Linz, Austria. Natacha Merritt, the wide-eyed, impossible-to-ignore digital sex photographer, may only have come to the recent Ars Electronica Festival so she could pop down the Danube River to Budapest afterward, as she later told me. Even so, her presence in Linz set the tone and generated much of the buzz at the 19th annual digital-art festival, the most prominent of its kind in Europe.

This year’s theme was “Sex in the Age of Its Procreative Superfluousness,” and on opening day Gerfried Stocker, the black-clad, ponytailed festival director, did a good job of soberly answering critics of the “Sperm Race” — even as Merritt’s photos continually flashed on a nearby bank of laptops. Many of these images showed the artist herself — stripped down to an immediate, raw sexuality that made her the target of vehement criticism when her book Digital Diaries came out earlier this year.

Stocker hoped to emphasize, over the weeklong festival, the importance of artists in offering an imaginative critique of where science and technology are taking us in the coming century, in particular with the unfolding revolution in reproductive science. The presence of such notables as Carl Djerassi, the part-time playwright and Stanford University chemistry professor who helped
develop the birth-control pill, and of University of New Mexico’s controversial rape theorist, Randy Thornhill, lent weight to this emphasis. And artists Joe Davis and Katie Egan attracted a steady stream of visitors with their “Artistic Molecules and Audio Microscope” project. It gave visitors the chance to look at enlarged images of
living cells while listening to their highly amplified microacoustic signatures.

Marta de Menezes of Portugal used electrical stimulation to alter the wing patterns of butterflies in early pupation. She expected her project to draw heavy fire, but instead, the butterfly tent she set up to show off her special creations was mostly the scene of curious appreciation. “I was expecting intolerance,” she said. “I was prepared for people [who] don’t listen at all to anything you say. But people have been curious, which is a good thing. People would always come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I like your butterflies.’”

But the most intriguing idea explored in this vein was the connection between honesty and new technologies, whether that means Yahoo sex clubs where sweater or sneezing enthusiasts gather and share all, or making a digital camera an integral part of your sex life. This is just what Merritt, a 22-year-old New Yorker, has done. Her Digital Diaries — a collection of erotic photos resulting from the artist’s having played around with a digital camera in bed — has generated mixed reactions. Though sales, not surprisingly, appear to be robust. Merritt has been seen by some as a cheap self-promoter whose success had mostly to do with milking a few choice connections. Yet her self-promotion is deliberate, multifaceted and clever. And honest, as was her presentation at the “Next Sex” symposium early in the week at Ars Electronica.

She was nervous — and said so. It turns out Merritt thought she was speaking a day later and had not prepared anything to say. That made her nervous, she said; but not standing up in front of an auditorium full of people watching her nude self-portraits flash on the big screen. “For some reason, I have no problem with the fact I’m giving head in these pictures, sucking dick, whatever you want to call it,” she explained matter-of-factly. “I feel completely in control, so I’m comfortable with that.”

It’s easy to mock Merritt’s resplendent narcissism, the deep and sensual pleasure she takes in herself, her images and her connection to her surroundings. But take a look at Merritt’s pictures, and consider how damn happy she looks.

“What does it give me? It gives me great images,” she said. “My sex life is three times better. I get a good image and I come.”

Surely, if Merritt were not beautiful, fewer people would be buying her book. She has big, round eyes, billboard eyes that expect to be stared into — yet reveal little about what’s really going on with her. Then again, sometimes they can be very specific.

“It’s true that sometimes my eyes are saying, ‘Please fuck me,’” she told me. “But that’s okay. You can use those same eyes to say other things, too.”

This appears to be the crux of Merritt’s self-defense in the face of attacks by (older) feminists. One woman at her talk during the symposium kept criticizing her in bizarre terms. Chiefly: that her images represented a male idea of sexuality. This criticism might have sounded a tad more persuasive if Merritt — who is undeniably female — had not already discussed the orgasmic pleasure she herself takes in them.

Merritt says she understands such talk. “I was born into the rights that women like that created for me, and I respect that — but they’re full of shit,” she told me. “That same woman, if she grew her hair longer and wore some makeup, would have a lot more power. I’d say to all these feminists, ‘You fought the war, and you won. Enjoy the freedom.’ But they keep fighting. All girls of my generation love my work. I haven’t had a single girl under 35 or 40 criticize my book.”

Some of Merritt’s pictures have undeniable appeal, others less so. But the bottom line is, Merritt herself is more interesting than her images. Because she has wandered deep into the interior of her own sexuality, and come out grinning with pleasure and knowledge, she walks through the rest of her life with confidence and verve. She told me’s she in love — and I’m sure that’s part of it — but I think part of her glow also has to do with being in love with herself. That’s generally considered a negative quality, but as Merritt asks, “What’s wrong with feeling good about yourself?”

“Am I a narcissist? Absolutely,” she grins. “It’s all about me, me, me. Why is it bad to love yourself? Who taught us that? It’s really sad when I think of little girls being told, ‘You’re not beautiful.’ Those same mothers say they want their little girls to grow up and be strong and independent.”

No, she says, she has not read Camille Paglia. But Merritt is not without a sense of humor.

“I almost want to turn around now after all the controversy and say, ‘Hey, it was pornography,’” she tells me, laughing. But then she goes on to talk about why she does not like to think of herself as an artist, though she accepts the title. “Artists are always looking for a muse,” she says. “Sex and photography were the same thing to me. I chose my art over my loved ones, which I think artists have to do. Now I’ve become a more caring person.”

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