For Museumnacht 2021, Mediamatic is devoting a night to celebrate and explore female sexuality and pleasure, hence Beftival (bef-tival, get it?). Wanting to dive deeper into the ideas behind it, who would it have been better to talk to than to Ine Poppe and Olga Middendorp, head organisers and curators of the event. Ine is an artist, writer, journalist and teacher and has been involved in numerous cross-media projects and Olga is an artist as well, with a background in child sociology, pedagogy and human rights. Not coming from a curatorial background in the traditional sense, their approach is influenced by their artistic identity and perception.
We started our conversation by tracing back Beftival's roots. A big aspect of the inspiration behind it is the contradictory way in which sexuality manifests itself in popular culture, society and thought. Ine went on to explain how at the same time sexuality is extremely prominent everywhere around us and still, despite that, there is a lot of deeply-rooted conservatism; “In one hand, you see that young people are busy with sexuality, you see it back in film, in culture, you see articles written about it, you see it on the news, you see it in the arts. On the other hand, you have social media where everything which has to do with sexuality is banned. You cannot show explicit images, it’s all wiped out. And you also have a sort of conservative flood in general: people are afraid to be naked on the beach, girls sit with bikinis on in the sun, football players shower with their underpants on. You see this paradox.”. So, despite the sex-positive turn that we see in society, there is still a long way to go when it comes to sexual liberation.
The social media aspect is quite interesting to me since I perceive it to be yet another paradoxical space when it comes to how sexuality is being discussed in the public discourse. Censorship is greatly limiting sexual and artistic expression online. In fact, one of our Beftival-related instagram posts got taken down for showing "sexually explicit content". And one has to also be critical of the way feminist discourse is often employed as trendy buzzwords and hashtags, exploited for commercial purpose. Despite all that,, online spaces have greatly revolutionized the way we form communities of (sexual) empowerment, express ourselves, connect and advocate. We see that especially through online activism in general, and the huge rise of the #MeToo movement in particular.
I cannot fail but also notice how sexuality in our late-capitalist setting, is just another thing that is being commercialized and used not only to sell products but in a more uncanny way; we are surrounded by highly curated images (both on and offline) of unreality; unreal women, unreal expectations and unreal sexiness that often breed very real insecurities through promoting unrealistic and unattainable standards for womanhood, body image and sexuality. This happens a lot in mainstream pornography as well, as Olga points out; “This idea of how you have to look that we see in pornography and in the media makes it more difficult to actually, in real life, open up for sexual activity".
In this landscape of hyper-reality what does Beftival hope to achieve? Ine and Olga see Beftival as an open platform where you can actually meet real people who experiment, question and have conversations around sexuality. Through the program, they hope to create open discussions that, not only amplify visibility around all things related to female sexuality but also give attention to very pressing sociopolitical issues beyond that, like sexual and gender-based violence, LGBTQ+ rights etc, plus some opportunities for learning and sex education.
Another interesting point in our conversation was related to Beftival's focal point being female sexuality. This focus on the female is, according to Ine, due to Beftival’s emancipatory and empowering attitude. As she puts it, “There is still difference between men and women also when it comes to sexual behavior, because men are still raised in a certain way [...] We talk about female pleasure, and what female is, that’s debatable. But we wanted to focus from an emancipatory point of view on the female, that’s why we focus on beffen." This made me think of how, all too often, female sexuality is treated with mysticism and secrecy, plus how there is a serious lack of knowledge about the female anatomy. Olga brings up how the clitoris was only now explained in school books in the Netherlands: "We are just ignoring the most important part which gives female pleasure. I think women are so often obscured, or they just have to be silent." Therefore, there is a definite need for more visibility. We need to include topics related to female sexuality in our everyday lives and in our cultural lives as well.
As already mentioned above, the engagement with topics related to sexuality in the arts and culture scene is nothing new. So, what is Beftival bringing to the game? What is the alternative approach that is brought forth when it comes to the program? Since at Mediamatic we are all about combining arts and science and exploring through the senses, this multi-sensory and multi-disciplinary approach could not but flow into Beftival as well. “I think it’s the combination of arts and science that's really important in our project”, Ine adds, “Apart from artists, there’s also a variety of scientists working with us; a professor of sexual culture, a historian, a psychologist with research on female sexuality, an interface designer. We will even have a small science quiz which will be fun. So we are trying to find a combination between arts and science, also here, especially at Mediamatic. It is a place where smell, touch, all these things come together. Arts, sciences and the senses. So we are trying to make a combination of these.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Olga brings up this project's potential in us reaching back into a more playful and curious side of ourselves; “When you are in this childhood period you just play with everyone. You are open to touch, to feel to explore together and somehow you lose that kind of child sense of connecting to each other. I invite people to go back to that feeling, to find a way as an adult to be more open and I think that’s what we are trying to do. Each artist is somehow trying to bring openness to this subject in so many different ways so that you can actually get to that point of playfulness again.” She also gives us a little teaser for what’s going to happen this Saturday: “Well, during the night there will be a lot to experience, to really do together and I think that there aren’t so many places where you can actually experiment with sex in such an immediate, such a direct way. You can look at art but then again you’re passive, you’re not doing something".
With participation and engagement being a big part of the festival, an immediacy comes along, which in turn creates a certain vulnerability and exposure. But isn’t that the ideal atmosphere for leaving one’s comfort zone and delving into new and fun territories? Beftival might be a bit intimidating to some, so for those who still may blush a little (or a lot), Olga proposes that it is good to explore why we are uncomfortable with something, “and we can only know once we do it right?”
You can read more about Beftival's program here