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Skin in the Game: Precarity and Performance in Artistic Representations of Erotic Labor

posted on 13.07.2022, 21:01 authored by Lena Chen

This paper explores parallels in the precarious working conditions of art workers and erotic laborers/sex workers, the impulse to perform sex as artistic practice, and contemporary strategies of representing erotic labor within artistic contexts. Taking an autotheoretical approach, I also present my own practice of incorporating erotic labor into my art and the ethical considerations of occupying a privileged role as artist-researcher.

 I first examine Julia Bryan-Wilson’s concept of “occupational realism” to describe artists who frame their everyday labor as conceptual art. I then argue that artists such as Andrea Fraser and Marina Abramović, who perform sex work for metaphoric value rather than financial necessity, ultimately appropriate and oversimplify the experience of erotic labor. Finally, I reflect upon interviews with the artistic producers behind the archival project Objects of Desire, the digital immersive performance E-viction (organized by Veil Machine), and the exhibition No Human Involved (curated by STROLL PDX and Portland Institute of Contemporary Art). Involving contemporary erotic laborers as artists, curators, and interviewees, these projects represent a wide range of occupational experiences and hazards in the sex industry, which vary according to workers’ particular identities and trades. I argue that these artistic and curatorial approaches – collaborating with community organizations, highlighting a diverse set of experiences and politically urgent issues, and commissioning and distributing institutional funds to erotic laborers – consitute a radical approach that departs from artistic appropriation to instead platform the voices of erotic laborers themselves.




Degree Type

Master's Thesis



Degree Name

  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)


Jongwoo Kim Kristina Straub Angela Washko Alisha Wormsley

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