Ahhh, The Dirty Show, Detroit’s annual celebration of erotic art. What was once an exotic bit of strange has, by this point, become somewhat familiar, like waking up next to your wife of many years. Imagine how Jerry Vile, The Dirty Show’s creator, must feel — after curating 15 years’ worth of shows that draw thousands of submissions each year, you’d think Vile must have seen it all at this point.
“You know, I would never, ever, say that,” Vile says. Talking with Vile is like talking to a giant kid, who has a habit of pausing to giggle after amusing himself — which is all the time. “I used to say that, and I was proven wrong every year. You think you’ve seen everything, and then somebody comes up with something you’ve never even thought of before.”
Indeed, this year’s Dirty Show promises to be bigger and better than ever, upgrading from its recent home at Bert’s Warehouse to the much wider expanses of a brand-new 36,000-square-foot exhibition space within the sprawling Russell Industrial Center.
And let’s face it, the wide spectrum of human sexuality really is an inexhaustible wellspring of inspiration. Art and sex have a long history together: “Since the first dick was drawn on a cave wall,” Vile giggles.
He may not quite be jaded, but you could say Vile is … calloused. Perhaps this is what keeps the Dirty Show moving forward each and every year, with Vile always on the lookout for novel ways to get his fix. For example, Vile is kind of over burlesque girls. “The burlesque boys are who I’m nuts over,” he says. “They’re better than the girls. They’re funnier. I’ve seen too many burlesque acts!”
Even still, this year will feature alternative burlesque artists like Viva La Muerte (“She’s a — I don’t even know what you’d call somebody who’s not tall,” Vile says. “She’s an incredible entertainer.”) and Kat the Midget Entertainer (also not tall). “She can outdrink me,” Vile says. “She can outdrink me at my prime, when I was a drunk. And she’s only up to my waist.”
Another way Vile spices things up is by recruiting guest artists to do special installations, and this year features two renowned women. Pat Oleszko, a performance artist originally from Detroit, will take advantage of the new space at the Russell by performing from inside of a massive, 40-foot blow-up doll. Meanwhile, photographer Naomi Harris will give a slideshow presentation of photos taken from swinger communities across the country. (“Probably some of the least-erotic erotic photos,” Vile admits.)
Throughout the years, Vile’s shows have featured erotic paintings, photographs and all manner of live performances. The show is open to public submissions, but Vile handpicks artists as well. “It really depends on what we get,” he says of the jurying process. Even Vile can’t put his finger on that special je ne sais quoi that drives him.
“Talent always wins,” he says. “But I cannot tell you the number of times I looked at a picture and thought, ‘Wow, this is really, really hot,’ but then realized there’s no genitalia or even nipples. It’s just like, a face.”
Vile says a lot of the budget this year is going into making the space a place where you can have a Dirty Show. The new Exhibition Center at the Russell has never been a legal public space before, previously hosting Transformers movie filming and a special press event where GM unveiled its new pickup truck. It’s been a lot of work. “We don’t have the budget GM has,” he says.
For the show, Vile and his crew have built a large stage, and there will be two catwalks. But most importantly, the space has new bathrooms. “[This] will be our biggest draw,” he says. “I know girls who didn’t drink at Bert’s just because they were so afraid of having to pee!”
The space is uniquely Detroit, and Vile is positively geeked. “It is really industrial. There’s some weird-ass pipe things … it’s a really unusual space,” he says. “People are gawking before there’s art, just because it’s so huge. We can drive our cars in there. We could race our cars there.”
It’s a long way from the first Dirty Show, which Vile held in the rooms above the offices for his retired alt-monthly Orbitmagazine. “It was wildly successful,” he says of the show, which was planned on a lark. “I had no plans of ever doing it again, but I got talked into it. The next year we did two nights instead of one. So that year we had two nights that were too crowded.”
And so on and so forth. The show consistently sold out, so Vile and company had to keep looking for new spaces, moving to the Bankle Building, then the Museum of New Art, the Tangent Gallery, and Bert’s Warehouse Theater. Vile has taken a touring version of the show to Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, and holds sister shows in Zurich, Sydney and Vancouver.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy, and the journey of The Dirty Show hasn’t been without opposition. “Last year, I was in the hospital when the show opened. I was misdiagnosed with a heart attack,” Vile says. “The [Michigan Liquor Control Commission], Detroit Police and State Police all came in in full SWAT dress and looked around and basically said, ‘I guess nothing’s going on here; It’s an art opening.’”
“We’re not, you know, taking people and raping them when they walk in the door,” Vile says. “We’re not putting on live sex shows with animals. You can see far more in any topless bar in Detroit.”
Still, Vile seems nostalgic for those good old days of W. Bush-era repression. “I wish we could get controversy like we used to,” Vile says. “Every year we did this show, we’d have this ‘are we art or porn?’ argument. It’s just … nobody says that anymore.”
“I’m sure 50 Shades of Grey is only going to make it better,” he says. “You know, everything I’ve always liked in my life has gone mainstream. Why shouldn’t S&M and B&D and erotica?”
Vile’s tone lightens. Maybe getting bigger ain’t so bad. “All the music I used to listen to is mainstream, from the punk rock to — my kid, the music she listens to sounds like ‘’90s gay bar.’ That’s what hit radio sounds like to me. And I go, ‘Man, this is good!’”
The Dirty Show is on display in the Russell Industrial Center from Feb. 7 through Feb. 15. We also hear a parking shuttle will run from the Fisher Building parking deck. For details see dirtydetroit.com.