Settling Accounts

City of Women hosted two burlesque solos, based on personal experiences of the performers: Sex Idiot by Bryony Kimmings and My Stories, Your Emails by Ursula Martinez. Since a lot of art is inspired by real events, that fact is hardly worth mentioning. What complicates the artistic technique of Sex Idiot and My Stories, Your Emails, is the artists’ refusal to fictionalize the really existing people who are mentioned in the shows. Even though the audience is told that they agreed to be included in the performances, this approach is surprising; seen as brave by some, and as ethically disputable by others. Disputable, because real people are depicted in highly unflattering ways (in Martinez’s case, we could speak of public shaming), and brave, because both artists risk of being accused of libel.     

The really existing people in their shows are not just any people: Bryony Kimmings reveals the full names of her former lovers; Ursula Martinez uses real names and photos of her online fans – predominantly men whom she never met in person. Since Ursula Martinez explicitly mentions only the consent of some men, it is not clear whether all of them have agreed to be included in her show. In contrast, Bryony Kimmings insists that her show has been approved by all of her former lover. This guarantee provides Sex Idiot with an authenticity that allows us to assume that the names she has told us are real, although that might not be the case. Now that we have made it clear who is being ridiculed, we can ask how – and why – the artists target them.

In Sex Idiot, the author wants to find out which of her former lovers infected her with a sexually transmitted disease (STD). She contacts all of them (or least the ones she can remember) via internet, asking for information, and promising each one an art piece in return for their cooperation. The replies vary from upset refusals to participate in her quest to reassuring notes, written by the ex-lovers whose STD tests were negative. As promised, Bryony Kimmings creates a performative gift for each one of them, and names the collection of gifts Sex Idiot. In the show, she reads the letters, then stages a series of unapologetic and funny scenes that summarize her past sexual encounters, sparing nobody in the process – not even her own “idiocy”.

In My Stories, Your Emails, Ursula Martinez juxtaposes her view on what constitutes her life ("my stories") with sexual fantasies, which have been invested in her body by men who have seen her cabaret piece Hanky Panky online – after it was published there without her knowledge. In the first part, she reads a number of stories about her family, partners and art, showing the complexity of her (or, for that matter, anyone else’s) life and personality. Her often tragic stories refer to sexism, homophobia, racism and class differences, but she tells them with such wit and affection, that the audience can laugh with, for instance, her Spanish grandma, who “for 63 years (...) cooked breakfast, lunch and supper for my granddad. At every single meal, he complained about something, either it was too cold, too salty, too sweet, too similar to the previous meal. Throughout their marriage, he was having an affair my granny’s younger sister Gabrielle”.

In the second part, Ursula Martinez reads the letters she received from men who have seen her nude in the Hanky Panky pirate video. The letters vary in style, not in content: her art show is repeatedly reduced to striptease; her personality is reduced to a sex object. In this part of the performance, Ursula Martinez achieves tragicomic effect by publicly showing the self-portraits of her fans and reading their enclosed letters in a way that mimics their accents and gestures with such skill that the men become genuine caricatures of “sleazy old farts”. 

Bryony Kimmings uses performance as a reflective platform that allows her to apologize to the lovers she treated badly and, at the same time, openly settle accounts with those who have mistreated her. Since Sex Idiot is full of self-irony, her attack on former lovers does not come across as a revengeful attempt at humiliation, therefore it is unlikely that anyone is going to question her ethics.

Ursula Martinez is settling accounts with people who have done to her first what she is doing to them in return; she is ridiculing and humiliating the men who have reduced her to a mere sex object. Is her performance brave or unethical? Your bloggers vote for bravery. If you happen to feel pity for her fans, you might change your mind after hearing what some men in the City of Women audience thought about My Stories, Your Emails. When asked if he liked the show, a young man said: “Yeah, she’s hot!” Another one said: “I like her boobs. I bet she doesn't have kids because they still look so firm".

Let's hope these men are enthusiastic enough to send Ursula Martinez an email – not because we want her to receive more “fan mail”, but because we hope that the men can recognise their own photo in a future staging of My Stories, Your Emails.

Ursula Martinez’s "revenge strategy" is so powerful exactly because she uses humour to reclaim her body and personality; because she uses public humiliation to object objectification.

Kristina Hens & Tea Hvala

Video: My Stories, Your Emails; Sex Idiot
Photos: My Stories, Your Emails; Sex Idiot