A brief tour of the world's richest ecosystems reveals them to be on track to collapse. It may be too late to stop the devastating forces unleashed by global capital from decimating biodiversity, but humanity may still have the chance to channel a less barren and loveless end. According to Australian-American art duo Pony Express, we might even be able to enjoy it.
Enter Ecosexual Bathhouse, their strategy for surviving the Anthropocene. The project, debuting now in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, is an interactive performance labyrinth where visitors can push the boundaries between sexuality and ecology. They can also sink their arms into a composting glory hole, their expressions disguised by a mesh mask full of sprouting seeds that are being incubated by their breath.
Comprised of transdisciplinary artist Loren Kronemyer and theater-maker Ian Sinclair, Pony Express created the bathhouse to humorously speculate on how sensual interaction with the environment may help secure the future of the planet. In their own words, "Sex sells, and if humans can learn to love the environment, maybe they can learn to preserve it."
Here, they mean "love" in the Biblical sense. The project is premised on "ecosexuality"—a nascent queer identity that considers the environment an erotic partner. Ecosexual Bathhouse imagines a world where this identity is on the brink of becoming mainstream, and the project offers its audience a safe place to really get in touch with nature. It draws heavily on both the queer and environmentalist movements—updating their activism with a touch of post-human hedonism for the 21st century, for when sustainability has reached its limit and the brink of environmental apocalypse looks close enough to jump.
The bathhouse journey begins in a white lobby with a big skylight; elevator music tinkles innocuously in the background. So far, so health spa. Visitors are politely requested by the maître d' to seek consent from all the different species they engage with inside, and offered a choice of accessory, or "morph." The morphs simultaneously refer to biological processes and sex toys; they include the Squirter—a strap-on spray bottle that permits the wearer to moisten plant and human species alike—and the Paw—a leather glove that inhibits the thumb in a kind of devolutionary bondage. The Paw, Pony Express explains, makes you the "sub."
Thus attired, participants enter the pollination chamber, where they are invited to pollinate different varieties of luscious Phalaenopsis orchids set in biomorphic ceramic pots (once they have donned an appropriately scaled finger-condom). The aesthetic, spare and a little Cronenberg-y, strives to slip between object and flesh. The bathhouse progressively shifts away from the standard spa vibe of the lobby, becoming increasingly surreal and disembodied.
The Natural Resource room offers an array of ecosexy titillations. A selection of books and magazines mimic stereotypes of porn imagery with environmental encounters, while a running video applies the hazy lens and close-ups of erotic film to time-lapse footage of growing plants. In one clip, a naked woman rolls around with an enormous Banksia flower, a bloom native to Western Australia, until it rains pollen all over her face—Banksia bukacki. A dressing table presents a choice of pheromonal perfumes, in scents like Bee, Dirt, and Musk. Finally, visitors may avail themselves of the composting glory hole, a bathtub lidded by grass that permits you to sink your arm deep into a bed of soil and worms.
The resident shape-shifting dominatrix cruises audience members as they migrate through the rooms, taking them back to her lair to deliver them dances based on their accessories. The performances range from perplexing to perverse—the SSD may make a frantic offering of blue objects, piling them around the viewer in mimicry of bowerbird courtship, or deliver a melancholy, undulating interpretation of slug sex, trailing her hapless partner with ultraviolent goo. If you're wearing the Paw, the SSD will tie you to a rock like Andromeda and, clad in a snakeskin bodysuit and a ring-gag, perform her slithering dance and drool all over you: a snake preparing to digest her prey.
The final stop in the bathhouse is the Divinity Room, a love dungeon that invites visitors to burrow through a thick embrace of plant life to a large bed, where the plastic eyeglasses offered at the door transform the light playing over the walls and leaves into a brilliant cascade of love hearts. This is the refractory period, the blissed-out pause for pondering your recent foray into environmental eroticism.
Beyond being a pretty wild experiment in experiential art, Ecosexual Bathhouse is a provocative twist on its roots in intersectional queer and environmental activism—it shifts the utopian ideal of its predecessors towards a darker, more dystopian view of humanity's changing relationship with the environment.
The original back-to-land counterculture movements of the 70s envision a return to a state of nature, a kind of pre-cultural union with Mother Earth. This isn't possible for Pony Express—we're too far gone. There's no getting out of the Anthropocene. "The problem is that human culture and technology are enmeshed with nature—we cannot partition ourselves from the ecosystems we inhabit," Kronemyer says. "Increasingly, they can't partition themselves from us either." The duo embraces technology as a means to propose "palliative strategies" that will help us make our apocalypse "more mutual, comfortable, maybe even pleasurable." Ecosexual Bathhouse uses sensors, microphones, and ultraviolent light to sensitize people to nonhuman life and invite them to relate—even to empathize—with their environment in new ways.
Ecosexual Bathhouse was inspired by the Ecosex Manifesto composed by queer Californian performance artists Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle. The manifesto shares the arcadian vision of other movements that have married environmental and queer activism, like the Radical Faeries, a community-focused counterculture group that sought to establish queer consciousness through off-the-grid living and pagan spirituality. Pony Express is aware of these precedents. "A lot of the people who self-identify as ecosexual are doing so as an activist position—as a way to wear environmental and queer intersectionality at the same time," Kronemyer said. The duo wants to infuse the idealism at the heart of this vision with a darkness that acknowledges the degradation of our environment.
It's too late to save the coral reefs—and the rainforests. At this point, the only thing these ecosystems can be rescued from is another stint as poster children for biodiversity in feel-good corporate advertising. For Pony Express, the happy fiction of sustainability—often just an argument for doing the same things a little differently—is over. It's time to embrace, rather than airbrush, the Aftermath.
Ultimately, Pony Express envisions Ecosexual Bathhouse as a hedonistic Eden for a post-sustainable age. "We see the project positioned as a kind of bacchanal—think Caligula," Kronemyer says. "Everything is crashing down around us, and our response is orgiastic decadence, rather than increasing austerity and self-containment. It's about transgressing the boundaries of what humans are meant to do with their senses and other organisms." It's a fit—and funny—response to the end-times atmosphere here at the edge of ecological apocalypse. Ecosexual Bathhouse celebrates the crest before the fall. "We're not trying to win," Kronemyer says. "We're trying to go out in style."
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While the whole venture is fairly tongue-in-cheek, the duo insists that they earnestly identify with ecosexuality as an experience. "It is important for me to make clear that the work is infused with a dark and playful humor, while maintaining sincerely the idea that it is possible to receive erotic transmissions from the environment," Kronemyer says. When pressed to clarify "erotic transmissions," the artist explained, "Humans are erotically entangled and implicated in the environment in myriad ways. If pollen makes you sneeze, you're an unwitting participant in a plant threesome." Rather than focusing on Homo sapien dominance, Pony Express wants us to wake up to the teeming and festering sexual slaw that we're wandering through, essentially hyperextending our understanding of the plurality of sex and gender expression to include eco-eroticism.
A strong BDSM through-line in Ecosexual Bathhouse attempts to push perceptions of human dominance in the biosphere to imagine human submission to it, and to consider the relationship as one that requires consent. But how on earth (excuse the pun) can consent be established between a human and a nonhuman entity? Pony Express posits "thriving" as the condition of consent. Some kind of mutual benefit has to be involved in the interaction, and compatibility is key; humans entering a threesome with plants to aid in the pollination process is a go, whereas certain modes of interspecies sexuality could constitute abuse. The example the artists are most often required to field in this quarter is bestiality, but they counter that the real problem is a failure of imagination.
"That question comes from the narrow-minded idea that sex means P in V—the idea that you've never had sex unless you've had a penis in you," Kronemyer says. By contrast, Pony Express is pushing plurality. "Your brain is your biggest sex organ. A sexual experience can be multi-sensory, it can be based on different sorts of information that you can receive with your body. Humans have demonstrated that we have the capacity for a limitless, diverse spectrum of erotic potential, and maybe it's time to use that to connect with the environment."
Applying questions of consent, compatibility, and mutuality to our relationship with the biosphere forces a radical thought experiment, by considering an ethics for interdependence with the nonhuman. "The hope is that by addressing questions of consent, we will reframe whole industries that rely on the literal rape of nonhumans, like GMO agriculture and the artificial insemination and reproduction of mammalian species," Kronemyer says. The same thing happens in the preservation industry. "Animal sexual lives are dictated to them by technology in order to conserve a human image of the biosphere. Attempts to keep apace with environmental destruction are forcing nonhumans into a romanticized image of what their environment should be." In this view, routine human interventions in ecology constitute penetration on an epic scale.
This line of thinking recasts genetic modification as the ultimate perversion, the bio-industry as a fetish gone wild, and Ecosexual Bathhouse is ultimately a provocation to reframe our perspective on the biosphere, to rethink the social and psychological boundaries between sex and ecology by acknowledging the perversity of our current situation. In the hands of Pony Express, "ecosexuality" is something between an identity and an idea—it's a strategy for dealing with the world that we've created, a way to ease the end by making it more hedonistic and, perhaps, mutually pleasurable. After all, we got into this mess in the first place by forgetting that the earth doesn't have to love us unconditionally. Rather than approaching the world as a warehouse of insensate things we wish to stockpile for later use, we should consider it a partner in the longest relationship we'll ever have.