by Fiona Alison Duncan
The name came eleven months after the vision. In October 2016, I launched a lit series called Hard to Read at the Standard hotels in Los Angeles. For our inaugural event, the hotel gave author Natasha Stagg—we were celebrating her first novel Surveys—a large orange suite. I love hotels. I’ve connived many innovations to get in them, since I, a contemporary poet-cum-bookseller (doomed), can barely afford rent. When I had a title on a legit magazine masthead, I’d e-mail the marketing departments of fashionable hotels for “complimentary stays,” only once writing the review I implied I would. I crash hotel pools—The Langham, The Roosevelt, The Line—whenever LA gets too hot. And I wouldn’t have started a lit series anywhere but a hotel. Hard to Read takes place in a plush pink lobby, poolside, outside, fireside, or in one of two themed bars. As soon as I saw us bedside though—Natasha Stagg, readying before our reading, alongside fellow readers, artist Amalia Ulman, musician Jasmine Nyende, and actress Tierney Finster—I knew I had to program in-room. I had a vision of dozens of my favorite, smartest artists in this glamorous, liminal space, getting comfortable, and so, weird.
It was on a road trip I thought was going nowhere that the name came to me. Sojourner Truth Parsons, a painter, was driving across North America, leaving our then-home of Los Angeles, with stops in Boulder and Toronto, towards a final destination of New York, where she had a solo show. We left on the day of the eclipse. August 21, 2017. I’d abandoned a writer’s retreat in Baja to come. A few days later—we must’ve been in Iowa, Illinois, or Indiana, the stretch of the trip we were warned was inane, days of plains—I began to doubt my decision to tag-along, and that’s when I saw a sign that said Pillow Talk.
The Standard responded positively to my pitch. I wanted to lead—I wrote from my phone, from the passenger’s seat of Parsons’ car—an adult sex-ed program in their best hotel rooms. A complement to Hard to Read, this program would support alike arts scene, but more intimately and interactively. We would invite artists and experts to share work on and discuss sex, gender, and love, offering an alternative venue to the usual: academy, therapy, galleries, and the Internet. We could call it Pillow Talk.
I’ve called Pillow Talk a think tank, a public service, a propaganda project, and a political test-site. Its current official tagline is “Community Organizing on Sex, Love, and Communication.” Practically, for now, it’s an interactive monthly event. Seemingly innocuous. Just fifteen to fifty bodies gathered in a penthouse suite in Downtown, Los Angeles, exchanging words and touch.
Every event is different. The room, myself, and the night—always Thursdays—are the only constants. The room is corporate in feel. Dove grey, slate, and white with accents of yellow and orange. There’s a meeting room, a bedroom, and a panoramic view of Downtown LA stacked with office high-rises and my second office, the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. We’re four events and two photo shoots in. Our next three are scheduled, the details are coming together. Sometimes topic organizes form, sometimes meaning comes out of it; the program is a mix of somatic and discursive practices. We’ve hosted panel and group discussions, meditations and movement, and will soon do screenings, musical performances, life drawing classes, and maybe a game of Spin the Bottle.
Our last event was a participatory photo shoot. Queer model Tzef Montana, stylist Autumn Randolph, photographer Jasper Briggs, and I guided a small group of attendees to pose in a series of experimental portraits. The idea was to engage in mindful communication, consent, trust, and surrender, to explore and reflect on how photographic portraiture is similar to other intimate, embodied encounters, and to make a beautiful image, or a few. We wore local unisex designers No Sesso, Come Tees, and Eckhaus Latta, accessorizing with vibrating rings, Japanese bondage rope, and a strap-on from Pillow Talk’s American-made sex toy sponsor Doc Johnson.
The shoot was strong, but as usual, it was the afterglow I best remember—the hours following our planned programming, when groups cluster naturally in the space. I’ve had intense conversations on carpeted floor and king-size bed about self-love, gay Asian men, and the Tao; holotropic breathwork, hallucinations, and art in Athens; imaginary dismemberment and the perfect blowjob; and workplace dissociation, gender wage gaps, and who’s going to which party tomorrow.
Pillow Talk launched in January 2018. As I was working towards this, Harvey Weinstein, Knight Landesman, and #MeToo took over the news. One of my first, imperative events was already about this: power, money, disparity, and access. Patriarchal opportunism and femme ambition. All the subtle to gross coercions. Harassment, rape, systemic injustice, cycles of trauma, and what we could possibly do about it. I’d been thinking, for years, about this stuff. Since I learned how many of my friends had been date raped. Since I started counting how many—a majority—of my male bosses and mentors, from fourteen-years-old to my present of thirty, had switched promising work opportunities for me for banal sexual or romantic favors for them. Since I started really listening: to Deidre, telling me she can’t walk alone at night anywhere without fear of harassment or attack; to Anna, nurturing another abusive relationship as if she were these volatile boys’ surrogate mother; and to dozens of multi-generational femme artists explaining (I was asking, I thought I might write about it) how they pursued sex work as an efficient means of funding their work, because they couldn’t conceive of another or faster way to afford the time and resources to make art, and what that eventually cost them, emotionally and physically. I was beyond angry about the connections I was making between internalized scarcity and misogyny, structural inequality, devaluations of “feminine” labor, contemporary capitalism, humanity’s tendency to reenact trauma, and my life options—I was very sad, and researching alternatives.
As with most political topics, the most interesting and potentially transformative ideas about #MeToo I was hearing in-person only, between trusted intimates.
I thought a lot about how to create an event where unpopular but maybe common ideas could be communicated at least somewhat publicly, where strangers would feel comfortable to share in ambiguity. Because the event was about power discrepancies, I set-up non-hierarchical seating (everyone in a circle, on the floor), and asked seven co-hosts to help me lead through inclusion, to ask questions; I wanted everyone in the room to feel they had equal right and opportunity to speak.
It took weeks to find the right words for the invite. I kept asking friends and colleagues: “How can we make sure no assholes attend?” I knew it wasn’t only cis women who were harmed by sexualized abuses of power. I recognized that we may be a visible majority, but that we could also learn by considering how different embodiments and identities experience similar dynamics. I wanted femme-identified and allied people to come, and feel entitled to exist as safely as possible, but I didn’t want our event to feel exclusionary, or too basically identity-oriented. Eventually, my friend, artist-writer-musician-mystic Alexis Blair Penney, suggested calling the event “femme-centered,” and it worked. An ideal cohort came. Diverse in the fields they worked in, the country’s their parents came from, their sex and gender orientations and preferences, life experiences, and educations, what we all had in common was a level of radical thinking and a desire to give each other the respect we all wanted.
(If Pillow Talk is an experiment, one of the things I’m most interested in observing and testing is how and what languages can most effectively create the realities we want. Which words inspire desire? Well-being? Respect? What vocabularies and tones can be instrumentalized, and in which contexts, to affect social and political change?)
I titled our #MeToo event “We’d rather be free,” and didn’t include any mention of #MeToo in its initial blasts. (I’m using it here mostly for efficiency’s sake. I find shorthands, especially trending terms, limit creative thinking.)
I reread Starhawk’s Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery and Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair in anticipation of the event, and e-mailed a pdf of the later to my co-hosts to consider too—I recommend them both.
My co-hosts were artists, actors, activists, and academics, among them Alice Baker of support.fm, Amalia Ulman, Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Dasha Nekrasova, Dr. Jane Ward, Larissa Pham, and Tierney Finster.
The night went better than I could’ve anticipated. Some natural conversational flow was achieved; candor, humor and ease. I learned a lot, and felt more. I think this was, in part, for the feeling of privacy in the space. The exclusivity of getting your own key to get in. We also weren’t in a rush—we could stay all night if we liked. And there was endless wine, and baked goods. I asked that all shares stay in the room until we decided, collectively, what to share publicly.
We ended up publishing two sets of collective notes, and we live-streamed portions of the night: a “pre-” and a “post-show” of the main event, our off-record, on-the-ground conversation. The pre-show is somewhat awkward, girlish, and performative in a deflectory way. The post, though, is some of the best media I’ve helped make. In it, Tierney Finster reflects on restorative justice, Dasha Nekrasova on the alienation of online communication, Larissa Pham and Ana Cecilia Alvarez hug goodnight, and I glow. When my father saw footage of that live-stream, he said, “It looks like one of your pre-teen sleepovers.”
Pillow Talk does take cues from sleepovers. We’d be three to eight girls gossiping, grooming, dancing, and making art, for hours—amazing. My programming is likewise inspired by second wave feminist consciousness raising circles I’ve only read about; private sex parties I’ve attended in the Hollywood Hills; my time teaching sex-ed to youth-at-risk through a community AIDS nonprofit in Montreal, Canada; brief forays into anonymous recovery programs (when I loved a man who was in them), where I learned an ethics of listening; and years working as a public day camp counselor. Pillow Talk is also based on more recent experiences of being close with artists.
The more I read about history, the more it seems that all reality is wacky, but it still feels real to say that we’re living in a discomforting, novel, and wild time. My answer to this, when I’m not despairingly anxious, is to get creative. Which is why I feel it’s so important for artists to apply themselves to social and political issues.
The artists I love mine ambiguity. They see reality exactly, in strange details that make hot takes and takedowns basically untrue. Popular media, online especially, favors extremity and basicness. It’s not that I think artists can remake the world for the better, or maybe I do, but my reading of history also tells me that we maybe rare, not across history, but in our own time; if influential, we’re also liable to be persecuted, or feel alienated, for our free-thinking in our lifetimes. I just needed a place where I could hear us on topics relevant to us. Where I could congregate with fellows, to feel something like solidarity, community, have fun, and relax. I didn’t even know that Pillow Talk was about art and artists until I had to reflect on it to write this. But it is, in its reliance and devotion to artists, also because I am one, in that what I make, whether it’s my novel or a program like Pillow Talk, is experimental (instinctual), conceptual, experiential, and formal, aesthetic.
All I could talk about, at the end of our third Pillow Talk, a moving meditation on sex and the sacred led by Alexis Blair Penney, was how the light shifted in and outside of the room. We were twenty friends and family stretching on the floor, and the colors framed within suite’s large windows, the sky that night became at one point a potent aqua asphalt that lit the buildings around somehow darker, and seeing that, just that, made all the work to get us there, all the corporate communications and stress of doubt from trying to do something new, worth it.
All photos: Jasper Briggs
Fiona's portrait by Niko Karamyan