Jesse Belle-Jones, Co-Director of Performance at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival, is always game for stimulating conversation, particularly when it appeals to the intellect as well as one’s libido. (Her tag-line in burlesque isn’t “The Modern Sexual Intellectual” for nothing). “I’m very happy to talk your ear off about sex-positive feminist performance art,” was her reply when asked to meet up for a chat about her latest obsessions, as well as her work curating this year’s performances with the Seattle Erotic Art Festival.
For the uninitiated to both the annual festival and this type of artistry, definitions are ambiguous. In conversation Jesse purposefully uses the noun ‘human’ rather than leaning on gender-specific pronouns. She believes, much like her fellow board members at the Foundation for Sex Positive Culture, that the shared experience of sexuality, as well as the shared experience of enjoying art, is for everyone, and every body. Started in 2003, Seattle Erotic Art Festival began as a small collection of erotic art shown by the organization that would later become the Foundation for Sex Positive Culture, which could be described as the educational outreach “sister” organization to the Center for Sex Positive Culture (which is in fact a physical place, and one that boasts an impressive library). The relationship between the organizations is as complex as the subject matter it deals with – but the shared focus is a safe place for all manner of sexualities and humanities to be themselves, a whole lot of sexy events and classes, and one yearly festival featuring some of the finest erotic visual, literary, short film, and performance art you’ll find anywhere.
An erotic event housed at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall doesn’t sound inherently sexy, but you’d be surprised what skilled hands and years of experience can do. An impeccably talented team of craftsmen and designers transform the generic space into a lush gallery with careful attention to museum-style lighting, sound-absorbing materials, and a shadowy, intimate atmosphere suitable for displaying titillating works of art. There’s also live performance, both ambient and staged. Jesse’s work this year has been focused primarily on curating a broad array of live performers to demonstrate the unique beauty and individualism of sexuality. Gender Tender (“a dance and theater project that makes work about the trans, queer, and mixed race experience using an interdisciplinary process”) will be coming from Minneapolis, a visitation Jesse is particularly excited about. Seattle’s Paris Original, Seraphina Fiero, and Boom Boom L’Roux will also perform. Not all live works will take place on an actual stage; some will be in the form of “pop-up” style performances in and around the aisles and attendees. Crystal Tassels will perform burlesque in the round, eliminating the line between audience and performer. Spontaneity and witnessing will be a welcome form of participation.
And how does Jesse actually define sex positive performance art? “For me, allowing myself to be a physical, celebrated sexual woman…to me that feels like a revolutionary act,” she explains after a momentary pause to consider. “I think that we live in a culture where that’s not always a safe or acceptable thing to do, especially in a public forum. In the case of the festival, it’s performers of all genders, and I think that just to be an openly sexual human being is a revolutionary act. It’s taking a stand and saying ‘I want you to see me celebrating my sexuality, because I think it’s beautiful and I’m inviting you to find it beautiful and I’m inviting you to celebrate yours, too’. That’s what feels most important to me about this festival, and the thrust of this work.”
Seattle Erotic Art Festival takes place April 23-25 at Seattle Center Exhibition Hall.