality we are all just gonna meet up in a hotel room and Chelsea’s gonna use the 8MM app on her iPhone to make us look cool. She told me the queercore band Limp Wrist encouraged her entire punk scene to embrace queerness, and that if she could have any band do the soundtrack it would be them.
Chelsea’s works are built from layers of “inauthentic masterpiece” and earnest integrity. Porn is all about the kitsch of mechanical reproduction and commercial shine, and Midwestern punk bands and iPhone videos come from some deep-seated American obsession with individuality and identity. But maybe that’s the language the director of Queer Porn Americana wants to use to spark dialogue around her work, which is deeply invested in rebelling against mainstream pornography’s rampant sexism. A common language. A queer, small town punk language. “I feel like weirdness just kind of presents itself,” an actual text I just got from Chelsea, is more of an American cultural mindset than we are willing to admit.
It takes me back to her whole Michigan vibe, her small town punk friends listening to records in a basement. “There’s a lot of queer weirdos here that people don’t think about, but I still feel like the weirdest person here.” Maynard from TOOL, Michael Jackson, Prince, MC5. Madonna and Dita Von Teese both went to Rochester High. She says Iggy Pop is “from right up the road.” Weirder than Iggy Pop, I asked? “I’m not as weird as Iggy Pop, I don’t rub peanut butter all over myself.” But she does get in front of a camera and “take 32 orgasms to the face” for you know, purely artistic reasons. Beat that, Iggy.
Poe has been working on an experimental documentary for the past year where she has filmed herself traveling for work, often anchored by footage of the 2016 primaries and presidential election. The project is ongoing.
“I intentionally wanted to watch the whole election cycle this time around, I’ve never been able to before.” She was stuck in New England for a gig and between scenes she would watch the primaries. The entire film is her hanging out in hotel rooms watching the next thing go down on the news. “I just wanted to see what the whole system looks like from the inside — and it just turned out to be this totally unreal thing.” Every moment in history has personal memories attached to it, and she’s capturing the whole thing through the iPhone lens of a queer trans sex worker who travels everywhere for her job.
“I remember watching the first night of it in Grand Rapids at my favorite bar and I was in JFK when violence broke out at a Trump rally in Chicago.” The video reads like a 20-minute virtual diary. Stoned selfies, FaceTime windows, hotel bedding, talking heads on hotel televisions. “In New England, I was in the same town where most of the campaigns were, there was a Jeb Bush person in my hotel.” The experience of this footage depends on how you watch it: random clips or chronologically. It feels as unreal as it is real.
“I’m going to keep shooting it until this whole thing unravels, I guess… It could end any day now.” I realize that after we hang up, she is leaving the country for Tokyo, and that she will be filming for this project the whole time she is there — it could all end this week. I ask her, earnestly, how does she want her film to end? She finishes the last puff of her bowl and says, “What if it’s Nixon style, and he cries and goes away helicopter style… that’s what Nixon did. That would be kind of cool.” Crying. Sad Wave. (Instead, Chelsea screened Queer Porn Americana in Tokyo at a fetish club, where she also appeared on television to talk about her film and the Tokyo hardcore scene.)
As friends, one of our favorite pastimes is getting stoned and watching documentaries. “I’ve always loved geography. I was one of those kids who knew all the state capitals when I was three years old.” Poe traveled the country to make Queer Porn Americana, reaching not only her hometown and Brooklyn, but also Chicago and Vegas. Now the film is traveling, and London and Tokyo have seen it. She will probably be in Australia, Los Angeles, and Finland with it before the summer’s over. “My dad really wanted me to travel around the world with my art and I feel like I’ve always really been pushing towards that. I’ve always wanted to tour.” This is the first real travel she’s managed to do since he passed away last year. I guess it is kind of strange to think of porn as the vessel for making your family proud but it is strangely something that Chelsea and I have in common.