Artist’s Notebook:
Leah Schrager

July 14, 2014 | Marina Galperina

ANIMAL’s feature Artist’s Notebook asks artists to show us their original “idea sketch” next to a finished artwork or project. This week, Leah Schrager talks about the origins of her infamous performance project Naked Therapy, as well as German expressionist dance choreography, erotic photos and WordPress themes.

Naked Therapy started as a proposal to the world on the Internet in 2010 for services offered by a young woman named Sarah White. Through responses and feedback — aka participation and collaboration — it developed into the field of Naked Therapy.

It all started after I had paid for premium support for a plugin that was essential to a client’s website I was building, and the plugin wasn’t working, and the tech supporter was slow and not fixing the issue.

Late that night after a very frustrating round of emails and still with the plugin not working, I was sitting outside and thought, why can’t this tech support person just be nice and helpful? And then I thought, gosh, why not just take it all the way and create a nice, helpful, beautiful, naked tech support person? And an idea was born.

There was something in my mind at the time integral to the connection between nudity and the web. I didn’t know what it was yet. I knew nakedness was in three places — on the web, in performance art, and in my own sexual experiences. I didn’t have a strong opinion about all this, but I was seeing these naked arenas in different ways, and I was intrigued by their intersections. After years of dancing and performing, I’d never been nude on stage, but I felt comfortable changing in the dressing rooms in front of other people, and my general thought was, what’s wrong with being naked?

In mid-2009 I started managing and maintaining erotic websites through a job a friend had gotten for me. This introduced me (for the first time) to the online world of erotic photography and porn sites. I batch processed the images of naked women and uploaded them to the web. I looked at .jpgs of these women for hours a week, watching the files process in Photoshop, watching them upload via Fetch, and watching them appear online after I added them to the database.

I’d designed and redesigned my own personal website starting in high school (using the tediously spaced templates in Dreamweaver). I was obsessed with how to present my artwork on the web such that I felt it represented me properly. I’d also recently built a number of websites for other artists (using WordPress).

That year I was in a deep search for my artistic voice.

I had just concluded my visual art solo show at the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle entitled “Pretty Whatever.” It was largely made up of phoems — photos I’d taken and then put words on. But while I continued to send myself one liners, I was kind of bored by putting them on photographs.

Prior to phoems, I had mostly been a dancer. But by 2010 I was dissatisfied with dancing for other choreographers. I had what I considered to be a pretty sharp aesthetic, and as a dancer I didn’t get to have a lot of artistic input. The choreographer got to make the aesthetic choices. I had been intrigued by the fourth wall since seeing Sarah Michelson’s “Daylight” at On the Boards in 2005 — the stage was completely reconfigured and the dancers appeared everywhere. Those years, I was seeing all the performance art, theater, and dance I could. I was a junkie for it.

Lane Czaplinski, the artistic director of On the Boards (a venue I performed at in early 2009), saw a show I produced in 2007 and sent me this link to “Sweet Dreams” by Johanna Drucker. I reread the article numerous times (particularly the part on Gregory Crewdson) and I looked and looked at Untitled (Ophelia).

Lane also recommended I check out Felix Ruckert. He referenced Hautnah (1999):

‘Hautnah is a performance conceived by Ruckert, a protégé of Pina Bausch, high priestess of German expressionism. Like Bausch, Ruckert gets his kicks by questioning theatrical assumptions and distilling his dancers’ memories into evocative fragments of movement and text. He parts ways with her in his streamlined aesthetic and his penchant for crashing through the fourth wall. In Hautnah, which he translates as “close like the skin,” a set of 10 solos is performed simultaneously, in adjacent compartments, for 10 individual spectators. There’s no sex, but the café setting, negotiable fee, and private environments contribute to what he calls an ‘erotic context.” – Village Voice

The idea sounded fantastic. It was edgy and intriguing. And in 2008-2009, I was searching for the right dance company to work with — a choreographer who I could collaborate with or whose artistic voice I could really get on with. Felix Ruckert seemed like he might be right. There was a trend then for dancers to look for companies outside of the US, since it paid better. I had been hired to perform in a dance piece in Germany called Raw Rough Ready, and I contacted every company I was interested in at that time in Europe. Felix seemed the most promising. So I went to visit him in Berlin. I visited him and we had coffee and seemed to get on well. It was a sort of interview/audition. I came back that evening to see a showing of die Farm.

My memory of it was that women were bound and naked and hung on hooks attached to the ceiling, being forced to drink water and then peeing. Felix had moved heavily into BDSM work by then. While I respected him as a choreographer, I realized it was not for me. I left after the performance, rather shocked, and he emailed me to ask what I thought. I said in essence that it looked so dehumanizing for the women, that ‘I was torn by the beauty of their bodies and the savage treatment of them. On one hand I would try to think of it as die FARM, where the women stood for meat.’ He responded well, most significantly with ‘It is actually always an interesting journey for the women, how could I motivate them otherwise???’

But I knew that wasn’t the kind of journey that I was looking for in my art. And if I didn’t actually want to work with the choreographer who I thought I most wanted to work with, if he had taken his work to a further logical step of performance that precluded my interest in performance, I didn’t know what I was doing in dance.

Earlier in 2010 I went with The Performance Club to see Marina Abramović’s work “The Artist is Present” at MOMA. Her work was phenomenal to me — it showed herself, a strong woman, naked, unabashed, powerful, and artistic. Her early works seemed to deal a lot with the relationship between men and women and contained nudity. I always think of Imponderabilia. In it she and Ulay stand naked on either sides of a doorway and the viewer must pass between them to enter the gallery.

But, I was also sensitive to the issues surrounding reconstruction and the poor treatment of the reperformers.

Around this time, in what felt like a seminal moment to me now, I had drinks with a guy with whom I’d flirted on and off for years. We were both finally kinda single. He showed me a photo on his flip phone he had taken of a naked girl right after having sex with her. He talked about how she was cool with him coming and fucking her late at night. While we didn’t see each other again, I was intrigued by the photo, and the power that she had on him through the photo, that he had on her through the photo, and that it had on me through the photo.

So, back to September 2010, and the web. The Internet seemed to simultaneously break and maintain the fourth wall. It seemed like a potential place for performance art and an exciting and new place to explore. I wasn’t interested in the theater-going audience; I had become burnt out on them. I wanted to be seen as a cool, normal girl. Because in a way, I was a cool, normal girl. I had no interest in performing as performance art. But I did have an interest in investigating this space of the web, and, well, trying to connect to people in the world.

I consulted my connection to erotic websites on how to create the right image — none of my prior modeling or dance photos of myself seemed appropriate, and he got me connected to JMDarling, who took a perfect first set of images for me. JM did just what I needed – he told me the tricks, like keep your arms away from your body (I’d never heard that before), and, well, just take photos in bra and underwear (which had never occurred to me), and that implied nudity was like photographing nudity but without showing nudity. The photo he took in 2010 is still the iconic Sarah White photo:

So with my new batch of photos and using the default WordPress Twenty Ten theme, I built TheNakedCoder.com:

I tried to get attention through a craigslist add and by emailing blogs:

I got a few responses:

The responses were pretty dull and I realized maybe not everyone was into their online presentation as much as I was. But I also realized the people were actually emailing me back and were interested in talking to me about what I was doing. I still don’t really know why, but it was fun. I liked communicating with people. I liked talking with real people. People outside of the dance world, people outside of NYC, people living their own lives completely independent from mine who wanted to talk about things that were important to them.

So I thought I’d try expanding my services. Three seemed like a good number. I thought I could do Naked Tutoring because I was a did well in school. I thought I could do Naked Therapy because I’d grown up in a family in which we talked through everything and were very supportive of each other. I knew how to listen and respond thoughtfully. So in October 2010, I moved the website to SarahWhiteConsulting.com (again with the default Twenty Ten WordPress theme) and added those two services.

But while I was offering three distinct services, I was also very open about it. What I wanted to know was, as a professional woman offering professional services online, ‘How may i help you?’

From my studies in biology, I thought Naked Therapy made sense scientifically – this is the first note I ever made on it. (I’ve always kept my notes by just emailing them to myself.)

I consulted a friend of mine who was a therapy expert. And I started to develop the theory of Naked Therapy:

My main message was, let’s not avoid sex, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about you and sex in the way that you feel comfortable.

I spread the word online mostly through an affiliate program and had a number of clients:

Pretty soon, it was apparent that my participants wanted therapy — they weren’t interested in the other services. And as I continued my research I was astonished by the incredible depth of theory that supported Naked Therapy. Freud was a male therapist and had created a version of therapy to match female sexuality (hysteria). I was a female therapist and had created a version of therapy to address male sexuality. Plus, I felt there had to be something to the fact that there are tons of images of naked women online – I thought there was something about nakedness in a woman to a (heterosexual) man that is essential, therapeutic, and driven by evolution.

I also found some people in support of me.

What I’m just now realizing is that in launching Naked Coding I was providing what I would have wanted — a service to women — a service to say, okay honey, let’s talk about who you are and how we can best show that online- – a way to put an image and words and design to a woman’s self, which is a way that a woman expresses her sexuality: through her image and words and design.

When I started offering Naked Therapy, I was offering something for men. I was saying, okay, baby, let’s talk about you and let’s talk about you in the way you most feel yourself, and I’ve found that many men most feel themselves when they’re also being told it’s okay to be a sexual being, which is what getting naked during therapy provides.

I switched my URL to SarahWhiteLive.com (with a slightly flashier WordPress WPshower theme) — live seemed more active than consulting. I also sought out some new photographers to shoot with to get a classier image. These are by Abdul Smith.

I had gotten a good amount of clients through my affiliate program, link trading, etc, but I realized I was onto something serious. So I sent out a press release on 1/27/11.

Andrew Zimmer at the Thrillist contacted me and we did an interview. I was so nervous to say the right thing! Then Justin Rocket Silverman at The Daily.

Then Rich Shapiro at NY Daily News. And then the list just goes on… The press has been intense, and I’ve had lots of it. I don’t consider myself very good at interviews, so it has been a constant challenge to try to put the right words to what I want to say. Tracy Clark-Flory called Naked Therapy sex work in what seemed to me a dismissive and somewhat rude way. I remember her article in particular because on the phone she acted super nice and in support of me and Naked Therapy, so when I read her article I felt misled. It was my first experience feeling tricked by a journalist. But most press venues seemed genuinely interested and reported this new controversial method sometimes quite well, objectively, and thoughtfully. Jeff Probst handled Naked Therapy exceptionally well on his talk show in 2012.

I’ve been approached by a number of reality TV people. In 2011, I pitched the first version of my book ‘Naked Therapy’ through an agency to 32 publishers, all of whom rejected it largely because I had not been doing it long enough and I did not have a Masters Degree.

I should also mention that while the press was eager to talk to me, I was kicked off Facebook, Paypal, and Chase Bank, since apparently Naked Therapy is inappropriate.

I was also kicked out of the West Chelsea Artists Open Studios because the director felt my visual artwork was “an ad” and “not art.” 

With all the press, I was getting tons of clients/participants. I was learning so much about men. Every session I left feeling we had done good work, and that they had learned something, and that usually I had learned something too. There was so much to say that I’m still working on the book that I started then. Every session is fascinating on many levels. I have yet to figure out how to really share that. What I’ve learned is that, if one takes the analogy of performance, it’s a unique time- and person-specific experience. Documentation of performance is challenging. See, you as the potential participant have to decide you want to take part, and then the experience is unique to you. If you don’t want to take part, that’s fine. If you do, then the experience is completely unique. When I’m doing Naked Therapy, I respond to you, the details you share about yourself, etc, in a completely unique way based on my extensive experience doing this, and my specific experiences with you.

Today, to me, the actual Naked Therapy sessions are by far the most important part about Sarah White and Naked Therapy. And they’re still available for people to participate in through SarahWhiteTherapy.com. I moved my practice there in early 2011, and it still sports its 2011 look with the Platform Pro WordPress theme.

I recently sat in the audience at a round table that Culturebot organized regarding social practice and thought the whole time: social practice totally works, but the participant has to want to take part. They can’t be forced into it. Naked Therapy was a collaborative creation using participants who really wanted to be involved. I said, I’m here and ready to hear you, what are you interested in? And my participants answered. That’s how Naked Therapy was born.

I have three books that are slated to come out in the next couple years. I hope that the institution of therapy will come around to recognizing the value of Naked Therapy to men today — but I won’t hold my breath.

My books and publications are now available at SarahWhiteLife.com (which uses a 2014 WordPress Elegant Theme).

My experiences as the Naked Therapist have led to a new artistic exploration – that of OnAartist.com. These onas are very different from Sarah White, yet are informed by her. For example, I’ve worked with clients regarding financial domination – this led to the conception of Devotology.org. I’ve also worked with clients regarding escorts and models – this led to my creation of EscartGirl.com. I owe so much of my artistic practice to my participants, who are in a way really my collaborators. These recent projects are new performances within new contexts. My newer onas are, well, still new, but they are led by the aesthetic rather than the interaction/collaboration.

Now I’m just enjoying making new onas and then taking those images to make visual art with them. I’m also addressing in my visual work what it’s like to stare at oneself a lot — either on cam or through images — what it’s like to have others looking at me, and to be looking at myself.

Since starting my MFA program I’ve come to love Hito Steyerl’s ideas. Recently I read this from Hito Steyerl: “If the art world keeps going down the way of raising art prices via starvation of its workers — and there is no reason to believe it will not continue to do this — it will become the Disney version of Kim Jong Un’s pixel parades. 12K starving interns waving pixels for giant CGI renderings of Marina Abramovic! Imagine the price it will fetch!” Now I see in my rejection of performance and dance and my embrace of the web and a popular market to be my version of my fight against Hito Steyerl’s ominous suggestion. For me the goal was not the money (though that was a welcome outcome), but more to be free from the bonds of performance art that I’d become entangled in. It’s a bridge between art and reality that confuses even myself. In the end I don’t know what I did – if I was freeing or carrying them with me. But I do know that I think that by branching into new scenarios I was excited by what I was discovering.

Naked Therapy remains available through SarahWhiteTherapy.com. So, I’ll be honest. Naked Therapy isn’t really concluded. It has a partial conclusion with my move into OnAartist.com. Perhaps as an art form it is concluded. But it carries on a real life with the people who engage in it, so only time will tell where it ends up.

Thanks for listening to my origin story. I learned a lot by going back to it.


Previous Artist’s Notebook selects:

Artist’s Notebook: Labanna Babalon
Artist’s Notebook: Sterling Crispin
Artist’s Notebook: Ann Hirsch
Artist’s Notebook: Am Schmidt
Artist’s Notebook: Rhett Jones
Artist’s Notebook: Brenna Murphy
Artist’s Notebook: Gordon Holden
Artist’s Notebook: Genevieve Belleveau
Artist’s Notebook: Georges Jacotey
Artist’s Notebook: Saoirse Wall
Artist’s Notebook: Jesse Darling
Artist’s Notebook: Addie Wagenknecht
Artist’s Notebook: Lorna Mills

Artist’s Notebook: Actually Huzienga 
Artist’s Notebook: Cody Critcheloe, SSION

Artist’s Notebook: Angela Washko