I’ve been traveling on the back of art, music and film for over ten years. I first hopped in a van in 2005, and somehow the bug hasn’t worked itself out yet. For me tour has often been organized around sharing work with other people, but sometimes I’ve traveled to do the work in the first place… I’m lucky to have been taken everywhere from Vermont, to LA, to Scandinavia, to Indonesia. Every trip brings new lessons about art, and life, and the ways in which community functions – often flying in the face of “normalcy”. What follows is a loose account of the most recent tour I went on; to the Midwest U.S. in June of 2017. This tour is the second trip I’ve booked around my second documentary feature, “Exotic”, which details the social stratification in the migrant sexwork economy on Guam.
Day One: Somewhere in the Mountains of West Virginia
I leave home around 11am and throw two pairs of shoes on the floorboards – as any good road doggie knows, there’s nothing better than driving barefoot when the weather is warm. DVDs in the trunk and I’m off. Certainly traveling a bit lighter than I did on the From the Back of the Room tours – no projector this time. Lots of driving through the mountains with the windows down – listening to the Rememberables, Tenement, and the B-52’s. The smell of cow shit is the gateway to the Midwest.
While pulling a VERY safe u-turn in Ohio about 15m from the venue, my dust cover plops off the bottom of the car and onto the road shoulder. I need to drive to Chicago in the morning. It’s Saturday. Miraculously I pass a mechanic with lights on in the bay, and even more miraculously he agrees to zip tie what’s left of the shitty plastic, while we chat. Apparently his deceased girlfriend wrote a book called, “From Privilege to Prison: Finding Purpose in a Dark Place”. The book is about mental health and incarceration, and he seems still consumed with grief over losing her – she took her own life in March, and he says they were “very much in love”. This serendipity certainly has a price. He then relays a second story about a near-death motorcycle experience, telling me that the elderly driver who caused his accident didn’t even get a ticket, because he was zonked on prescription pain meds. Another hash mark in my anti-big-pharma column. I kick him $10 for his trouble, and get to the house venue where the screening is on time.
Columbus usually has a very informal and comfortable vibe, and this yard-hang and couch-screening feels no different. There’s talk of going swimming after the film, but late chats in a room without cis men instead feels like a fitting way to start the tour. Girls Rock camp, hat-band projects, and cats with long tails take up the end of my night.
Day Two: Miraculously Up at 6am
Wash my face and leave Columbus with the rising sun at my back. Listening to talk radio, then Liz Phair. Passing thoughts include: “stocked lakes” as an ego cushion, and reconciling the imperfections of new people in your life with your desire to have human interaction.
I drive past the lake in Chicago and stop to read for a bit – tourists in a maritime environment always seem so affluent, to me. Bikes and white shoes and cheerful dock noises…
The Leather Archives in Chicago has a fantastic theater for a giant screening, which mine is not. There is a decent headcount, but not enough to warrant gas money beyond what I can garner from merch sales. This tough sitch highlights the reason PR professionals have jobs, especially in large cities like Chicago. Wrestling up an audience is hard work. I had thought the museum’s reach, the local chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project’s reach (they tabled the event and helped during the Q&A), and my reach might scratch the surface in Chicago, but big cities are tough nuts to crack. The folks at the museum are very nice, however, and the SWOP workers who are there are interested in what I have to say. The Q&A goes well, and I find out that the “We Are Dancers” (online database for folks involved in stripping to review employers, share tips, etc.) project is going national at some point – which is great but also overwhelming to think about. Creating a national resource for workers is no light task!
I have dinner with an old friend and reconnect with his roommate, who I had met years prior at a festival, and we stay up talking about race in DIY, and whether or not subculture is proactive enough about keeping shit politically mindful (spoiler alert: no). We watch a bit of RuPaul’s Drag race before going to bed at a “respectable” hour.
Day Three: House on the Rock
I take a quick walk in my friend’s garden before I split. There’s a chicken named Tatiana and she coos at me.
Bugs are accumulating on the windshield already. Maybe global warming will boost the insect population, and that’s how humans go out. Disease transmission will spike, giant beetles blanketing the earth. Gross fantasies against the backdrop of farming equipment, goats, cows, and the ripple of what’s visible down the planting rows zips by to Mazzy Star.
I’ve never been to House on the Rock before, which is absurd, since I lived in Wisconsin for a year, and this is the one “touristy” thing I’ve told myself I would do. I screen tonight in Milwaukee.
House on the Rock is like taking an unguided tour through the brain of a compulsive, trinket-collecting Willy Wonka. Someone said it was like being on someone else’s acid trip. Room after room unfolds before me – lights and music and bells – and the cumulative effect is something like being in a gigantic funhouse. I feel mostly in awe for the four hours I’m there, and a little freaked out. Honestly, I’m glad I’m alone – and sober.
The arrangement to screen for a bar percentage at the Cactus Club in Milwaukee had me feeling a little nervous, but it works out decently enough, and I have a chance to see some old friends, one of which DJs the event. I watch the film again, though, which I usually dislike doing, but it’s raining, so I can’t sit outside and read. A line in the film about dancers getting inappropriately groped on stage jogs my memory of a customer trying to lick a girl while she was on stage on St. Patrick’s day. I relay this verbally to my friend after the film ends, and he seems a little weirded out. Immersing oneself in the sex industry definitely skews some things. I’ve been exposed to a lot that’s not considered “normal” in most circles, and I was only privy to the shit for a few months…
After the screening I take off for Madison, because the thought of not driving for a few days is intoxicating. I’m greeted by a homegirl and some animals. This trip has already been flush with dogs and cats, which I appreciate.
Day Four: Toxic Algae
Heavy Midwest summer thunderstorm sets off a car alarm at 1am. I wake up for long enough to worry about that damn dust cover before going back to sleep.
I catch an omelette at Lazy Jane’s and walk to the coop for a few groceries before I check out some lake spots and settle down with a book. Madison is a land of unlocked doors, and Wisconsin is beautiful in the summer. The only bummer is that the lakes are getting choked up by this algae that’s apparently toxic. I remember a few years ago a friend said something about the Oscar Meyer factory pumping waste into them, and that you could see big balls of oil on the surface sometimes…
I’ve got enough time to take a quick dip in a non-sludgy area, shower, and head to meet another homegirl at the farmer’s market. Grab some kombucha to settle my drivin stomach and we’re on the way to the venue – Art-In, which turns out to be a big multi-use building, with a friendly bartender in one of the adjacent spaces. Turnout is great, and I snag some sour barley beer while the movie is playing. Q&A is good, with the exception of a mansplainer in a Hawaiian shirt that I could tell had made NO friends during the actual screening. He asks two questions, angling around the idea that workers make tons of cash, and I shut him down.
Everyone else reconvenes at a local bar and we have a proper late night.
Day Five: Tourism and Tempeh
Only full day off, of two I had scheduled. I finish my book in the morning and make better friends with the cat. Hit the art Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (ffo: Zola Jesus – she used to be docent there) and check out a Kamui Olujimi exhibit, an interesting black box film juxtaposing modern cellphone narcissism with yoga practice (points about authenticity and the mass replication of culture inserted in the handouts), and an interesting exhibit on conflict-related art, which has some impressive block prints by Leopoldo Mendez. Growing up in DC has made art museums feel like church, to me, so I’m glad for some quiet time in a cavernous space. The roof at MMoCA is one of my favorite spots in Madison, too – there’s a great view of the capitol building.
I meet up with an old friend from Philly who is studying Uzbek for a PhD program this summer, and take a quick drive to show her the town. We eat a lazy lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, and talk about social nuance, people we dislike, and getting older. She splits while I get tattooed by the pal from the farmer’s market the day before (tourist shit!), and reconvene later for food at an Indonesian spot where they make their tempeh in-house. Chill night after that with the girl I am crashing with – we watch two episodes of River Monsters, which thoroughly flips me out.
Madison still has a piece of my heart.
Day Six: The Beat Kitchen
I leave town in the morning after breakfast with my temporary host and my other homegirl from the tattoo shop/farmer’s market. I was figuring I’d walk around by myself once I got to Appleton, but it turns out the girl I’m staying with left a spare key, so I read two pages of a book on her couch and pass out. Her dog wakes me up when she comes home, and we shoot the shit for a while. I get caught up on all the people I know from town. A few more folks trickle in and she fires up the grill, but I have to run to meet the folks who organized the screening.
The Crutch of Memory is the name of the studio space they (the folks from Tenement and Dusk) run, which looks like it’s really turned into something a bit more adult than the shitty punk house we all lived in a few years ago. The punk house was filled with broken plates and spray-painted mattresses, but this studio looks legit. I hang out in the control room and we chat about artistic development while some mixes get finished. Then we head to the venue which is down at the river.
Appleton is small – and I had walked past this venue a few times when I lived there years ago. At the time, I thought it was a guard-house by the mill or something, but it’s been transformed into another multi-use art space – The Draw. Troubleshooting the a/v test at the spot is graceful, and turnout is again really good. Folks drink wine beneath the hanging ferns, surrounded by interesting paintings, and the geese huddle up on the lawn nearby. The venue contact/proprietor seems really stoked to be making a foray into film, which is rad. There are even murmurs of an upcoming horror film tour that might stop through. I think it’s so cool when spaces try to get involved in lots of different things.
I go to bed kind of early after the screening – my drive to West Virginia looks longer than I had originally thought – but I scarf some veggie burgers and gin and have a few laughs before passing out on the couch.
Day Seven: Bad Math
Definitely bummed out about my miscalculation. I thought I had enough time to swim and screw around in rural Wisconsin, but at least I get to go for a walk by the river and have breakfast with my pal and her dog before I hit the road. We have a nice stroll through the woods, playing fetch.
Driving. All. Day. Chicago traffic, Beth Ditto, wet shirt, muggy gas station. Indiana, Kentucky, Cincinnati – not in that order – top it off with a white-knuckle foggy mountain hellride at 1am with no cell service.
I make it to Huntington, WV, intact and stay up listening to Blitz’s Second Empire Justice and drinking 3 buck chuck with my friend and his dog in his 3rd story apartment at the top of a big group house.
Day Eight: Free Ice Cream and a Parking Ticket
Immediate need for Tudor’s Biscuit World upon waking up. Last day of tour, need to eat flour. We realize that a friend doing a live painting™ event near my screening is actually doing his thing later than we thought – so my friend/host and I take the scenic route and mess around at a flea market to kill time. This is not my first West Virginia flea market, but I’m still impressed by the combination of old glassware, cast iron, livestock, and costume jewelry.
We get pizza near the venue – which turns out to be a very legit small theater in the basement of a new/used bookstore – called Underground Cinema. Funny how tour is so often punctuated by food. I get a parking ticket and an apology coupon for a free ice cream from the adjacent parlor, which I happily redeem. Is this a metaphor?
The screening goes well and there’s an interesting Q&A with ACLU and Planned Parenthood reps – proof that organizations are not their employees, I guess, as both seem interested in doing harm reduction work locally, and ask me about good ways to reach workers. To my knowledge, harm reduction and advocacy for sex workers isn’t in the official province of these orgs, especially given the historical prevalence of the “anti-prostitution pledge” requirement for PEPFAR funding recipients. It’s nice to see people on the ground level who care about working around these types of prohibitions. Anyway, we’re able to make it to the tail end of the live painting thing, too, and I trade some DVDs for art.
I kick myself back on the road around sundown, and make it through the rest of the mountains to get home around 2am – groggy and happy to see the cat. No shoes for part of the ride – guess it’s my last stand.
One of the things that’s important to me about physically touring with the film is helping to start conversations. Most people seem really interested in talking – it’s sex, after all – but sometimes it still feels like we don’t have the language to properly tear down the things we think we already know. I guess that’s true of any topic…
Anyway, it’s been a couple of days now, and the film is out streaming on Amazon, which is exciting!
Who knows if I’ll make it to the west coast, but I’d like to… I’ll hit the road again soon somehow, but touring is not for the faint of heart, and my car needs some work. If you want tour advice, or a DVD, hit me up. Seeya suckers out there!