4.25 / From the Archives: Worse Than Queer

Interview with Nayland Blake

By Renny Pritikin April 10, 2011

Image: Nayland Blake.

Renny Pritikin: One of my earliest memories of you performing is at Media Gallery in San Francisco. You were really skinny. Long hair. I think you were wearing a long black dress.

Nayland Blake: Probably a prom dress.

RP: You were reading a text; I don’t think it was yours. I think it was a found text, but I could be wrong. It seemed very Victorian. And it was creepy scary—drowning, dismemberment, something like that. Do you remember?

NB: I did a bunch of performances like that in the early—well, mid-’80s. And they were all collaged text. There was a little bit of connective stuff that I would write, but most of it was all cut up and put together.

RP: What were the sources?

NB: Usually horror novels; sometimes medical texts; sometimes fairy-tale stuff. But it very much came out of being entranced with Kathy Acker. It was homage to Kathy.

RP: I don’t remember her wearing the prom dress.

NB: No, but the first time I saw her read, she had this very particular white outfit; she was never unconscious of her appearance. So I did a bunch of things with thrift store prom dresses and a lot of things with celebrity biographies. There’s one that I remember particularly that was sort of a retelling of the movie Cruising with a Judy Garland biography and a Liza Minnelli biography and a couple of other things—like commercial paperbacks from thrift stores. So for a while I got really into novelizations of TV shows. 

RP: What’s the difference between reading a literary piece and doing a performance?

NB: Well, that was the point where I felt that I was really just doing a reading, and I stopped doing them because it was problematic.

RP: That was in that amazing, late-’80s period when your career just exploded.

NB: That was one of the things that I was doing. Then through the ’90s I didn’t do a whole lot of performance; I was doing some video that had some performance elements in it. One of the things that tied a lot of those texts together was using the first person as a kind of connective tissue. The fact that there was an “I” that was speaking made it really easy to cut those texts together and to go from being one “I” to another “I.” 

RP: And that makes it easier for the audience to identify with a story.

NB: Yeah, and it also had to do with this idea at the time of identity as performative—as nonessential consciousness, organized like a text and disembodied. Even though there would be a lot of reference to sexuality and bodily distress, it was very literary—it was about a text. The next thing that started to happen for me was that I began to be more embodied in my work and less textual.

Reenactment of Gorge, 2009; Location One, New York. Courtesy of the Artist.

RP: Well, the next thing I think about was going to New York and seeing the video of you being fed, and your body transformed from this skinny girl to this big bear. I don’t recall the title. To backtrack a little bit, though, one of the things that you did when you were here and curating In a Different Light at the Berkeley Art Museum, with the Jasper Johns image of two beer cans, was to say, “This is a gay text.” I thought curatorially that was so brazen and admirable. I thought of that with the guy feeding you—the firmness, but also the tenderness between these two bodies.

NB:  Well, Gorge started out as a video where I’m being fed for an hour by another man. The man is recognizably African American, so a lot of times people are thinking, “Oh, there’s a white man and a black man.” One of the things that I wanted to address is the notion that race is embodied in the visible or is enacted in the visible. Embodied is the wrong word because, in the United States, it’s somewhat a function of cultural behavior, but it’s very much based in the visual and in notions of representation. This is my current problem; there’s a big crisis around the idea of representation. For me it was very important that in the process of watching that hour-long performance it becomes about the viewer’s projections onto what’s happening. 

RP: The relationship between the two men.

NB: Right, and that it doesn’t rest in one place for any particular length of time. It looks nurturing, it looks sadistic, it looks sensual, it looks—

RP: Terrifying.

NB: Sometimes, and playful at other times. And that question of who’s on top—who has the power in the situation—keeps flipping back and forth.

RP: Really? I don’t know if I picked up on that. Talk about that a little bit.

NB: Well, the idea of him as a servant. As an image, that piece almost picks up on Manet’s Olympia, with the odalisque in the foreground and the black servant in the background. In that reading, I would be the person who has a face that’s visible. I'm the one that has the power. I'm being served.

RP: But you never deny the food. You have to take it.

NB: Right, so that’s one of the places where it flips. There are times when he’s wiping crumbs off me, and there are times when he’s forcing food into me. At the time, both he and I were involved in a fetish scene that goes by the name of Gaining and Encouraging. So there is a very specific sexual component to deliberately gaining weight—and encouraging someone else to gain weight. That was another undercurrent in there.

RP: And that was not acting; that was real life.

NB: Right. He’s part of that scene, and at the time I was part of that scene as well. I think that connects to something that’s been in my work throughout—that I don’t really see the work as a vehicle for expressing an idea about my sexuality. I see it as another form of practicing my sexuality. That’s something that has assumed a greater importance over the years. The next phase of Gorge was doing it as a live performance where I was seated in front of a table facing an audience. A sign is placed on the table: Please Feed. There’s a whole batch of food on the table and I’ll eat whatever the audience gives me for that hour. 

RP: But it has to be from the table. They couldn't bring their own.

NB: If someone showed up with a Mallomar, I’d eat it. In that scenario it becomes about the audience because I am impassive—and about accepting whatever they're going to do. It becomes like their little vaudeville turn. Each person gets up with a different idea of how they're going to do it.

RP: It makes me think of Yoko Ono’s—

NB: Cut Piece. Yes, I was very inspired by that. It has that same sort of flipping power dynamic. But the thing that I think is co-extensive with the rest of my work is that even the sculptural work always leaves a place for the person who encounters it, so that the suits give you the possibility of trying them on. 

RP: Maybe you should talk a little bit about the suits.

NB: I did a whole series of pieces that involved sexual restraint, bondage gear, and from there, puppet pieces, and from there, costumes or various suits.

RP: Was that literally a possibility for the visitor to put that on, or just psychological?

NB: It’s really psychological, but I think that’s integral to the way that you perceive the encounter that you have with the work. I think sometimes sculpture has its own scale that is very different to the scale of objects that we use all the time. It’s generally larger, or sometimes it’s miniature. I try to use the scale of objects in our day-to-day world. I think that when I do that, someone encountering it will try it on mentally in a way that they wouldn't with that different scale. That’s the thing that connects them with performances, in a way. There’s an attempt to make the performances be about that encounter. After Gorge, I started to get very suspicious of the ideas of photographic documentation and video documentation of performance.

As a teacher, I see that it’s the way that so many of my students learn what a performance is, but it’s such a different thing than what a performance is. When people see, for example, the Yoko Ono Cut Piece, they will see about sixty seconds of a video, or they’ll see five minutes of it, but they don’t have the experience of sitting there in that room and wondering, What am I going to do in relationship to this? What action am I prepared to take; what action am I not prepared to take? Everything unique about that situation gets pressed out.

RP: I had a conversation with a grad student in performance at Davis; I was working on her MFA show and I said, “Well, for my generation performance was about the poignancy of the moment, and if you're not there you never experience it.” She said, “Well, that was your generation. That’s really bullshit now.” There’s a more sophisticated understanding of performance, according to her; the documentation is part of the performance, the legend built up around it is part of the performance, and all of the ripples in the pond are part of the performance. They're all equally valid. 

NB: I think certainly if you want to treat any of those instances as material, fine. I don’t think that things get superseded in art. I'm not interested in those aspects that are easily replicable because I see the way in which it all gets turned into the same thing.

RP: You mean muddied.

NB: Muddied, but I also really like the idea that you had to be there.

RP: I like it too. I was very nonplussed by this conversation with her.

NB: Here’s my example. A big component of the work that I’m doing now comes from an assignment that I used to give my students: to make a piece for one person. These days I'm doing a lot of performance where the participants in the piece are the audience. It’s something that we’re doing together—a kinky, queer, sexual play—and I'm not interested in everybody having equal access to that. I think that you treat an experience differently when you have to win access to it. This idea that you're chasing an audience—that these things can go around the world and so you need to think about how they're perceived around the world—I think when something gets that broad, it gets very thin. There’s nothing wrong with working that way, but I think it’s hard to articulate a complex idea in that many contexts. I'm interested in encountering rich, stubborn ideas. 

RP: A scientist from Stanford a few years ago was giving a talk at Yerba Buena, and he said that physiologically when you watch a movie or a film of a car wreck, your emotional response is identical to experiencing it in person. I thought, Oh! So mediated experiences are, in our brains, no different than actual experiences.

NB: Or, we don’t have the right measuring instruments! Whose yardstick are you going to use when you're talking about what’s meaningful in an experience?

RP: Yeah, he’s measuring what can be measured and not emotions. Unless emotions are identical to electronic—

NB: Or reminiscences or hopes or projections. You know, you can measure an experience of anxiety physiologically. You can tell that somebody’s anxious. You can't tell what they're anxious about. 

RP: So it’s the content.

NB: So at the end of the day that’s what we have—our experiences. I think that we’re living in a dangerous time with this idea that if you can replicate an aspect of something then you probably have the right aspect and that’s fine.

RP: The whole experience.

NB: Yeah. It’s not true in sex. And I don’t think it’s true in the art that matters to me. I like the notion of initiatory experience—that you have access to something because you’ve been initiated into it and because you’ve made some level of commitment and sacrifice. That is a different relationship to experience than the turn-on-the-tap-and-you-get-content, which is, I think, what is being argued for in many of the current, utopian ideas about digital culture and digital society. I think the initiated experience has a real impact when we’re talking about things being embodied, and also when we’re talking about things like queerness. 

I'm back to using the term queer specifically because it indicates a place of ambiguity and confusion and possibility. A lot of the most interesting people around at this point are located in the trans communities because many of them are looking at the dismantling of gender binaries. They experience gender in a very different way and they have something to tell the rest of us about the presuppositions around gender in the same way that queer people have something to tell the rest of humanity about the construction of sexuality. 

I don’t think that you get to that unless you move past the general points of agreement. That’s where I go back to the weird civil rights moment that we’re in, in terms of gay marriage and gays in the military. All this stuff that, fifteen years ago, we were protesting about here in San Francisco—this sort of accommodationalist idea that, yes, we’re exactly the same as you, we just want to get married and fight in wars and do all this stuff that you do. It’s not the case for everybody. But—to torture an analogy—that’s the part that’s easily replicable, right? That’s the part that is like, oh well, we have this and you just want to have it. We can have a discussion around that that doesn’t touch on the fact that maybe you want something to be completely different.

Right now I'm very involved in teaching in the BDSM community. Around the country, there are a lot of organizations that are involved in this stuff and they get together for events. I will be back in the Bay Area in a month at the International Ms. Leather contest, and part of that event is that there are workshops. Sometimes they're about really technical stuff like how to use a flogger safely or how to be able to negotiate stuff, but it’s a teaching model that is based out of people’s experience. 

RP: So you advertise a performance workshop or performance art, or do you not use that kind of language?

NB: I use the terminology “designing a scene,” because you might have an encounter that doesn’t really have a sexual component to it—or doesn’t have something that’s physically recognizable as sex but would have a psychologically sexual encounter to it. 

RP: Did I ever tell you that when I was in graduate school teaching a class with Jock Reynolds, we rented a hotel room in a flophouse—south of Market I think—and we did the class in there? There were eight or nine people in the class, and in the culminating project we had the chair of the department spend the night in the room and we did performances for twenty-four hours for him, and—we heard he liked porn—so we had this couple come and have sex. And we fed him his favorite meals.

NB: I'm so glad that you didn’t show me a bunch of pictures of that or show me a video of that, because now if that story is going to live I have to remember it and tell it. That’s what I'm saying about this idea of initiatory experience, where you have to make a commitment to move along those parts of the culture that you value. I was in D.C. last year at an event that was like that. It was taking over a hotel and it was all kinky people in the hotel and there were classes and there was a play at night, and here is this undercurrent, worldwide at this point, that isn't really visible.

RP: This takes me all the way back to when I was in graduate school and performance art was sculpture—body and time brought into sculpture—and it was the artist doing actions, not an actor pretending to do them. He really did stuff, and that made it scary and risky. Then when Tim Miller started a kind of confessional form, it seemed like it destroyed performance. But it seems like this kind of intimate community-based stuff is closer to the original thing. It’s real.

NB: Well, I’ll give you an example, which is that bondage is exactly that—bodies and time brought into sculpture. One of the things that hasn’t been written yet and that I would like to write about is that, paralleling the rise of a particular kind of performance art in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a rise in these various kinky communities, and a lot of the same practices were going on in both but in different locations and with different intended effects.

RP: Maybe not too far from each other—south of Market.

NB: South of Market, New York’s piers, and when you look at the work of someone like Peter Hujar, there’s a huge overlap between the types of spaces that kinky people had access to and that artists had access to. Because it was the time when neither of those people—the notion of gentrification had not yet taken hold—neither of those populations were seen as contributing anything valuable from an urban standpoint, so they got the castoff space. They got the queer space: the thing that’s sort of in between that nobody’s using anymore and that nobody really wants. The artistic flourishing that was going on around the piers in New York is really connected to that, and that connection has been swept under the carpet in terms of the way that art history has been written and the way that society organizes itself.1

RP: I want to get back to something that you skimmed over about the invisibility of race. In the video piece Gorge, most Americans are seeing a black man feeding a white man. In fact, your racial identity is mixed. 

NB: Well, according to the state of New York, I'm legally black. 

RP: So if the audience can't see that, what are your thoughts about how much information is available to the audience?

NB: I think they find it out eventually.

RP: So there’s at least a suggestion that this guy who looks white is thinking a lot about race and sex, right? Maybe there’s more that I need to find out.

NB: Right. When I read a book that I love, I want to find out everything about it and I don’t expect to get everything the first time I read it. I've pretty much decided that that’s the model that I want to have for my work. I'm not interested in seeing pieces that I solve and then don’t have any other life in my mind. I love having stuff that I come back to and try to think about.

RP: In other people’s work.

NB: Sure. And that’s sort of what I want to have in mine. A Jasper Johns painting for me is not something that I can exhaust. I can go back to it; it becomes part of my mental furniture, and I can think about it in another way. It’s the same with Kathy Acker or any of the people that I really enjoy. I can go back and read those books, and there’s something else there. There’s other stuff that is fine that I really enjoy, but I can't really go back to it.

What’s interesting is this show is performative for me. I'm making the show on-site.

Opener 3: Some Kind of Love: Nayland Blake, Performance Video 1989-2002; installation view, the Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York, 2003. Courtesy of the Artist and the Tang Museum.

RP: But you're not documenting it.

NB: I'm not documenting the making of it. It’s actually going back to a way that I used to work in college, like that first show that I did at New Langton Arts where I basically hauled a bunch of crap in there and set it all up. These pieces in part are related to me walking around my neighborhood, walking my dog twice a day, and finding all the stuff that people have thrown out and being in this place initially of, oh, all this crap, why don’t people clean up, what’s the deal with all this stuff? Then I was like, well, I'm a person, I could probably do something about this. So making that gesture of taking the stuff and trying to figure out some other relationship to it. The objects are ending up pretty refined. There’s another aspect of this where I've been actually painting on garbage and leaving it there—sort of graffiti on garbage.

RP: You're getting weird in your old age!

NB: I know, well, that’s the fun part. That’s the lesson from Louise Bourgeois, right? Live long enough and you can get really, really, really weird! That’s what I'm plugging for—the long haul.

RP: Can't wait to see your show. 

NB: Yeah, it’s about that. It’s about trying to have a present encounter with your surroundings and to make a gesture in response to that, and that is the same thing that makes for good sex.


Nayland Blake is an artist, writer, and educator, currently living in Brooklyn. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum; the Studio Museum of Harlem; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the de Young Museum. His writing has appeared in Interview Magazine, Artforum, Out, and OutLook. He is the chair of the ICP-Bard Program in Advanced Photographic Studies at the International Center of Photography.


1. In her interview with Bad at Sports, presented in Issue 2.12 of Art Practical, artist Emily Roysdon also speaks about the piers on the west side of New York as "unregulated public space," for marginalized activities and individuals.

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