It’s fair to say that most of us have racked up a fair few hours – plenty of which were probably “Incognito” – on Pornhub, but there really is more to the company than cumshots and creampies. Not only does it have a long history of philanthropy, the website frequently introduces small changes to make its content more inclusive. It led the fight against net neutrality when too many other organizations stayed silent, and it hosted a series of drill music videos after widespread censorship resulted from claims that the trap sub-genre was responsible for a wave of violent crime in the UK.
Now, Pornhub is infiltrating the art world. Head over to 4067 W Pico Boulevard right now and you’ll be able to immerse yourself in PornHub Nation, a futuristic sex-positive utopia created by artist Maggie West and her collaborator Ryder Ripps.
The digitally-driven, multi-room installation allows visitors to enter a world free from social constructs, and it’s every bit as amazing as you’d imagine: there’s a VR game which rewards you with tax refunds for slinging dicks at Harvey Weinstein, a National Gallery filled with portraits of porn star Presidents and even a National Garden decorated with literal cum-filled ice cubes.
Expect an extra sprinkling of Trump jokes and a few tongue-in-cheek digs at government institutions, too – in this future, the DMV literally fucks you. To find out more about what could well be L.A.’s queerest art exhibition, we reached out to West to talk sexual liberation, the ongoing stigma around sex work and the difficulties of hand-crafting a series of alien sex plants.
Tell me a little about the exhibition; how did it come about, and did you always have Pornhub in mind?
I had done a couple of larger installation pieces already, but I really wanted to create a large-scale, immersive, multi-room installation and I was thinking about how I could get it built. I know a lot of people in porn – I shot some stars for my SlutWalk project and my boyfriend is actually a former porn star – so I talked to them about what it was like to work for Pornhub. I already knew they had been doing some really interesting, weird stuff, like when they sponsored the Italian football club, and everybody I talked to seemed to really enjoy their interactions with them, so I initially reached out with my friend Ryder – he’s not with the project anymore, but he helped with a lot of the early developments and did a lot of the graphic design. Straight away they were really open to the idea.
What was it like to work with Pornhub on something like this?
They really gave us a lot of artistic freedom. There weren’t many changes suggested, so in that sense they were really cool about just letting us do what we wanted. Actually, the only thing they didn’t want us to go really hard on were the Trump jokes! There were plenty in there at first so we had to reel that back a little bit, but I definitely feel like they’re still in there, even if they are subtle.
I noticed that the timeline in the exhibition starts with the election of Trump and uses that as a jumping-off point for this new, utopian future. Do you view things actually improving?
It’s hard to say. The joke there was “If Trump can get elected, why can’t Pornhub have its own country?” That Trump joke made it through! I do think that some parts of society are becoming more progressive but, as we’ve all seen, there’s been a real backlash from people digging in their heels and becoming even more rooted in their archaic views. I can definitely say I’m not exactly thrilled with the current political climate!
Were those feelings what motivated the show’s political bent?
Generally speaking, the whole show is satire of the government. We wanted to create this story: everyone leaves their countries to go and form this new, sex-positive utopia called Pornhub Nation where you can be as freaky as you want. That concept is definitely rooted in satire. But there’s so much stigma around sex workers – what they do and who they are as people – that to have an entire exhibition where all the characters are porn performers but none of them are actually doing anything sexually explicit is something I think is really interesting. Well, I guess there is nudity in one or two shots, but still, for the most part, it’s not hugely pornographic.
The manifesto attached to the exhibition about ‘horny settlers’ settling into a new world free from social constructs – that whole thing reads as super, super queer! Was that intentional?
Yes. I guess there was this idea of it being a sexual utopia where you could be whoever you want to be and fuck whoever you want to fuck, so I think whenever you allow people the freedom to what they want outside of social constructs, they’re going to experiment with their behavior more. We also have queer performers in the exhibition. Bella – one of our Pornhub Presidents –– is bisexual, but she’s in a committed relationship with a woman. Buck Angel is amazing, too. He’s in the DMV – he’s one of our agents!
I love the idea of the DMV in particular, can you tell us more about that room in your own words?
First of all, everybody hates the DMV. It’s the worst! So the joke was that in our world the DMV is literally fucking you, not just figuratively. To convey that, I wanted to build this industrial-looking BDSM chamber which is lit with these red fluorescent lights and filled with warning posters with mottos like “Don’t Suck Dick and Drive” and “Don’t Have Too Many Butt Plugs In!” I actually did all the photography, and it really does fuck you up when you walk in. There are torture devices and pillories – which, by the way, you can take photos in – and loud, banging industrial music. Then, on stage, we have our staff. For that part, I found a lot of erotic mannequins and then started to outfit them in some very fashionable latex looks. The whole thing really smacks you in the face!
How about the other rooms, do you have a favorite?
I do! I spent a lot of time on all of them so I always feel weird saying it, but my personal favorite is the room with the alien plants. I didn’t build the cabinets myself, but I fabricated everything inside those boxes personally; that involved spending hours airbrushing colors and wiring up electrical stuff to make it look like alien floral matter. I learn a lot about electrical equipment! So I like that one the best, and I feel it’s the one you really have to see because all of the lights are shifting and moving constantly. Everything changes in a million different ways – it’s very impactful.
Tell us about some of your other work – is there always an element of some activist message?
Yes, although not everything I do is like that. As artists, I don’t feel like we have a responsibility to make political work; if you want to, then you should do it. I’ve done a handful of pieces, so one was a benefit for Planned Parenthood and then I also did the Slutwalk, which is about protesting sexual violence. I think the political work gets publicized more, so maybe that’s what I’m more known for; I also think that in times of political distress everyone feels a responsibility to make everything political, but sometimes it’s just important, even in the midst of all that, to just do something that you want to do. It doesn’t have to necessarily be life-affirming or challenging – I shoot flowers all the time!
The exhibition has been covered by publications like Artnet, which is interesting given the frequent assumption that the art world is pretty elitist. Do you think the industry is warming to the idea of these collaborations?
Yes. Of course, when commercial entities are involved it becomes different to making work for a gallery, or just for art’s sake, so there’ll always be some separation. But the media and the way it works now has made a lot of institutions more open to not immediately dismissing something with any kind of commercial responsibilities.
Also, unless you’re an artist with a 40-year career being given a MoCA retrospective, you won’t get the budget to do build something so huge without a company backing you. That was my thought process, at least. And in general, Pornhub was a really great company to work for – of all the large companies I’ve worked for they’ve definitely been my favorite. If you really are lucky enough to find an organization that will just let you go crazy then it can become a really great situation.
One final question: What do you want people to take away from this experience?
I really just want people to have fun! This is meant to be a reprieve from daily life. If you emerge with new thoughts about sexual openness, or about the destigmatization of sex work, then that’s great. But primarily, this is a fun experience.