How does technology shape the way we perceive sexuality? Talking about VR sexual experiences, the use of deep learning in porn movies, tech-domination and gray areas of sex work, Romanian digital artist Taietzel Ticalos focuses on findom – financial domination – an online BDSM niche. For her latest work While the Future Unfolds, she developed the 3D character Cherie Pie to artistically examine how an online environment influences fetishization and sex work differently. In an interview with independent editor and curator Sabin Borș, Taietzel discusses the development of the project, its social levels, and how online sex work reveals allegedly uncommon needs of customers.
Sabin Borș: Your new body of works, titled While the Future Unfolds, relates to sex work and financial domination. It certainly marks a shift from your previous works, both in terms of your approach and the spectrum of ideas and situations it tries to negotiate. How did this project come to life?
Taietzel Ticalos: Last year, when I started to apply body movements to 3D characters, I also became interested in creating a character outside the frame line of a GIF, print, or video: a character developed on social networks through social accounts, which interacts in a way with its followers and has its own story. I couldn’t find a purpose for its existence, so I postponed the idea. A few months later, through the humanATM hashtag I discovered the financial domination fetish and the character became the Inhuman Mistress. Though the approach gave me some challenges, somehow I don’t see this project as a major shift, since it contains most of the topics I was working on already.
SB: Here, the 3D character you create is empowered and uses the language of domination. I’m interested to know if you had in mind a specific »social profile« for this character. It seems to reflect certain desires and fantasies, of course, but this also raises the question of social status, condition, or situation. Then, it is embedded in very particular social channels and networks that you seem to investigate more and more. I cannot separate this project from the social conditions of which it speaks, and I therefore see it also as a social commentary.
TT: Queen of Cups or the Inhuman Mistress, the dominatrix persona of my 3D character, is still a work in progress, but the core was built on the study of financial domination accounts, forums and sites. Around that, I played a lot with her obvious attributes, highlighting them in statements like »My virtual existence is worth more than your real one« or »I’m a pure fantasy.« By making inhumanity her brand, here the discourse focuses more on the human-nonhuman relation than on the gender gap.
Cherie Pie (the »real« name of the character) was developed for the videos and placed in a storyline. She is isolated on the other side of the screen, trapped in loops and limited by filter bubbles to learn about female submissiveness. Indeed, the narration is charged with situations and elements taken from reality and probably confronts the viewer more directly than my other works.
SB: How would you define »financial domination« in this particular context? How does financial domination work here?
TT: There are several reasons why I found financial domination the perfect ground for my project. The dominant-submissive relationship starts in the online environment and most of the time is kept exclusively on the Internet. The gray area allocated to the financial domination fetish was also appealing, allowing me to create content that doesn’t involve nudity. Because the financial kink is strongly connected with others, like humiliation, foot- or ignore-fetish, my 3D character ended up being a mysterious dominatrix that never reveals her face, showing instead only her 3D feet. Finally, I can’t deny my fascination and curiosity for this specific sex work community formed of independent artists, which capitalizes on time, attention, and denial.
SB: What is it, from your experience working on this project and the interactions you had with other users, that makes people assume certain roles? This is not only a matter of assuming an online identity or persona – playing certain roles is no longer about identity, but about exerting various forms of power or willingly accepting powerlessness. It’s what you mentioned before as well, when you told me about the »consensual power exchange« that takes place here, where female characters come to dominate as a reaction to so much feminine submissiveness.
»Because the financial kink is strongly connected with others, like humiliation, foot- or ignore-fetish, my 3D character ended up being a mysterious dominatrix that never reveals her face, showing instead only her 3D feet.«
TT: Hard to answer your question. Even my 3D character states in the videos: »You never know what goes through a human mind.« And I can add, you never know what triggers a fetish. You can draw some general patterns, but each case comes with its specificities. If we’re talking only about female domination, the marketing I’ve encountered sometimes promotes an aggressive form of »feminism,« the one that reaches a vengeance discourse. I can’t say how much of it is genuine. What I find surprising is not the popularity of a fetish that emphasizes on gender difference, but the fact that, in all its forms, is delivered mainly to a male audience.
SB: Is it actually a power exchange that takes place here, or is it more like a »role play« that characters and users willingly play? I think there continues to be a lot of power exerted over the character itself; a softer power, for example, lies in the simple fact that, unless you groom your character, you start losing followers, as you told me before. There is this exertion of power over one’s ability to respond to a need, a desire, a fantasy, or obsession to dominate and be dominated. There is a resort of dependency and making one dependent, which actually functions both ways. I think this maybe translates much of how our visibility itself is negotiated in the online environment.
TT: We should keep in mind that we are talking about a business after all, and one that is very competitive. Sex work is work, and this is the first thing everyone with experience points to. Financial domination sells the illusion of easy money, but it’s a lot of effort in there. It takes time to gain your clients and it’s really hard as an independent performer to train yourself for it. It’s a must to be very active online until you reach your audience. I believe the more you stay in the business, the more you embrace the persona you develop. So, in the end the goddess becomes the goddess, passing the »role play«, for a loyal fan base. It just takes time and a lot of work to transform the momentary power exchange in a long lasting one. Also, it depends on how the dominant-submissive relationship is built. There were performers that took breaks for several years and when they decided to return in the scene, their old clients returned to them.
A couple of years ago the financial domination phenomenon exploded, becoming the subject of reality shows, documentaries, news, even some political scandals … when the exposure happened, the scene got flooded with newcomers, believing this is a rapid source of income. In such cases, the disappointment follows really quickly.
Coming back to my project, there are other factors at hand. When you place a 3D character in a fetishistic community, the chances to be rejected by both parties (dominants and subs) are very high. The most I feared the project will be considered a mockery of the fetish, which is not my intention. To my surprise, some accepted her in the scene, but it’s still a long way to go. Indeed, at this point if I pause the project, I lose my followers.
»Working with a 3D sex character makes you wonder more if humans dream of real love.«
SB: What is also interesting about this project is that it touches on both sexual and technological fetishes. Whereas you approached the issue of fetishism in previous projects, such as Latex Series, here it becomes more relevant, in my opinion, because it deals with »real fantasies,« so to speak. It is no longer just an interpretation of certain ideas, but a means to negotiate fantasies more directly, to negotiate other people’s fantasies, too. How do you see this relation between sexual and technological fetishism?
TT: Obviously technology shaped the way we perceive sexuality. I mean, we talk now about VR sexual experiences, the use of deep learning in porn movies, tech domination and gray areas of sex work. I believe technology and sexuality always made »good businesses« together and, from this point of view, I understand the benefits delivered by the first: sex workers are safer on the Internet than on the streets; the online environment also brought the possibility to be an independent performer and to market outside the predominant pornographic industry and so on. But we’ve reached a point of visual saturation in displaying sexual imagery and I think the rise of gray zoned fetishes confirms Roland Barthes statement: »Sex is everywhere, except in sexuality.«
SB: Do 3D sex characters dream of real love?
TT: Working with a 3D sex character makes you wonder more if humans dream of real love.
SB: As I understand it, this project moves further from your previous projects also because it involves a more active role on your behalf, entering certain networks, channels, and communities; being more attentive to the ways in which people interact here. Can you please tell me more about the users, the networks and social channels that they use, the communities that form here or those that engage these networks?
TT: For sex workers, an online community provides the help that is lacking offline, and breaks the isolation that usually comes with this type of job. For example, on Twitter, which is the commonly used platform for marketing, the sex work communities crisscross each other, approaching a variety of topics from mental health and depression to politics or advices on how to advertise your business. But the easiness to access sex work communities draws curious users, making the interaction difficult. There’s also a lot of cyberbullying and shaming.
Sex work communities are widespread on the Internet and, wherever they are let to flourish, they create a big audience, boosting the platform’s traffic. I became aware of this dynamic when I stumbled across some articles about how the last users using Myspace are sex workers. So, while most of the trendy social networks, like Facebook and Instagram, marginalize the sex workers in their terms of service, the less popular ones, like Snapchat, Tumblr, and Patreon, embraced them.
In March, when the SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act)/FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking) bill passed the US Congress, encouraging censorships of sites, the online stigmatization around sex workers surfaced. Right away Craigslist shut down its Personal Ads section, Google Drive started locking and deleting sensitive content, and Twitter used shadow bans to suspend sex workers’ accounts. SESTA/FOSTA made a major change in Section 230 of Communications Decency Act (considered one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet), thus affecting all users.
SB: Tech domination becomes a powerful grid to also tackle issues that have to do with crypto currencies or online identity theft. Could you please tell me how you’ve come to approach these issues, what is specific to them in this context?
TT: Both are topics of interest in the sex work communities, so it’s difficult not to mention them. Between payment companies like Paypal or Square that are not processing transactions for activities in connection with adult services and the huge cut taken by the adult sites (which can range from 30 percent to 70 percent), cryptocurrency is growing in popularity and is seen as the safest payment option, especially in financial domination. When bitcoin reached its peak last year, the community was already speculating its downfall on Twitter, but probably the interesting part is how the fetish took cryptocurrency further, placing it in the power exchange scenario and transforming it in a slave’s task: now the submissive is educated to mine cryptocurrency.
Regarding the identity theft, that is still a major issue and, while fake accounts pop online every day, the immediate credibility of a financial dominatrix is given by a verification post, pinned on the timeline. Of course, as a submissive you can avoid fake accounts with a little research, which is actually encouraged by the community.
SB: This also relates to one thing you mentioned before and which I found very interesting, the idea that our data is the price we pay for collecting information. It is a vicious circle that keeps us bound to these restraining conditions. Of course, we always end up paying more. In this respect, the same economical tropes and economies are at work here, as in the »real« spaces and situations, much more perfidiously because the Internet used to give us a sense of possibility, infinity, freedom, and liberation – and we discover it’s certainly not the case.
TT: I guess it was a matter of time to fetishize our mass surveillance fears into something like tech-domination. Modern enslavement deals with account takeovers, team viewer sessions, online tracking and exposure, so dominants must be tech-savvy to reach their sub’s data. The big difference here is that all is consensual and in most cases, the requests come from the subs.
SB: This project is certainly what distinguishes your work, I think. It also holds the potential to become your most representative work, as it will expand and develop further. What is the current status of the project and what comes next? Did you consider engaging with other areas of research or other disciplines?
TT: It’s been almost a year since I started this project and I still don’t know where it will take me. Right now, I’m interested more on how the SESTA/FOSTA law affects sex workers, so probably my next video will approach this aspect. I haven’t considered engaging with specific areas of research, but I am open to all sorts of collaborations and suggestions.
SB: Do you plan to exhibit the project anywhere physically, or do you intend to keep it online only?
TT: The videos were already exhibited this year in a group exhibition at Akademie Schloss Solitude, but the actual project remains online, in the fetish community.