I'd never waited in a coat check line like this before. Heavy jackets and T-shirts tumbled off bodies as everyone disrobed at once, revealing soft flesh pinched by leather straps, clinking chains, gimp masks, and other fetish gear. The sharp smell of sweaty pits wafted through Alte Münze, a stately former coin factory in Berlin where a queer sex party called Pornceptual was kicking off for the first time this past April. (Previous editions of the three-year-old party have taken place at a Berlin club called Prince Charles.) Before releasing me into the wild, a haughty blonde drag queen working the door gave me a rundown of the rules: like at almost all sex parties, respecting the boundaries of my fellow hedonists was paramount.
But Pornceptual is not a regular sex party where the primary goal is getting off with hot strangers—although that still might happen. The project has a socio-political mission that many parties of this sort lack: challenging the mainstream porn industry's misogyny, exploitive treatment of its workers, and fetishistic views on race and sexuality by creating an alternative model based on inclusivity and queerness.
In fact, when Pornceptual was founded in May 2012 by Brazil-born artist Chris Phillips, it was conceived as an online gallery for erotic images before evolving into its current form: a sex-positive dance party popular amongst Berlin's queer crowd. The project still retains its artistically-driven conceptual framework, with Phillips and his team—which includes Emre Busse, Raquel Fedato, and resident DJ Diego Garcia (AKA Projekt Gestalten)—curating DJs, live sex shows, and video installations for the party according to a different theme every month, with a recent edition celebrating Paris is Burning and New York ballroom culture.
The "About" section of the party's website sums up this mission: "Pornceptual presents pornography as queer, diverse, and inclusive. We aim to prove that pornography can be respectful, intimate, and artistic, while questioning usual pornographic labels. Can art succeed where porn fails—to actually turn us on?"
What intrigued me most about Pornceptual, when I first heard about it through some friends in New York, was how its relationship to media and the documentation of sexual acts was more complicated than most. Sex parties tend to be ephemeral affairs with a near-ubiquitous ban on photographic evidence; the underlying conceit, shared by clubs like Berghain, is that this lack of surveillance and digital trails allows for a sense of total, in-the-moment liberation.
Filming without consent is still a strict no-no at Pornceptual, but creating erotica on-site is central to the party's mission of challenging the pornographic status quo. Therefore, guests are often photographed and filmed at the party itself—always consensually, in certain cordoned-off spaces—with the images of them fucking or flaunting their bodies posted on Pornceptual's website, or made into actual pornographic movies via partnerships with sites like kink.com. The party also prints its own limited-edition porn magazine with original artwork commissioned from artists all over the world.
Below, in an interview conducted over Skype, Phillips, Fedato, and Garcia explain how they navigate the boundaries of consent and privacy while pushing their liberating alternative to porn—as well as discussing the current state of Berlin's queer scene, and the underlying concepts behind this orgy of flesh and leather.
THUMP: How did Pornceptual get started?
Chris Phillips: We actually started the project back in Brazil, where we're from, maybe four or five years ago. When I moved to Berlin, I felt like it was really the right city to restructure and start over again. It was important for us to have "porn" in the name, to fight against this taboo, and show people we can do pornography—but in a different way. Everything, from production to distribution, we do as an alternative to the [mainstream porn] industry.
What do you think the taboo is when it comes to porn?
Phillips: People associate porn with all of these negative things, like with exploiting women. But people confuse the product from the industry with pornography itself. We are also critical of the industry, but again, you can do porn in a different way.
Raquel Fedato: People are also really ashamed of it—ashamed of telling others, "yeah, I watch porn." Or even talking about their sex lives.
Phillips: It's funny, because it is a product that a lot of people consume in different ways, but it seems that some people are ashamed of talking about it.
How do you think your party will help to break these taboos?
Fedato: We create an atmosphere where people are free to explore their bodies and their sexuality, and I think it's really difficult to find places like that—where you're not judged, and where people are not constantly looking at you.
Diego Garcia: People think they're going to a sex party, and they break these misconceptions.
Fedato: It's very important to say that it's not a usual sex party, because we are promoting a link between sex and the art world, and this is not normal in a sex party.
What specifically about the party connects to the art world?
Phillips: It started as an art project originally, so we already had this background.
Fedato: We usually come up with the theme, and based on that, we develop the visual part regarding video shoots, live performances, and [video] projections.
Garcia: We also do videos to promote the party beforehand that I edit sometimes and make music for. Everything has to be connected. I also try to do the music according to the theme. For instance, I remember we had a party that was based on the movie Paris Is Burning and the culture in New York surrounding it, the ballroom scene. So I set music from this time and this scene as well.
A documentary by Emre Busse called Landlords about S&M apartments in Berlin
Do you often have sex-themed performances?
Phillips: There is always a sex element. Sometimes we go really explicit—we had a fisting performance a few editions ago. But they are usually almost erotica performances.
Fedato: Last year, for our second anniversary, we gave [porn site] kink.com a corner at the party where they were shooting their own movie with people [from the crowd]. It was pretty cool.
Phillips: That was actually my favorite performance. Just watching what was going on, it was really nice.
Do you guys film porn movies in the dark rooms at your parties?
Phillips: On the dancefloor and in the darkrooms photos and videos are completely forbidden. We want people to have sex if you feel like it, anywhere.
Fedato: Something that really bothers me is when I go to a party and a photographer comes up to me and has a camera in his hand, and really wants to take a picture of me. Especially for Pornceptual, where a lot of people are naked and trying out new things, making a video is not really…
Phillips: We have a photo booth where we photograph people from the party in a specific way. It is important for us to produce visual material at the parties, but we only do it as a separate space. We are really careful about exposing people.
Well, most sex parties—and lots of clubs in Berlin—have the "no photography" rule. But what I think is most interesting about Pornceptual is how your relationship to media is different from most sex parties, who shun any kind of documentation. Whereas producing porn and other erotic images at your parties is central to your mission of breaking taboos. How do you navigate the boundaries of consent when trying to shoot people having sex?
Fedato: We have a photo booth, and Chris and his brother Eric are the only two people who can take pictures. It's really important that other people don't. We've had thousands of emails of people saying like, "Oh, my balls are on the web, it would be really cool if you could take the picture down." So we really have control over our material and how to preserve people's privacy.
Phillips: The point [of the photo booth] is to open the project so people can participate. We want people to perform, get naked, and have photos taken while they're naked. We've had this idea of a photo booth since the beginning, and I think it is the best way to have a lot of people interact and engage.
Garcia: It is also the best configuration, because it's not like they don't know or are not aware of it.
What do you notice about how people interact when they go into the photo booth?
Phillips: It depends. Our crowd is not the people who usually come to sex parties. Some people want to experiment, but they are still a bit afraid. Some people are happy to have these sexually explicit photos taken. Some people ask to crop out their faces. It's really important to have this dialogue—to understand how comfortable a person is. It's about respect, and we take this very seriously.
Fedato: When we started doing Pornceptual, I didn't feel so comfortable with my body. I'm a really tall girl and everyone is always like, "Oh my god, you're so big." But Chris took pictures of me, and after three and a half years, I started feeling really good and seeing that there are different kinds of beauty, and you don't have to follow a certain pattern.
Garcia: Chris is the only person who has ever photographed me naked, and that helped me as well. I am very hairy, and actually in Brazil, I never take my shirt off in a club. They think I have a skin cancer there. But at Pornceptual, I play without my shirt on. Maybe one day I'll go naked.
Phillips: I really believe in this idea—that everyone should feel comfortable naked.
Do you identify as a queer party?
Phillips: Definitely. Being queer is about being inclusive. Our door selection is really only about people's attitude—we have no selection based on gender identity or sexuality, because we want to keep the party as inclusive and diverse as possible.
Fedato: Compared to many other queer parties in Berlin, we really have every kind of person you could possibly imagine: lesbians, gays, straight couples… we reached our goal by being really inclusive.
What is the difference between the gay scene and the queer scene in Berlin?
Phillips: They're not completely the same. The gay scene is really sexist, I think it's really only for men, and it's only for this specific type of body—those gay clichés, like muscular gay guys. Being queer is more political. It's also something more transgressive. It's about not conforming to labels, and creating your own identity.
What makes Pornceptual different from other queer parties?
Fedato: I think the difference between Pornceptual and other parties is we have a whole ensemble of things, like a magazine, a website, videos, performances, music…
Can you tell me more about the magazine? Is it a porn mag?
Phillips: I think it goes against the market. It's a bit anachronic. A lot of porn magazines have closed down, and even magazines like Playboy don't post nudity anymore. We want a porn magazine, but we want it to be something that people want to collect, so we don't print a lot. We have the magazine twice per year. Again, we have a different theme for every edition, and we collaborate with people from everywhere. We also don't have any sponsors in the magazine, so it's very underground.
Fedato: And independently published.
Phillips: It's more about creating something collectively than making money from it.
Do you think that our generation of clubgoers and ravers have a different attitude towards sex than previous generations?
Phillips: I think the internet plays a huge role in our sexuality nowadays. I wrote my masters about [gay dating app] Grindr, and how people exchange naked photos to create different sexual relationships. I think it plays a huge role. We are the first generation that grew up with the internet, and for me, it's the easiest way to connect with people who have similar views on sexuality. Because I came from this super-conservative community, I think the internet really helped me to realize that I'm not alone.
Fedato: For me that's the biggest point: it's easy to have sex now. Just open Grindr and you'll find someone to fuck within five minutes.
Pre-internet, sex parties and saunas were where lots of people, especially gay men, would find people with similar views on sexuality. Maybe you'd think that because it's so easy to use apps now, you don't need sex parties. But I think sex parties are actually getting more popular. So even as sex is becoming more of a virtual experience, there seems to be a trend of young people becoming more open to going to physical, communal spaces to have sex.
Fedato: But I don't think you can compare having someone come over with having sex in a public space. Of course I think it plays a role in making people more open and involved with their sexuality, but not everyone. I don't think you can generalize it.
Phillips: I don't see both things as completely separate—I think they're really connected. A lot of the people I met in this scene I actually met through those apps. But I think the kind of interactions you get on apps can be a bit frustrating, because a lot of people are there to waste your time.
Garcia: I actually experience it the other way around. I log onto Grindr and someone will say "Oh, you played a good set at Pornceptual." [laughs] I'm in my 30s, so when I was starting going out to gay clubs, there was no such thing as gay apps. People would go to darkrooms at a club to find sex.
Fedato: Tinder and Grindr are extensions of the darkroom—but an online version of it.
That's cool, I like that idea. Last question, can you tell me about your upcoming party?
Phillips: The next theme is "Bomb Resistance." We have this military [vibe] but it has no association with any sort of nationalism. We don't want people to have flags or any national identity; it's about being a part of a militia that is using porn as a symbolic weapon against the dominant feelings of sexuality.
Fedato: For the first time, we have a lineup that is only composed of female-identifying women. I've been mainly taking care of booking for three years now, and I realized that the scene is mostly composed of men. I think maybe 10% are girls. So for this edition we really wanted all girls.
Garcia: We want to be more aware about the sexism in the scene. I started a queer label that's also focused on having space for females and queer techno artists. I am playing [at the next party] but I'm using my female identity—"The Princess of Death." That's my identity when I play techno.
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter