The concept of entering a little booth on the high street and paying to have a wank is, to me, a remote one.
The only time I’ve entered a “little booth” in public has been to take a knackered passport photo, get the morning after pill for free or confess my sins. These are all experiences with a touch of the abject about them, but I wouldn’t go as far as to call them “erotic”. In the late 20th century, though, “masturbation booths” were widespread across parts of Europe, Japan and America, offering a portal to pleasure at a time when pornography was much harder to access.
A “masturbation booth” is exactly what it sounds like: a private cubicle anyone can enter, lock from the inside and pay to watch a film of their choosing. They’re usually found on high streets, in train stations and red light districts, or installed as a “room” within a commercial space, like a sex shop. They became widespread after the legalisation of pornography in Denmark in 1967, beginning as a one-seater cinema for the purpose of watching a film alone. However, as time went on, groups of people would gather in them, and they became popular cruising locations in cities like Hamburg and Berlin.
There are still masturbation booths in operation, but their numbers have dwindled massively – from a few hundred-thousand to a few hundred. The internet arrived and dumped a mountain of free filth into our hands that would take ten lifetimes to bust through, rendering them largely obsolete. Also, in a case against a Belgian sex shop in 2010, The European Court of Justice ruled that sex shops with “private cubicles” didn’t qualify for a reduced rate of sales tax (typically offered to theatres, cinemas and venues as a way of promoting cultural activities), which pretty much crushed them.
Stating that cultural and entertainment services must be available “to the public” and be enjoyed “collectively” in order to qualify, the ruling meant sex shop owners had to levy 21 percent VAT on its activities rather than the reduced rate of 6 percent. This contradicted a prior ruling by The Netherlands’ Supreme Court in 2008, to allow adult theatres to apply for reduced VAT, claiming the definition of music and theatre performances should "be interpreted broadly”.
Effectively, The European Court ruling declared that solo pleasure doesn’t count as a “cinematic” or “cultural” experience, but shared pleasure does. It’s a pretty creative way of slapping restrictions back on adult content, but one that says a lot about the relationship between commerce, art and pleasure in the 21st century. Under neoliberal capitalism, nothing is of value unless it’s financially productive.
In these famously “unprecedented times”, we’re all spending many more hours indoors – feeling lonely, secluded and struggling with the loss of intimacy that in-person contact provides. Physical bodies have taken on a new existential sense of taboo and danger, with sex – one-night stands, casual hook-ups and cruising, especially – made difficult and, at some points, technically illegal.
Sensing this overwhelming feeling of isolation after a few weeks of lockdown in the UK, the London-based fetish community Klub Verboten launched Videokabine – a digital peep show that aims to combine performance art and porn.
The project was initially inspired by the photographer Christian Geisler, who has documented the last of Germany’s masturbation booths, or “Videokabinen”, in a series of intimate portraits. Offering a voyeuristic look into the day-to-day of a modern Videokabine – people walking in, bins full of crumpled tissues – the portraits capture the burning embers of a once roaring means of sexual expression.
“Growing up in Germany, Videokabine’s were everywhere,” explains Karl, one of Klub Verboten’s co-founders. “You’d see them on the high street, and it was hard to make much of them unless you went into one, which you couldn't, because you were too young. Our generation has never really experienced [Videokabinen] or been in touch with them. They were these things that we passed and couldn’t understand.”
Brought to life in collaboration with UNCENSORED, an interdisciplinary festival focused on the intersection of pornography and activism, Videokabine recreates the “masturbation booth” experience online. Each event features around four performers broadcasting live from their homes for the pleasure of anyone keen to tune in.
With Geisler’s photos providing a green-screen background, a chat box by the side and a donation button for the performers (Videokabine is a non-profit event), the setup combines the intimacy and immediacy of camming with the collective experience of performance art.
The first Videokabine saw over 500 viewers tune in from around the world, all watching the same performance in anonymity – which can, in itself, be an erotic experience. If you consider mystery and riskiness to be powerful libidinal forces, you’d be hard pressed to find a stronger combination than getting off on a live peep show with no idea who else is in the room.
“It was, as far as is possible in the digital world, a real celebration of life and community,” Karl says.
Booking “anything between performative art and filth”, Videokabine’s programme is a mixed bag. Some performances are light-hearted, others are deeply political or more intense. Previous events have featured performers like Misha Mayfair and Kris Canavan – who work on the more extreme side of fetish, using vomit, bloodletting and self-sacrifice – and met some criticism.
“I saw people commenting online afterwards, saying it was disgusting and they were pissed off, and I thought, ‘Yes! Real emotions!’ It was beautiful,” says Karl. “We’ve always been very much about disrupting things and disrupting perception. People come to [Klub Verboten’s] events for certain reasons, but our aim was always to stimulate a sense of dopamine rushes in terms of bringing an education or addressing certain points and providing a bit more. Videokabine is the same. We’re asked to think about an era that we’ve never encountered, and we question it and the medium and how we go about it with this event.”
Aiming to provide something beyond a straight up X-rated show, UNCENSORED mainly handled the booking of performers. Set up in May of 2019 to address censorship in art and pornography, co-founders Lidia Ravviso and Olivia Carr-Archer were at the time campaigning against new guidelines in the Obscene Publications Act, which attempted to ban specific sexual acts from UK-produced online adult content.
Last year’s programme featured talks, performances, roundtables, workshops and film screenings – all from international artists and practitioners expressing non-normative gazes and the multifaceted visions of desire.
“In our opinion, the centrality of the (white) male gaze is problematic in every aspect of our society, and not just from a female and feminist lens,” says Lidia. “This approach leads to censorship of different gazes in sexuality and art, giving space only to monolithic, heteronormative when not abusive, political and artistic perspectives. This is why we thought it was urgent to rethink what is considered offensive in a collective and multidisciplinary context.”
In that sense, Videokabine also offers the most coveted thing of all: uncensored space. Brief, ephemeral and hosted on a private connection, performers can work free of self-censorship or the need to be censored in line with social media, venue and license restrictions.
“I think it’s important to redefine porn; to enrich it with diversity, realism and sex-positivism,” says Chilean artist, sex worker and therapist Jorge The Obscene, who performed at Videokabine. “I’m especially interested in exploring taboos, because I think they are the roots of many of our personal conflicts and social struggles. Most of the art I do is sex-related, therefore it is rarely presented outside of porn circles. However, it is precisely my purpose to explore those limits and push those boundaries by doing something between art and porn.”
“Videokabine is trying to carve an uncensored space for those wanting to share their work and to continue to support artists and the freedom of sexual expression,” adds Olivia. “As we’ve gone from desperately trying to find suitable and safe spaces to host events, to now having no available physical spaces, this digital platform isn't just about challenging censorship. It’s about trying to keep physically and mentally buoyant. It’s about awakening the senses with some embodied escapism. And it’s about trying to share some excitement and maintain a sense of connectivity, until we can be reunited in a hot and sweaty club!”
Though it costs a lot of money to host – most streaming providers don’t allow content of this nature, and bandwidth doesn’t come cheap – Karl says the motivation to start Videokabine came directly from lockdown.
“When online parties first started happening, there was a sense of anarchy in the air. Suddenly a bunch of kids from Canada owned the biggest club in the world, and that’s super cool,” says Karl, referring to Club Quarantine. However, between the cost of running a non-profit event like this and the UK starting to open back up again, it’s hard to keep events like Videokabine going. It’s on hold, for now, but the events that have taken place have provided a sense of community and relief. With kink and fetish club nights suspended for the foreseeable future, opportunities for sexual expression beyond normative desires are few and far between.
“Mainstream porn is the capitalist appropriation of sexuality, and it is usually quite toxic,” says Jorge. “Hopefully there will be more and more online platforms and events like this, where sex-artists can share their work and the audience can enjoy a different kind of porn, without lucrative purposes, but in benefit of the artists.”
“When it comes to kink, it’s always about the outsiders,” says Karl. “We were always a platform for people who were too silent and overlooked elsewhere, and we noticed that many of those people were completely isolated [during lockdown]. All the things we’re doing digitally are aimed at exactly those people and bringing them back together.”
All photography by Christian Geisler.