The Arts

Watching porn at EMPAC

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Watching porn at EMPAC

Last fall at EMPAC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s multi-venue performing arts venue that features perhaps the most eclectic programming in the Capital District, UC Berkeley professor Abigail De Kosnik presented her concept of the “media crease”—the traces of use left in hard-copy and digital media.

Creases in the spines of used romance novels often mark sex scenes. Lines or glitches that run across the screen while a VHS tape plays may denote especially compelling (or arousing) moments.

De Kosnik played an excerpt from Rewind This!, a 2013 documentary on the cultural legacy of the VHS tape. One man in the film tells a story about loaning a friend his copy of The Kentucky Fried Movie, a ‘70s comedy described by IMDB as a “series of short, highly irreverent, and often tasteless skits”:

When he gave it back it was like every ten minutes something would go, ‘Flip, flip, flip, flip.’ And I’d be like, ‘You watched all those nude scenes over and over again in one weekend, and now my tape is ruined. But it’s also kind of funny. And whenever I watch it, I can think of you being gross and hilarious.’

Borrowing any sort of media artifact from a friend, let alone one to be used for masturbatory purposes, may seem increasingly foreign. This strangeness is compounded by how profoundly non-linear the internet has allowed our onanistic rituals to become.

As you may have noticed, there are now many free pornographic video streaming websites, all of which seem to have similar names and, as University of Toronto professor Patrick Keilty explained at another EMPAC talk last week, similar user interfaces, which he describes as “labyrinthine, rambling, and chaotic.”

This sort of anti-design—replete with images, pop-ups, banner ads, unwelcome sounds, and flash-animated GIFS—is deliberate, intended to “pull viewers into a trance-like flow that requires no complex cognition,” Keilty says. “This concept of design participates in an aegis of getting what you want, but in excess of it.” Viewers are encouraged to keep clicking around, absent any self-reflexivity, for the perfect money shot.

The lecture offered only a snippet of Keilty’s broader project examining—through a mix of high theory, visual analysis, and interviews with back-end developers—how the online pornography industry “designs for desire.” The work is immersive. Large video projections of Keilty’s cursor interacting with the subject sites supplemented the talk. The professor mentioned having “just spent two weeks in Las Vegas with a bunch of pornographers—which is a lot of time in Vegas with that community.”

It may not shock digital natives to learn that porn sites’ architecture is strategic—and that they surveil their visitors in order to improve this design. You might use Tor, a VPN, or at least some sort of private browsing mode if this sort of stuff makes you uneasy. During the Q&A that concluded his talk, Keilty was asked how these sites, which build browser identities, reckon with these kinds of tools.  

“I think the average person doesn’t even know how to get rid of cookies,” he said, referring to a common form of tracking data. That, he added, requires “a certain level of technical knowledge” most people lack.

“Pornography’s Graphical Interface” at EMPAC, Troy on Feb. 8.

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