Anh Vo: Secreting The Dreamscape of Capitalism
April 2021. Written in parallel with Sophia Giovannitti: Untitled (Incall)
Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic.
— Karl Marx, Capital
As laborer and commodity and seller, the secret bleeds, the mystical properties of the commodity dreamscape are exposed—labor-value is made overtly apparent in the commodity object/subject of the whore.
—Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance
In Fusées (1945), French poet Charles Baudelaire posed the question “What is art?” and answered with a single word: “Prostitution.” Of course, art is not literally prostitution, just as Baudelaire was not a literal prostitute. But his proposition that artists have to whore themselves as commodities in a capitalist economy remains a poignant metaphor that recurs often in the public imagination. Indeed, the arts’ figurative flirtation with prostitution (without much possibility for reciprocity) underlies Andrea Fraser’s iconic Untitled (2003), in which she filmed herself having sex with an unidentified collector for a reported commission of $20,000. In exchange, the collector received DVD recording of the sexual encounter. Fraser took Baudelaire answers up a notch; she literalizes the metaphor of the artist as prostitute, though only for one short night, in order to embody the transactional, intimate, and exploitative quality of buying and selling in the art market.
Photo by Johnny Romani
In referencing Fraser’s work in the title itself, Sophia Giovannitti’s Untitled (Incall) is invested in literalization as a tool to make explicit economic relations, not just “between artists and collectors,” as in Untitled (2003), but also between artists and witnesses, sex workers and clients, and commodities and consumers at large. In the exhibition, half of the Recess gallery has been transformed into an “incall,” a space where clients are hosted by a sex worker, and where Giovannitti exchanges with visitors by appointment only. The other half, visibly divided by a curtain of roses suspended from the ceiling, functions as a casual lounging area. This Erotic Labor Reading Room is filled with literature on sex work as well as safe-sex and self-defense supplies that one can take.
A full-size bed residing at the back of the space stands out as the protagonist of the show (other than Giovannitti herself, of course). Its white pillows neatly sit atop a white blanket that drapes evenly around the bed. The stark whiteness of the bed might very well collude with the gallery’s white walls to produce the experience of neutral consumption and detached contemplation associated with “high” art. However, this “high” sensibility is immediately betrayed by the mundane, minimal, slick, and functional IKEA aesthetic of other furniture positioned around the bed: a small gold nightstand, a tall matching lamp, a black chair, and a mini fridge with drinks inside that one can take. The bed and its surroundings do not feel abstract nor symbolic; these are domestic objects of utility that invite people to touch, sit on, and lie down. The incall, in turn, resembles less of an art space than a hotel room. In fact, it practically functions as one; the bed becomes a sensual surface holding Giovannitti’s exchanges with visitors who expect an incall experience.
In the same way that we can wonder what kind of perversion has transpired underneath the deceptive cleanliness and neutrality of a hotel room, I am fixated on the traces of social-sexual accumulation that are held in the wrinkles of the bed sheets over the six-week duration of the exhibition. The overlapping wrinkles materialize the afterlives of Giovannitti’s incall sessions, of the various intercourses between the artist-as-sex worker and the consumers, which would not otherwise be perceptible in a strictly economic exchange. Within capitalist logic, you pay for what you get—$1000 buys you one hour of sexual experience, for instance. By having its value quantitatively measured and universalized in the form of money, the commodified product obfuscates the social process of labor and reduces its sensuousness to a uniformed labor-time unit.
Photo by Gia Sergovich
Keenly aware of this deceptive straightforwardness, Untitled (Incall) gives a glimpse into the multidimensional work that goes into the commodified sexual transaction. I have to go through an alternative and more secure messaging platform, Signal, in order to coordinate an appointment with Giovannitti. Once I arrive in the space, I can skim the books in the Erotic Reading Room and take with me a care package that includes condom, lube, pepper spray, multi-functional hair clip, cut-out text passage about whether or not or how to do drugs with clients. This generous offering of resources and materials is not only for the purposes of sharing and education; it also gestures towards the precarious choreography of safety and that Giovannitti as the sex worker has to rehearse every time she meets a client—an intricate social aspect of labor that is concealed within the sexual transaction.
For Marx, this concealment of sociality lies at the heart of the commodity’s mysterious secret, where “the definite social relation between men [sic]” takes the form of “the fantastic relations between things.” The magnitude of value establishes an equivalence between different objects in exchange (x commodity = y commodity = z amount of money), standing in to quantify and equate heterogeneous kinds of labor. This logic of equivalence abstracts the varied and incommensurable forms and products of work into a uniformed language, into a “social hieroglyphic,” that which stamps upon and secrets the sensuous intercourse of labor.
Photo by Johnny Romani
The wrinkles of the bed sheet as well as the glance into Giovannitti’s condition of work secrete back this social hieroglyphic, making explicit the residues of social-sexual relations without trying to decode the hieroglyphic altogether. Marx has already warned that simply deciphering what exchange value obscures does not fundamentally alter the structural determination of the commodity’s secret itself. Nonetheless, in offering her literal body to enter into economic relations with viewers and participants, Giovannitti is not interested in a straightforward revelation of what goes on beneath and alongside capitalism. She embodies the secret and plays with it, divulging and concealing however much she wants about what kind of labor is entailed of sex work. She gestures towards the impossible position of the sex worker in capitalism that performance theorist Rebecca Schneider explicates: as object and subject, as laborer and commodity and seller, where capitalist relations explicitly unfold and “bleed” onto her body.
A gesture is different from a divulgence. By gesturing at the precarity and sociality of sex work without attempting to tell it all, Giovannitti brings the unnerving sensation that there is something supposed to be hidden in the economic transaction, something that the consumers are not supposed to be aware of, something that trickles beneath the equation x commodity = y commodity or $1000 = 1 hour of sexual exchange. If capitalism secrets the sociality of labor and gives us the illusion that we get what we pay for, what do we as consumers do with the reckoning that the commodity we buy is never exactly what it (she) is?
Image by Gia Sergovich
In our conversation, Giovannitti describes a prevalent confusion when visitors come in for their appointments in the incall space. In most interactions, she can sense that people want some forms of intimate conversations, erotic experiences, or outright sexual activities. But they struggle to clearly verbalize what their desire for the interaction is. This confusion seems to be quite unexpected and contradictory since Giovannitti is explicit in all public communications about wanting to embody capitalist relations and enter into economic exchange with others as both an artist and a sex worker. However, here lies the paradox of Untitled (Incall): literality, in its embodiment of something just as it is, turns out to be quite mysterious and elusive. It is no coincidence that Marx has to “take flight into the misty realm of religion”  to meticulously flesh out his theory of commodity fetishism and its secret. Value not only transforms the social characteristic of labor into relations between commodities; like religion, these relations between objects and between objects and consumers take on their own lives, independent of human invention and manipulation. Monetary quantification gives us the illusion that commodities and their intercourse are within our grasp. And Giovannitti makes explicit this mysteriousness of commodity relations across her body, showing us how we barely know anything of the commodity dreamscape even in its literal embodiment.
Photo by Johnny Romani
After experiencing Untitled (Incall), I am still haunted by one of Giovannitti’s photographic prints where her bright blue eyes look straight into my soul while cum is still dripping down her face. Her expression is somewhere between confrontational, deadpan, relaxed, focused, and uninviting. She is watching me watching her performing orgasm for my pleasure. “Do you really know my pleasure?” she seems to ask. Deflecting the money shot and its masculinity back onto itself, she unravels the utter failure of the phallic visual economy—to capture, to represent, or even to just involve the pleasure of the feminine. Porn Studies scholar Linda Williams writes about the money shot as a materialization of “a lack of relation to the other, a lack of ability to imagine a relation to the other in anything but the phallic terms of self.” Utilizing a similar logic, Untitled (Incall) makes explicit this lack, this desire to know the unknowable other, confronting man [sic] with the nightmarish commodity dreamscape that he creates but cannot understand.
 Andrea Fraser, interview by Praxis, The Brooklyn Rail, October 2014.
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 165.
 Ibid, 167.
 Ibid, 168.
 Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance (New York: Routledge, 1997), 24.
 Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 165.
 Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and The ” Frenzy of The Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 114
Anh Vo is a Vietnamese choreographer, dancer, theorist, and activist. They create dances and produce texts about pornography and queer relations, about being and form, about identity and abstraction, about history and its colonial reality. Their critical writings focus on experimental practices and socio-economic relations in contemporary dance and pornography. Currently based in Brooklyn, they are the Co-Editor of Critical Correspondence and a blogger at CultPlastic.