Masturbating in the Cinema: Lecture at Konstfack

Join me in Stockholm, will you?

What do our personal taboos and erotic fantasies tell us about ourselves? Can paying attention to your erotic desires help you nd your voice? Drawing from her experience working with literature, pornography, and the Viva Erotica Film Festival in Helsinki, Saskia Vogel will be talking about how you can access new springs of creativity by leaning in to topics that make us uncomfortable and by uncovering invisible stumbling blocks – ideas you never thought to question and that impact how you engage with your art, yourself and the world around.

Unearthing Erotic Genius: On Rut Hillarp and Swedish Modernism

“Rut Hillarp was born 100 years ago this past Friday. She is one of the most unfairly marginalized authors in Swedish literary history. It’s as if we refuse to allow ourselves to discover just how damned excellent a poet she is.” — Bernur, February 23, 2014.

“Her lyrical prose is fantastic: so beautiful, erotic, dark, perceptive and intense.” — Swedish novelist Therese Bohman on her female role models, Kulturkollo, 2014.


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Some discoveries are almost too delicious to share. We see an author’s name (on the web, on a shelf) and we decide we must read them. There was something to that name (the way the letters looked together or the paper’s grain). From the first line, the words tumble into an order, tantalizing and new, but somehow familiar. An echo we’ve heard before. The words tangle with our thoughts, become inseparable, and we, the curious reader, become devotees. For a time, perhaps forever, we keep the name to ourselves, guarding it as a jealous lover would. But some names ask to be spoken aloud, written in emails and on scraps of note paper with the addendum “must read.” One of those names is Rut Hillarp.

23s04hillarp2__mngl_20110923ab5x004,kul_1.indd_6388Rut Hillarp—who was she? The year of her birth, 1914, seems so distant, but the year of her death, 2003, still feels like it was yesterday. Five years ago, The Gothenburg Post called her a grand dame of the women’s movement. Rut Hillarp—one of Sweden’s great, yet overlooked Modernists—turns those whom she touches into devotees: her readers, lovers, students and mentees. She is a cult figure, an antiquarian bookseller in Gothenburg told me after I had learned her name and embarked on a mission to possess each and every one of her books. As soon as his shop gets one of her books in (rarely), it sells. None were in stock.

My romance with Rut Hillarp began this past summer when the Berlin-based publisher Readux Books was looking for one more piece to complete their Sex series which was to be published at the end of 2015. Since Readux launched in 2013, the publisher, Amanda DeMarco, has let me scout Swedish stories for their short, small format books, which include contemporary fiction, rediscovered classics, and essays about cities. My translation of Malte Persson’s short story “Fantasy” was my second translation ever—part of a gamble to see if I could turn my ability to speak Swedish, my mother’s second mother tongue, into a career. When I want to feel official, I say I am their Swedish editor. Mostly, I like to call it nothing at all and think only of the special pleasure of reading for love and with purpose, for Amanda.

Erotic culture is a special interest of mine (academically, professionally), and as her deadline drew near I berated myself for still having found nothing. In a fit of frustration (inspiration?), I typed something like “forgotten Swedish eroticist” into Google, thinking that my chances of coming across Sweden’s Anaïs Nin—or anyone vaguely comparable—were slim to none. But there she was: poet, diarist, experimental filmmaker, photographer, teacher, and novelist. And her novels, four in total, are how I would like to introduce her to you here—Blodförmörkelse (Blood Eclipse, 1951), in particular, from which the English translation The Black Curve (Readux Books 2015) is taken. I am not the first to love her, apparently, but I suspect I am the first to have brought her into my mother tongue. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only published English-language translation of her work.

1455734309252When her debut novel Blood Eclipse arrived in the mail, I barely dared touch it. A slim, brittle volume from an antiquarian bookseller in Stockholm. One of two available for sale online. Self-published in 1951. Number 27 in an edition of 500, with one of 50 covers hand-painted by the author and signed to Nils Ferlin (the poet, I assume). It was love at first line. I let the sun burn my shoulders as I devoured her words on the balcony wearing white gloves, so as not to mar the stiff, yellowed pages.

The novel begins with a man’s reply to his female lover’s letter:


It’s true, I didn’t come. I never intended to.
And I can’t accept the discreet excuse you offered me in your letter.
I don’t believe you waited long enough for me . . . I asked for you to wait as a period of gestation during which your desires would consolidate, your emotions coagulate. Until now any man has been able to satisfy these desires in you, but after this waiting period, they will be devoted only to Man.
Because waiting shapes his story and gives him his reality . . .
Like hunger, waiting is creative. It rouses new senses and needs, and so it offers Man an infinitesimal keyboard and a palette with metaphysical resonance.
Waiting entices the desired man, and he comes more quickly when he is late than when he is on time.

It is tempting to make a case for Rut Hillarp as Sweden’s Anaïs Nin. In response to Anaïs Nin’s notoriety, she wondered in a 1951 letter if she too couldn’t do just as well. Indeed, they have a similar erotic project. Like Anaïs Nin, Rut Hillarp’s works trace a map of the psyche’s movements through love, lust, and desire. One could align elements of Hillarp’s life (including a connection to Paris and creative intercourse with renowned cultural figures of her time) with Nin’s own. Whereas Nin’s fame was helped along by who published her in English and the censorship trials that added that tantalizing element of the forbidden to her work and life, Birgitta Holm offers no comparable story of scandal in her 2011 biography Rut Hillarp: Poet och Erotiskt Geni. Hillarp was a celebrated writer who traveled the world, took the matter of having lovers and being a lover seriously, and for whom desire was a way of becoming more receptive to her environment. One could try to spin sensation from the threads of her life—her joy in photos from costume parties, the cancer that left her with only one breast, the men and women who she invited to stay at her home, her masochism, her suicide—but that would do a disservice to a heart that beats with a singular rhythm. Holm, her former student and close friend, calls her an “erotic genius.”

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On falling into ice lakes in Lapland: Be Particular Out There Podcast

Dustin M. Thomas asked me if I had a story for his new podcast Be Particular Out There (@Be_Particular), something his grandad used to say in parting…usually after telling him a story he’d never forget. This essay about hiking the King’s Trail was written for the forthcoming issue of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, a new Berlin-based magazine that you definitely should check out. (They’ve got a sweet Christmas offer on, too.) I can’t stop thinking about Amy Liptrot’s (@amy_may) story about maps and Orkney.

So here’s my story on Nature, capital N, and treachery in the Arctic Circle. We’ll be having a chat about Lapland…and Playboy in next week’s episode. Those beautiful photos are by Adela Hurtado Saura (Insta: @adehursa).

Happy listening and Happy Thanksgiving!



From “The Mango King”

My essay on mangos, my dad and cultivating a life was published on Catapult last week. Take a peek.


Jin Choi

And all along Biscayne Bay, an eerie truth of Andrew having its way: All the sea grasses are in straight lines, all leaning to the west.

What’s next?

—The Miami Herald, August 25, 1992

I like to tell people that my dad is the Mango King, but he’s quick to set me straight. “We’re not one of the big guys,” he says, “but we are considered one of the players in the deal.”

Once upon a time, mango was but a niche fruit in the United States. On the continental U.S., only south Florida had a significant commercial crop. Mango stands would proliferate during the short summer harvest, and the fruit was a staple on the plates of south Floridians. There, the taste for mango had been cultivated since 1833, when the fruit was introduced to the region.

The Mango King does not think niche; he thinks nationally. From an office in Los Angeles, he orchestrates the import and distribution of the fruit and vegetables eaten every day in America for grocers across the country, and mango is one of his specialties. He remembers these Florida summer mangos from his early days in the deal in the seventies. He remembers the Oro in winter. The Oro could weather its February journey from southern Mexico to the U.S. well, had a good shelf life, and had a small but reliable customer base around the country.“They looked good, but tasted like turpentine,” he says. “It was not a good-eating fruit.”

You can eat mango when the flesh is green, hard, and sour, and you can use them like potatoes when they are unripe, but the good-eating fruit that enchanted the Mango King had sunshine in its flesh. When a mango is this kind of good-eating, you can mash it on the roof of your mouth with your tongue and it will slip down your throat, cool, sweet, smooth. Nations vie for the crown of the best-eating mango, but the Mango King does not take sides. His loyalty lies with taste.


Just have a taste, I tell my husband before he becomes my husband.

I am preparing breakfast at my dad’s house and we’re alone. I have spooned yogurt into my stepmother’s thick ceramic bowls and am cutting up an Ataulfo mango.

My husband is reluctant to eat. “I’m still sick of mango from having eaten too much of it dried,” he says.

A few years before we met, he worked on a documentary about fair trade and spent a few days filming in a remote jungle in the Philippines. The locals were starving because multinational corporations who had made shady deals with the government over land rights had chased them off their ancestral land. The five-man film crew ate what the locals ate: one parcel of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf per day. Before the crew left for the jungle, an entrepreneur they’d interviewed who ran a mango factory and paid his workers fairly gifted to each of them a kilos-heavy goodie bag of processed mango. Pickled mango. Dried mango in various formats. Mango chutney. Boxes of mango juice. They shared everything they had. Whenever my husband tasted processed mango, he was reminded of what he saw in the jungle, of the everyday injustices that makes so many everyday pleasures possible.

But he hasn’t told me this story yet. So I assume he’s simply never had a good-eating mango.

I pester: “Come on. It’s fresh mango. It’s my dad’s mango. There’s nothing like it. He’s . . . the Mango King!”

A nickname is born.

“And so that makes you the Mango Princess?”

This makes me squirmy. I like feeling like I’m my father’s daughter; it’s a new feeling. We’ve lived on different continents since I was fourteen. And we didn’t always know how to talk to each other.

My husband sees me blushing, and teases me until we’re both giggling.


Read the rest at Catapult.

Weird Sex with Readux (You’re invited. 21 October.)

Invite Series 6

When Readux Books publisher Amanda DeMarco told me about their upcoming onex series, I had to submit something. Ideally a forgotten or little known Swedish eroticist or a writer deeply engaging with sex and power. Someone like Else Jersualem, whose 1908 novel The Red House examines prostitution and moral hypocrisy in Vienna through the eyes of a woman who grew up in brothels. It was a smash hit then, but she has since slipped into relative obscurity. I revisited The Red House, worried that my brittle copies of the novel and its 1932 English translation would turn to dust in my hands. The novel is sumptuous and political, but not sexy. And I wanted to find something that had never been translated before. Amanda’s deadline was looming. Little known eroticists don’t just fall from the sky…usually.

Where to start my search? I typed “forgotten Swedish eroticist” into Google.  And there she was. Rut Hillarp. Sweden’s Anaïs Nin. Pictured below.



23s04hillarp2__mngl_20110923ab5x004,kul_1.indd_6388I tracked down a copy of her first novel online (Blood Eclipse, 1951), one of only two for sale at the time, and when the brittle book arrived in the post, it was love at first sight. The cover was hand-painted by Hillarp herself: a visual representation of the book’s central images: the black and the red curve. It was one of 50 hand-painted covers of a print-run of 500. Her lyrical exploration of masochism blew me away with its whirling imagery and meditations on the origins of romance. We follow a writer as she engages in a complicated power play with a composer, in and out of the bedroom. It has some of those 50 shades and delves deep into the psyche of a female masochist.


66I’m not sure how to describe how special it feels to bring Rut Hillarp into English for (as best I know) the first time ever. I’m immensely grateful to Amanda for taking a chance on the sample I sent her and to Andreas Hillarp for giving us permission to publish his aunt’s work in English.

Now, come celebrate the publication of The Black Curve, a standalone extract of Hillarp’s debut novel. I’m thrilled to be taking the stage with Joanna Walsh. I haven’t been able to stop talking about Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales about Sex. It begins: “A girl passed a penis-bush growing in someone else’s garden, and picked a ripe dick because she couldn’t resist it.” Novelist Ryan Ruby will also be presenting his translation of a deliciously dirty literary tale with a twist by Grégoire Bouillier.

Shop the series here.






On the Viva Erotica Festival in Helsinki




Do I like that? Would I want to do that? Do I want to dream of that? Is that body like mine? What other kinds of bodies and experiences are out there? Which bodies do I want to touch? Which experiences do I want to make mine?


“Will people be masturbating in the cinema?” This was one of the most frequently asked questions in the run-up to the first annual Viva Erotica Festival at the WHS Teatteri Union in Helsinki, a four-day long ‘splendid movie orgy’ of thirteen vintage and contemporary films where sex takes centre stage. The organizers were tickled by the question. No, they weren’t expecting any wankers. But if we weren’t meant to be coming together, then what were we doing watching dirty movies in the dark?

#vivaerotica at #radiohelsinki wrapping up our time on the air

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The origins of the ‘Splendid Movie Orgy’

Viva Erotica co-founder Milja Mikkola, who also works as the program manager at the legendary Midnight Sun Film Festival, got to know film critic and programmer Olaf Möller in the wilds of Finnish Lapland, where Midnight Sun is held. Their shared passion for film, her desire to stretch herself curatorially and Möller’s expertise in sex films and overlooked corners of cinema history sparked the idea for this collaboration. There was nothing else like Viva Erotica in Finland. On the landscape of international erotic film festivals, Viva Erotica also stands out because it isn’t run by people who primarily work with pornography or activism related to sex and sexuality. 

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Viva Erotica has a cardinal rule: the films must be shown on their original format, and a strong preference is given to movies that were shot on film. The program featured documentaries, hardcore classic porn, erotically charged comedies and avant-garde films. Each day had a theme: ‘Expressive Esoterica’ (avant-garde erotica from Tinto Brass and others), ‘Prisoners Of Passion’ (prison-themed porn, a documentary about a BDSM “prison” in Germany and The Shogunate’s Harem (1986) by Noribumi Suzuki, chosen by Möller to show a representation of life “in a country where all zones of life can become a prison”), ‘Mindfuck’ (Golden Age classics and Lene Berg’s Kopfkino, an exquisite 2013 documentary about German dominatrixes) and ‘Munich Babylon’ (sex films from and about Bavaria). The curators channelled the heritage of the cinema, which has been in operation in various forms for nearly a century. The ‘WHS’ in the Teatteri Union’s name refers to the visual theatre/contemporary circus company founded by visual artist and magician Kalle Nio, juggler Ville Walo and set and costume designer Anne Jämsä, who have run the venue as a cinema and theatre since 2014. The bathrooms of WHS Teatteri Union are plastered in posters of films that had been shown there, many of them dating back to the time when the cinema showed late night sex films. One older festival attendee said that he had been waiting for decades for something like this to return to Helsinki.


Day 3 #vivaerotica


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This is an extract from my article “Tug Of Yore: Things Learned At Helsinki’s Viva Erotica Festival”, first published on 29 May 2015 in, where you can read the rest of the article.




Master at work #vivaerotica

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Granta Interview: Bani Abidi

Bani Abidi’s work is published in our visual essay ‘High Noon’, a collaboration with Green Cardamom to showcase the work of contemporary Pakistani artists in our Pakistan issue. Granta’s Saskia Vogel spoke to Bani about artistic representations of Pakistan, and the role of new media in the changing artistic landscape of the country.

Later today we will publish the visual essay in full, including the introduction by Best Young British Novelist Hari Kunzru.

SV: Pakistan is often depicted – in the news, at least – through images of chaos and conflict. In your work, this is evoked through everyday objects and in-between moments. What draws you to this focus on quieter things?

BA: Yes, unfortunately Pakistan is actually only depicted in news media and almost never through film, literature or art. And worse yet, in recent times, the work of Pakistani artists, writers and filmmakers, seems to have become restricted to negotiating these very depictions which, as far I am concerned, have a very limited shelf life. I prefer to engage with things I may or may not find important at my own discretion, and feel a bit throttled by the world’s anxious curiosity about Pakistan. So I think I make a conscious effort to stay away from a flat definition of what is critical or political, both conceptually and visually. I guard my mental space quite strongly and prefer to home in on details that I observe, and to mull over the potential of those, rather than find images to convey pre-determined ideas.

In another interview I read that there are many female Pakistani artists, but very few working with video and photography. Is art considered to be women’s work, and why are your media of choice uncommon for women?

Art is not considered part of the female realm – it’s just not seen as being a particularly lucrative profession so men have therefore traditionally been encouraged to be architects and designers. Of course that’s changing a lot now, with the emergence of an art market both within and outside Pakistan. As for the media of video and photography, they are only now starting to be used by younger artists.

You’ve called the US art industry ‘conservative’, particularly in what they expect to see from female Muslim artists. In which ways do you feel your work didn’t fit in with expectations?

I was a student in the US in the 90s when the artist Shirin Neshat was being celebrated for her ‘feminist’ critique of a repressive Iranian society. And it was at that time that I started realizing there was nothing I was more wary of than a New York Times-mediated understanding of the world. And especially when it came to a benevolent, liberal gaze at ‘disenfranchised’ women of the Muslim world, I felt sick. This self-congratulatory championing of human rights elsewhere is so flawed. For instance, no one knows or cares that the rights of women in Saudi Arabia are infinitely worse than those of women in Iran, because Saudi Arabia is a solid US ally and there is nothing to be gained from making a case for the rights of women there. Meanwhile, I was interested in things like nationalism in the Indian and Pakistani Diaspora in Chicago, and did not have much to offer in terms of being ‘a Muslim woman’.

Your work seems inherently political. To what extent is being an activist part of being an artist?

At one point I thought I would create radio dramas, which would have a mass following, but that’s the closest I came to having activist sentiments. But I am more attached to the process of making art than actively attempting to bring about change. I don’t think that making work that is representative of political realities necessarily translates into being an activist. But there are activists, academics and writers who use images of my work when it has a relationship to theirs, and I guess that takes the work into a different space. I look at things through an aesthetic lens, whether it is the treatment of time in my films, the time of day and spaces in my photographs or a humorous moment in a narrative. So my interest lies first and foremost in manipulating form and seeing how it relates to what I am trying to say. But yes, my work is political in many ways because I am most drawn to anecdotes of power and social hierarchy, which are such a definitive part of the world I inhabit.

What are the most pressing themes for emerging Pakistani artists?

Apparently the pressing themes are religious fundamentalism, civil wars, military dictatorships, honour killings and the like. But I would hope that emerging artists feel confident to dismiss or complicate this bullet-point reality, so that we finally have something unexpected and profound coming out of Pakistan.

Image: Pari Wania, 7.42 p.m., 22 August 2008, Ramadan, Karachi. (Courtesy of Green Cardamom)

Reposted from