Top image: Bruce LaBruce ‘Ryan McGinley and Eddie’ 1998
“Now that we seem to be going through an era of sexual conservatism, I think my work is more relevant than ever, so my creative drive remains strong,” Bruce LaBruce tells us. And in an era of sexual conservatism, the provocative filmmaker and photographer is surely the antipathy.
From co-founding seminal queer zine J.D.s in the 80s through a wealth of anti-establishment, anti-assimilationist, anti-what-you-expect film and photography projects, LaBruce’s career – spanning more than 25 years – has seen him push sexual, societal and political boundaries within an inch of their foundation. There was his debut film Skin Off My Ass – a favourite of Kurt Cobain’s – about gay skinheads, there was the porno-zombie flick Otto; Or Up With Dead People and who could forget LaBruce’s 2010 classic L.A. Zombie starring French porn star François Sagat as a schizophrenic homeless zombie roaming the streets of Los Angeles bringing back the dead by having sex with men.
For LaBruce, who grew up in the 60s on a small farm outside of Ottawa, it all began after discovering the burgeoning queercore movement while at art school in the early 80s. This radical new ideology offered an anarchistic alternative to traditional gay cinema and paved the way for LaBruce to push boundaries and challenge preconceptions.
Tracing his career from those early days until now, LaBruce has teamed up with the Tom of Finland Store for a retrospective digital exhibition of 100 images from his prolifically controversial photography archives. Chronicling more than two decades the exhibition, draws together film stills, BTS photos, editorial for porn magazines such as Honcho, Playguy, and Inches, and candid imagery from LaBruce’s personal photo diaries.
Here we talk to the uncompromising LaBruce about society’s oppressors, Hollywood’s sexism and inner impulses.
Lisa Walden: Can you take us through the timeline of this exhibition?
Bruce LaBruce: Danny Fuentes of Lethal Amounts in Los Angeles approached me at the beginning of 2016 about having an exhibit of my photos, so I thought it might be time for a retrospective of sorts – especially since I really started taking photos seriously about 25 years previously when I made my first feature film, No Skin Off My Ass in 1991. So I took a dive into my archive of negatives and diapositives and had hi-res files made from of a bunch of photos that had never been digitised. It ended up being quite a wealth of material, although there is still some material I haven’t gone through yet. I called the show Faggotry, and I mounted a variation of it at La Fresh, the gallery that represents me in Madrid, in June of 2017, and another iteration, including new even more new work, at Gallery 46 in London in October of 2017. The Tom of Finland people got wind of that show and suggested presenting a selection of the work for purchase at TOFS.
“…my work was often as much about going against the gay orthodox and the gay mainstream as about challenging the status quo of the dominant, straight culture.”
Lisa: What was the selection process like when choosing excerpts and photographs to be featured in this project?
Bruce: I tried to focus a lot on portraiture, which is an aspect of photography I really enjoy. When I worked for magazines like Honcho, Playguy, and Inches in New York for about a five year period starting in 1998, it really was all about taking sexy portraits of men with hard-ons. These were often 3/4 portraits, and I often tried to conceive the – in terms of framing and style – almost like portraiture in classical painting. Although I’ve concentrated mostly on male subjects for this selection, I’ve also included some female and transgender subjects. And then, of course, the film production stills and behind-the-scenes photographs have a completely different quality, more spontaneous and free-wheeling.
Lisa: Do you still have the same creative drive that you did when you first started out and how do you think people’s perceptions of yourself and your work have changed throughout this time?
Bruce: Well, I’m not sure how countercultural gay culture is these days! It’s more about assimilation. But even back in the eighties, my work was often as much about going against the gay orthodox and the gay mainstream as about challenging the status quo of the dominant, straight culture. The thing is, I just keep on making the same kind of work that I’ve always done, about characters and subjects on the margins – the misfits, the maladapted, the criminal element, the revolutionaries, etc. I’ve never presented homosexual characters or photographic subjects that have been particularly welcomed by the gay mainstream, although after having been at it for so long, awareness of my work has become somewhat broader. But my films and photographs also appeal to non-gay audiences. Quite often I present characters in my movies who have homosexual sex but who aren’t gay-identified – hustlers, neo-Nazi skinheads, extreme left-wing radicals. I’ve always been into presenting fetishes and fetishists as romantic outsider characters, which often transcends fixed sexual identities. Now that we seem to be going through an era of sexual conservatism, I think my work is more relevant than ever, so my creative drive remains strong.
“I’ve always been into presenting fetishes and fetishists as romantic outsider characters, which often transcends fixed sexual identities”
Lisa: Your recent film The Misandrists was centred around a conversation about feminism, in the last six months or so a lot has been addressed in that conversation – especially in Hollywood and the fashion industry. Do you see this permanently changing our society’s collective consciousness?
Bruce: I think there are profound changes going on, but I don’t think any kind of equilibrium has been reached or will be in the near future. Everything that’s going on in terms of challenging the patriarchy, gender pay inequality, true sexual predation and the abuse of power, etc. is absolutely necessary, but there is also a new moralism emerging, and I fear a new kind of sexual repression and prudery about sex could result. We definitely don’t want to go back to the fifties, or even further to the Victorian era, although I have to say those periods of repression did result in some deliciously kinky sexual shenanigans!
Lisa: A common theme throughout your work is turning the oppressed into the oppressor, but there’s often a dark side to this where the boundaries between the two become blurred. Do you believe that when you have power there’s always a temptation to abuse it?
Bruce: I really see it as a natural process of evolution of every revolution. The arrogance of the strong will always be met by the violence of the weak, but when the weak become powerful, they are subject to the same abuse of power. Taking the gay movement as an example, the early radical roots of liberation – class war, anti-capitalism, anti-authoritarianism – have been replaced by a capitulation to, and participation in, those conservative institutions – marriage, monogamy, religion, nationalism, the military – that used to be considered the provenance of the enemy of homosexuals. And now mainstream gays tend to judge and shame those “bad homosexuals” who don’t present what they believe is a “positive” representation of homosexuality. But eventually the tide will turn again, and the mainstream gays, the collaborationists, will be challenged and toppled from their reactionary roosts!
“We definitely don’t want to go back to the fifties, or even further to the Victorian era, although I have to say those periods of repression did result in some deliciously kinky sexual shenanigans!”
Lisa: Your characters and subjects are often radicals who go against the grain. Do you still find these people in real life?
Bruce: Oh yes, in the circles that I travel in almost everyone goes against the grain in one way or another. I’m inspired by a whole generation of newbies who challenge what it means to be gay or queer, who are fluid and open in their sexuality, less judgmental, less ageist, less repressed. There is a new sexual consciousness evolving.
Lisa: What’s next for you?
Bruce: I often only feel like I am on the right track as an artist if I get that special feeling that I’ve gone a step too far. Occasionally I’ve felt that I have gone way too far, and it can be both exhilarating and frightening. I’m currently working a series of short porn films, as well as a larger-budgeted non-porn feature film to be called Saint-Narcisse.
Explore Bruce LaBruce: Faggotry here.