"I can say with some certainty that porn has become boring." It's not a sentence you generally hear, considering porn remains one of the most titillating, taboo industries on Planet Earth. But it's what retired porn star Danny Wylde says during the haunting short film he produced alongside Matthew Kaundart.
The video is actually a spinoff of an essay Danny (whose real name is Christopher Zeischegg) penned intending to illustrate what it's like to be a sex worker in an era of complete digital saturation. An essay that ends with Danny being cut up into 300 pieces. An essay that describes images of him experiencing both his final orgasm and his final breath, listed for sale on the dark web for an unimaginable price. It's gory and gruesome, and moreover, it's incredibly unsettling.
But it's also fucking awesome, and it paints perhaps the most powerful portrait of sex work I've ever seen.
Some background for you: Danny has been retired as a porn performer for some time. An addiction to Cialis put him in the hospital with a massive needle in his cock, abruptly and permanently halting his career when he could no longer fuel his erections with prescription medication.
For those who have followed his career over the years, a special project like this comes as no surprise. But the graphic content has been a surprise for those who are more familiar with Danny than Chris, for those who have jerked off to watching his scenes and have yet to chew one of his more thought-provoking bodies of work. And to be fair, this is the first time we've seen his intellectual prowess on-screen; he's authored two books and penned countless articles and essays, but this is his first video that wasn't intended for arousal. Well, not that kind, at least.
To be clear, the essay—and the accompanying video—may reflect Zeischegg's real sentiments about the porn industry and the business model that has crumbled alongside his own health; but the gruesome, brutal finale is a fictional extrapolation, a metaphor for the way sex workers, artists, and performers are forced to make a living. Needless to say, some people didn't catch on right away.
"My mom was the most concerned," Zeischegg says in reference to the spectacularly violent end, chuckling. "But a lot of people had a very visceral reaction. One person cried." It's that powerful—both the essay and the video. And while some short films feel like a hodgepodge of home video footage, this one is clearly professional: Not only did the legendary performance artist Sheree Rose serve as the technical advisor, but punk rock band T.S.O.L.'s Greg Kuehn also handled the music. That gray space between porn and art has been marginalized in the past, but it's starting to get the recognition it so badly deserves from some of the most creative people in the world.
When I got Chris on Skype to talk about "Danny Wylde" and "On the Moral Imperative to Commodify Our Sexual Suffering", I had one major question: Why the wood chipper?
"Well, we're basically killing ourselves."
Art print by Luka Fisher
Spectator and sadist: Two sides of the same coin?
Stay with me on this one: There's this theory that purports any kind of media, be it porn or mainstream cinema, is sadistic. You may empathize or identity with the characters you see on-screen, yes, but you're still reveling in their objectification, their pain, their sexualization, and their tears. As he explained this to me, Zeischegg laughed wryly. "Like, Matthew McConaughey crying in all his different films is like porn to me." So that makes two of us.
That's the thing, though—pornography (and sex work as a whole) gets a bad rap, but it's not different from anything else we watch or consume. "We're not any worse than anyone else," Zeischegg explained, commenting on how even the most profound movies produced can be directed by a complete piece of shit. He wasn't refuting the ways porn can exploit its talent at times either, though. "We're also not any better."
"Now working with porn and the essay and the video, it becomes a very 1:1 ratio. I mean, that whole piece is just about the difficulties as a sex worker, but then you could relate that to an artist or anyone who works with their body," he said. All performers are selling little pieces of themselves, and at the end of the day, they all need to please their audience if they want to sell their movies and pay their bills.
Think about that for a second: To sustain themselves, actors and artists have to sell bits and pieces of themselves to a group of disconnected sadists. It would follow, then, that in some ways, all performers are masochists. You have to be. As the name of Zeischegg's essay suggests, commodifying your suffering is essential to maintaining your livelihood. And what better way to reflect that sadomasochistic exchange than with a little blood spill?
So for clarification, no—Chris isn't actually considering throwing himself into the hands of a sadistic libertine with a large knife anytime soon, and it doesn't appear the guy has an actual death wish. He's simply using a very old, very legitimate storytelling mechanism, one that was crafted by a very famous writer named Marquis de Sade, who was known for his deeply (and I mean deeply) violent erotic works. In fact, that's where the term sadism comes from in the first place. Sade, sadism, get it? You learn something new every day.
Violence: The division between fantasy and reality
My next question was relatively obvious. Following an essay from the factual to the fictional already takes a certain degree of education, but recognizing the underpinnings of violence as an aesthetic is another matter entirely. How much of it has been lost on his audience?
"I feel like people have a certain media literacy with a lot of other things except for porn," he said, pausing for a moment. "I feel like in literature especially, if you go back to Sade, [those kinds of works] are held in reverence in the BDSM community and they read what he's writing about. Like, that stuff is the worst stuff in the world . . . It's not really anything you could feasibly do in real life."
That's an important division to make, because some BDSM practices are meant to be brought to fruition and some are not. Much of the stuff in Sade's work—and subsequently Zeischegg's essays and novels—is purely artistic, something neither they or any of their readers actually want to see in their own lives. The line may between fantasy and reality has always been blurry, but that's part of the fun, is it not?
Part of Chris's affinity for violence as a metaphor comes from a love of metal and horror when he was younger. "If you love that when you're a kid, I think you kind of develop an aesthetic and you often go back to extreme sex and violence as a metaphor for all sorts of things as you get older." (He even heads a metal band called Chiildren today.)
"For someone who's not familiar with extreme horror films and watches something like that, they're like, 'Well why would you like something like that,' but if you go to a horror film festival, it's a bunch of dorky people in a theater like, laughing. And they're not actually violent. It's not about that—it's just about the novelty, that sort of extreme thing that you get into for whatever visual pleasure you get from it."
That's a concept most of us are able to wrap our minds around when it comes to movies and books these days, but few people are porn-literate (yes, it's a thing) enough to understand it's place in the world of sex. "I went to film school and we studied this stuff to end of the earth, and it seems like once someone brings up porn, we lose track of how we think about media. We're making all these different types of films, and you can think of those as genre pieces. It's not all just one homogenous pornography, you know what I mean?"
Considering I once wrote an article about mermaid porn, I feel confident in saying yes, I know exactly what he means.
The many regulations imposed on mainstream adult entertainement by the banking system means most of us have never seen anything like Zeischegg's video. In many ways, media like this functions as an important bridge between the physical and psychological sides of sex and suffering. Like I said—it's powerful, especially if you're not accustomed to pondering your porn.
Photo via Chiildren
Life after porn
Surviving in a post-Internet world has proved to be challenging for almost everyone in the industry. It's harder and harder to make money each year, considering that any kind of media we consume can be ripped from the Internet cost-free at this point, and as sex work is illuminated, a considerably higher number of porn-stars-to-be flock to L.A. each year.
"Porn in contemporary culture, it's not really a business model that I recommend anyone get into now," Zeischegg said. "The bar is set really low for doing a scene, but that doesn't mean you're going to be successful." As a writer, I can relate on a smaller scale—the rapid expansion of the internet means anyone can give the career path a go. When content is free, fewer people are dishing out their dollars every year to support your career (and in some cases, their orgasms), making the funnel infinitely smaller. Basically, unless you're the shit at what you do, you're pretty fucked—both literally and figuratively.
So where is the industry headed? Chris isn't sure, and neither are we. One thing is for sure: He may not be performing anymore, but we haven't seen the last from Danny Wylde yet. Not even close.