Service is Political

"Baby", dir. Evie Snax, perfo Manon

Rabarbar is a Polish queer porn festival created by Kinga, Zofia and Martyna. We are a group of queer artists and feminist activists focused on promoting non-heteronormative pornography understood as the basis of democratic forms of expression, work and/or play. As the organizers of  the festival, we care about a great, open, and political talk about queerness and sexuality in our Polish LGBT+ community. We prioritize productions made by and for queer people, with the special attention paid to the underrepresented bodies and identities.

Zofia, Martyna and Kinga

ZN: What does pornography have in common with ethics?

MT: When queer porn started to develop, it was often treated in Poland as opposed to the mainstream porn. It seemed that queer porn was ethical and the mainstream porn wasn’t. When we were organizing the festival, we really wanted to get rid of that dichotomy, one of the reasons being that we function in different environments. We wanted to talk about ethics, which is really important, but we also wanted to avoid stigmatizing anyone. Talking about ethics and porn is then OK,  but not by way of negating the mainstream, but by way of including the underrepresented groups, such as non-heterosexual, trans, non-binary, fat, disabled, and non-white people, as well as sexual practices performed from their own perspective.

I’m of the opinion that pornography is ethical when all people involved in the process have respect for one another and consent to what is about to happen. In queer porn, there is a verbalised emphasis on this aspect. It is present in the mainstream porn too, but we, as the recipients, do not necessarily always have the information about it. It seems to me that what pornography and ethics have in common is simply thinking about how to create such productions ethically. We have all sorts of ideas about what is happening in this business. To me, it is important to talk about it, to talk about ethics and about how those people feel, how we feel. After all, we live in a society in which sex is a taboo subject.

KM: The image of pornography in popculture is still very negative. The media still present porn actors as vulnerable victims of human trafficking tangled up in drug cartel, or other similar stories. The Rabarbar’s mission is to educate the audience, fight stereotypes, and promote sex-positive and body-positive shows of emancipated sex workers and amateurs willing to share their sexuality with others. This year in our programme we have a film “Documenting Desire” produced by AORTA Productions and showing a sample process of shooting a queer porn – people talk about their fantasies, boundaries, concern, and together they establish what they want to try, and then proceed to role-playing. Of course it is only one of the many ways of producing a porn. To me personally it is important that our audience leaves the screening feeling that shooting a porn can be a pleasant experience, taking place in the atmosphere of warmth and authentic interpersonal exchange.

Kinga Michalska, Ogniwo, Kraków 2018

MM: You talk about ethics on the level of porn production and how it is made, but in the description of your festival there is also a reference to “democratic forms of expression of work and play”. I have the impression that these democratic forms should also include the ways of presenting porn, and be open to different possible receptions, caused by different personal experiences. Could you tell us how you democratize the space around porn and sex?

MT: This process is quite complicated; we have what we show on the screen. The decision belongs to us as the organizers of the event. We actively and jointly create the space in which a given film is presented, and the space is also influenced by the audience. We care about creating such spaces – this is not always successful – in which the audience feels comfortable and each member knows he or she has a choice and can stop watching the film. There are a lot of aspects of porn that function as “triggers”, evoking various emotions. Watching porn together is often a completely new, different experience. Festivalization of porn is a process of creating and developing spaces in which the audience feels safe and comfortable. They have a right to be respected with their emotions and reactions. This is the process. Moreover, in the case of queer porn what is also important is the content, which is often different from what can be seen in the mainstream porn. We watch lesbian or gay sex differently; trans people sex is also shown in different ways. These non-normative sexual activities are often fetishized by the mainstream porn.

KM: Many people who come to us do not know where to find queer feminist porn with which they could identify. Rabarbar gives queer people free access to a selection of high quality political porn that we watch together. We have a donation jar, but donating is optional. There is also a space for conversation, meeting the creators, asking questions, expressing one’s anxiety and concern. There is an open call – everyone can put forward a film, we watch everything and make decisions by consensus. We always provide a list of recommended websites or independent porn producers and artists during our events. We try to hold our screenings in places attractive to a diverse public – there is Ogniwo, a political club-café in Krakow, ADA Pulawska squat and Madame Q, a burlesque cabaret in Warsaw. To me, these are all strategies of making porn democratic.

ZN: You say that watching porn together could be an alternative to a voyeuristic watching that is intrinsic to the consumption of erotic materials on the Internet. However, some people are not so willing to share this intimate space with others. I wonder how much do we really need to participate in this area of life? Social norms of appropriateness are violated by porn and this violation may cause embarrassment. Isn’t it what porn is created for? Aren’t we, by letting others participate in our personal experience, getting close to moralising and self-censorship?

MT: In the context of showing non-normative queer porn?

ZN: Yes, especially in the context of watching porn together, combined with analysis, empathy, avoidance of fetishization; of course I agree with everything, but I’d like to know what about the affects that are outside the norms of political correctness and that should not be explored in the social reality. Here I’m thinking of the needs based on the reinforcement of hierarchies instead of diminishing them, for which pornography is a safety valve. Isn’t the offer of the ethical porn a contradiction of this emotional laboratory?

MM: I would also add the question of pleasure.

MT: To me, these are two different issues. I have the experience of watching queer porn, so-called queer porn, since it also is a really broad concept and we could discuss for hours what it means for each of us. I’ve seen productions touching upon the problem of hierarchy, violence. Such films are often categorized as fetishes. However, it is not so that everything can be categorized as such. There are such situations in queer porn too, but they are different due to the non-normativity of the bodies, or sexual non-normativity. To me, it is important to add what I mentioned before: we, as the creators of the festival and privately, are of the opinion that we do not want to negate mainstream porn or the needs it fulfils. We need to consider what we think about such production, and then compare our opinion to what the actors think; porn is very political, simple as that. Queer indicates diversity that mainstream porn usually lacks. To us, the most important aspect of creating a queer porn festival is the fact that more people can realize such thing even exists and perhaps find themselves in this otherness. We care about these people who can’t find themselves in mainstream productions, which are designed specifically for the male gaze.

KM: Zofia, answering your question about voyeuryzm, I’d like to say that we have absolutely nothing against watching pornhub before sleep. I do it myself. We just want to show that there are more options. By organizing the screenings, watching porn together and talking about it, we create a space where people can start feeling comfortable with what can be shameful and taboo for them. Setting boundaries as to what is appropriate – what is a fetish, what is violence and degradation – these are individual issues. The question of consent is such a boundary to me personally. I think that Rabarbar is a great space, open to a conversation. We showed films with BDSM elements and it often initiated an important debate.

"Rubix", Rubis Collective

ZN: Can we then try to establish what makes porn queer?

MT (laughing): I’m sorry. This is very difficult.

ZN: You have already said that it is about the representation of non-normative bodies. This could be one of the requirements…

MT: Yes, I would define it in this way. Something else has just occurred to me. I once attended a meeting, still at Odzysk, concerning queer porn, at which we discussed the differences between the mainstream and, say, queer. People leading the meeting came up with a few rules, one of them being the rule mentioned by Martyna, that is experiencing pleasure throughout the whole process, consent of all people involved: those behind and in front of the camera, everyone in the room, consent for what is about to happen achieved collectively. The next rule was feminism, that is breaking the norms and patriarchal ideas about sex. There were a few such rules.

I understand queer as non-normativity, but also searching for minorities among the minorities. Openness to searching further and deeper. So non-normative bodies, trans, non-heterosexual, non-binary, pansexual, bisexual, fat, disabled, aged people, etc. What I have noticed is for example that aged people in porn are put in the MILF category, and they are usually women. And that’s it. At Rabarbar we showed, for example, a film featuring only women over forty; they simply had sex with each other and enjoyed it. What is also important in queer porn is breaking the visual norms, exploring the aesthetic different from the mainstream.

ZN: You talk about including the minority groups at the production stage, but what about the place where they were created? The programme of the festival indicates you show mainly foreign films.

MT: It was extremely difficult, we sent the open call to different places. The history of the festival is as follows: three years ago Kinga was invited by the Queer May festival to organize screenings of porn films as a part of it. She showed a few films created by her friends. Last year she invited Zofia to work with her on the second edition of the festival and together they organized a screening in Warsaw. During this event there was a screening of a film created by my friend Sonia Milch XXXY, in which I appeared. I was also a camera operator. We were invited to a debate around the film. The three of us worked on the following, third edition of the festival, so our group is growing in size. For the first time we decided to announce the open call to see what people would send and if they send anything at all. I have concluded from my observations that in the case of Europe, Berlin has the most going on. There are lots of groups there. In Poland there are few people involved in queer porn that we know about, and this is why we finally decided to show two films produced in Poland during the festival. One of the films is an animation – Renata Gąsiorowska’s film Pussy, the second one is a film shot on Pornhub by a trans-gendered boy – Ted Pakulski FTM Stroking Morning Wood. I do realize that two films from Poland is not enough. We also had one production from Ukraine “Endless History of Diseases. SBOYKA. Kiev Porn Horrors, part1”, realized by Antigone. We received a lot of entries, 90 per cent of which were from the West.

KM: We hope that thanks to showing queer porn in Poland, more people will start to create such films here.

"Cipka", Renata Gąsiorowska

ZN: I wondered, if we could go back to the audience for a moment, how it is to organize a porn festival in Poland in the present political situation. Do you have to deal with a lot of negative reactions, violence, hate? Is this why you decided to reveal only your first names in the description of the festival?

MT: No, the names appeared because we were thinking about the issue of authorship for a long time, but finally we decided it would be nice to introduce ourselves to the people invited. However, we talked about it a lot, about how not to appropriate the subject, and that we are not here to dictate what queer porn is, the event is not about us. We eventually decided to introduce ourselves only with our first names.

KM: For me it was more about reducing the distance than about anonymity – I speak and write openly about the fact that I co-create a festival. The members of my family I am close with know about it and support it. Showing queer porn in Poland is not easy. Many institutions we tried to cooperate with refused for fear of losing state funds. I think that it would be different if we proposed an art exhibition devoted to homoeroticism instead of porn film festival. Personally, I understand and respect this concern, but it means that finding a space is difficult. Especially if we take into account the present campaign against the LGBT people. But we insisted not to use euphemisms and fight for a space for queer porn, so we cooperate with people who are not afraid of this word.

MT: When it comes to the organization, it has been a bit chaotic recently; we had planned screenings in 4 cities, but managed to show up in two, now we would like to show the films in Poznan, but I don’t know if it is going to happen. In Krakow, when the event was published on Facebook, it was immediately reported and blocked. In Warsaw, our Facebook accounts were blocked during the festival. The event disappeared from the social media almost immediately. In Warsaw we were also invited by a group Dziwnowo located then in a Jazdow house, but eventually Warsaw Downtown Culture Center (the entity in charge of the house) did not agree to show porn films, even though I wrote a long email about how much queerness and sexuality fit into the current trends of cultural institutions in a city today (laughing). So we had to look for a new place at short notice. In Szczecin we had a place arranged by Paulina from Girls Watch Porn, but guys working in a bar where we were to show the films stopped replying and answering the phone. There was a moment when we could not distribute any information at all. We asked other people for sharing something on Facebook, we also couldn’t send anything from the festival’s profile, or from our private profiles, every group we administered was blocked, we were completely blocked. And this was our form of promotion. So everything was postponed, and only two days before the festival we managed to publish the programme online.

MM: Social media block all the content concerning sex and pornography quite efficiently.

ZN: …let us hope that RTV Magazine will not be blocked.

MM: The issues concerning sexuality are not blocked, only sex spelled with “x” and porn.

"Baby", dir. Evie Snax, staring Manon

"36-year old virgin", Skyler Braeden Fox

MT: This is about sex work policy in a broad sense. For example, websites from the United States. A new law SESTA/FOSTA has been introduced in the US, putting the responsibility for the content on the website instead of the user. As a result, all the websites concerning sex work were closed, people were fired. People working online, searching for clients online, found themselves in a situation where they had to start searching on the streets. This policy exerts an influence on porn industry as well. American servers blocked websites of people making and selling porn, which made the promotion impossible. And Facebook follows suit. This is about the whole social media policy, which stigmatizes sex work. It is important to talk about it.

ZN: Coming back to Facebook censorship – what euphemisms should be used? After all, content relating to sexuality can be published, it is enough to avoid using certain words.

MT: I think there are key words. We started using the word “porno” with a dot on Instagram –, so we had rabarbar, quite absurd, but then we could use Instagram. That’s not all – people that are read as women can’t show nipples, you also can’t show genitals. And ass. We had a leaflet with an ass and we were blocked too.

MM: Yes, I remember. But, in fact, the situation is even worse because nudity or sexual activities are interpreted by the algorithms in a very broad manner. Genitals or nipples don’t have to be seen, it is enough that both are interpreted as naked bodies to be banned. You have to require further verification that restores the content but doesn’t shorten the ban. It’s a complicated policy whose aim is to make activity in this field more difficult. Tell us about the participant of the festival, do you have your own audience?

MT: I found it very interesting in Warsaw, also because I was invited to join the discussion last year, and this year I co-organized the whole festival. So I had two different experiences. When I was invited to join the discussion, I was checking whether my friends were present to support me, and I don’t know who else was there. This time I observed. In ADA (a squat in Warsaw) it was so interesting that during the first loop (we showed films in a loop for four hours) there were only punk-rock boys I recognized as cis-gendered boys, although I can’t claim it for sure. They stayed until the end, which I’m really proud of. They were also interested because we talk a little in between the films. We ask how people are feeling, and tell them repeatedly that it is OK to leave if they feel uncomfortable, that weird things may be shown, etc. I have the impression that in the queer community there has been a boom for porn, it has become cool to watch porn, participate in festivals, make porn, but not everyone shares this opinion, not everyone feels easily comfortable, so we wanted to provide such possibility and space. So in ADA there was such a group, including people who came from the Anarchist Film Festival that was taking place in the same space. I found my friends too. In Madame Q there were a lot of young queer people and the burlesque audience – men around 40, a lady around 60, very interested. In Madame Q we also had a conversation with the director of “36-year-old virgin”, Skyler Braeden Fox. There came really a lot of normative people who were very interested, they said they saw something like that for the first time in their lives. One person said during the discussion: “Maybe it will sound strange since I perform sex work on camera, but I’m really stressed watching porn and I don’t like it, but I came here and I’m touched”. It was very moving.

KM: The moment you talk about was one of the most pleasant experiences of the whole festival – a confirmation it was worth the effort. Another such moment was during the screening in Krakow, when one of the festival participant’s mum baked a rhubarb cake. It was really sweet to feel the family’s support for our initiative. I’ve been organizing porn screenings for three years, as a part of the Queer May in Krakow. I have a wonderful regular audience, these are mainly young, politically committed people.

MM: What about people engaged in pornography? Is this an event during which they can meet, get to know each other?

MT: That would be perfect. There were some meetings of different people, also last year, for example during our conversation. This provides an opportunity of “coming out” of people working in the sex industry, because you see other people who do it too. But this year we didn’t have much space for big debates, actually we had only one. And now, after we’ve done some evaluation, we are wondering how to improve our formula. We, too, did this without funding, on our own…

KM: I’ve met in the audience a few people working in the sex industry, but these conversations still take place rather behind the scenes. This is a process that requires patience and method. For such a debate to take place publicly, there has to be a basis of trust. Rabarbar is still in its infancy and that is totally OK.

ZN: So the organization of the whole festival is your voluntary work?

MT: Yes. We collected donations to refund the director the ticket fare, refund ourselves the printing price, etc., so that we wouldn’t have to pay ourselves.

Kinga Michalska, Ogniwo, Kraków 2018

MM: Are these films available to watch after the festival? Can you tell us something about the distribution of this type of materials, about the knowledge base of this subject? While mainstream porn is widely available and can be watched online practically with no limits, everything that is alternative or non-normative is hidden, you have to pay for it, and finally, you have to know where to look for it.

MT: Personally, but also as the organizer of the festival, I always encourage to pay for porn. Many people are responsible for it, it is their job, so this is not only about sex, this is also about work. Every person watching porn rarely recognizes him- or herself as a client. And since we don’t consider sex work to be work at all, be it in porn industry, in direct contact, or online, it is worth mentioning at a festival such as ours. We need to remember we are not only the audience, but also the clients.

At Rabarbar we show predominantly festival productions, but sometimes we also show films by groups and artists such as Meow Meow, Aorta Films, Ashley Vex, that sell their films online. You watch the trailer on the website and if you like it, you can pay for the full access. Some people make porn that is only suitable for festivals, exhibitions, and that’s it.

We also had films featuring Jiz Lee, a queer porn icon. The person writes about this subject, is published, and has been doing it for many years. I think that Jiz was also involved in The Crash Pad Series, that is one of the first queer porn films ever – at least among those known to me. This is a person who sells porn and is active also on the mainstream scene. Well, you have to search for it. We can provide a few links where you can find this type of porn.

KM: Jiz Lee also has a queer porn website Pink Label TV that I highly recommend.

ZN: Could you mention the reasons for which people watch porn?

MT: I can mention the reasons for which I watch porn.

ZN: I’ll just say why I asked this question. Mainstream porn serves primarily to achieve orgasm. On your Facebook profile you write that you invite the audience for any other reason, orgasm too, but I’d like to ask about these other reasons.

MT: I’m really interested in other people’s sexuality, I’m curious about the sexual practices of others, I think about it. I also feel this way about queer porn. I’m really curious about the practices I may not know, or I don’t even realise they exist, I don’t know how different people deal with their different bodies. I am a cis-gendered person myself and my body is very normative. So I watch porn to learn something new, but also for pleasure. Pleasure is also important.

"Venus in Scorpio", Evie Snax

MM: And how do you distinguish between what porn is and what it is not? I’m not talking about the division between mainstream and queer porn now. What is it to you, as curators, organizers, selectors of the festival? I can see the works of female artists, video art works in the lineup…

MT: Selection was a real grind. We made a list of all the films we received, watched all of them, and then talked about them. We discussed what we liked, what we didn’t like, and how we understand it. We received a few productions we couldn’t decide what to do with. It is difficult to be in a position in which you have to say: hey, we don’t understand, we are not sure, we don’t know or we think something is not pornography. On the other hand, we have our own ideas and categories while creating the festival, and we want it to be about sex. So the question arises what is about sex and what is not. We received a lot of entries, more than forty films, and I expected to receive around ten. We also dismissed productions we didn’t know how to discuss with the audience. Two years ago during the discussion there was a man who claimed nothing we showed was porn. “I did some reading and I know what porn is, porn means close-ups on sexual acts, and what you show is not porn, what you show could be exhibited at art galleries”. This is what you talked about, Martyna.

For example, some things are very metaphorical. We told him then that there is no single definition of porn… We constantly have to make decisions about the festival’s programme, but if the three of us are absolutely sure about something, we don’t think too much. But very often we have many doubts. We want the festival to be about sex, in its broadest sense.

KM: Queerness is vague by definition. It is a category that is supposed to make a mess, bring chaos, disturb, and stimulate to ask questions. In the programme we aim to show films that question the boundaries of what porn is. Do we need to see sex for something to be pornography? What is sex? Do we need to be turned on? We do not give clear-cut answers. Our audience decide on their own. We show animated films, documentaries, video art, amateur porn, professional porn – a wide range, both in terms of form and content. We want everyone to find something for themselves. We try to find a balance between serious and funny films, or political and entertaining. When I choose a film, the most important question is: does the film say something new about body, sexuality, pleasure, politics? How does it work when juxtaposed with other films we chose? Does it make sex and porn queer? Does it show something that is invisible on a daily basis? Does it teach me how to love myself and other people better?


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