In an upcoming documentary on radical feminist performance art called The F Word, Leah Schrager boldly describes herself as both artist and muse. This binary border crossing is indicative of her entire oeuvre: as a multi-media conceptual web artist, Schrager embodies both the positions of viewer and viewed in most of her endeavors, from the much publicized “Naked Therapist” to “Escart Girl,” an ongoing project where she plays an “enchanting and beautiful” erotic art object for hire. Although Schrager has many theoretically fecund projects to delve into, we were particularly intrigued by Escart Girl, and asked her about the ways art and commerce merge with self-objectification and feminism in her work.
How did you initially envision the Escart Girl project? What were some of your theoretical/artistic influences and how does your background in dance, visual art, modeling and web design inform this ongoing work?
This project came to me when I was on a paid date with a very wealthy someone. At the time I was reading Art Objects by Jeannette Winterson. A lot of what she had to say about art made me think of how I was being treated: I was being admired, dressed up, engaged in conversation, and my goal was to be elegant, smart, sophisticated. It made me think that many women, especially models or escorts, are treated like living art objects. With escorts the money transaction is evident, but in dating models there’s almost always a transaction of money as well (as allowance or clothing or vacations or rent, etc.). So, I built Escartgirl.com to emulate an escort girl website (warning pop-up message prior to entrance, facelessness of photos, etc) but in paying for time the patron is paying to spend time with an art object (as opposed to the assumed sexual activity that comes with escorts). My intent is to explore the relationships among models, escorts, women, wealthy individuals and art collectors.
My background is as a dancer and model, and in my transition to visual and conceptual art I’ve taken those influences with me. I grew up being onstage and performing in other people’s choreography and scripts. In my work now I often build my own website which feels similar to building my own stage. In many of my recent projects I present myself as a pretty young female performer because I find the questions raised to be interesting. If a performer in a performance art piece is overtly sexy, what happens? How does it complicate things since performance art is typically presented live to an audience and this performer is the object or experience being sold?
Escart Girl challenges the viewed/viewer dichotomy through intimate, interactive encounters with the purpose of connection and not necessarily documentation – do you feel a lot of contemporary art is missing that human aspect?
Hmm, that’s a good question. I would generally agree, though would not feel comfortable making a fully blanket statement. I do not videotape or audiotape my experiences, so there is no direct documentation of it. I once had a studio visit where the teacher said what I did was not art because there was no documentation – which I strongly disagreed with. But, then again, she’s a well-known photographer, so for her documentation is art. I call the performances that Escart does appearances. Each appearance is a unique experience that’s tailored to the participant/patron. The patron (and anyone else who might be in the room) becomes a part of the appearance. I love that it makes the participant part of the painting. He (I use the pronoun “he” because all my patrons have been men, though I am more than open to having a female patron) has enabled it, and then becomes part of it. So he is experiencing himself as well, through interaction with me.
The experiences I have between myself and patrons are meant to be live experiences and do not require direct documentation. I do “document” in other ways. For example, I create visual artwork to send to a patron after meeting with him. And these visual works make up a collection that I hope to show in a gallery one day. I’ve also started a new Instagram in which my posts and the comments people make are a sort of documentation of my experiences. To me it’s important that at each level of interaction the experience and documentation and intimacy are particular to the audience – the first type is the live appearance for a patron, the second type is visual works for an art-going audience, and the third type is social media interactions through an online community. I like working with different levels of interactions and for each level to be authentic to its targeted audience. But I recognize that makes it difficult for some to view or understand the works as art.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, how does the Escart Girl experience align with or deviate from your views about objectification and self-representation? How do you think Escart Girl challenges or reinforces stereotypes about female sexuality?
Yes, I do consider myself a feminist. I identify as fourth-wave feminist, which is a new wave that focuses on the power that women have through self-presentation and safe interactions online. I don’t consider my art works to have a political agenda. For me, it’s more about noticing what is going on around me, and then taking it somewhere new or different, or, in this case, to an extreme. So it doesn’t align or deviate from my views, but rather plays with what I see, and, I hope, comes to an elegant situation that challenges people to think about their desires and prejudices. I do believe that objectification is a natural part of relationships, and it adds a strong level of power, agency, and artful beauty to the woman. So while I am heightening the objectification, I am also heightening the power. The woman calls the shots, which is super important in all my works.
You also offer the Escart Girl experience for institutions, where you provide commentary on any topic as a “gallery girl.” What would your personal favorites be to discuss?
Sadly no gallery or museum has yet hired me, but I’m hoping that will change soon! If I could go back in time, I would have loved to be a gallery girl for Andrea Fraser’s Untitled in 2003, or a tour guide for Laurel Nakadate’s show at PS1 in 2011.
What has the reception been like to this work?
My performance art professor thought it was very brave! Some classmates were worried about my safety. One girl thought the website was super hot but that I should charge less to get more patrons. It has pretty mixed reactions.
If you CAN reveal a few details of particular encounters, what have been some of the most interesting, challenging, etc?
I was at an outside charity event wearing absurdly high heels alongside a bunch of other models and trophy wives in absurdly high heels. In the reception area where we were having drinks prior to the event the ground was covered but there was nothing hard underneath it! Just sand or grass! At the time it was frustrating because it was super difficult to walk, but in retrospect it was really funny. No one had thought to set up the proper pedestal for the ladies! Another time I joined a patron at the Wallace Collection in London. It’s an amazing collection, and as we walked through it we discussed how prior to photography, painting was the main way to capture, remember, and honor a loved one’s image. Also, that paintings of nudes was the main way for men and women to see what other people’s naked bodies looked like.
Any upcoming projects or performances you can tell us about?
Yes :) I’ve really enjoyed Escart Girl because it’s conceptually simple and straight-forward. My most recent two projects were inspired by Escart and my experiences as her. The first is PaintedO.com, a woman who sells collaborative pornographic paintings. The second is Art-child.org, in which I offer myself up as a surrogate to birth the first art child, which, if it happens, will be the most expensive piece of art made by a living artist to date. Also, I’ve just started a new Instagram account that I’m having a lot of fun with: instagram.com/onaartist
All images: Leah Schrager