A Perversion of Tea at Xplore (2023)

I’m curious what is an invitation to a sadomasochistic play. What frames such an intimate interaction between people? Often in “the scene”, there is an emphasis on being as straightforward as possible, breaking things apart into dynamics, kinks and identities. There is a clear need of knowing what one will get. So I must describe that in my invitation to the sadomasochistic play. A Perversion of Tea was my attempt at another kind of invitation. One using, reusing or maybe even perverting the idea of a tea ceremony.

Over the years, I’ve studied a few different ways of this humble bushy tree in the wake of all kinds of flamboyant nature medicines. Originating in a kink for afternoon tea with freshly baked scones and pastries to the more modern zen-ish take on the Chines way of Gongfu, or what survived of it in Taiwan after the cultural revolution and then is being taught to tea nerds worldwide. But also the Japanese tea ceremony, maybe not the most high-cultured one, but how it’s being told by Japanese grandmothers trying to preserve some traditional crafts of flower arrangements and matcha whisking.

From preservation to perversion. I like that.

I wanted a structure that repeated itself. That allowed participants to drop in and drop out as they liked. Empowering them to be active decision-makers in wanting to play but also wanting to stop (rather than being forced into something and made to stay). But still, at the same time, asking for a commitment by being silent, slow and minimalistic (rather than providing an excess of instant gratification, stimuli and choice. You know, your tantric temples with try-out stations, love-angels and a sparkly shared wardrobe for dressing up). I also wanted a structure that proposes a service to its participants (rather than ravishing them for its own pleasure). But a sadomasochistic service that offers the participants to suffer. Maybe for a cup of tea, or maybe for something greater.

I wanted it to go on for a long time inside a more significant event. To have time to make a name for itself. This time, it was inside the Noise Play Space at the Xplore Berlin Festival 2023. In many ways, it was a perfect frame. A festival by Felix Ruckert inviting 400-ish people already tuned to the theme of art and sexuality—a festival with a history and community around it where many are used to sadomasochistic play. And inside the Noise Play Space by Rüdiger Wenk, which already acted as a wordless container filled with a hypnotic ever-changing soundscape, where people could pass the tea ceremony by, observing the contours playing through the thin white fabrics.

The ceremonial space itself was small, with only three tatamis catering for a family-sized (7-10 people) circle. It creates a sense of being in it together and getting to know each other intimately. In such a small group, in such a small space, it’s impossible to ignore others. Everyone will feel someone crying, moaning, and fighting to maintain a body position when every nerve screams in pain. I heard some had waited up to an hour in line for this experience, but my attention was locked inside that circle, the cups and the people. What happened outside felt far away.

Upon entering the ceremony, the participants would be directed to an empty space in the circle. A space still resonating with the loss of a previous family member, still in the very present mind of everyone. The tea was brewed in batches. First, the cups were brought onto the stage, a black stone in the middle of the circle, one by one, slowly and deliberately placed. Then washed one by one, rinsed in hot water and wiped clean with a neatly folded piece of fabric. Washing utensils gave room to brewing ceramics. More tea leafs added to the pot and soaked in freshly boiled water. Finally to be poured into the clean cups, again one by one, slowly and deliberately. This process takes roughly a quarter of an hour for seven 30-millilitre cups. Already this kneeling wait in a sea of noise is painful. For what? Three sips of hot tea. Before it starts over again.

Only doing this over and over again would be… I don’t know… maybe too dull… or too easy for people experienced in the sex-positive scene. So I made a team with Natascha and Till to cater to the participants and pervert the ceremony. After kneeling for ninety minutes, a clothespin on the tongue can be the most considerable relief. If the mind is restless, holding a heavy stone a few centimetres above the tatamis anchors it safely. If the eyes are too curious, maybe a blindfold is needed. If the pain is too much, holding your neighbour’s hand helps. Or gazing into their eyes, or maybe even eventually being allowed to kiss. But only at the instruction of the ceremony. And it’s all for you, dear participant. It’s tuned individually for you because we are empathically in service of you. We want you to stay. For as long as possible. In your suffering. Get high in a hypnotic trance together with us.

And high we got. For three days, for four hours per day. Kneeling, repeating, serving. It’s hard to say how many people we did. Some lasted only half an hour, others stayed several hours, and some returned—probably between fifty and a hundred people drank tea with us that weekend. Meeting the sunlight again when coming out of that concrete cellar, it surprised me what feedback that welcomed us. Many were deeply touched and proud of themselves but also said they felt safe and held. Because we told them what to do and it was slow. There was an immense buildup, but then very little happened, but the few things that did happen felt like a lot, and it meant a lot to them. Somehow the invitation worked. I was also surprised by how many people experienced things for the first time. And that I found them brave.

I remember one person that arrived late on the second day. Looking fresh, happy and giddy, they sat down and shortly inquired with big brown eyes, “So, Now What?”. I was not even halfway through cleaning the cups and even further away from serving the family a round of tea. So I gave them a heavy stone to keep in the lap—for grounding reasons. And I went back to cleaning my cups. A little while later, even bigger eyes pulled my attention. “Are You Serious? Exactly how should I hold this rock? Really?”. I smiled and nodded. The eyes changed to a mixture of determination, disbelief and obedience. I thought to myself, “Good Boy.” and felt proud. Time passes, and I place their first tea on the stone and gesture an invitation to drink. “What? Do I have to lift to stone to drink my tea? Really!” the eyes replied. Later, another gesture to keep the mouth open and the tongue out. “Seriously, should I just keep it open? Without anyone or anything forcing me?” but still obeying. Later a clothespin on the tongue, a teacup replaced by a drooling cup. Exhaustion in the eyes. The disbelief is gone. The obedience is still there. Finally, they are laid down on the tatami. Warm tea is poured over their body as they rest in a well-deserved slumber.

People react so differently in these situations. On the third day, I experimented with serving one person many cups of tea each time, giving more than they asked for. Both times to some kind of princess that I found cute in their predicament. But they reacted so differently. The first one looked ashamed. For being treated better than the others? For being made fun of? I don’t know. Time passed, and they looked more and more hesitant to drink while everyone was waiting and watching. Tea became a punishment. The belly was getting fuller and fuller—the urge to pee, but still wanting to stay in the circle. The other princess was oh so different. They got proud of being the special one. Taking their time to drink their cups slowly, one by one, while everyone waits for them. Everyone else is in pain from kneeling, balancing stones, pinched flesh, and more. But they deserve it, while the princess gets their time to shine.

In the end, all different emotions spin together inside that circle, around the ceremony, around the tea. Someone cries in despair and gets their hair brushed. Another one gets a vibrator to hold between the legs and silently disappears into their own little bubble. New neighbours try to pour tea into each other’s mouths, it’s somehow impossible, and they laugh at the absurdity. Someone falls in love. There is time for these things when we slow down and dedicate ourselves to something. It doesn’t even have to be something so extraordinary or meaningful. It can be as simple as tea.

I remember myself being severely angry at the start of each day due to logistical reasons. For things not being made as great as they could have been. Lost opportunities. Waste of potential. That hurts me. And I could see how it was reflected in the first rounds of tea. A more determined body language. Making less contact with the guests of the ceremony. I wouldn’t dominate someone to release anger. That’s my boundary. So I dedicated myself to the simple task of serving tea over and over again in a sea of noise. However, afterwards, after hours of serving, after many handfuls of guests sharing their suffering in that circle. Being brave and vulnerable. Then my anger was gone. Not the source of it. But the feeling in my body. The experience washed through me. The ceremony cleansed me. That’s the best way I can explain it. And I believe it’s an experience shared by many people who shared that space with us—the feeling of being washed clean.

Finally, thank you to Natascha and Till for doing the ceremony with me. To Felix and RĂĽdiger for providing the space. And to my friend Steve Kokker for properly drilling me in rotating cups like a good boy.