Arts & Culture » Culture Spy

Sight Unseen

Igor Urisman hopes to democratize the cyberporn industry ... and make it more respectable.

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Internet porn is a ghetto. It's blocked by firewalls. It's relegated to offshore sites that are unmonitored and unenforceable. It's addictive and insidious — "worse than crack," according to one Wired magazine headline. It's generally not respected as an art form. And yet it generates about ten billion dollars a year, according to Berkeley software engineer Igor Urisman. To legitimize even a tenth of that would be remarkable.

Urisman is probably not the first to try, but he hopes to be the first to succeed. His new high-tech start-up, "Unseen" (Unseen.tv), seeks to provide a "clean well-lighted place," as goes the cliché, for erotica artists to present and sell their own work. The idea is to capture and "demystify" a fraction of the Internet porn industry, and put it in a space where artists can evaluate one another. Now six months old, Unseen features work by European and American artists, mostly culled from Urisman's advertisements on Craigslist. Their work varies widely in quality — Urisman tries to recommend submissions with an interesting color palette and real visceral imagery, but Diana with her hot pink dildo is still one of the "most viewed." That's all in the plan, though. Ultimately, Urisman wants to create a free market that will function without any real editorial presence. He hopes it won't devolve into cyberporn vulgarity, either.

"I'm sure that there are people out there who will always go to the seedy porn sites," Urisman said. "And that's fine, I'm not out there to fight it. But for those who would rather work with a transparent, on-shore, proper US corporation, I want to create that infrastructure so people can go and do it."

Urisman cites Victoria's Secret founder Roy Raymond as his main historical antecedent. Raymond launched his company in 1977, shortly after finishing an MBA at Stanford. As the story goes, he was trying to buy lingerie for his girlfriend, and found his only options were seedy stores and porn catalogues, unless he wanted to look like the pervert skulking around the women's lingerie section at a department store. Urisman's story is similar. Ukrainian-born and trained as a mathematician and software engineer, he came up with the idea for Unseen about six years ago, while buying hosiery for his girlfriend. Urisman went to Saks Fifth Avenue in Union Square (as much as he likes Victoria's Secret as a cultural phenomenon, he doesn't actually shop there) and chose a pair of stockings from the Donna Karan line. "I found what I wanted and asked the salesperson where I could buy something to hold these up with — that was exactly my phrase," Urisman remembered. "I was referring to a garter belt."

The clerk assured Urisman that Saks didn't carry a line of garter belts. "That's not something we do," he bristled. The clerk's reaction got Urisman thinking about all the "weird, twisted, completely illogical taboos" that exist to keep sexuality from permeating into everyday life. Although his family kept a stiff upper lip about such things, Urisman liked to think of himself as more enlightened. He'd left his Silicon Valley job about ten years prior and become more of a bohemian, taking photography classes at the Art Institute and hanging out in local galleries. He was flummoxed by the clerk's proprietary sense of what constituted "appropriate" department store apparel. "This sort of strange vilification of professions of eroticism kind of got to me," Urisman said. It was around that time that the idea for Unseen started germinating in his head.

Several years passed before the idea came to fruition, and in the meantime he worked a series of computer-consulting jobs and watched as all forms of human transaction — from commerce to entertainment to social networking — moved into the digital realm. His last contract ended on February 1, at which point he launched Unseen.tv and began working on it full-time, recruiting artists via Craigslist and word-of-mouth. He hired a local painter named Raina Gustafson to handle publicity and copyright duties. Most importantly, he came up with three financial streams that he hopes to use to keep the web site afloat (it's now a shoestring operation). First, Unseen would serve as an art hosting site, in that artists could sell their pieces through the web storefront. Second, the site would allow customers to order prints of their favorite pieces. (In both cases, Unseen will probably take a 25 percent cut, which is roughly half the standard rate for a brick-and-mortar gallery.) Third, the site would set up a paid "premium" section alongside its free section, where artists would have to pay a monthly subscription fee to post their work. This last feature is more in line with a conventional porn server, said Urisman, but it would hopefully serve to separate the committed artists from the first-time dabblers.

And dabblers there are many, said Texas-based illustrator Ricardo Acevedo, who posts his work on Unseen under the alias r/ace. Acevedo's goal is to depict "the human condition in its deepest recesses"; his portfolio comprises nude portraits and bondage images that have splashy colors and a real painterly pop. He gets that effect by printing photographs onto canvas and distressing or painting over them. One of his most visceral pieces shows a model with a bamboo pole clenched in her teeth and blue paint splattered over her body; the paint is supposed to look like frosting, said Acevedo, though it also has the effect of making her look like a corpse. Sinister as that sounds, Acevedo is regarded as one of highest-quality artists on Unseen, and his presence helps elevate the site from standard-issue smut peddler to bona fide e-gallery.

Yet Acevedo isn't exactly dazzled by his fellow contributors. "Call me a snob if you want, but about 60 percent of it is boys' masturbatory fantasies," he said. "The other 40 percent, there's actually some good quality work there. They're getting a whole bunch of crap and they're having to weave out an arc. I'm sure at some point it gets kind of funny; they have to be laughing about it."

Granted, it's hard to ensure quality control in a free market, especially when you're trying to have web site members do all the jurying. Urisman steers things a little by placing a "recommended" section on the front page, highlighting work that shows an interesting or startling form of intimacy. But he can't really help that a lot of people like crap, and that, with Unseen's automatic "view rank" system, their opinions become the norm. "I don't want to be the highbrow place that excludes the lowbrow," said Urisman. He is trying to bring a critical mass to Unseen so that it can truly succeed on its own. He wants the real quality artists to self-select, but he wants their work to be accessible to laymen like his father, who only recently saw the site — and didn't get it.

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