Fans of the holiday spirit packed the Artists Space loft Friday for a viewing of Babara Rubin’s 1963 film Christmas on Earth, a heartwarming, stop-action romp that tells the tale of a snowman who discovers the true meaning of the birth of our savior. Just kidding! It’s 29 minutes of footage from an orgy, and originally debuted at the Factory under its uncensored title Cocks and Cunts.
The film was shown to mark the release of a book called Whatever Happened to Sex in Scandinavia?–a collection of works in the spirit of an Oslo exhibition and events series in 2008 that aimed to examine the confluence of sex, politics and art in the ’60s and ’70s. The book party’s hosts dimmed the lights as guests flocked to wooden chairs, sipping aquavit, the national beverage of Scandinavia, and Corona, the national beverage of anonymous problematic sex.
“She was seventeen,” began Jonas Mekas, in his opening remarks. It wasn’t the first speech—he followed Evergreen Review’s Barney Rosset, to whom the book is dedicated—but the room fell somehow more silent. Mr. Mekas, the Lithuanian-born experimental film don, and co-founder of the Anthology Film Archives, guided Rubin’s work after she came to work him after a stint in a mental hospital, and was her main link with the modern world after she withdrew from it in her later years, and died in childbirth. “She was in some juvenile correction house. Supervised by actual police.”
The film is shown on two different projectors, one projecting a giant outer image, the other projecting a smaller, completely different scene inside the first. The outer reel often showed an obscured action—tangled limbs, say—while the inner box showed events in sharp focus—the panted body parts of the orgy participants, and the occasional act of penetration. Those operating the projectors flicked different lighting gels over the lenses in accordance with the film’s screening instructions, and occasionally bopped their asses to the music (not in the score, but not unacceptable).
The music is another variable, and on Friday there were cheeky ’60s selections like Lesley Gore (“when I’m with my guy and he watches all the pretty girls go by/I feel so hurt deep inside I wish that I could die”), that caused the pulsating organ to seem like they were dancing—think The Origin of the World meets a hula-hoop competition.
R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, for his part, said afterward that he enjoyed hearing The Trashmen’s original “Surfing Bird” over the fuckfest. He’d somehow only heard the Ramones and Cramps versions before. “So that was cool,” he said.
“We had not expected it,” Mr. Mekas said after the screening. “I think it took a year or two or three to gain some perspective because it was so different and nobody was doing anything similar to what she was doing.”
“Now it’s like a classic,” he said. “It’s nothing shocking. This was very mild, like a very poetic abstract statement on eroticism and sexuality.”
“That’s what I’m interested in, in art!” said the filmmaker and teacher MM Serra. “Not the effete, elite, commodity-fetish culture, with the pretty face and the Gucci ads.” She smiled. “Marina Abramovic isn’t the grandmother of performance art, Barbara Rubin is.”