Hysterical Literature is a video art series by NYC-based photographer and filmmaker Clayton Cubitt. It explores feminism, mind/body dualism, distraction portraiture, and the contrast between culture and sexuality. (It’s also just really fun to watch.)

Launched in August of 2012, the video series immediately went viral, and has been watched over 20 million times in 200 countries.

What is Hysterical Literature?

Women are seated with a book at a table, filmed in austere black and white against a black background. They have chosen what to read and how to dress. When the camera begins recording, they introduce themselves, and begin reading. Under the table, outside of the subject’s control, an unseen assistant distracts them with a vibrator. The subjects stop reading when they’re too distracted or fatigued to continue, at which point they restate their name, and what they’ve just read. The pieces vary in length based on the response time of the subjects.

Where did the idea for Hysterical Literature come from?

The project is an extension and refinement of earlier video works I was doing that explored the concept of distraction and fatigue in the poses of portrait sitters. Today, everyone has a well-practiced pose for “selfies” and social media, and I was interested in how I might make a portrait that makes it impossible for the sitter to maintain this pose. So I did a video series called “Long Portraits” which filmed subjects just sitting making eye contact with the lens for five minutes or longer.

But this series, as much as I liked it, and as popular it became, was in many ways too anonymous for me. What did it really say about the sitter? It was interesting, but it was mute. And it was conceptual ground already traveled by Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests.” I had also created an earlier video piece called “Hitachi Magic Interview” where I interviewed a woman while she was being distracted by a vibrator. It was also interesting, but it felt too close to an interrogation, and I wanted to remove myself from the process as much as possible.

So I asked, what if the women could in some way have a conversation with themselves, through the reading of a passage from their favorite book? This would allow self-expression, without the pressure to pose or sound a certain way in a formal portrait or an interview. It would also remove me from the on-screen experience, make for a fascinating battle between the mind and the body, and create a conceptual contrast by blending two areas that society tends to want to view through different lenses: art, and sex.

So I put the art on the table and the sex under the table. That’s how Hysterical Literature was born.

What are you trying to say with Hysterical Literature?

On the surface level I want to short-circuit the practiced poses of modern media-savvy portrait subjects. On the next level I want to explore the battle between the mind and the body. On the level after that I want to explore the relationship of female sexuality to society’s concepts of shame. On the final level I want to explore the cultural contrast between art and sex, particularly how people react to the mixture of the two.

The last two levels happen in the mind and response of the final viewer. Do they respond to the salacious physical aspects (Sex,) or to the concept and literature (Art?) Some people get the whole nest of levels. Others only see the surface. This is all part of the experiment.

Why is it called “Hysterical Literature?”

The title references the ancient concept of “female hysteria,” especially the Victorian-era medical treatments meant to “cure” it. At the time it was a catch-all diagnosis for almost any “disruptive” behavior in women, and a variety of treatments were used to cure it, from isolation, to hydrotherapy, to early electric vibrators. The past’s confusion and shame attached to female behavior, especially female pleasure, was something I wanted to explore in a modern context, so referencing it was natural. That the word could also mean “funny” was lagniappe, since the videos are quite funny, and many of the subjects laugh at some point in their reading.

Why are the readers behind a table? Why are they in black and white?

All of the artistic choices were made in order to reduce, as much as was aesthetically possible, anything generally associated with pornography, or luridness. I wanted as austere and clinical a set as possible, as “unsexy” as possible. And one that was as abstract as possible while still remaining traditionally “photographic.”

Are the readers porn stars?

One reader is an adult performer and writer, one works in fashion, one is an actress and comedian, several are artists and filmmakers, one is a burlesque dancer and model.

Are they faking it?

The readers are given no instruction to perform one way or another, aside from being asked to read. What they choose to read and how they choose to react rests entirely with them.

Have you considered filming a male version of the series?

Women were chosen as the focus for several reasons. There’s a historical tradition of stigmatizing female pleasure more than male pleasure, as referenced in the title of the series. There’s no male version of “hysteria,” or “hysterical paroxysm.” Even in modern post-feminist adult films there tends to be an emphasis on the male orgasm (the “money shot.”) There’s also not a male equivalent of the female physiological reaction to the vibrator. Yes, I’m aware of this device. It’s not the same as this device.

Using men might be superficially similar, but it would be a different conceptual work, and it would require a different process, and it would have to be called something else, and exist for its own justification, not just to be entertaining.

That said, the project was always conceived as only one chapter in a trilogy of related projects, which will include men. Stay tuned!

I’m a writer, can I send you a book to be read in the series?

Sorry, no. The readers choose their own books to read. Books that are personally important to them. This is an important part of the concept to me, as it derives from the personality of the reader. These pieces are, at their most basic level, reflections of the women who read for it. Portraits. Statements by them.

I’m a really, really famous writer, can my publisher pay you to have my book in the series?

Sorry, still no. I do shoot advertising though, and have filmed trailers for books, so if you’d like me to direct something for you, contact me at my portfolio site. But I don’t do “product placement” directly in this series.

How do you cast the readers for Hysterical Literature?

The first sessions were all cast with people I knew or had worked with before as portrait subjects. As the videos went viral, volunteers starting writing to me asking to read. If you’d like to be considered for the project, especially if you’re in the NYC area, contact me here.

Is it art?

Everything is art, when its done right.

Is it porn?

The United States has a legal definition of pornography by way of obscenity. It’s called the Miller Test, and it asks: first, is the work primarily focused on appealing to the prurient interest of the viewer? Second, does it describe patently offensive sexual conduct? And third, taken as a whole, does it lack any serious artistic, political, or scientific value? By this definition I don’t think anyone could construe Hysterical Literature as pornography.

And the fact that it exists on YouTube attests to that. I chose YouTube for its mainstream democratic nature, knowing how prudish it can be with Community Guidelines, because I knew that the project, while alluding to the sexuality of pornography, has none of its primary features: an objectification of the participants, a prurient focus on nudity and the genitals, a lack of intellectual focus as the primary purpose.

Will you film some in Spanish/French/German/Portuguese/Russian/etc?

I would love to film non-English language editions of Hysterical Literature. If you’re in NYC and would like to read in your native language, contact me. If you’d like to fund bringing me and an assistant to your country to film official sessions in that country’s language, contact me.

When will the next session come out?

When it’s ready. They’re not published on a set schedule, and I want each one to exist on its own for a while before the next one arrives and alters the trajectory of the conversation. If you’d like to be notified when new sessions are published, subscribe for updates here.

Will you keep making them forever?

No. There are a finite number of sessions planned, at which point this chapter of the project will be closed, and the next one will begin.