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The Third Annua lSeattle Erotic Art Festival

It is easy to see why people view Allena Gabosch as a leader. With her broad shoulders, alarmingly green eyes, and smoky voice, Gabosch is a commanding presence.

Seated at a table in Baracho in Belltown on a cloudless spring afternoon, Gabosch seems like she's about to burst. "I'm about to sign closing papers on a condo in Queen Anne," she says. "I mean, I could move just out of town and find something cheaper, but I love Seattle. I want to feel a part of it and make things happen."

Allena Gabosch has been making things happen in Seattle for 15 years, mostly in the kink (or, as she prefers, the sex-positive) community. Years ago, she and a friend opened Beyond the Edge Cafe on Capitol Hill, a hangout for BDSM enthusiasts. Some of her customers approached her with the idea of creating a place of their own. Thus, in 1999 the nonprofit Seattle Sex-Positive Community Center, popularly known as the Wet Spot, was born. And now the third annual Seattle Erotic Art Festival (SEAF) is set to open at Consolidated Works on April 15, a project that is, essentially, Gabosch's baby.

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Raised in Idaho, Gabosch moved to California "to be a hippie" in the early '70s. A few years later she decided to join friends and family in Canada, but a change in the immigration laws forced her back to the States for a six-month wait. Thirty-one years later, she's still here.

Gabosch says she began experimenting with bondage when she was 19, but didn't come out into the BDSM scene until her 30s. Her partner at the time was hosting "kinky couple" parties, and Gabosch fell into putting on events with him. Hosting events lead to opening Beyond the Edge Cafe and then the Wet Spot. Now 52, Gabosch is affectionately referred to as "Mom" in Seattle's BDSM scene.

When one hears the words "community center," the image that comes to mind is one of a large fluorescent bulb-lit room littered with plastic chairs and folding tables. The Wet Spot is more of a Batcave for kinky people--a semi-secret, nondescript building on the outside, its interior tricked out with everything the sexually adventurous might need. There are beds and showers, predictably, along with a stocked refrigerator, chairs, tables, and futons. Then there are the gurneys, bondage racks, a room set aside for medical play, and eyehooks mounted into nearly every surface and structure in the joint.

This is not to say that every night is a reenactment of the orgy scene from Caligula. Sure, the Wet Spot hosts dances and theme parties (a bondage night, called Bondage Is the Point, is quite popular), but the Wet Spot also conducts discussion groups and educational workshops. There are belly-dancing classes, an Owners & Slaves Discussion Group, Intermediate Flogging workshops--essentially, a little something for everyone. And while you're likely to see some live sex acts going on, you're just as likely to see groups of people mingling by the fridge or sitting at a table debating the merits of hemp rope. It's a friendly place where kinky people can let down their hair and be themselves.

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"Ultimately, our goal is to make Seattle the erotic-arts capital of the world," says Gabosch matter-of-factly. New York or Los Angeles is a likelier candidate for such a moniker, to say nothing of London or Amsterdam. Seattle is a lot of things: the city where you're most likely to have your lost wallet returned with cash intact; the town where a Metro bus driver will make riders wait while a boarding passenger offers a long, tearful goodbye to his white-haired mother; the metropolis where using your car horn is tantamount to road rage. Can a town whose motto seems to be "No, really, you go first " become the erotic-arts capital of the world?

Gabosch laughs, saying, "What's nicer than erotic art?"

The original idea for an erotic art show sprang from Wet Spot board member Jim Duvall, a photographer in search of new venues to showcase his and his colleagues' work. He decided to invite artists to meetings where they would kick around ideas about how to make their art more accessible, while at the same time raising money for the Wet Spot. It wasn't until friend Anna Hurwitz, who originally asked to be a jury member for the new art show, attended one of the meetings that things began to take shape.

"The first meeting I went to, they were discussing things like T-shirt designs," Hurwitz remembers, "and I asked, 'So, have you even sent out a call for artists?'"

With her prior experience working on art shows, Hurwitz brought cohesion and initiative to the group. She began assigning people to various tasks, creating agendas and schedules. Hurwitz went out of town for a few weeks and returned to find out that she had been elected to chair the festival committee.

"Hurwitz won't take the title of festival director because she wants to stay out of the limelight," says Gabosch. "She's the real force behind SEAF." If she is the engine, then, Hurwitz points out, Gabosch is the driver. As festival director, Gabosch has final say on all SEAF decisions and serves as its spokeswoman. As busy as she is, Gabosch makes time to perform her motherly duties, providing emotional support and smoothing ruffled feathers of the SEAF staff.

Hurwitz also believes in the mission, and shrugs off the notion of Seattle's wholesome image. "What do people think we do during the rainy season anyway?" She adds that Seattle is "a magnet for healthy sexuality," offering Toys in Babeland and the Wet Spot as examples. Our city's relative innocence contributes to our healthy sexual attitudes, she believes. "People in the bigger cities are used to seeing sex everywhere. They wouldn't appreciate it the way we do here."

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The first annual SEAF was held at Town Hall. Gabosch and Hurwitz both believed the event would be a success but they had no idea just how big a success it would turn out to be. On opening night, 300 people were expected to show up. Instead, more than 1,000 people came. The line wrapped all the way around the block, and people who got in were encouraged to leave after viewing the art in order to make room for those patiently standing on the sidewalk outside.

"We were unorganized," says Hurwitz. "Much of the art didn't arrive until just before the opening, there were computer glitches and [we] completely forgot to advertise the art auction."

Still, the art sold, the crowds were pleased, and the festival was deemed a success.

Clearly in need of a bigger space, the second SEAF took place at Consolidated Works last year. More than 2,000 people came out on opening night. Again, a line stretched down the street. Many of the attendees waiting in the cold rain were dressed up in fetish gear. The ones in latex and vinyl were lucky; the raindrops beaded off their catsuits and hoods. Once inside, the festival crowd was treated to a dizzying 500 pieces of erotic art. Some viewers felt overwhelmed.

"It was too much," admits Gabosch.

This year's Seattle Erotic Art Festival promises to be better. For starters, the event was moved to April, a more favorable time of year to be standing in a long line, and the number of pieces was whittled down to 300, forcing the committee to be more selective. "The judges were very picky this year," Gabosch says. "Each piece had to be practically perfect to get in." SEAF also made a conscious effort to limit the number of photographs in this year's show. "You can only see so many perfect tits, perfect butts, perfect cunts," says Gabosch, "so the jury was brutal."

And while the walls of ConWorks will be covered with art, attendees will have plenty more to see. The Little Red Studio (LRS) will be hosting an interactive show on the festival's opening night. Instead of a stage presentation, LRS will have a circus-like ring of tents. Audience members will be given a colored ribbon that will allow them one hour to check out and participate in the various goings-on inside each one: belly dancing, body painting, burlesque, nude male wrestling. The Viva Wylde Film Series will be presenting Sex on Screen Volume 4: a collection of short films, a retrospective of fetish-film director Maria Beatty, and a one-on-one interview with prominent adult filmmaker Andrew Blake. Chef Tiberio Simone will be catering the festival.

Oh, and the theme of this year's festival?

"Own Your Pleasure." The theme is meant to smack of sexuality and capitalism. "It's a double entendre," says Gabosch. "We're referring to owning up to your pleasure, to what turns you on," and to the fact that all of the art is for sale. You can own your pleasure and the erotic art that speaks to it.

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The problem with erotic art is that erotica is highly subjective. One man's sexy negligee is Grandma's hernia truss to another. Gabosch acknowledges that and doesn't make apologies. "Some of the stuff I don't find erotic, but the jury did." Adds Hurwitz, "Some of it is really edgy."

"We're pushing the envelope," Gabosch agrees. "Some of the work depicts things that might not be typically considered erotic. And some of it is disturbing." When asked to describe some of these pieces, she mentions some photographs: a woman delivering afterbirth ("You really have to see it"), a man spitting into a rubber-clad woman's mouth, and a woman strung with needles and thread to form a human harp.

Controversial, also, is the venue. The sudden, unexplained dismissal of ConWorks founder Matthew Richter by the group's board earlier this year alienated many in the Seattle arts community. When asked about it, Gabosch chooses her words carefully, glancing occasionally at the running tape recorder. "For the first week [after the shake-up], we were nervous," she says. The timing was awful. Selected art was already coming in and marketing had been done, meaning that searching for a new home for the festival would be nearly impossible. "Right now, the [ConWorks] board is honoring our contract, so no complaints there."

Even so, there is the reasonable concern that many supporters of Richter in the arts community might stay away. "I just want people to remember that the venue is not the art, the organization, or the artists," says Gabosch. "The show should not be penalized for whatever goes on politically at ConWorks."

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Gabosch's vision for Seattle is not limited to making it the erotic-arts capital of the world. There's a rumor floating around that she is considering a run for city council. "Well, that's in the works," Gabosch admits, "but it's a couple of years down the road." She says that she's committed to her current job at the moment and would like to spend the next two years doing some research. "And I actually have a small committee of people put together to help me on my campaign." At first, the idea was more about running for council than actually winning. But the more she talked to people around her, the more she began to realize that she might be able to pull off an election. Gabosch stresses that running for office wouldn't be a stunt. "My campaign would not be one-sided by any means. It would be pretty multifaceted." She is already active in the community, volunteering with such programs as the Lambert House, a Seattle safe house for GLBT youth, and Verbena, a health advocacy and education group for bi and queer women.

Besides advocating queer health, she would concentrate on providing better care for the homeless ("I love the idea of a tent city, and think that is one of the most innovative shelter programs out there") and, of course, improving transportation. Does she think that her prominence in the sex-positive community would hurt her chances? "No," she says. "One of the exciting things about being as out as I am is that there's nothing for anybody to dig up."

In a political climate where all candidates try to invoke a wholesome, all- American image, she would certainly be a breath of fresh air. "That somebody who is tattooed and alternative could possibly hold a position in politics like that is pretty exciting. And Seattle is progressive enough that it could happen here."

Ross Lambert writes Lippy Imp's Knickers In a Twist, an online sex column, at www.thestrangerlovelab.com.

 

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