Labor, Digital Media, and Sexuality in the Work of Stephanie Rothenberg

Artist Stephanie Rothenberg consistently highlights the tenuous relationship between the human body and its mediated representation(s) through new computer technologies by creating interactive projects that often borrow their forms from existing “virtual world” programs like Second Life. Rothenberg, who holds her MFA from the Department of Film, Video and New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, identifies herself equally as an artist and as a “cultural anthropologist” concerned with interrogating “our interpersonal relationship to technology and its broader socio-political implications.” Rothenberg’s social consciousness manifests itself not only through her own artwork, but through her relationship with the non-profit organization REV-, which she co-founded in 2009. Drawing its name from a collection of powerful “rev-” words such as revolution, reveal, and irreverent, the New York-based organization aims to combine an aesthetic understanding of what constitutes “compelling design” with a commitment to those social justice issues that may lack public recognition in order to effect meaningful change. REV- projects include moves to inform domestic workers and their employers about the contents of the recently passed New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, efforts to protect food vendors from legal victimization, and Rothenberg’s own exploration of rights within the online global “workplace” entitled Best Practices in Banana Time. The ongoing project takes the form of a multi-part interactive talk show hosted by Rothenberg’s Second Life virtual alias who interviews Second Life guests working the same job in Second Life as they do in their offline lives. Interviewees include doctors, architects, and, surprisingly often, sex workers.

Rothenberg’s Second Life interviews with sex workers contribute to the exploration of the intersections of offline labor and digital media within an ongoing project more directly pertinent to the Social Media Project, Laborers of Love. Laborers of Love is an interactive and individualized pornography site that operates on a model of global “crowdsourcing.” Rothenberg’s home site offers the Wikipedia definition of crowdsourcing as “taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call.” Thus, Laborers of Love operates as follows: users input specific details regarding their sexual fantasies into a form on the website (including descriptions of characters, setting, relative pace of the encounter, and preference for levels of “weirdness” or “spiciness”) and then pay a specified fee. The information is then sent to a site managed by the crowdsourcing application Mechanical Turk (owned by Amazon.com) where everyday people around the world can view the fantasy request, work to create it, and indicate an in-progress status on the site. These anonymous individuals provide images and video inspired by the request to Laborers of Love, which uses a digital mashup program to create a “montage/Dada-esque video” and then delivers the final product to the original user. Because the site facilitates creative sexual collaboration between “anybody,” Laborers of Love destabilizes the definition of “sex worker” within a digitalized global economy. The project additionally complicates traditional notions of bodily intimacy and pleasure by mediating its users’ previously private fantasies through the internet. The site furnishes an end result that is both the direct product of a user’s fantasy and simultaneously unfamiliar to that user in its specific content and its disjointed, erratic video format.

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