A few months ago, I came across an article about Laurenn McCubbin’s recent art show, which featured a variety of sex worker stilettos, in the University of Nevada Las Vegas student newspaper. I recognized her name as the former art director of Kitchen Sink magazine, and the illustrator of Rent Girl, Michelle Tea’s 2004 graphic novel/prostitution memoir.
Laurenn and I have both spent more time in Las Vegas than we’d like to: me in strip clubs hustling for money that’s just not happening in my hometown these days, and her finishing a degree at the University of Nevada. I caught up with her days after she completed her MFA as she was plotting her next move to Duke University, where she’ll be getting a second MFA in Documentary and Experimental Art. On a typically nasty hundred-something-degree afternoon, we sat down to talk about her recent projects, Nevada’s hypocritical politics, and post-Vegas plans.
You’ve done a lot of work involving sex work—were you ever in the industry yourself?
Yeah, I worked as a stripper for about a year and a half in San Francisco … at the Lusty Lady.
I worked at Hustler [which is next door] for a long time and I’ve always been curious about the Lusty.
It’s different. I was there before they were unionized. And I actually was there before it got really cool. Like right when I left, Carol Queen and Susie Bright [started] working there. … But growing up and living in San Francisco, I’ve always known people who worked in the sex industry, strippers and prostitutes and dominatrixes. I never found anything weird about it. … And it wasn’t until I left the Bay Area that I was like, “Oh, wait, no—no one else thinks this is not that big a deal.”
What do you think the climate like that is in Vegas compared to San Francisco? Because they’re both kind of “liberal” cities, but I feel like they’re also both kind of not in certain ways.
No, there’s a myth that Vegas is a liberal city. Vegas is a Libertarian city, as a lot of the Southwest is. And it is a very Mormon city. It’s the second largest population of Mormons outside of Salt Lake City.
When Howard Hughes was building casinos, he brought in large populations of Mormons, because they wouldn’t gamble, they wouldn’t drink, and he didn’t like black people. So from that group there grew this really large construction industry, and then they got into city government. … And so that leads, actually, to an incredibly conservative atmosphere, artistically and also morally. Everyone is fine with all of the smut staying on the Strip. But the moment that anything breaches this agreement that the Strip has with the rest of Las Vegas, everyone freaks out.
It’s a very specific kind of sexuality that’s allowed in Las Vegas. It’s very heteronormative, it’s very blond, it’s very young. … It’s very male-gaze oriented. There’s a very small gay community here. They’re somewhat vocal, but it’s a very small community. It’s like a two-block area called “the Fruit Loop,” and that’s the gay bars. And that’s pretty much it.
What is the student population here like?
It’s a very conservative student population. It’s a very commuter and business-oriented student population. This year was the first in the three years that I was at UNLV that I actually saw a lot of student activism, and I feel it was because the students were being very directly threatened by budget cuts. … The largest school at UNLV is the hotel management and restaurants management school. It’s a company town. Everyone in one way or another is serving the Strip.
Have you liked living here in general?
No, I hated it. So excited to leave. On the one hand I have met some of my favorite people in the entire world here, and I have some really dear friends who live here. And I really like them.
On the other hand, the institutions of the city, the institutions of the area, the institutions of Nevada, are not my institutions. I’m not in any way, shape, or form a Libertarian. The Mormonism, the public conservativism really really bother me. The university itself was not very conductive to stepping outside of any kind of societal norms. They don’t discourage it, but they don’t encourage it. The university and the community are not very connected, especially the arts area.
Tell me about your recent show.
Well, the show that you’re talking about specifically was called Feminist Las Vegas, and it was artists who I believe were working in feminist modes—even if they didn’t call themselves feminists—reacting to Las Vegas. And I put in a piece that I had done in an earlier show called “Please Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” which was a collection of shoes from sex workers and sex worker industries. Each pair of shoes is on a shelf that has a mug shot of a woman who had been arrested for prostitution. And all of these mug shots had been collected from an article in the Las Vegas Review Journal, which is the big newspaper here, called “The 50 Most Prolific Prostitutes in Las Vegas.” And they put—this was literally a front-page story—they put all of these women’s mug shots with their names and ages right on the front page.
Prolific, meaning what exactly?
That they had been arrested a lot. Yeah—no, not that they fucked a lot—it was that they had been arrested a lot. But the thing that they did not state in the article, was that these women had not been arrested for prostitution. They had all been arrested for trespassing, which is, somebody described it to me as the Swiss army knife of police work. It’s like, “Ok, we can’t say that you’re doing a thing that we know that you’re doing, but we’re going to bump you anyways, off the Strip.” So then you’re banned from the casino.
The thing that they also didn’t talk about in this article, because the Review Journal is an incredibly right-wing paper, is the fact that the casinos invite and encourage prostitutes to come to the casinos, but they have a list of who those prostitutes are. It’s definitely about race and class. … I’ve talked to multiple people who run VIP rooms and work with concierges at hotels who are like, “No, we invite women in. We know who those women are and we invite them to be there for the big spenders. We bring them in for the big spenders, we bring them into the VIP rooms.” And you’ve seen a little bit of it kind of leak out recently. There was a lawsuit against the Light Group, because a couple of their hostesses were saying basically that the Light Group was pimping them out and insisting that they be sexually available to high spenders. And you saw that in the Tiger Woods scandal, where the woman who was having an affair with Tiger Woods, it was part of her job description to be sexually available to celebrities. Her job description wasn’t written down anywhere, but it’s all understood.
And so, all of this stuff goes on on the Strip; everyone knows it goes on on the Strip. But these women [from the Review Journal article], it’s not that these women were prostitutes, it’s that they were the wrong prostitutes. I thought that was really interesting and I wanted to start a conversation about it. And then also the physicality of how it is to work eight hours in a pair of those shoes. First thing that happens with anybody, when they see those shoes, is they’re like, “Oh my God, I could never wear those… Hey, can I try those on?” and then everybody totters around. So I wanted people to try them on. … Every time I’ve showed this piece, I’ve encouraged people to wear them and walk around in them. It’s part of an ongoing piece I had done about sex work in Las Vegas.
And who was your audience at the show?
Well, for the Feminist Las Vegas show, it was everybody who [was] interested in stuff that the Barrick Museum puts on, plus I’m part of a group here called the Feminist Drinking Club, and so we invited people, and I also worked in conjunction with this woman Crystal Jackson to help build this larger thing.
But for the main show that that piece came from was called “Speaking to Las Vegas in the Language of Las Vegas.” One of the things that I did for the show was an action on the Strip where—you’ve been to the Strip, you’ve seen the dudes passing out cards—so I interviewed a range of sex workers who work in Vegas. A dominatrix, a porn actress who comes here and shoots, a couple of strippers, a couple of call girls, and a woman who strips here but works legally in a brothel. So I interviewed all of them and I did audio and video interviews with all of them, and then I drew their portraits and put their portraits in my own hooker cards. I rented a truck and put my art on the back, and it had a website and a phone number, and that truck drove around and I had dudes dressed up in my shirts passing out my cards. And that was part of my show as well. So it was like, here I’m giving you this thing that you’re expecting, I’m speaking to you in your language, but when you come to the website or when you call the phone number I’m going to say something that you’re not expecting.
So you did this on the Strip?
Yep. I did it in front of the Venetian.
Were you concerned at all about—I don’t understand how it’s legal for people to hand out those cards in the first place.
Because they’re not advertising prostitution. They’re advertising dancers. But everybody understands that it’s prostitution.
So you weren’t concerned, legally, because you were basically doing the same thing?
Yeah, exactly. And I had thought ahead, and gotten a lawyer from the ACLU to hang out with me so I wouldn’t get arrested. We did get hassled by the Venetian cops, but then they went away because we had a lawyer from the ACLU. … That was about a year and a half ago. January 2010.
I was looking on your site at some of the interviews. I liked that you had someone from the Mustang Ranch. I feel like I rarely hear much from brothel workers, and a lot of times these kind of louder voices in sex work are the ones that aren’t necessarily as stigmatized. Like queer porn performers, for example, who are already accepted in their own community as opposed to the people who…
Who it’s a job for. I mean, it’s definitely part of their life, with the kind of people that you’re talking about—I’m working on a project right now about queer porn performers. They’re already outsiders, and they do have a community that accepts them.
Well, there’s a stigma that the stereotypical blond porn actress with implants faces that a queer porn performer doesn’t. I mean, they probably have their own…
It’s like they have more street cred or something.
Yeah. People don’t have the same assumptions that they are stupid and don’t know any better, which is why I think it’s important to hear more from the more stigmatized voices. There’s just a disconnect sometimes between, who we look at as the hip, empowered sex workers, versus the ones that aren’t necessarily as involved in activism but are probably a bigger contingency in numbers.
Right. That’s a really interesting and good point and something I hadn’t thought too much about before, but that’s a really great point. That’s the thing, I was really inspired by this thing that Audacia Ray did. She had a media studies group where she had women speak on camera and say, very bluntly and very plainly, “I really like to play Boggle. I have a cat. His name is Fluffy. And I’m a sex worker.” You know, “This is just one more element of my life.” And I think that’s the most important thing for me in my work, is that I don’t want to “other” these people. I don’t want these people to be someone separate from me, or from the viewer. I want them to recognize that these are people who do a job .… And sometimes it’s decidedly by choice, sometimes it’s economic necessity. The thing that’s most important is this is just another job. I want these people to be safe and I want them to be accepted; I don’t want them to be othered.
It goes back and forth. Because I’ve heard this argument a lot too: You see a lot of the same kind of woman over and over again, which is the educated, woman with the middle-class to upper-middle class upbringing. There’s a class thing and there’s a race thing. A lot of the more vocal sex workers are not people of color. … It’s true. It is harder and more dangerous for transgender people of color sex workers to step forward and speak out, and perhaps their voices don’t get heard as often because they don’t have the same platform. [But], that does not invalidate what you’re saying. You know? That does not invalidate what anybody else is saying. Everyone gets to have their own experience. … We’re all fucking pulling together.
So from the time that you stopped dancing, were you always out and into making projects that focused on sex work?
Yeah, the first artistic steps that I took, the first projects I did, were about sex work. The first short comic I did was called Jane, and I interviewed a woman who I knew who was a sex worker and I talked about her life in sex work. And then I did a book called Triple X Live Nude Girls which was a collaboration with another artist, and we both touched on sex work and intimacy issues. And then I did a short piece with Michelle Tea for a book about San Francisco, then that became a larger collaboration which turned into Rent Girl. And then I got to go on the Sex Workers Art Show tour with Michelle. … So it’s just kind of been this thing that ever since I was a young adult, I’ve just kind of paid attention to.
And you’re starting this program at Duke in the fall? Do you have any other installation projects coming up?
Well, I’m about to put up all of the documentation from my last installation project, which was my thesis project, “Auto Erotic Ethnography,” where I explored making myself the other that I was exploring in my work. So I made sex toys out of my own body, and then advertised them on the internet, for people to interact with. I advertised them on Craigslist and on FetLife, and then documented the interactions, and documented making the toys and the commodification of myself. And so, yes, I’m about to put that up on the internet, on my website.
I’m in the middle of and trying to figure out how I’m gong to finish this project I’m doing a project on the Queer Porn Mafia. I’m talking about how this group of decidedly outside porn performers have managed to, in a climate where porn performers are suffering economically, have managed to thrive and grow, and how they stay together as a community. So that to me is a project that’s very near and dear to my heart, and I hope that might be my next big project, but we’ll see.
There’s another project I’m working on called the Intimacy Project. I’m talking to people who work in pornography and also who have been on reality TV, and talk about how they have an intimate life when everything about their their life has been broadcast. You know, especially with porn performers and especially with the advent of stuff [like] Twitter, you’re kind of advertising yourself constantly. So what’s you, and what’s not you, and how do you protect what’s not the “brand” from being exposed—or is there a line? For some people there is no line. And so what is it like to live your life completely in public?