Bruce LaBruce is one of the most infamous artists alive today. His films blend art with pornography; his photographs have been so controversial that, at a show in Spain earlier this year, a bomb was thrown into the gallery. His work has been criticized, rejected, and finally, praised.
Eric Boyd: Your work is considered very controversial– you recently had a problem in Spain with some of your work, didn’t you?
Bruce LaBruce: I did. Well, certain people in Spain had a problem with some of my work. I had a solo photography show in Spain that opened in February, called “Obscenity”. The previous October, I spent three weeks in Madrid shooting a variety of subjects – well known stars such as Rossy de Palma and Alaska and Mario, models, porn stars, designers, artists, etc. – in the context of religious iconography and sexuality. I looked at how classical art has interpreted the subject of religious ecstasy, and I noticed how similarly sexual and religious ecstasies are sometimes represented. So I had the models pose in a variety of sexual or sexy poses combined with religious motifs. I used the hostia, the communion wafer, as the main symbol – placing it on the eyes and mouth, or on the private parts, of some of the models. For me it made the models into blind or mute figures, either prophets of some kind, or the opposite – signifying people who blind themselves to the realities of sexuality. It also served as a symbol of censorship, something that I have had to deal with a lot in my career. In fact, the title, Obscenity, was inspired by a recent exhibition of my Polaroids shown in Gallery Wrong Weather in Porto, Portugal, that were held up by Canadian Customs when the gallery tried to ship them back to me and identified as “obscenity” in the notifications I received. Like many countries, Spain is going through a certain conservative and religious backlash, the usual outcome of economic downturn and uncertainty, so the show was denounced by Catholic groups, and also by the Franco foundation, a group dedicated to the defense of their former dictator! I don’t think either faction has the moral authority to judge my work! There were large protests outside the gallery, and someone broke the front window and threw a Molotov cocktail type explosive inside. So it was quite a good review!
EB: Your work often blends homosexuality, revolution, and psychology. What is it about these three things, so often mashed together, which interests you? Do these things merely coexist in your world or can they not live without each other?
BL: I come from a generation of homosexuals who viewed gay activism as inherently revolutionary on some level. There was a certain militancy and urgency to the activism of the seventies and early eighties based on survival and fighting for the mere right to exist, so that necessarily informed our identity and psychology. It was also largely a leftist extremist movement that was related to other leftist movements of the time: feminism, black activism, the anti-war movement, etc. It was a countercultural movement defiantly struggling against the white heteronormative bourgeois establishment, so it was also about class struggle. In the nineties and up to the present, all of these movements became assimilated into the mainstream and lost a lot of their revolutionary impetus. In some cases, the oppressed started to become the oppressors, buying into the very conservative institutions and dominant ideologies that had previously rejected or threatened them. So obviously in my work I have tried to remind people that homosexuality should be a struggle against all types of oppression, and an expression of difference and antiauthoritarianism, a message that has been largely lost.
EB: How does it make you feel that people probably get off to your work?
BL: You mean get off on it sexually? That’s fine. My work has had a lot of pornographic elements to it, but it’s not mindlessly supportive of pornography. I have a lot of ambivalence toward porn (my premature memoir was called The Reluctant Pornographer), and quite often my films and photography create a certain distance from the representation of explicit sex, drawing attention to its conventions or mechanics, and encouraging an analysis of how porn is produced and consumed. But sometimes it’s just sexy, and that’s fine too. I’m generally supportive of the idea of pornography, and I express solidarity with pornographers and porn stars. But that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the exploitative and dangerous aspects of the porn world as well.
EB: You have a new book coming out– tell us about that.
BL: My new book is out. It’s called “Bruce(x)ploitation”, and it’s a monograph (or coffee table book, whichever you prefer) on my image-based work over the past 25 years or so, published by my Italian distributor, Atlantide Entertainment/Queer Frame. So it starts out with images from my early queer punk fanzine, J.D.s, which I co-edited with the artist G.B. Jones, and it continues on with my photography (porn and fashion), my performative Polaroid work, promotional material, publicity stills from my movies, silk screens I made of the photos I took of Francois Sagat, who starred in my movie L.A. Zombie, etc. The book also includes two essays by the editors of the book about my work, in both Italian and English, and a comprehensive filmography.
EB: You also have a new film in the works?
BL: Yes, I have secured financing for a new movie called Gerontophilia, based on my original story idea and with a screenplay co-written with the Canadian novelist Daniel Allan Cox. It’s about an eighteen-year-old boy who has the fetish called “gerontophilia” – a sexual attraction to the aged. He becomes sexually fixated on an eighty-year-old man, in a reverse-Lolita kind of way. We plan on shooting it in September in Montreal.
EB: Do you feel like the ‘gay card’ is being pulled too much during America’s 2012 election?
BL: I feel two ways about it. Obviously I totally support equal rights and civil rights for homosexuals, but I also believe that the strategy of assimilating and buying into conservative institutions like marriage is, in the long run, counterproductive, or counterrevolutionary, if you will. It’s a flawed strategy, just like post-feminism, which seems to encourage women to compete within the framework of patriarchal institutions by overcompensating and becoming collusive with the more negative aspects of the dominant order. In terms of politics, the whole political system in America is so manifestly corrupt now that it’s hard to view any wedge issue, even one involving civil rights, as anything but pandering and strategizing based on polling and campaigning. It doesn’t seem all that sincere to me.
EB: What is the worse and best parts of being an independent artist today?
BL: The worst parts involve the constant struggle for financing and making a living with your art in the face of austerity measures and cuts to funding for the arts pushed by governments and institutions that no longer value art or believe it’s a necessary and vital part of culture. Of course I’m also into the notion of private financing and making a living from selling your art, but there’s a tendency now to dismiss art as something extraneous or unnecessary unless its marketable – a typical free market capitalist fundamentalist attitude. The best parts involve making work that challenges the status quo and the orthodoxy of the art establishment, and for me personally making work that is subversive, that breaks taboos, and that explores unchartered territory. I’m always motivated to speak the unspeakable, or represent the unrepresentable. That’s the fun part.