A pair of lamp-lit, light-skinned hands are the subject of one video; they’re delicate and femme, acrylic nails painted bright shiny red. The person shows off their hands to the camera, getting up close and moving back, fingers caressing each other over and over throughout the one and half minute piece. In a voice-over, the artist tells a few very short stories about her night working at the strip club, including one about a “funny group of old political men sitting in the corner all old and white” who tip well, as well as a group of Hopkins boys who “anyone could tell they looked like they had never seen a vagina before.” One of the other dancers had complimented her that night. “She said that my stage presence was great, that I seemed so sexual. It really looked like I was happy up there.”
A full-time student at MICA, sadpapsmear (as she is known on Instagram) supports herself and helps to pay for school with money she makes as a stripper—a job that can demand just as much physical labor as emotional labor. “I really love it,” she says to me at Red Emma’s on a Sunday night. “Sometimes it can get really tiring, sometimes I get really annoyed. It’s a range of things.”
Sadpapsmear has asked us not to publish her given name because of the sexual content of her work—video pieces which sometimes use her naked body, and often though not always share stories about her work as a stripper, and otherwise talk about dating and fucking and her feelings about all of that.
One body of work, “I <3 Larry Flynt,” features a series of videos with found footage stripped from YouTube, such as an episode of “Cribs” with Lauren Conrad; a young girl eating an ice cream cone; a spray-tanning infomercial; and the aforementioned fetish-y hand video. Over the videos, sadpapsmear shares dispatches from the club, which paint a complex picture of what she does and who she encounters there. In the video with the girl and the ice cream cone, she tells a story about one guy who “looked sad” and “he didn’t know why he was sad.” He got a private dance from her, and he told her he wanted more than a lap dance, but that wasn’t going to happen. “He explained his distress in strip clubs and didn’t believe anything I was saying was genuine.”
In another video featuring clips of George W. Bush dancing with African leaders, she talks about a man who tells her that her name means “wisdom” and wants to talk to her about “The Catcher in the Rye.” She says “men in the club always ask you the same questions” like where do you go to school, what do you want to do when you get out of school. This night, she shares in the video, was tough, more of a hustle than other nights; all the dancers were worried they weren’t making enough money. She gave one guy a lap dance: “His lap dance was weird, though. He was into touching my skin, he touched my neck. I think it was the best fake intimacy I had ever performed.”
Sometimes the visuals are more compelling than the stories—or vice versa. In one clip she talks about a “creepy indie rock guy” and more stories of men trying to get her to come home with them or let them pay her to fuck them, but the visual is an at-home video of a girl doing the cinnamon challenge that was a viral phenomenon about 10 years ago—where you try to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon and subsequently choke on it because it dries out your mouth. “The video on YouTube was like ‘Hot Girl Does Cinnamon Challenge,’” sadpapsmear tells me, “but like watching this beautiful woman choke and in the video you can hear her boyfriend laughing at her . . . it’s just me talking about performing and the men I’m meeting and she just looks like she’s in pain; this beautiful woman in pain.”
She says got into stripping because one of her friends was stripping and she was interested, so this friend gave her advice on how to dance and how to audition. “It’s really easy to pick up,” she says, though she admits that she’s already very comfortable with performing and putting her body out there. Her work schedule is flexible and accommodating, and it pays really well. And it gives her a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of fodder for her art, which she has trouble with, somewhat surprisingly, in art school critiques.
“I think most of the push-back I’ve gotten is from, like, my male peers,” she says, and recalls sending a link to her partner at the time, a video piece about this time she was raped as a freshman at Florida State University. In the video, a slideshow backdrop of frat boys at a party streams behind a clip of the artist in lingerie, dancing and stripping down, as she tells her story:
“I don’t know how Alden interpreted my cries of help as sexts or consent, but I guess he did. I mean who knows, not me, because I can’t remember anything from taking the pills at the coffee shop to waking up naked in his bed.” While few of her pieces seem simple or uncomplicated, this piece is particularly knotty; her story and her delivery of it vacillate tonally between valley-girl coyness to a matter-of-fact detachment, causing tension with the obvious, emphatic sex appeal of the young woman dancing, stripping, confident, until the end of the video where she shifts: “I guess it was a year later I realized, I was raped?”
She says that when she sent that video to her then-partner, he seemed empathetic at first, but then he wrote it off, didn’t take it seriously or try to assess it with any nuance, calling it “topical” or “trendy.”
Still a bit incredulous at that response—and she notes that men, particularly male painters, get less flak for making work about feeling and emotion—she says that experience “made me think about how we’re learning how to make work in school and critique in school. Which, depending on your education and depending on what you’re soaking in, I feel like can feel really masculine.” She says that people say her work is “too personal” sometimes, and that some of her classmates argue that art should not be personal.
That argument, however, feels a little too strict and a little too much like regurgitated art-school rhetoric, and it’s kind of boring to imagine an art landscape with little or no personal or autobiographical or subjective work. Personal work can sometimes draw us out of complacency and ordinariness; it can give us something concrete to bond over. And when many of us use social media to almost curate a somewhat flawless version of ourselves, to see something that shocks us out of the everyday can also be beneficial. Though her video work may be her primary artistic medium, sadpapsmear also uses Instagram as a kind of diary, posting screen shots of her work, along with ordinary stuff everyone puts on Instagram like pictures of pages from books she’s reading (recently, Eileen Myles “Inferno” and Anne Desclos’ “The Story of O”), and selfies, some of them tearful, with confessional captions like “Anyone else ever cry after they masturbate due to the thought of eternal loneliness?:)”
The line between reality and performance blurs on the internet but, still, she contends, “I think the internet is genuine. I think there’s room to argue that it isn’t, but for the most part, I dunno,” she says, somewhat refocusing, “I’m pretty genuine on the internet. I don’t know how other people see me.” Still, she’s realized that by being unapologetically open on the internet about her experiences, she’s gotten a lot of responses from people who follow her, who thank her because they can relate.
This frankness has been sort of a response to how she grew up, as many women do, feeling like she needed to be passive or unemotional or, more colloquially, “chill.” “Especially with like hookup culture,” she says, “like a part of me really wanted to seem cool or that I didn’t care but part of me would just like cry in my bed like ‘I really like this guy and I hooked up with him. . . ’ and so I’m like way more open about it. And it’s really healthy.”
Of course, being so open on the internet can invite bullying and harassment, which she’s experienced. And she says that putting things out there in the world is sort of a performance, but maybe more like an experiment. “Partly [it’s] like learning not to be afraid of these things, and learning to be open with these things,” she says. “Maybe somebody will see that and be like, ‘whoa I’ve done the same thing and I’m glad I can relate to this or I’m glad somebody else has experienced this, and I know it’s going to be OK.’”