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Ministry of internal affairs

What is the point of live art? And who benefits from the exploration of vulvic space? Apart from owners of raincoats, that is. By John O'Mahony
It comes to that moment in Annie Sprinkle's show - the infamous "Public Cervix announcement" - where audiences are treated to an extreme close-up of the gynaecological landscape of their performer. Strutting boldly out on to the stage in suspenders, Sprinkle launches unabashedly into the preliminaries: "This is the vaginal canal," she says, in the dulcet tones of a children's TV presenter. "Now let me hear you say it: vaginal canal." The wholehearted response has a suspiciously baritone note to it. Then it's time for the examination, for which everyone is supplied with an array of medical instruments and intrusive flashlights. "This is the gateway to life," she coos as a line of eager trenchcoats begins to form. "Most people have never seen one. I just want to prove to some of you guys that there really aren't any teeth down there."

Sadly, when she arrives at the ICA next week with her show My Body is a Temple for a Multi-Media Whore, it is rumoured that the prostitute- and-porn-star-turned-performance-artist Sprinkle will be leaving her speculum at home. But this is unlikely to diminish her impact. She will still be plying her trade in that shady red-light district of feminist performance where the various factions squabble about "pornography" and "obscenity", while the bystanding males are never quite sure if they are encountering their horniest fantasy or their most horrific nightmare. There, she is joined by a raging girl-gang of almost exclusively American performers: the incandescent, scatological Karen Finley; Holly Hughes, known for her Dyke-u-drama The Well of Horniness; the post-punk faux- goddess Lydia Lunch; Austrian Valie Export; the avant-garde grandma of them all Carolee Schneemann; and many others.

While it is perhaps unfair to bunch together such a diverse, intergenerational group of artists, they do have one important thing in common: the capacity to cause exponential outrage over a wide, expansive cultural and social area. Finley (whose appearance at the ICA last month, happily, passed without incident) once caused a riot in Amsterdam by emptying her diarrhoeic guts into an on-stage bucket while dressed as Eva Braun. In a sequence of one of her shows entitled Yams Up Granny's Ass, Finley inserted yams into her rectum and was subsequently hounded out of London amid a tabloid blizzard of "Yams Up Yer Bum" headlines. In another piece, called We Keep Our Victims Ready, she smeared chocolate pudding and alfalfa sprouts all over her body.

Valie Export has been arrested for her work on a number of occasions, and in 1968 caused a near-riot with a piece called touch-cinema in which she placed a polystyrene box around her breasts and charged bystanders to place their hands through an aperture at the front for a tactile experience. Carolee Schneemann is famous for her piece Interior Scroll, in which she unrolled the performance text - concerning subjects such as "vulvic space" and the abstraction of the female body - from her vagina. And Annie Sprinkle, the ultimate "porn modernist", bombards us with her "pornstistics", charts detailing such luscious facts as "why she got into the sex industry" (dollar signs dominate) and "how much cock she has sucked in her lifetime". Apparently, end to end, they would stretch higher than the Empire State Building.

Predictably enough, the Christian neo-right is hot on the trail of these artists: both Finley and Holly Hughes were deselected for a US government National Endowment of the Arts grant in 1990, giving them instant martyr celebrity. But objections to the work come also from feminists (the anti- porn wing) and liberals, both male and female, alienated by the extreme nature of the imagery. All of which really begs the question: what exactly - yams, alfalfa sprouts and chocolate pudding included - are they up to?

For most of the performers, the answer is simple: "I'm not setting out to do controversial work here," says Finley. "I'm not doing agit-prop. I'm not setting out to shock. What I do is art. I'm just simply contributing to the history of art." Karen Finley feels that she is simply expressing herself in the most natural and cogent way possible, reflecting contemporary female experience. "Should I pretend that I have equal rights, that I am not cat-hawked on the street or that I am not afraid of being raped every time I come home to my apartment? If some women feel degradation when they watch me, then they're feeling the right feelings."

Women are using their body in this kind of performance in a sexualised, iconoclastic way simply because, they claim, society has created the battleground by transforming the female body into a taboo-ridden, highly sexualised form. "My body was the most important tool," says Valie Export. "When I did my performance work, I usually did it naked. I was concerned with the `male gaze': I knew that if I did it naked, it would change how the mostly male audience would look at me. It would be difficult for them to revert to the usual pornographic or erotic / sexual desire - so there would be a contradiction."

And nowhere is this contradiction more marked than in the work of Annie Sprinkle. Her aim is to celebrate female sexuality in the most unfettered, shameless possible way. "Why do I show my cervix?" she says. "I tell the audience that the reason I show my cervix is, one, because it's fun - and I think that fun is really important - and two, because the cervix is so beautiful that I really want to share it with people. There are other reasons: I think that it's important to demystify women's bodies. It wasn't until recently that anyone was allowed to look at a pussy. A lot of women haven't even seen their own."

As Cindy Carr, performance critic of the Village Voice points out, men have had their fair share of foul-mouthed visionaries - Celine, Genet, Lenny Bruce. It's about time that women had their own brand of rude-girl, toilet-mouth torchbearers to light the way into the future. And the future of feminist performance art - while the onward march of feminism itself stalls and falters - looks ripe for glorious conflict. "Here at the end of the 20th century," says Carr, "so few things are truly subversive, unprocessed and unlabelled or more than just fashionably shocking. But what can really push audiences to either catharsis or panic is graphic, angry, impolite talk from `the Other'."

And there seems little substance to the claims of the anti-porn feminists that this kind of work is playing into the hands of the male pornographers. Just a brief visit to a Finley or Sprinkle show would demonstrate, even to the hardened mentalities of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, exactly who was in control. "A lot of feminist performance work was stultified," says the feminist critic and writer Cherry Smyth, "by the fear of men getting off on it. Now I think women have thrown that shackle off and said `OK, men can get off on Pampers ads. So let's not restrict our subject matter.' "

And the bottom line is that the work of these artists is some of the most compelling theatre around. Finley's A Certain Level of Denial last month was a delirious indictment of the assorted crimes of patriarchy, so passionately furious at the injustices of society that it was impossible not to be affected. Sprinkle's shows, too, are often riotously funny, giving an unnervingly loud and warm voice to the normally mute and demure female nude and hopefully, in the process, transforming the mackintosh brigade gazing nervously down the speculum into useful, liberated members of society. Well, that's the theory, anyway.

n Annie Sprinkle is at the ICA, London SW1 (0171-930 3647) on 24-25 Nov