CNN  — 

When long-time partners Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens married the Earth in 2008, it was an exuberant affair in the verdant redwoods of Santa Cruz, California, attended by more than 300 green-garbed, jubilant guests.

There were performances: two artists bound by a boa constrictor, a striptease opera singer and a spanking session with long-stemmed roses in lieu of paddles. As Sprinkle and Stephens read their vows to honor and cherish the Earth, they asked the guests to take them, too. Each attendee was gifted a bag of soil and asked to inhale the scent.

This “Green Wedding” wasn’t the first time Sprinkle and Stephens would marry, and it was far from the last. Since their first union, a domestic partnership to one another in 2003, the performance artists have married the sky, moon, snow and sun, among other natural entities. They have staged ceremonies all over the world with hundreds of guests, even marrying the Adriatic Sea at the prestigious Venice Biennale.

Performing as a high Aztec priest, artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña officiated the "Green Wedding" in 2008.

Following their “Green Wedding,” Sprinkle and Stephens gave their movement a name – and a manifesto. The pair declared themselves to be “ecosexuals,” committed to treating the Earth as a lover in order to save it.

“We’re really trying to change the lens that people see the Earth through,” said Stephens in a joint video interview with Sprinkle. “Rather than as a resource, we want people to see the Earth as a source of pleasure in life and health. They’re really interconnected.”

The "Green Wedding" began the artists' ecosexual journey, catalyzing a manifesto and movement to treat the Earth as a lover.

The larger-than-life ceremonies may seem like parodies at first glance. But as playful as Sprinkle and Stephens can be, they are responding to weighty issues. The artists adopted wedding rituals as a vehicle for LGBTQ, sex-positive acts at a time when same-sex couples were not able to marry in the US, and for environmental activism at a time when it was becoming clear how dangerous the climate emergency had become.

As artists, Stephens said, they use “strategies of joy” and “absurdity.”

Their nearly 20-year collaboration has produced ecosexual performances, exhibitions, events and theory. A new book, “Assuming the Ecosexual Position: The Earth as Lover,” details the entirety of their practice, from early projects on love and intimacy, to their annual weddings, to their documentary films like “Water Makes Us Wet.” (Their next film on wildfires and “social fires,” per Stephens, will be supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship.)

Curator Jota Castro invited Sprinkle and Stephens to create a wedding performance at the Venice Biennale in 2009, so they decided to marry the Adriatic Sea, and invited artists from around the world to collaborate on the eight-hour ceremony.

The pair’s commitment to the Earth as their lover (rather than Earth as a mother), means that they are “madly, passionately, and fiercely in love” with our planet, as they proclaimed in their manifesto a decade ago.

“We shamelessly hug trees, massage the Earth with our feet, and talk erotically to plants,” they wrote. “We make love to the Earth through our senses.”

The wedding as performance

Sprinkle and Stephens’ first union was a domestic partnership held in San Francisco over a decade after they’d first met at Rutgers University. The ceremony was a community affair; they declared their love alongside 33 other couples, both LGBTQ and straight. Sprinkle wore a silver disco dress and a feather-trimmed duster, and Stephens a silver tuxedo. The event included performances by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and transgender choir The Believers.

As the pair explained in “Assuming the Ecosexual Position,” it was then they realized they “could mobilize the wedding ceremony … as a means to engage further political conversation, build community, and generate love.”

“Everyone knows the narrative of weddings, how there’s the rings, the vows, the kiss,” added Sprinkle. “It really is a performance.”

Sprinkle and Stephens cut the rock cake at the "Silver Wedding to the Rocks," which was produced by poet and performance artist Diana Pornoterrorista.

At their subsequent weddings, which became part of a seven-year project titled the “Love Art Laboratory,” attendees could also participate and take the vows. They collaborated with different artists at each event, and declined material gifts. (They also usually have someone voice an objection to the marriage, a tradition started by a friend who read a list of “Top Ten Reasons Why Marriage Should Be Abolished,” detailing how the institution is unequal and outdated.)

Inspired by the work of their close friend and mentor, the performance artist Linda Montano, Sprinkle and Stephens assigned a “chakra color” and theme to each of the seven years they worked on the project. In the first year, 2004 (or the “Red Year”), the pair debuted a series of public cuddling performances and hours-long kissing sessions, hosted sidewalk sex clinics, and held their “Red Wedding” at a former burlesque club. In the “Orange Year,” they married their community, and guests came dressed as orange juicers and carrots. The “Green Year,” when they declared their ecosexuality, was the fourth year.

“Our love for each other just grew into love for community, which grew into love for the environment,” Sprinkle said.

In 2010, the artists married the moon under a full harvest moon in the Farnsworth Ampitheater in Los Angeles. Reverend Billy served as their officiant.

When they began marrying the natural world, the weddings became larger and more theatrical. In their “Blue Year,” in addition to their Venice wedding to the sea, the artists married the sky in Oxford, UK. Their “Purple Year” followed, with both a nighttime rave-like marriage to the moon, and a daytime union with the Appalachian Mountains. The last wedding in the seven-year project was to the snow, in Ottawa, Canada, where everyone wore white in a deconsecrated cathedral just after a massive snowstorm.

Though the “Love Art Laboratory” came to an end in 2011, they continued their wedding performances, even as they embarked on an ongoing series of projects through the E.A.R.T.H. Lab at the University of California Santa Cruz (where Stephens chairs the art department). The post-Love Art Lab ceremonies have included a punk-rock, all-black “Wedding to the Coal” in Spain’s coal country, and the “Dirty Wedding to the Soil” in Krems, Austria.

The White Wedding to Snow in Ottawa, Canada, was produced by SAW Gallery in a decommissioned Catholic cathedral.

But even though Sprinkle and Stephens no longer organize the weddings themselves, other ecosexual enthusiasts have taken up the cause. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, a group called the Future Farmers invited Sprinkle and Stephens to marry the fog at UC Santa Cruz, and this September, artist and scholar Ewelina Jarosz will host a wedding between Sprinkle, Stephens and the brine shrimp of Great Salt Lake, Utah.

“We’ve passed on the wedding torch to future generations and future brides and grooms,” Sprinkle said. Their book even includes instructions on how to marry elements of nature, for those who want to host their own ceremonies. Following last week’s United Nations report, which delivered its most urgent assessment of climate change to date, the pair added over email: “Generating more love for the environment … is needed more than ever.”

Sprinkle and Stephens have long used their collaborative projects to bring joy amid injustice and hardship, to reshape people’s relationship with the environment – and to make saving the planet a bit sexier.

Top image: The “Purple Wedding to the Appalachian Mountains” in 2010, with costume designer Sarah Stolar.