A form I don’t control: Vex Ashley’s Cyborg Manifesto

The Demented Goddess: In your new short film, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto,’ today’s Vex looks back on her not-so-distant past self, being a cam-girl for  money. You ask, “What is my authentic self, anyway?” Is it important to be authentic? Or is authenticity a lie, a marketing tool to be overthrown?

I’m giving up the idea of a concrete Self that you can define or go on pilgrimages to “find”. I used to feel my adaptability and ability to shift was sign of some core inherent inauthenticity within me but the older I get the more I accept it’s a real power. The rush to tie ourselves into rules to explain our existences, to define who we are is a way of relinquishing responsibility and keeping us fixed in place.

DG: I’m equally suspicious of a core historical self. Yet I go on, turning ideas into concrete essays, or manifest them in my personal life. Looking back at her famous essay, on how we are all cyborgs, fusions of technological networks, part animal, part machine, Haraway once said, “We’re talking about whole new forms of subjectivity… and it’s not just ideas. It’s new flesh.”

How does an idea become a fleshly experience when you make your art?

I think it’s like an owl pellet at first, essentially formless, just a partly digested collection of interesting things I’ve picked up on the way. I roll it around in my stomach and when it’s dense enough I can regurgitate and name it and start to polish it into something that feels like it has life.

It’s always fed by whoever I’m working with, I have to imagine them inside the idea, their energy builds it into being. On the day when we are finally together in person it’s like it becomes a thing of it’s own, taking on a form that I don’t control. I get to watch it proliferate in front of me, pulsing and swelling of it’s own accord, informed by sensation, stretching out in unpredictable directions, like a rhizome. I’m just there to capture what I can of it.

Going back to your video essay, A Cyborg Manifesto, I imagine it can be liberating to watch yourself playing at being “always happy, always pleased to see you”, the perfect girlfriend, as cam girls are supposed to be, while knowing that this time has passed. What have you learned, as an artist, by looking back on yourself  as a cam girl performer?

I learned my own limits, specifically my own limits about trying to make everyone like you. It felt like exorcising my younger self in a way, a self that fawned for men and tried to be cuter, sweeter, ditzier and less threatening to gain approval. It was kind of like when you’re caught smoking as a teenager and you’re forced to smoke the whole pack to put you off. Initially I dove head first into it, it was a performance I soaked up and could do well – the success fed me. But  the longer it went on the more it felt like wearing childish clothes I’d outgrown.

DG: Inspiration is seen as speedier and more instinctual than the clomping intellect. It’s talked about in reverential tones as pure and mysterious. But, as Haraway writes and you recite in the film, “The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.” Haraway goes on, “It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.” I wonder if inspiration, is in fact, a form of contamination? What are some examples of inspiration you’ve gathered in messy places and perverse situations?

Well, one of the only animals that creep me out are slugs, I don’t hate them but I  feel that they repulse me which is strange because I love snails.

But there’s something about a slug, like a sentient fleshy, sticky tongue that you might step on in the dark and that leave trails of goo all over your house and eats your rubbish that’s inherently grim to me. But I often find that what repulses me is preeeeetty close to what turns me on – so that texture of slugs and the way they weep viscous fluid also feels sexual to me. Genitals can also be pretty repulsive in isolation and so that was the starting point for how I made my film Human Botany.

DG: Human Botany, with a slug inching across a hairy arm and a slicked finger delving into a mauvish vulva, is one of your films I like best.

In Cyborg Manifesto, of your time as a cam girl, you say, “I loved it. It bored me. I made friends. I had customers. It was the real me, it was a character – it was all true, at the same time.” Is there anything about the disposable nature of the cam experience that, like casual sex, enables the kind of fluidity of self Haraway talks about? Or is fluidity curtailed by the pressure to perform?

My initial experience of camming was a 1 on 1 deal, that was the ultimate in fluid adaptation, you have miliseconds and minimal information to try register what this person wants and needs from you and improvise that performance immediately in a way that gives them what they want (so they come back for more) but not too quickly (you’re being paid by the minute after all).

“What people essentially want is reliability, escapism and entertainment.”

When the window closes you have seconds to relax your body, like a machine on standby, the muscles release and then another potential customer pops up and you’re being switched back into ‘on’ mode again. Where I spent most of my time was a cam room open to an audience of hundreds, sometimes thousands, more like a nightly live TV show, and like TV shows what people essentially want is reliability, escapism and entertainment. The performance was more fixed which is essentially why it became draining the longer it went on.

DG: What is your single most fiery moment of inspiration?

I don’t think there’s just one but reading Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves at 16 and realising things aren’t solid, limited or boundaried in the ways that we think…. It showed me that a book didn’t have to be a book, a book could be a room, an experience, a library that expands beyond the boundaries of the page. Realising things aren’t only fixed to the limitations of their format and that we can make and remake these boundaries with imagination stuck with me. I was always contrary and wanted to see how far I could push.

A conversation between Vex Ashley and Demented Goddess Editor Soma Ghosh.

Follow Vex https://twitter.com/vextape?s=20

Follow Soma https://twitter.com/calcourtesan?s=20

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