Sex in a coffin while strangers watch via webcam.

Austrian art collective monochrom offers a unique opportunity for participants to experience the warping of public and private space: having sex in a coffin while strangers watch you via webcam.

You can hear the whirring of a drill as the last cracks of light are stifled. There’s a pause, followed by the scratchy sound of dirt spilling above the wooden board just inches from your face. Then silence.

You would be forgiven for imagining this to be a scene from a horror film. But the man standing above your coffin, shovel in hand, is Johannes Grenzfurthner – founder of the Austrian art collective monochrom, to whom you have signed away full consent.

This is the Six Feet Under Club: an art installation where couples volunteer to be buried in a casket beneath the ground… along with a webcam that projects the scene for onlookers in unflattering night-vision. The intention is to keep the intimacy of a sexual moment intact while moving it from the private to the public.

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“We liked this idea of people doing something very communal – waiting outside for some people down there having sex – and breaking the boundary between the public sphere with social conventions and what happens in your bedroom,” says Grenzfurthner. “Your bedroom becomes a coffin with people looking on.”

The idea can be traced back to 2005, when Grenzfurthner was reading piles of Victorian gothic literature. “One very dominant plot line that kept emerging was people being buried alive. But many, particularly Edgar Allen Poe, were only writing it because the newspapers demanded it. Most of the tabloids of that time were really just reporting urban legends as fact.”

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As he read on, Grenzfurthner began to see that the “primordial fear” of being buried alive had turned into a nineteenth century “media craze”. For an art group that is “quite hands-on” with primordial fear, the next step was obvious: bury people alive (voluntarily) and see what the reaction would be.

The first burial occurred in a backyard in Los Angeles, with participants given about twenty minutes of solitude before being dug up and presented with a certificate. But in 2010, at the collective’s annual conference about sex and technology, “Arse Elektronika”, Grenzfurthner decided to ‘upgrade’ the performance: transitioning from solo burials, which are an experiment in fear, to dealing with “specific kinks that people have.”

He fondly remembers the very first participants: a lesbian couple who wanted to bring a giant strap-on with them. “They kind of debated how they could fit in there. I told them they had to find a position that they would be comfortable in for 15 or 20 minutes because, you know, it’s a coffin. It’s kinda small!”

Today the participants range from businessmen to goths – though Grenzfurthner finds it fascinating that the latter almost never want to be buried alone. Once, in San Francisco, a couple walked past on their way to dinner. When they saw what was going on, they ran home only to return dressed as a nurse and a priest.

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The presence of a camera adds a sense of exhibitionism that couples enjoy but it’s optional (about two-thirds say yes), and Grenzfurthner admits that you can’t actually see that much. Nevertheless, when participants find themselves in the most intimate space imaginable, performing some of the most intimate acts possible, condoms are essential. “It might get icky,” Grenzfurthner says. “We want people to clean up their mess down there.”

Though competition for time slots can be fierce, Grenzfurthner notes that there has been no justification for the damage waivers just yet. Only one man had a last-minute change of mind, reacting to the lid being put down by violently pushing it back up – and injuring Grenzfurthner in the process. “So,” he explains, chuckling, “the only [bad] thing that nearly happened was me breaking my jaw.”

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