Not women reading erotic literature - necessarily. Each woman reads her own choice of book, while sitting at a table. Meanwhile, a Hitachi vibrator slowly disrupts her reading with pleasure until she comes to orgasm.
OK, before I get into the art-y fart-y bit, let me assure you, it's erotically exciting to watch the women. The tension mounts as they start to stutter and lose control, and you can't help laughing with them as they finally explode into inarticulate joyous orgasm.
Clayton Cubbitt, the artist who conceived of and made the videos, calls it distraction portraiture. He talks in a podcast (his interview starts about 20 minutes in) about the face the sitter puts forward to the camera/the public and the one they have when they lose control. The podcast host, Margaret, one of the women in the project, says: "The women look so beautiful ... so lovely and so sexy. It's sweaty but it's not objectifying them."
The rationale for Hysterical Literature was to reclaim women's sexuality from pornography. That the women choose their own reading is key to ensuring them a subjectivity which women do not usually have in pornography, and historically have been denied in art too.There is only one take (to the regret of one participant!). Cubbitt broadcast the videos on Youtube, which has a rule about nudity and sexually explicit material, and as they remain live on there, this suggests they are regarded as art rather than porn.
Cubbitt developed the work against the Victorian idea of 'hysteria', a condition ascribed to women who were denied sexuality. He tells how the vibrator was invented by doctors to treat women with hysteria (although this article protests that this is a mistaken view of Victorian sexuality).
Hysteria means laughter, too - the reaction of many of the women as their speech stutters and their faces brighten.This is a liberating laughter, laughing with women laughing out loud in orgasm, unashamedly enjoying our bodies ourselves.
The camera runs for a couple of minutes after the reading, capturing the women informally after 'the show' is over. Subjectivity is also ensured by giving the women the opportunity to write about the performances themselves.
Danielle, an artist and curator, protests about claims that the project is porn rather than art: Throughout history, sex has had undeniable influence: the Paleolithic cave paintings, Greek and Roman sculpture and ceramics, Eastern paintings and manuals such as the book of Kama Sutra, and even the medieval illuminated manuscripts of Europe that married both erotic and religious content (gasp!). These pieces are in museums, galleries, and forever revered in history books. Did they garner status through the thoughtful regard of whether to be high art or not? Of course not.
Marne, also an artist, describes her previous experience co-creating another sexually explicit art work with her male partner: it has been challenging to deal with the intense scrutiny by the art world for my participation in this work, while my male counterpart rarely dealt with any. We are both artists interested in the body, pathos, sensuality and technology, but folks are far more judgmental towards the female half of the team.
Margaret says: I don't think we've made a lot of strides [since the Victorian era]. Feminism is strong but there's still a lot to do. Projects like this - You're talking about what is real and what is sexual for women, not what is perceived to be.
The last word goes to Solé who after her reading laughs out: Oh my fucking God! that was the best thing of my life!