(CNN) – When longtime partners Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens married Earth in 2008, it was a lush event among the redwoods of Santa Cruz, California, attended by more than 300 jubilant guests dressed in green.
There were several performances at the event: two performers tied up by a boa constrictor, a stripper opera singer, and a spanking session with long-stemmed roses instead of paddles. When Sprinkle and Stephens read their vows to honor and care for the Earth, they asked the guests to take them as well. Each attendee was presented with a bag of soil and asked to inhale its scent.
This “green wedding” was not the first time that Sprinkle and Stephens were married, much less the last. Since their first celebration, a free union in 2003, performance artists have married the sky, the Moon, the snow and the Sun, among other natural entities. They have held ceremonies around the world with hundreds of guests, and have even married the Adriatic Sea at the prestigious Venice Biennale.
Following their “green wedding,” Sprinkle and Stephens gave the movement a name, and made a manifesto. They declared themselves “ecosexual” and vowed to treat Earth like a lover in order to save her.
“We are really trying to change the lens through which people view Earth,” Stephens said in a joint video interview with Sprinkle. “More than a resource, we want people to see the Earth as a source of pleasure in life and health. They are really interconnected.”
At first glance, ceremonies may look like parodies. But as festive as Sprinkle and Stephens are, they respond to weighty issues. The artists embraced wedding rituals as a vehicle for LGBTQ positive sexual acts at a time when same-sex couples could not marry in America, and for environmental activism at a time when it was becoming apparent that dangerous that the climate emergency had become.
As artists, Stephens said, they use “strategies of joy” and “absurdity.”
Their nearly 20-year collaboration has spawned ecosexual performances, exhibitions, events, and theory. A new book called “Assuming the Ecosexual Position: The Earth as Lover” he details the entirety of his practice, from the first projects on love and intimacy, to his annual weddings, to his documentary films such as “Water Makes Us Wet.” (His next film on wildfires and “social fires,” according to Stephens, will be supported by a Guggenheim grant.)
The couple’s commitment to the Earth as a lover (rather than conceiving the Earth as a mother) means that they are “madly, passionately and fiercely in love” with our planet, as they proclaimed in their manifesto a decade ago.
“We embrace trees without shame, massage the Earth with our feet and talk erotically with plants,” they wrote. “We make love to the Earth through our senses.”
Weddings as performances
Sprinkle and Stephens’ first marriage was a free marriage ceremony in San Francisco that they held more than a decade after they met at Rutgers University. The ceremony was a community affair: they declared their love along with 33 other couples, both LGBTQ and straight. Sprinkle wore a silver dress and a feather-trimmed duster, and Stephens a silver tuxedo. The event featured performances by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the transgender choir The Believers.
As the couple explains in “Assuming the Ecosexual Position”, it was there that they realized that “they could mobilize the wedding ceremony (…) as a means to engage in a broader political conversation, to build community and generate love. “.
“Everybody knows the narrative of the weddings, the rings, the vows, the kiss,” Sprinkle added. “It really is a performance.”
At their subsequent weddings, which became part of a seven-year project entitled “The Art of Love Laboratory,” attendees could also participate and take vows. They collaborated with different artists at each event and rejected material gifts. (They usually also have someone voice their objections to marriage, a tradition started by a friend who read a list of “Top Ten Reasons Marriage Should Be Abolished,” detailing how it is an outmoded and uneven institution) .
Inspired by the work of their friend and mentor, performance artist Linda Montano, Sprinkle and Stephens assigned a “chakra color” and theme to each of the seven years they worked on the project. In the first year, 2004 (or the “red year”), the couple premiered a series of hour-long public hugging and kissing performances, organized sidewalk sex clinics, and celebrated their “red wedding” in an old burlesque club. In the “orange year”, they married their community, and the guests came dressed as orange and carrot juicers. The “green year”, when they declared their ecosexuality, was the fourth year.
“Our love for each other turned into love for the community, which in turn turned into love for the environment,” Sprinkle said.
When they began to marry into the natural world, weddings became larger and more theatrical. In their “blue year”, in addition to their wedding in Venice to the sea, they married the sky in Oxford, UK. The “purple year” followed, with a nightly rave wedding to the Moon and a daytime union with the Appalachian Mountains. The last wedding of the seven-year project was with the snow, in Ottawa, Canada, where everyone dressed in white in a secularized cathedral right after a major snowstorm.
Although the “Art of Love Laboratory” ended in 2011, they continued their wedding performances, even as they embarked on a series of ongoing projects through the EARTH Lab at the University of California Santa Cruz (where Stephens chairs the Department of Art). Post-lab ceremonies have included an all-black, punk-rock-style “carbon wedding” in Spain’s charcoal region and the “dirty wedding to the ground” in Krems, Austria.
But while Sprinkle and Stephens no longer organize weddings themselves, other ecosexual enthusiasts have taken up the cause. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sprinkle and Stephens were invited by a group called Future Farmers to marry Fog at the University of Santa Cruz. And this September, artist and scholar Ewelina Jarosz will host a wedding between Sprinkle, Stephens and the brine shrimp from Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
“We pass the wedding torch on to future generations and to future brides and grooms,” said Sprinkle. His book even has instructions on how to marry elements of nature for those who want to hold their own ceremonies. Following last week’s United Nations report, with the most urgent assessment of climate change to date, the couple added via email: “Generating more love for the environment … is needed more than ever. “.
Sprinkle and Stephens have long used their collaborative projects to create joy in the midst of injustice and hardship, to reshape people’s relationship with the environment, and to make saving the planet a little sexier.
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