Online Intimacy with Lotte de Jong —
Offline Matters: An Interview Series
Offline Matters: An Interview Series is co-presented with No Fun Mag, a membership newsletter by Jess Henderson, author of the book Offline Matters: The Less-Digital Guide to Creative Work.
In our first interview of this series, Jess speaks with Lotte Louise de Jong (b. 1989, The Netherlands), a media artist with a background in filmmaking. Through practical and theoretical research she tries to analyze the relationships we have with technology and the “online” world.
Her work mainly deals with topics such as identity and sexuality. To be more specific; it addresses how we shape our identity and sexuality through mediated environments such as the internet and how these environments inform each other.
You have an interesting background as an artist. First studying film, which piqued your interest in how online spaces shape and influence us, and from there studying Interaction Design: Unstable Media where you became interested in online pornography, experimenting with algorithms and machine learning that would describe what they saw. The incredible thing about those findings were how void they were of anything sexual.
An indicator of the taboos still very much alive around sex (taboos that exist in society and are reflected in algorithms and machine learning, no different to the encoding of sexism and racism). Can you tell us more about these notions of intimacy, and what they say about our online and (vs.) offline lives/experiences?
Hi Jess. Thanks! Yes, that’s right, I’ve always been interested in the shaping of identity through online spaces. I was very young when we got our first computer at home and I started creating online profiles on cu2, chatting to strangers through ICQ and online chat boxes. This had a great influence on the development of my identity during adolescence, which reflects in my practice as an artist.
I became interested in online pornography as I felt that my sexuality was so different from what I saw on porn sites, like it was a different language. I was curious about the ways in which I could see the computer in this process of translation. For one project I used image recognition algorithms as an intervention as you mention, ‘translating’ what a computer sees when it watches porn.
The image recognition database was one that didn’t contain any nudity and the result was a video that captioned ‘a girl is brushing her teeth in a bedroom’ instead of ‘a girl is sucking a penis in a bedroom’. For me this acted as a metaphor regarding the duality of how we look at pornography in society; we watch it, but we don’t really talk about it.
I see this as one of the problematic issues regarding the representation of power, body, and pleasure in most heterosexual pornography. If we don’t talk about it, how can we take control of the discourse?
The most recent focus of your work has been on cam performers within the realm of sex work. One of the things that struck me the most from our discussions on this was your explanation of the rooms used by performers, which are completely constructed to exist only online.
They do not exist ‘in real life’, and in this way embody the idea of constructing online space. There is no offline version of these rooms, and that situates them in a kind of ‘liminal space’. Can you tell us more about their liminality, and what makes this space so interesting to you?
I became interested in liminality in connection to the internet first through reading a text by the sociologist Dennis Waskul that suggested that the internet is ‘a natural environment for liminality’: a place separate from one’s space where the ordinary norms of everyday life can be suspended. I feel this very strongly in the way we communicate online, but I felt like the cam-rooms were a physical representation of this concept.
“There is an interesting interplay between what is revealed and what remains hidden. The image of a space is never a depiction of the physical space. Some of these rooms have green screens, others are situated in webcam studios and lack any personal touch (the entire channels where performers broadcast from are also called rooms).”
— Lotte de Jong
There is an interesting interplay between what is revealed and what remains hidden. The image of a space is never a depiction of the physical space. Some of these rooms have green screens, others are situated in webcam studios and lack any personal touch (the entire channels where performers broadcast from are also called rooms).
Working in these spaces must feel like working from a virtual reality box. A room created just to exist in an online digital setting, for the spectator, not one to be experienced offline or disconnected from the internet. This also functions as a metaphor for the relationships formed within this space. These interactions and connections arise because they are online, in a space where different rules of interaction apply.
A screenshot from a cam platform.
From your interviews with performers, one finding is how much affective labour they undergo. Clients frequently want to talk about loneliness, body issues, the shame they experience from their fantasies or fetishes, and how they feel they cannot talk about these things with their partners or friends.
In this way, the online rooms created by sex workers open up spaces for vulnerability, where the client can “hide” and be someone different than who they are offline.
Perhaps this is also problematic since it means that the performers need to take on emotional work, which they don’t really sign up for. What is the general sentiment from workers in their client’s offline emotions and difficulties bleeding into the rooms they work in?
This is both an interesting and difficult matter. I have talked to a lot of different types of performers, ranging from cam performers based in studios in Romania to independent cam performers in the US. In general, the sexual part of the work is way smaller than people would think and a big part of the labour goes into sustaining relationships.
The general sentiment is that performers prefer getting payed for non-sexual acts and performers enjoy ‘helping’ people. But of course, it’s hard to take into account what the emotional effect is.
In general, the sexual part of the work is way smaller than people would think and a big part of the labour goes into sustaining relationships. The general sentiment is that performers prefer getting payed for non-sexual acts and performers enjoy ‘helping’ people.
Are there positive reports in this too?
There are a lot of performers who have expressed that they have gained genuine friendships out of it, and they feel proud if they are able to make people feel better about themselves. Their tougher clients are people who remain anonymous, ask for things that performers are not comfortable with (for example having to insult the client), or clients who are extremely rude or frustrated.
The performers I talked to come across so many different personalities. Some have extreme sexual preferences or heavy mental issues. It’s strange to think that the performers themselves often don’t have anyone to talk to about this because the work is quite taboo (especially in Romania).
Cam performers are exploited by the platforms they work on–not unlike creative workers on Fiverr, or delivery workers via Uber. Their incomes are extracted and social stigmas around sex work are used against them, as the platforms know all the manipulative tricks to take advantage.
In a fairer situation, virtual sex work could be liberating, and safe from the varieties of violence suffered in offline sex work. However, it seems as victims of platform capitalism, the performers end up in a new system of more abstracted violence (economic, stressful precarity, etc.) What have you learnt through your work and research to report on this exploitation?
Uffh… Yes, it’s awful. The percentage that they have to pay to the platforms they work on depends on said platform, but it is generally situated around 50% (sometimes even more) In comparison, Fiverr takes about 20%. Then there’s a huge issue with getting paid for the labour.
Where visitors of these sites can pay easily using their MasterCard or PayPal to purchase ‘tokens’ (the payment currency on many cam platforms), performers are struggling to get paid because these traditional payments methods don’t want to engage in ‘sex work-based services.’ The alternative payment platforms the performers are left with charge another 5-10%, (depending on currency, transfers, etc.) and are often lacking any recognition for the parts around customer service.
Sex-cam platforms also hide the idea of labour, through their Terms of Service and how they are set-up. Antonia Hernandez, a researcher and artist I’ve been working with, writes that sex-cam platforms that describe themselves as the ‘free’ ones, present the performers not was workers but as people who are there to ‘freely express themselves.’
Money is a fictional currency (tokens) and is exchanged not as wages but as ‘tips’ or voluntary gratuities.
It’s hard for performers to unite because sex-work has a lot of stigma around it and is not always legal in the countries where they work from. This is also where the cam platforms and payment platform take their advantage, they know that they won’t be held accountable.
After so much research and work based on online spaces, it was interesting to hear how over the past few months you felt a desire to ‘make with your hands’ and ‘move on from digital’ in your practice. Can you tell us about this calling and how you’ve been exploring it?
I’ve always been drawn to working with my hands from time to time. Working in a digital space can sometimes be alienating. I also like to go back to the physicality of the technique behind it, soldering jump wires for instance. During the start of the pandemic I was working on a project about trends in pornography. When the first lockdowns started in Italy you could see an immense increase of traffic on sites like Pornhub. They even offered free premium accounts to those in lockdown.
At the same time, I had the same tendency as a lot of people; to calm my mind by doing something ‘simple’. So, as I was doing my first puzzle I read in a news item that puzzles were beginning to sell out online too. I found it hilarious to observe that people were mainly jerking off or (and?) doing puzzles during their time in quarantine and decided to combine these two things.
At the time, the top search items on Pornhub was ‘covid’ and ‘corona’, so I began designing my own puzzle and diamond painting with porn images related to the Coronavirus. Doing a diamond painting is so kitsch, but the concentration required with the repetitive movement has something immensely calming in it.
Have you seen a similar movement amongst your friends and peers towards more time spent offline?
Yes, this surprised me a lot actually. One of my best friends, artist Lana Mesic (pictured above), started making a huge drawing where every day she would draw the amount of new Covid-19 cases–not unlike the diamond painting I was making, the drawing used repetitive movements that took a lot of time. Another friend of mine went back to drawing and painting from working with image recognition software. A third friend started making rugs out of old clothes.
“Maybe the immense overload of information, general anxieties, and uncertainness of the whole situation, made us want to disconnect from these consequences of time spent online or seek the creation of headspaces where we could analyse these new uncertainties.”
As someone deeply experienced in online worlds and digital making, as well as experimental within the possibilities of offline, what’s your feeling about what each can offer?
I think we should realise that digital interaction is a surrogate for real interaction. I’ve recently read The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster written in 1909 which talks about an all-encompassing machine where everyone lives in.
There’s a passage that really stuck with me where the son talks to his mother through this machine: ‘The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.’
I’ve had this experience a lot when video calling with people. The connection lags, the sound it shitty, and the nuances of expression fail. On the other hand, I’ve talked to a lot of people over the internet, shy people, introverts, people with mental issues, that wouldn’t be able to speak with others if it weren’t for these digital tools. It can make people feel more comfortable with themselves. So, I think the online world can offer us a lot, though we need to remain critical towards its intentions.
between the sheets (2015). Cinema 4D, printed, text.
We often hear that the creatively-inclined feel there is a real connection to getting away from screens for imagination and ideation. It also tends to go hand in hand with calming down, or ‘disconnecting’ from mandates of productivity, optimisation, constant communication, etc.
Is there something to offer here from your own experiences on the relation between time offline and the creative (or life!) process?
The online world is so intertwined with my offline world it’s hard for me to say I ever ‘get away.’ I’m doing a lot of research lately online and I can totally lose myself in the worlds of other people. I can get into a very dissociative state after spending hours and hours endlessly diving into something online.
After so much research, it’s good for me to get away from my computer, go to a place where I’m away from technology, take a notebook with me and just start writing whatever comes to mind. I have also experienced that labour-intensive crafting provides a very different sensation of satisfaction.
“The online world is so intertwined with my offline world it’s hard for me to say I ever ‘get away.’ I’m doing a lot of research lately online and I can totally lose myself in the worlds of other people. I can get into a very dissociative state after spending hours and hours endlessly diving into something online.”
Looking ahead, what are the biggest takeaways for you after these months so far of the pandemic? Has it changed your way of seeing or your priorities going forward?
Personally, it gave me a lot of time to do nothing. I was very privileged that I was able to keep my part-time job whilst not having to actually work at it. And because it felt like the whole world just came to a halt, the pressure to produce work for myself also fell away.
This gave me space to experiment with different materials and brought the ‘fun’ back into it. I’m aiming to alternate digital making with analog making for the coming while, and really looking forward to it. Strangely enough, coming from everything standing still to things starting up again, step-by-step, I could notice the things that gave me stress returning… so I want to try and avoid them.
What’s first on that list?
Early morning meetings for one!