My uncle passed away when I was 18. I inherited a flatscreen TV, an analogue Minolta camera, and his collection of 1990s porn magazines. Half of the content was made up of personal ads: singles or couples looking for partners, hookups or friendship. These were not the typical images you would see in mainstream porn. Men in lingerie, women spreading themselves for the camera, a group of naked friends posing on dunes. The mundaneness of the pictures is also what made them beautiful—the pictures are honest depictions of the desires of ordinary people.
Hidden inside the ad pages of these penis-and-vagina porn magazines, was a community expressing their wants and needs, free of judgment:
“Exhibitionist couple looking for another couple. We love spanking, wife wants to be punished by other females. No BDSM, Bi-Sex no problem. We are also looking for a cameraperson. See picture.”
“Jolly good looking male bodybuilder, ex-guitar player and singer is looking for females to join him into the “business”. 100% discretion. Letters with a picture always get an answer!”
“Young crossdresser, 24 y.o., a tiny bit plump, looking for a serious relationship with a blonde girl. I am still a virgin and have a small disability. But I don’t think that should be a problem. I want a nice girl who can be mean if she needs to. See picture.”
“Young dominatrix looking for male and female slaves. I’m very strict in my letters and assignments. See picture.”
“Male is looking for a plump to very fat lady for intimacy. Age or appearance does not matter. Can move around Antwerp.”
“Female transgender 30 y.o. is looking for bi-sex girl. I like make-up, high heels and sexy lingerie. I want to have nice chats and go shopping together. Hygiene and discretion requested.“
“Honest bi-couple 30 y.o. is looking for a spontaneous couple. We prefer real bi-friendship to laugh and have serious conversations. When we match, uninhibited sex will follow. No one night stands. We live in the middle of the Netherlands.”
As well as his material inheritance, my uncle also left me his name: Norman. I now go by the artist handle Nearly Norman. Using new technologies and tools like virtual and augmented reality, I build experiences that people can step into and explore. For one of my latest works, SEKSMAG!, I turned the stack of porn mags into an installation that uses augmented reality to uncensor the world of swingers, sex workers and dating in Flanders and the Netherlands. In Dutch, seks mag means “sex is allowed.” Sexuality should not be a taboo topic. It is one we should own and feel comfortable with. We should not repress ourselves to conform to Victorian ideas, where sex was necessary for reproduction but not something to be discussed in polite society—let alone enjoyed. It was only by talking with international friends that I realised the word is also shorthand for “sex magazine.”
At first, it was a rudimentary application: pinned to the wall of a maker space was the cover of a magazine with three coloured squares covering the erotic parts of two girls pleasuring a well-groomed muscular man. Whenever somebody entered the workshop, I would ask them to scan the picture using my phone and wait for their reactions. Mostly, people giggled and waved to their friends to come and have a look. Once people scanned the image, the squares disappeared, revealing the full pornographic image, along with three cubes, floating in the virtual space. Once the visitor moved the phone inside the cube they were met with another set of images: grainy black-and-white photos, not made by professionals in a brightly lit studio, but taken by amateurs.
Since then, SEKSMAG! has evolved quite a bit. Three magazine covers are hanging from the five-metre high framework of a house made out of metal pipes that are painted bright red. But the experience remains very similar, as it is not about the technology itself, but rather how the medium of augmented reality creates a safe space where queer perspectives can be explored.
Through filters connected to social media platforms, the augmented reality can even be experienced at home, where you’ll see the virtual house and cubes appear on your screen.
Entering the cubes with your phone unlocks the grainy pictures behind them, showing the love searches, kinks and desires of the anonymous advertisers.
Although we highly censored the filter, Instagram won’t allow us to upload the filter that brings that experience to life.
It’s important to tell stories about sexuality and identity using new technologies. But the most memorable moments of developing SEKSMAG! were the conversations I had about it around the dinner table or in bars. Looking for feedback from many different perspectives, I asked friends, family and even complete strangers to try out the app. Without it, I would likely never have had a conversation with my grandmother about my uncle’s sex life.