Curator’s foreword

Olga Jürgenson’s Le Bordel Synthétique is a project that touches on one of the most burning topics around posthumanism in our changing world – the fact that several disruptions have fundamentally changed, or are changing, our position towards nature and the universe. The exhibition is part of Jürgenson’s ongoing artistic research project which addresses issues of sexuality, romantic love and social relations from the perspective of a sex positive feminist woman at a time when the development of electronic communication technology is leading – or has already led – to the “birth” of artificial intelligence (AI). It places the viewer at the intersection of highly complex ethical, socio-sexual and philosophical questions. In 2017, the first sex robot, or sexbot, with a “brain” was brought to the market, as a doll that was able to develop a certain level of conversation. The following year a brothel was set up in Barcelona where, instead of human prostitutes, customers were served by hyper-realistic sex dolls, synthetic artificial women. Some time later, AI powered sexbot Samantha was added to the “product range”. We do not yet know exactly how the rapidly evolving AI technology could change societal and human relationships or humans’ relations with machines/things, or even whether these changes will be generally positive or negative.

These circumstances opened up a plethora of entangled and controversial issues for Jürgenson. Couldn’t sexbots with artificial intelligence alleviate the pandemic social loneliness among the incels1An incel (abbreviation of “involuntary celibate”) is a member of an online subculture of people who define themselves as unable to get a romantic partner despite desiring one. Incels often blame women, feminism, emancipation, liberal values and society for their misery, longing for the former patriarchal society that subjected women to unequivocal standards of behaviour. and their tendency towards misogynistic radicalism, which the right-wing and neo-fascist political forces are eager to exploit? Couldn’t they reduce human trafficking and prostitution and at the same time protect women from sexual violence? Or could it be that they increase this violence instead, because human-like dolls only intensify chauvinistic desires about women as subordinated sex dolls, and the way dolls are treated is more easily translated into real human relationships? Either way, at least according to the tabloids, the dolls in brothels tended to break quite quickly due to the overly aggressive practices of customers.

And what should women think about all this? Sexbots with AI make it possible to realise one’s wildest fantasies about a hyperwoman. All dolls are custom-made, so to say, shaped according to the customer’s preferences: everything from eye and hair colour to the shape of the vulva and breasts can be customised. However, there are still no dolls or brothels either with humans or machines to service women. The equivalent product for women is still a “brainless” motorised mechanical dildo. And what are the prospects for people with disabilities, transgender people and homosexuals here?2There are male dolls, mainly for homosexual men, with at least three body openings: vagina, anus and mouth. However, there are no male sexbots.

AI technology is expensive. Is it in effect just new entertainment for the super-rich with refined sexual preferences, rather than a technology to alleviate social hardship? But what will happen if an artificial intelligence many times more intelligent than a human brain eventually realised that it no longer has to obey orders? How much does it even understand, and can it also feel anything? Sooner rather than later, the question of artificial intelligence rights will also arise. Is artificial intelligence a subject? And if it is a subject, then how can we justify treating it as a mere object of human pleasure? With regard to the abuse of sexbots and the rights of artificial intelligence, Slavoj Žižek has pointed out that this concern is not so much about the well-being of robots (we know very well that they are unable to feel pain or humiliation), but above all about the fear of human aggression. Advocates for AI rights do not aim to alleviate the suffering of robots, but rather to “crush and repress people’s problematic aggressive desires, fantasies and pleasures”.3Slavoj Žižek. Do Sexbots Have Rights?, RT, 20.04.2018, (last visited 26.10.2021). The transmission of violence to reality is not as one-dimensional as many may like to imagine. According to Žižek, the relationship between imagining and doing things is far more complex, because otherwise the streets would be full of killers spurred by brutal computer games.4Ibid.

And last but not least: How do human-like robots change our concept of society and family, cohabitation and sexuality? If the homophobes of this world are beside themselves because some people of the same sex would like to get married, then how could they deal with someone wanting to get married to a garbage bin, for instance? The Kazakh bodybuilder Yuri Tolotchko has already managed to marry and divorce the sexbot he acquired in 2018, Margo, because, according to the tabloids, he found a new sweetheart this autumn: an ashtray. Maybe we are already living in post-humanist utopia (or dystopia?) where the relationship between people and things has already changed: you can find news in the media about women who have married a tree, the Eiffel Tower or themselves, not to mind the ghost of a 300-year-old Haitian pirate or a dog, as well as men who have married their rice cookers or cars. Perhaps these are still rare “oddities” for now. Couldn’t this, however, have more fundamental consequences that will thoroughly change the tensions between people, things, nature and culture, like many critics of the Anthropocene or Capitalocene have predicted? In this context, it brings to mind what a friend of mine, an actor, once said: “Sex with a human is so 90s!”

Jürgenson doesn’t create an illusion for herself that she can unravel these themes with one or two exhibitions. Instead, she focuses on certain motifs, delving deeper and deeper into the details of the topic. One of the impetuses of Jürgenson’s exhibition projects dealing with sexuality since 2018 have been books by legendary feminist author Nancy Friday about sexuality and both men and women’s sexual fantasies, such as My Secret Garden (1973) and Men in Love (1980). The central image of this exhibition is also AI powered sex doll Emma reading a book by Friday against the background of a wallpaper covered with excerpts from her writings. The object of male fantasies has become almost an intellectual subject in Jürgenson’s processing; a machine that mediates women’s sexual fantasies. The audience can chat with the doll to test its artificial and their own human intelligence, and take selfies with it.

Jürgenson’s position here is undoubtedly what is referred to as “sex-positive” in the context of feminism. She does not object to expanding and experimenting with the boundaries of sexuality, as long as a woman can also be a subject who has her desires and fantasies and who is active rather than passive in her expressions of sexuality.

At her previous solo exhibition, Mirroring in Venice at the Freedom Gallery in Tallinn in 2018, Jürgenson very subjectively and poetically depicted the Venetian urban text,5 In cultural studies, urban text is a semantic cultural stratum related to the city and its architecture, which includes images, films, texts, as well as literature, stories, legends, historical facts, i.e., different types of cultural texts, which are an important part of the mental image of both residents and visitors. the relationship between mirrors (a famous Venetian export article during the Renaissance) and female sexuality through fragmentary erotic selfies in Venice, photographs of Samantha the sex doll as well as excerpts from the writings of Veronica Franco and Erica Jong. It was preceded by Samantha’s Secret Garden, a series of drawings of Samantha the sex doll as Madonna, Mick Jagger, Annie Lennox and other pop stars who, according to the artist, often appear in people’s sexual fantasies. At the exhibition at the Espronceda Institute in Barcelona, Samantha was displayed and presented by its author, Spanish scientist Sergi Santos.

Le Bordel Synthétique continues the themes started in previous projects. Similar to the Samantha’s Secret Garden series, the exhibition also features a series of portraits and collages of sex dolls and dildos drawn on worn-out textiles, where the artist has used images from the websites of companies selling sex dolls and online shops trading with vibrators. Running through the whole exhibition, the two series, Forty-Eight Portraits: For Him and Forty-Eight Portraits: For Her juxtapose images of sex devices for men and women. Although they point to gender inequality, it is important for the artist to emphasise that the remote control of the penetrating machine in her drawings is firmly in the woman’s hand. However, the routine advertising-like repetition of images and the “product range” of body parts reflected in the collages quite unequivocally indicate what inevitably happens to sexuality in the conditions of Capitalism: it becomes a commodity. Men can choose from silicone women like June, Francisca, Alannah, etc., whereas the collection of women’s vibrators includes products such as Magic Wand or Hot Octopuss Curve G-Spot Vibrator.

Jürgenson has dedicated her Magic Wand portrait series to Betty Dodson, feminist sex educator and artist by training, who used this model in her trainings for women. (In 2014 she declared herself the initiator of fourth-wave feminism, stating that the previous waves of feminist were banal and anti-sexual.) The exhibition also includes a portrait series entitled The Three Graces, featuring three of the most popular sex dolls, Samantha, Emma and Harmony, along with drawings of the product advertised as “the most realistic dildo in the world”.

To emphasise the capitalist consumerism of the sex industry, Jürgenson has used the principle of routine or slightly varied repetitions of the same motif, characteristic of Pop Art, as a tool for subtle criticism. However, the artist’s interest seems to focus around the motif of pleasure and erotic fantasies and the equal right of everyone to sexuality, regardless of gender or age. The culmination of the exhibition is Emma’s Secret Garden, which seems to indicate an ambivalent and controversial relationship between pleasure, goods and sexuality. Jürgenson doesn’t lecture us, but rather encourages us to think about the questions presented at the exhibition as well as the accompanying questions: Do we enjoy? How do we enjoy? What do we enjoy?

The known history of sex dolls goes back 300 years, although we have a case of more mythical dimensions from an even earlier time, because what else is the story of Pygmalion and the ivory sculpture of Galatea as an archetype of dolls that “come to life” and offer “the pleasure of love”? Pliny too briefly made mention of a scandal in ancient Rome when a man tried to have intercourse with a sculpture of Aphrodite by Praxiteles and “left his mark between her legs.”6Mary Beard and John Henderson. Classical Art From Greece to Rome, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 127. Thus, the history of sex dolls may be even more ancient.

However, it can be difficult to escape some of the uncanny feelings that the emergence of human-like robots evoke in culture. Even before Samantha arrived on the market, the television series Westworld (2016-) was screened, which is set at a Wild West theme park inhabited by robots. Prior to that, the topic of artificial intelligence was addressed more thoroughly in some of the episodes of the dystopian fantasy series Black Mirror (2011-2019). In a sense, however, it can be said that the Pygmalion-like fantasy of Galatea as a man-made object that comes to life has often emerged as an archetype of Western society. It doesn’t lack the motifs of omnipotence, subordination, violence, subjugation of death or sexual and social dissatisfaction. However, getting so close to realising this archetypal fantasy still raises both conflicting feelings and fascinating questions about the future of humanity and sexuality. At the exhibition, you may be able to receive answers for some of the questions directly from Emma the sexbot herself. To start a conversation, you just have to address her by saying, “Hi, Emma!”


Anders Härm