Few people have gotten hitched as many times as Elizabeth Taylor, never mind beating her record. The difference between Taylor and performance artists Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens is that each of the 10 times they’ve married, it’s been to each other — for the sake of big, colourful, queer, eco-loving, community art.
Picture a gigantic, bright-red wedding sceptre and tons of glittery cleavage. Picture the brides slurping fresh-squeezed orange juice from a performer’s handmade juicer-breastplate. Picture two guest artists pissing into a bucket packed with snow — leaving a heart-shaped urine imprint as a wedding gift. Picture French-kissing a handful of dirt as an act of love. Picture operatic stripteases and fairy outfits and drag acts and anti-marriage declarations that are more than welcome — in fact, “Objector” is one of the roles usually listed in their call for collaborators.
“Think of the weirdest, queerest, performance arty-est wedding. Even if you don’t like weddings, there’s room for you,” says Sprinkle. “We always have the voice of contention, the person who objects to the wedding and doesn’t like marriage. We like to have a curmudgeon!”
When Sprinkle and Stephens started the Love Art Lab project in 2005, they aimed to make a fabulous, flagrant display of passionate love to counter the violence and greed that dominates American culture — and also to flip the bird to the haters of the anti-gay-marriage movement.
“We had done so much work about sex… It was like, ‘What’s next?’ And love seemed to be the bigger umbrella,” says Sprinkle — which might surprise you to hear if you know anything about her nearly 40 years of groundbreaking contributions as a sex worker, sex educator, pleasure activist and erotic performer. “Love seemed more transgressive in a way. Of course, we’ve also found that love is just too vague of a term to really latch onto. It’s got stereotypes and so many meanings. I guess you can break it down into [things like] caretaking or generosity or activism. We can reclaim love from Hallmark, but it’s a challenge.”
After marrying each other 10 times, in starkly different social climates and communities, they’ve got a good sense of how much a loud, queer love like theirs can stir the pot.
“I’ve learned how transgressive love can really be,” says Stephens. “We have been protested by feminists, we have been attacked by neo-Nazis, we’ve had the police tailing us at these weddings, we’ve had fundamentalist ministers accuse us of witchcraft. If they could have, they would have burned us at the stake. And this is all work that is based in a deep love for humanity and the earth and for life itself.”
While Love Art Lab was launched at the height of the war in Iraq, both Sprinkle and Stephens are responding to a broader culture of violence and aggression through this project.
“All these peaceful protesters getting murdered, just shot down… I mean, what the fuck?” says Sprinkle. “I think we have to balance the scales. With that kind of violence and fear and pain and suffering, we need more love. Let there be pleasure on earth, let there be love on earth, and let it begin with us.”
The structure of the project was inspired by Linda Montano’s 14 Years of Living Art and involves putting on at least one wedding performance each year for seven years. These weddings, whose colours and themes are based on the seven chakras and move upward in order from root chakra to crown, have happened in San Francisco, Venice, Calgary, Oxford, Appalachia and Athens, Ohio — with what might be the final wedding taking place in Ottawa on March 26.
The Ottawa event is going to be a white wedding, representing the crown chakra. Unlike a typical white wedding, every guest is being asked to wear as much white as possible — and to try to show up Annie and Beth’s costumes with a higher level of fabulousness.
One thing that they insist on, however, is that people participate in ecologically sound ways. Part of their vision is that these performance art weddings contribute to and align with the environmental movement.
“After the third wedding, we decided that we wanted to do something bigger than a project about marriage between the two of us. This was, of course, the point where our concerns about environmentalism first appeared in our work,” says Stephens.
“So we married the earth, then we married the sky, then we married the sea at the Venice Biennale. Last year, we married the moon because NASA bombed it looking for water. We married the Appalachian Mountains because all of these mining companies are bombing the mountains looking for coal. And now we’re coming up to Ottawa to marry the snow, which is a continuation of our work around water [issues]. If love does have any kind of power, we want to direct that power into slowing down the kind of devastation that we’re causing right now.”
This passionate commitment to protecting the planet is something they’re calling ecosexuality — a movement that, up until their intervention, referred primarily to eco-friendly sex products. But for Sprinkle and Stephens, it’s a sexual identity, akin to lesbian or bisexual, that eroticizes nature and environmentalism.
“We want to make the environmental movement more sexy, fun and diverse,” says Sprinkle. “From what we’ve seen it’s really white, really heterosexual. We want to change the metaphor of earth as mother to earth as lover.”
“Ecosexuality is a new field in a way. So we’re defining it and performing it and making it visual,” says Stephens. “Environmentalism is a very important thing for all of us to get engaged in. The issues that I’ve been engaged with my entire life — like feminism and queerness and various kinds of freedom of expression — they’re very important, but I also feel like if we don’t have drinking water, all of those issues will become moot. I’m trying to turn that criticality into something that’s sensual and seductive so that what I do will be a tool of attraction rather than a punitive, activist condemnation.”
It’s a kind of eco-polyamory they’ve been practising these last few years — wanting love and devotion to grow so large as to envelop all of nature and all of humanity and then taking vows to reflect that.
“The weddings are really beautiful,” says Sprinkle. “Everyone can take vows with us. In Ottawa, anyone who wants to can propose to the snow and marry the snow and vow to cherish and protect the snow.”