Nobody can accuse artist Nayland Blake of poor titling. The Guys We Would Fuck, the attention-grabbing headline of his current curatorial efforts at Monya Rowe not only caught my eye, but does exactly what it claims; asks participants to choose the men they’d fuck. Constructed by way of a meme, the exhibition will continue to grow throughout the duration of the show as those initially chosen by Blake invite others to participate.
Tall, bearish and adorned with tattoos, Nayland Blake is a well-known and active figure within both the kink and fine art community. He also has a reputation for blurring such distinctions; over the past twenty years the artist has drawn from his experiences as a gay mixed African American as a means of investigating that complex identity. I sat down with the artist recently to discuss his latest show, S&M and other related themes in his work, and his opinions on gay marriage. The Interview after the jump.
Art Fag City: The idea for your current exhibition comes from the book you’re currently working on, 1000 Men I Would Fuck. What made you want to expand upon that theme and invite both men and women participants to contribute their own ideas?
Nayland Blake: The project came out of collecting pictures of guys online I thought were cute and thinking about urban living where you’re constantly seeing hot people. I love that libidinal nature of urban life. [Monya Rowe and I] had a discussion about what kind of show we wanted it be; her space is such that you could do a thought-out five-person show, but that didn’t seem so interesting. It seemed more like an ego boost for me and not necessarily much of anything else. So I was talking about the book project, and suddenly it was like, “Well, what if we just inflated the project to get a bunch of people to do that — to pick a guy that they would fuck?” And if you’re going to invite people, invite the broadest range of people you can. For me the most interesting people to ask weren’t gay men and straight women, but gay women and straight men. It doesn’t matter what your orientation is; I really believe that everybody has “one” — that person who falls outside their orientation they would still do. So it’s kind of a goofy campfire game of a show.
Unlike traditional viral media that stays on the web, there’s a component of the show where people make their own zines; the zine becomes this physical manifestation of a meme. What are your thoughts behind this part of the show?
NB: It all goes back to things like mail art, and a person I think about a lot is Ray Johnson. When I want to be highfalutin’ about it, his participation in the New York correspondence school really constituted a virtual community before any sort of online community. There were these people who were all connecting with each other through the mail and passing stuff around and reworking it. There might be a gallery show [of the work] but then there was this whole other aspect that went on around it that could never be grasped by any one participant, because it was happening in all of these other different ways through the mail. So in this show there’s a bunch of things that happen; there’s what happens physically in the gallery, but then, as pieces come in, Monya Rowe posts them on the website so people can keep track of [the exhibition], and they can print it out online or come in and print out their own favorite version of the show to take with them. So to me, there’s all of these different kind of locations or versions of what the show is. What was gratifying about [the opening] was seeing people getting excited about the idea of making one, having one, and checking in on the website.
The picture in and of itself may not literally represent who you want to fuck but the idea of who you want to fuck. And within that idea, there’s a certain amount of finesse you want to exhibit. What are your thoughts behind that aspect of the show?
NB: Of course, they’re all sort of self-portraits, because in answering that question, you’re answering “What’s your type?” You’re right in saying that there’s a certain level of performance there, in what everybody does. To me, that kind of performance is much healthier than what I normally see in the art world.
How would you compare those two things?
NB: It’s not about a kind of intellectual finesse or coolness. The fact that you’re acknowledging your own desire and pleasure knocks it out of being that distanced, “I’m above all of this” attitude, which is often the way people mark their presence in the art world. It’s also a really democratic form: It’s an 8½”Ã—11″ piece of paper, it’s all formatted the same way, it’s all going hang on the wall in the same way. It’s not possible to pull off a stunt. And I’m always happiest in those situations when we just get together and entertain ourselves.
One person chose Marlon Brando as the guy they’d like to fuck, but dated it. It’s a very specific reference, and on one hand it’s like “Jesus, that guy is hot,” but it also demonstrates a certain cultural awareness and intellectual prowess. Can you truly separate those two things?
NB: But it’s cultural knowledge in the service of libido, not as an end in and of itself. And that, to me, is the thing that is much more egalitarian about it. Everyone is an expert on who they’d want to fuck. [laughs]
Do you have any favorites so far?
NB: I thought it was so sweet that Marleen McCarty did Colin de Land. That’s the one that just seems like the sweetest thing. And it’s such a sultry picture of Colin. Colin had a gallery called American Fine Arts which was in operation from around 1985 until his death in 2003. There are dealers who are part of an artistic community and dealers who have a business enterprise, and Colin was really part of an artistic community. He had a lot of interesting ideas about art and was also very funny, and connected to artists. Also, she’s a gay woman. So there’s that aspect as well.
This isn’t the first online work you’ve done. Your blog is very active.
NB: I can’t say I’ve really designed online pieces, but certainly one of the things that’s being going on with my work over the past couple of years has been an attempt to incorporate more of my daily life into it. There were a few things in the last solo show that came out of that activity, and the blog is another reflection of that. It can also push the art because certainly, any time I give myself an assignment like that it’s to make myself work more. It’s often my tendency to be more deadline driven then to have an ongoing practice, so I’ve really made an attempt over the last couple years to make it more of a daily activity as opposed to, “Oh my God, something’s coming up and I gotta get stuff finished.” And I think also people should really think about the format that they want to work in. No particular forum has any greater or lesser value than what you yourself put into it. If the point of what you’re doing is to get immediate feedback from people, then put the work up online. Don’t put the work up in a gallery, because galleries are designed to give delayed feedback.
Galleries are also designed to sell. The web does have online gallery models, but if you’re an artist and you’re putting your work on the web, that’s probably not the purpose.
NB: It’s important to just be clear about what each form is good for, and not to spend your time — which I see a lot of people doing — grousing about it.
I was thinking about the comparison Sarah Valdez made in a 2004 issue of Art in America between your work and that of performance artist and self-proclaimed “Supermasochist” Bob Flanagan. Perhaps a tamer example of an interest in pain appeared on your blog this Friday, which documents the tattoo you got on Friday the 13th. How do you incorporate instances of pain in your daily life into your work?
NB: I’ve always admired the way that Bob spoke to both the artistic community and the S&M community simultaneously, and that’s something I aspire to in my work, and one of the things that’s going on in the show. I think there’s some interesting writing that has not yet been done — and I would hope to be the person to do it — about the ways in which particular types of aesthetic practices paralleled certain thinking about sexual liberty in post-war America both of which have been silenced and divorced. So [for example] the sexual in the art world gets turned into formalism; it’s supposed to be endurance. It’s not supposed be about pleasure; it’s supposed to be about a systematic way of doing something. In the S&M world, it’s never supposed have a social implication. It doesn’t have a political implication, only personal gratification, and it doesn’t necessarily have an aesthetic dimension.
I think that’s inaccurate. In most really good S&M scenes I know, the performance involves an audience that is co-extensive with the performer. It’s done for an audience that is also in the midst of doing it simultaneously. And that’s interesting to me. So I guess my thinking is that yeah, the tattooing is a particular kind of pain. But also, tattoo culture is a really interesting instance of cultural development where the visual iconography of allegory still remained active when it couldn’t remain active in paintings any more. People didn’t really make allegorical paintings, while people have allegorical tattoos all the time, right? This speaks to the way I tend to work, which is there’s something I’m attracted to and I start asking myself why.
What do you think about gay marriage?
NB: Of course, anyone who wants to get married should get married. I have a great deal of resentment towards the way the marriage issue has hijacked the gay movement. In the early ’90s there was a lot of debate over whether this should be something to even press for and my feeling is that I would rather end the governmental privileges towards marriage, period, than argue for the inclusion of people in it. I don’t think that the state should be in business of rewarding certain types of affection or certain types of sexual activity or certain types of familial grouping. Given the fact that they are involved, I suppose it is a better outcome that they should be willing to extend that regardless of people’s gender identification or sexuality, but to me, that’s settling for the booby prize. I’m a pretty self-identified freak, and I don’t look to society to make it nice for me. I’ve seen any number of groupings, and even in those groupings I end up getting moved to the periphery, in part because I tend to be about blurring the categories.
Did you read the article on the front page of the Times today [Sunday]? There was a story about how gay marriage numbers in Massachusetts are declining. Some are getting divorced; one woman had to adopt her daughter to have shared custody from the same-sex marriage. Anyway, the subject comes up, because of course it’s in the news a lot.
NB: I’m the product of an interracial marriage. At the time my parents got married there were still five states where it was still illegal for them to get married, so I understand the issue. I always think with the Times, you have to take a massive grain of salt with it. Is the point of this article: “OK, look. We put ourselves out, we gave you this really nice toy, and now you don’t play with it. It’s sitting at the back of the shelf with everything else that we gave you.” Is this the idea?
Well, that was my question.
NB: It seems like such a blind alley, because the real issues of financial inequity, of, “Great, now you’re married so you can be covered under health insurance but what if you can’t afford health insurance?”, all of that stuff, is just moved off to the side. And there was a time in this country where queer people were really arguing for a very radical and different conception of social organization. If you look at stuff from the Gay Liberation Front in ’68 and ’69 — the experiments around lesbian separatism and communal living — these are real attempts to imagine a different kind of social organization in this country. That’s a very different proposition from, “I wanna be able to buy a house, too.”
Would you align yourself with those movements then?
NB: It certainly was the thing that informed me growing up much more. I identify as pansexual, but I got into the queer world because the heterosexual world is so fucked up, and I didn’t want to have to deal with the bullshit that straight men have to deal with [laughs]. But ultimately, my talk about blurring the boundaries does have do with bisexuality, and with being of mixed raced, and this ties back to art. The big problem this country has with social equity is that it bases itself on a model of representation. It’s a kind of multiculturalism that assumes that the only way you can advance your cause is by making the argument for sameness. It’s that, yes, our skin may be different, but that’s not a real enough difference; underneath we’re the same, so we should have the same rights. Our sexuality is different, but that’s not a real difference. It’s not enough to deny our fundamental sameness, so we should have the same rights.
To me, a progressive idea of a society is one that understands and values difference in and of itself, because what happens otherwise in seeking sameness is that everything gets caught up in a trap of representation. In other words, African Americans are asked to represent African Americanness to the culture as a whole — they’re asked to do the work of discussing race — and the moment they don’t, they become unintelligible. People are like, “Why are you talking about class?” And at the moment the queer people stop talking about sexuality, and start talking about race or about something else, they get pilloried from and within their community for not doing the work of representation.
And that’s the thing that’s valuable about art: It can make representation complex, and it’s the place where we explore ambiguity and complexity within representation. It’s not like people can’t speak, but we have certain ideas, and the moment that’s challenged, people look at [us] like we’re insane. And that’s a really debilitating place because it’s a fixed system representing itself as change.