Your earlier work involves delicacy, using lace, graceful silhouettes of womanly hands, floral themes, and butterfly wings in meticulous mediums rooted in craft, including cut paper and intaglio. Your recent work denotes a major shift, the newest being a series of video pieces in which you undergo various forms of consensual torture. What was the catalyst for the switch to video as a medium?
I first took my work in a new direction from a mixture of boredom followed by curiosity. I found myself feeling very complacent with my practice. An x-acto knife will always feel like a sixth finger to me, but I got to the point where I asked myself if the world really needed another papercut flower. Did my flat file? This realization coincided with the moment when I first began clearing my apartment and purging unlike I ever have. I’m now surprisingly cynical about every new object that I bring in and I’m learning to say goodbye to old ideas. Choosing to focus on video work rather than physical work has been another way to simplify my surroundings as well as learn new skills. I’ve been surrounded by little paper things my whole life but lately any physical clutter produces mental clutter. Perhaps that was bound to happen when I traded in huge open New Mexican desert for New York City.
I’ll always adore craft. I recently began toying with papier-mâché, for instance. At this moment in my practice, the new direction I’m taking makes the most sense to me.
You are a kink practitioner on both a personal and professional level. How did you begin to bring those practices into your artwork?
No matter how saturated some circles are with kink imagery, there’s always a greater risk of stigma. That being said, as I get older the more open I’ve become with peers about my fetish life. In turn, I feel more comfortable bringing fetish/kink into parts of my life that I previously didn’t. Latex, once stored away for play, is now an integral part of my wardrobe. Vintage erotica books once used as a reference source are now displayed prominently as art. I’ve initiated stun gun tag with a vanilla roommate. I now have my love for leather tattooed on me, thanks to you. I suppose it was only a matter of time before I felt confident in exploring fetish artistically.
You've mentioned that you were underwhelmed by performance artists attempting to create outrageous acts and had the reaction that you engage in more unconventional behavior for fun in private. Do you see there being any potential negative repercussions to bringing kink ritual into a performance arena, such as framing the acts as shocking or spectacle, in contrast to an effort to normalize them?
I’m interested with the classic roots of performance art. Many iconic performances share themes of violence, unusual behavior, or extended duration. I suppose my own interest came from my background in paper and two dimensional work and then being witness to a performance-based art scene here in New York. I felt like I was sitting on some good material with similar attributes to performance like endurance, power exchange, and even story arc. It has been a vulnerable exercise to take rituals that I practice behind closed doors, strip away most of the sexual context and reframe it as art. I believe that normalizing kink, or at least explaining it, belongs in an educational or editorial context as opposed to an artistic one.
As for shock value, most of the reactions have been less “oh my god” and more “hmm, huh”. Of course some scenarios produce a more visceral reaction in viewers than others. On the one hand I prefer the puzzlement, the intrigue, the nervous but polite giggle, over the shock.
Some would argue that the violence being done to you in your videos is an aggressive, masculine trait. Do you see the videos as being at odds with your earlier work, with its feminine florals and decorative elements? Was there a conscious decision in choosing a male Dom to top in the videos? Was it a challenge to take the step into public submission?
The aggression is new but I’m still having similar aesthetic conversations. In my latest video a friend sutures my hands together in a praying position. For this video I was thinking about healing, attributes of household craft, sterile medicine, and my Catholic background. I consider these areas, aesthetically and thematically, directly tied to my previous work. I’ll always prioritize decoration in my art, including torture.
I see these as physical challenges, but they certainly cannot escape sex/gender connotations either. I take full responsibility for how polarizing the gender dynamics can be in this work. This is especially the case with the very active scenes like when I’m slapped repeatedly or held underwater.
In the end, I choose partners based on my previous play with them as well as their skill set. I first collaborated with my friend Master Avery (and his ridiculously photogenic hands) and have since worked with others that I have a strong rapport with. I’m looking forward to shaking up the male/female narrative as I work with people across the gender spectrum.
I see these projects as more public masochism than submission but that didn’t initially make it any easier to share. I felt trepidation creating this series and sharing it was another challenge. I’m cognizant of the criticism aimed at female artists centering themselves. In addition, these videos are very intimate and often unflattering. I’m struggling, distorting my face, my nose is running, my skin is bruising, etc. I’m showcasing physical pain in a culture that tries to minimize it as much as possible. With all that in mind, at times it can be nerve-wracking to share.
How difficult was it for you to undergo the acts in the videos? What do you see as the value in challenging one's bodily limits? What was the significance of documenting that process for yourself and an audience?
Each project has been very difficult, but cathartic. I know this going in as I’m pretty masochistic. I prefer working with a static shot so I always try to push myself past my normal limits while on camera. This proved to be most difficult to achieve for the waterboarding scene. While I was an active participant and opted for vintage fabric, not a hood, the drowning simulation remained. I eventually made it past my limits despite being blinded by mascara. The plastic bag asphyxiation ended up being more mentally than physically challenging. I was incredibly nervous at first because of my previous reaction during a similar scene months before. So for this take, I had to actively work on calming my thoughts, on being present, and breathing. As a result, the final product feels meditative; I captured a moment of stillness before the panic overrides. When my hands were sewn together I couldn’t stop shaking and I was worried about capturing a solid shot, but my muscles eventually relaxed. So with each scene there were specific challenges.
Some might be surprised that there was a lot of giggling and joy between takes. I was surrounded by friends, some who shared an interest in BDSM but others who were brand new to it. I cut together the outtakes to make The Pain is Whatever. It’s essentially a torture blooper reel that I was graciously invited to share at The Future is Whatever, a screening curated by the artist Andrea McGinty at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. The Pain is Whatever, in comparison to my other videos, is my closest attempt to counteract popular narratives about consensual BDSM.
These experiences produce intense endorphins. For that reason, I liken it to exercise and endurance. You focus on breathing and count down a few more seconds. Then a few more. Your own strength can be surprising and reinvigorating. In particular, female endurance is something that’s tested every day, and I think connecting with our bodies and their capabilities is important to see. Even the darker aspects. That’s what I wanted to see of myself.
The videos are beautifully staged and filmed along with being confrontational in their content. How did you make the aesthetic choices you did, such as wearing red lipstick and using a lacy handkerchief for the waterboarding scene?
Thank you! As I mentioned earlier, I’m aesthetically concerned with feminine archetypes. When I began this series, my friend Allison Brainard (a cosmic and bright performance artist) was behind my shoulders shushing off my more saccharine choices. She really helped me streamline a clean motif that was still very me. I plucked out textiles from my collection based on their texture and played around. I remember talking to you about how conflicted I felt about makeup, how its conventional ubiquity can be used to undermine female intent. In the end, I’m glad I chose to wear it for how it changed during consecutive shoots. I’m filming my hands now and I’m applying the same mindfulness to my nails and my jewelry. I’m either subduing or exaggerating my feminine performance but embracing it either way.
I found the startling quality of the videos to be very in contrast with the safe, mainstreamed image of kink in media currently. Do you think it's important as someone involved in the kink to counter popular assumptions about it as a lifestyle? Should taboos be lifted, or is it crucial to maintain that tension between the vanilla and its alternative?
Yes and no. I think that kink, as it tends to happen every decade or so, is in the spotlight. And I think that spotlight has a lot to do with fashion. Leather harnesses are cool but when confronted with an example of actual masochism, sadism, or unusual fetish, people’s interest can waver. This work isn’t about educating or explaining. My work is an aesthetically driven personal challenge. I think people should have the freedom to flesh out personal experience without the responsibility of filling in the audience’s blanks. Kink imagery, appropriated and distilled many times over the past half a century, will always pop up, shock then fizzle away from the mainstream. In the interim kinksters will continue on as they always have. I think if it was possible to lift the tension, to actually close the gap, this wouldn’t be such a common cycle. I for one am glad the duality exists, because once the inevitable overlapping does occur it’s more dynamic.
Do you anticipate continuing to explore your personal and professional life in your art?
Absolutely. I recently took the plunge and committed to new camera equipment so this series is ongoing. I now consider video instrumental, but I’m maintaining a parallel craft practice too. I’m intertwining kink into my old methods of working. For instance, I’m turning my x-acto blade to leather and latex instead of paper. It’s been really fun to switch up materials and approach fetish as a base not an end. I’m treating it as an ingredient as opposed to a finished meal. I love collaborating with other artists, designers, and musicians so I’m curious as to what freakiness we can get into. Right now I’m just really excited about creating spontaneous imagery, not always objects. Or objectifying my spontaneity. Something like that.
Emily McMaster studied Printmaking at Bard College and The University of New Mexico. Her work, whether solo or in collaboration, focuses on delicacy, remarks on femininity, draws from fetish, and values playfulness above all else. She couldn't put an x-acto knife down for a decade, but has recently swapped it out for a video camera.
She lives in Brooklyn, NY.