Trojana is no ordinary Arts project. Neither is its co-deviser Maud Madlyn. Previously involved in theatre in the UK for a number of years, she next travelled to Latin America. Through ‘Defiant Reality: Theatre For Challenge’ – an artist collective she helped set up dedicated to live arts, cultural management and education – Madlyn created theatre that tangentially or directly touched on the lives of the local people she personally encountered. Her latest project – Trojana: Webcamming Chronicles – can be described as a ‘documentary’, but in many ways that is much too small a word to describe its sociological scope.
As in most economies, webcamming has been prevalent in terms of its ‘visibility’ and usage. With Covid-19 stymieing general social contact – including women that previously worled as exotic dancers or sex workers – there has also been a steady rise in women signing up for webcamming in Colombia (the second largest market in the world). By G7 standards, salaries for ‘conventional’ jobs are seriously depressed there, hence the numbers venturing to this ‘business’ skyrocketing. To do justice to this topic, one has to be ‘immersed’ in this world and not make hypothetical assumptions based on hearsay and personal biases. With this in mind, Madlyn and her creative partner Andrés Montes Zuluaga took the brave step of signing up as ‘participants’ in this world, to learn everything there is to know from the inside out.
Asides from their own personal experiences, Madlyn and Montes Zuluaga interviewed people from all aspects of the ‘business’, to get their perspective on how it’s run and the ‘human cost’ to working within it long-term.
As comprehensive as the Trojana project is, it is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the length and breadth of experiences covered, and the sociological ramifications of webcamming on every strata of society. Even so, what Madlyn and Montes Zuluaga have accomplished is nothing short of amazing, especially when you consider that content has been adapted to English, French and Spanish – the languages of the multilingual production team.
The Trojana project was broken down into 10 sections – 10 e-mails that people who signed up for would receive. Most days there was the primary video to watch, plus a supplemental ‘task’ that shed light on the minutiae of the webcamming world.
Day One – Labyrinth
A short video sets the tone for the ‘rabbit hole’ that is webcamming. As a list of words are read out which denote what can be viewed during this activity, the graphic words themselves leave nothing to the imagination. evoking a visceral reaction.
Day Two – Profusion
We see another short video, made up of images of chatrooms in different languages. Here the clients spell out what they would like to do to the women, as they divulge their fantasies. Suffice to say, the descriptions are graphic. Anyone who has seen the chatroom scene with Clive Owen in the film Closer will have an idea of the ‘banter’ offered, though this example is still ‘tame’ in comparison with those shown here…
Day Three – Cali Calling
We are taken behind the scenes of one of the studios in Colombia, as Montes Zuluaga chats with its owner. As this is a recording (supplied with translation), the only thing we ‘see’ in the dark background is the black circle at the centre, surrounded by the ‘flaring corona’ (like the death throes of a solar eclipse). When asked by Montes Zuluaga about the motivation and well-being of the girls who work there (especially as they’re all living together), the webcam studio owner states they are all fine, as long as no one has an ‘attitude’ or are ‘difficult’. However, if they are, they don’t last…
Here we are also introduced to the exchange rate in Colombia ($2,000 = 10 million pesos) and get an idea why earning a lot of money there doesn’t actually equate to a lot in real terms. The task accompanying the day’s e-mail revolves around answering how does one feels about sex work in general, and should it be banned, regulated, decriminalised, etc…
Day 4 – Under The Skin
In this session we hear snippets of conversations involving the models who work at a webcam studio. What is most noticeable, is that what they say paints a very different picture than the one described on Day Three. It’s evident from those interviewed that the women (who range from students to mothers) only took on this work because there was no other employment available. And while the models ‘could’ refuse to perform the ‘extreme’ acts as requested by the clients, there was pressure from above to do so, with the ‘understanding’ they would be paid much less.
While there is no physical contact between the models and the clients, they’re all of the opinion that what they’re doing IS sex work – the transactional nature of their activties and what the parameters of what the clients ask them to do make it so. We also hear the effect this work has on a former male model, which mirrors down to a ‘T’ the anxiety experienced by these women feel about this ‘work’.
Day 5 – Decisions
Do you want to continue in this digital labyrinth as a WEBCAM MODEL or as a CLIENT? This was the question asked by those receiving the e-mails. Depending on the answers given, the recipients would receive tailored content, as per choice.
Day 6 – Dissection
Depending on what people chose the previous day, they received questionnaires about being potential clients or webcam models. The questions were almost the same for each sex (what is your fake name, real name, age, country of birth, country of residence, ethnicity, what language(s) do you speak?).
For the webcam models, they also have the additional issues to consider: When they’ve reached a certain level of intimacy with you, clients will ask for your real name.
INDUSTRY TIP: create a ‘fake real name’ different to your webcam model name! What’s yours going to be?
Regardless of whether people choose to be models or clients, each group is given a set of questions (and diagrams). For the potential models, the information divulged would show the studio owners the physical attributes of the women, as well as their ‘suitability’ to this line of work i.e. ‘broad-minded’, able to ‘perform’ in pseudo-taboo situations. I found that looking at the questions that the models were asked regarding the minutiae of their bodies to be terribly invasive and depressing. Before they’ve even been selected and started working, the women are ‘commodified’ as ‘objects’ to be ‘used’.
Day 7 – Preferences
Taking the application process further, we – as a potential webcam model – answer ‘personal’ questions about why we want to work in this field, what ‘roleplay’ are we willing to do, how much do we want to charge clients, etc. Again, I found the questions ‘intrusive’, so God knows what the real webcam models must have felt like.
For the clients, the same questions and diagrams are directed at them, to ‘customise’ their proclivities and gauge what ‘taboo’ scenes they want to watch. Let that sink in – the studio assumes men solely want to pursue ‘taboo’ roleplay (animal, rape, mutilation, domination etc), encourages them to do so and in turn actively coerce the webcam models to ‘accommodate’ these urges.
Day 8 – A Monster Too Human
Following on from the choices of the previous day, ‘Dr Crow’ gives his psychoanalytical opinion about the dark side of human nature or ‘The Other’. Since the dawn of time, mankind has projected its own darkest impulses into ‘monsters’ that are feared. Of course, it’s the fear of the ‘taboo’ in oneself where the greatest fear lies…
Day 9 – Eyes
Two items are supplied for this day – an audio file and a link to an article from The Washington Post. The audio file is a short monologue about a man in his late 30s. It later becomes apparent that this individual is unhinged, whose actions and thinking are suspect. ‘Once the penny drops’, the true horror of what we’re listening to hits like a sledgehammer – the absence of empathy and remorse in the man truly blood-curdling. Technically, the recording was well-made and conceived, but my word, ‘enjoyable’ is not the word I would use to describe the subject matter…
Day 10 – We finally meet up
On the final day, all the theatremakers who helped with the bespoke Spanish, French and English content joined a Zoom to discuss their thoughts and impressions on the project. Asides from addressing what was covered in the project’s 10-day run, the conversation also steered itself towards the emotional impact on the audience’s immersion in this world, as well as what else (data-wise) could be covered in the future.
Trojana was never meant to be a one-off digital exercise. Indeed, before the Covid-19 outbreak, live performances were planned for this year, encapsulating the disparate elements into a unified experience. Mark my words – Trojana will be back in some shape or form in the near future.
Ⓒ Michael Davis 2020
Trojana: Webcamming Chronicles ran from 12th to 21st November, as part of the Voila! 2020 Festival.