INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
This guy right here is an artist and a professor and a bear and a pipe man and an S&M switch and—what in hell does all that mean? I don’t know. Let’s talk to him and find out.
Jesse Pearson: You were telling me that you’re about to go away for a very special weekend…
Nayland Blake: It’s basically this annual gathering of gay men. It’s been going on for something like 20 years at this point.
Does it have a name?
It does, but I’m a little wary of saying it.
That sounds kind of Eyes Wide Shut-ish.
Well, it’s an invitation-only thing and this is my first year going.
Ah, so you don’t want to get kicked off the list for next year.
OK, then let’s talk about these photos that Richard Kern took of you to accompany this interview. For example, the garbage-man shot. You actually have a garbage-man fetish. All of the gear in that photo is your own, and it’s all authentic New York Department of Sanitation stuff. Why do you like to dress up as a trash collector?
I keep coming back to the way that appearance is not an index of identity. I think that identity is kind of a performative thing.
And these events you go to are full of people who are into playing with identity.
Yeah. You asked me what the people at these events look like. The answer is that they kind of just look like America. Sometimes it feels like the vibe is suburban, but then it’s like suburban kinky. I find myself starting to wonder what’s really going on in the houses that you drive past in the suburbs.
A lot of people have wondered that. David Lynch comes to mind.
Yeah. It’s not as easily defined as we’d like to imagine.
I fear that behind all those closed doors, the ones where you wonder what kind of crazy shit is going on, there’s actually nothing going on. I feel like sexual self-repression is a big thing for a lot of Americans.
I don’t know. But we are in a really funny time because, in part, of the internet. A lot of the S&M organizations around the country have seen a decline in membership. If you look at New York in terms of gay bars and leather bars and stuff like that, there’s been a big drop. A lot of people attribute that to the fact that people just hook up online now. You don’t have to go to a bar anymore.
I used to wait for the bus outside of this place in the meatpacking district. It was called the Hellfire Club. I think it was also called the Manhole. There were two signs there. Anyway, it’s gone now. That makes me sad. I liked the fact that that place existed.
Oh yeah, I spent a lot of time in there. [laughs] I used to go to cigar-play parties there.
You told me before that you’re a “pipe man.” What’s that?
It’s basically someone who fetishizes pipes, and sometimes cigars, as part of sex.
And how does that work?
One of the things that a lot of kinky people are into is breath control. That’s where you’re muffling someone’s breathing or somehow controlling their oxygen intake. One of the ways to do that is by feeding them the smoke from a cigar. Another thing is to use the heated end of a cigar or the heat from the bowl of a pipe on people’s bodies.
Do they get burned?
Some of them like to, but you don’t really have to. You can get someone really warmed up without them being in any danger of being burned.
There’s a big trust thing inherent in all of this stuff.
You need to have a real discussion about what you want to do and what you’re willing to do before any of it happens. Also, I think part of the reason why these events tend to skew toward older men is because when you’re really young, just fucking is enough.
Right. When you’re 20, fucking is plenty. At 30, you have to start getting weird.
And you also might not have the negotiating skills at 20. Like you’re so eager for it that you don’t necessarily think before agreeing to do something. The older people who have been around these scenes for a while are very comfortable with talking about what they want to do.
A lot of people with more traditional values would say that S&M is perverted or unnecessary, but I’ve always suspected that maybe you guys are just evolved beyond the rest of us. There’s some kind of deep self-honesty that comes along with getting into kinky shit. You’re psychologically advanced!
[laughs] There’s also the whole concept of after-care. You do a scene with somebody and then you check in with them to make sure they’re OK. And people have any number of ways of putting a stop to something if it’s not going right.
Are there really safe words or is that an urban legend?
Oh yeah, totally.
Do you have one?
It all depends on who I’m playing with. When I first started getting into this, I was really nervous and intimidated and I would talk to someone and be like, “We need to agree on a safe word.” A couple of times, people were like, “You know, um, ‘stop’ seems to work.”
Right, unless your deal is rape role-playing or something.
Yeah, if you’re really going to do a scene that’s about being overcome. But generally, the amount of negotiation and discussion is much more involved in the kink scene than in the regular scene. No offense, but I can’t fathom how women deal with meeting straight guys.
We’re not great communicators. I guess in a lot of traditional relationships, there can be a lack of a certain kind of talk.
And tied up with that is this hope that it’s going to “work out.” Like you’ll meet the magically right person and they’ll do everything right and you’ll just know. One of the things that’s interesting about the kink community is that it’s very self-policing. If someone is an asshole, word gets around.
Is there a flipside to that? Are there people about whom everyone says, “Listen, if you want to get tied up real fucking good, you have to meet this guy Joe”?
There are people whose skills are valued, and there are a lot of classes and skills-acquisition things at these events. For instance, with something like caning—hitting someone with a cane—you need to know what you’re doing. You need to know where you can hit somebody safely. People who are really good at doing things have a full dance card regardless of what they look like, what gender they are, whatever.
It’s like how you need a special license to drive an 18-wheeler.
Yeah. So somebody who’s a really good rope person will have women, men, everyone getting in line to get tied up.
Do you think people who aren’t getting into all this stuff are missing out on something? Or are some people only meant to do in-out, in-out, drop-a-load-and-call-it-a-day sex.
I can only speak for myself. It’s very tied to my artwork, which is always about learning stuff about myself. But there are also people who are in the kink scene for whom it’s all about reaffirming a really rigid role, like they’re a master and that’s that. So for some people it can be a really great experience but for other people, I don’t know…
Can it get constricting or limiting?
Yeah, if you’re not an introspective person, you won’t get any more benefit out of it than anything else that you do.
Tell me more about your garbage-man thing.
I grew up lower middle class and I’m kind of overeducated, and my tendency is to fetishize working-class guys. I think the garbage man is hot. And one of the good things about being queer is that you can fetishize something but still end up looking like it. Also, I’ve always had a hard time with certain aspects of the leather community that are based on military power structures. It’s a rigid notion of social behavior. I find it laughable, but a lot of the guys are into military and police uniforms. I’m too much of a pseudo-hippie so, for me, wearing the garbage-man outfit is a piss-take on the kink-scene guys who do the military thing.
But still, it’s also sexually gratifying for you to dress up in the garbage-man gear.
Isn’t it hard not to start cracking up when you’re role playing?
That’s the thing. You have to figure out how to do it. It can be like being in a bad comedy skit. But you don’t have to have a scenario that’s like a one-act play.
So you’ll just have characters to portray and go from there?
Yeah. And the role might be about doing something else.
Like what? Give me a specific scenario and make it dirty.
Like there could be a scenario where the prissy queen guy comes out to yell at the garbage man for always dumping stuff from the trash can on the curb. And then the tables get turned, the garbage man throws the queen in the back of the truck, drives him off some place, and fucks him.
The goal in that scenario is to transfer the power and humiliate this upper-class guy. That might be what he’s getting off on.
And the ultimate goal is to service whatever psychological thing you want to satisfy.
Exactly. That might be about humiliation, it might be about finally being able to ask for what you want… One of the things that’s interesting to me is thinking about what the roles that I gravitate toward say about me.
Like the garbage man in relation to the class situation in which you grew up.
And I think also it goes back to my performance work. I did one where I was being fed for an hour. I didn’t have a role except having to eat whatever it was the audience gave me. The performance was more about the feelings of everybody in the audience.
But there was also an endurance thing for you.
In some ways, yes. It was interesting. It varied from person to person. Some of them were tender and some were really sadistic.
What were they feeding you?
Pizza, donuts, fruit, vegetables. It would all be spread out on a table. I’d sit in front of it, shirtless, with a sign next to me that said “Please Feed.”
It was like at the zoo: “Please don’t feed the animals.” It had that sort of inflection.
What were your first experiences with going beyond one-on-one straight-up sex?
I’m not so sure how much my parents knew about this, but in my teens I used to sneak off to porn theaters in the city a lot. This was in the mid-70s, when Times Square was at its sleaziest. I saw and participated in a fair amount of sex at those places. And then I also read a lot of stuff, like Burroughs, in my teens. A big influence on me later on was Kathy Acker.
What about S&M? How did you learn about all that?
Well, there was Drummer magazine.
It was an early gay S&M mag.
When you were going to the theaters at 42nd Street when you were young, were you already intellectualizing sex?
No, but there was an overlap in that Times Square scene and the art scene. One of the first places I saw a Keith Haring drawing was at this porn theater I used to go to all the time. Then, once I knew what Keith looked like, I started seeing him around that scene.
A lot of art films that included graphic sex had no other outlet but those places. I guess it’s a function of just being in New York City, but it doesn’t surprise me that the communities of so-called perverts and artists overlapped a lot.
I have a kind of high-falutin’ theory about it.
Let’s hear it.
I think that the rise of leather culture in the mid-60s through the 70s paralleled the rise of performance art. People like Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci were basically born out of the same impulse as the leather men, but one was taking place inside the art world and one was taking place in the underground. Many of the same issues were being looked at. You can talk about leather culture as being the anonymous folk-art version of the supposedly more respectable gallery work.
I like that way of looking at it.
It’s also no coincidence that both of those things were being cracked down on in the 80s by Ronald Reagan. It’s that sort of cultural surge, that way of playing with power and trying to expand the body’s limits that was met with all this backlash and repression later on.
It seems like this impulse is nowhere in the art world right now. Nobody is carrying on that tradition and I don’t know why. I had a really good theory about it a second ago, but I forgot it.
Well, for one, it’s really hard to sell. Also, ideas no longer really occur in the art world. Ideas have been turned into style. The social implications of all of that body work have been stripped away, and now it’s just seen as a style of art-making. It’s a style that’s down right now, but it will be up later on.
Shit, so there are no ideas in the art world right now?
It’s really pervasive. I lay the blame for it on the internet. Here’s another way to tie the leather world and the art world together—there was a time when, to be interested in either of those things, you had to put your body on the line. In other words, you had to show up to the gallery or the club.
And now, everything can be seen on the internet a couple of minutes after it happens. It’s the same thing with music. It’s way easier to be a poser and a dilettante with the internet as a research tool for more effective bullshitting.
And that’s one of the reasons why I’m loathe to talk much about the event I’m going to this weekend. I think it’s great that there are still some things in society that you have to be initiated into. You have to make a commitment to it to be able to see it.
Sometimes I wish the internet would die and we could just use the phone and the mail and make zines and mixtapes again. Maybe that means I’m getting old.
Some of the work I’m doing now involves these things that I make totally anonymously and leave out on the street. I’ve been doing things like drawing on garbage, making little pieces that I leave out, sort of as gifts for people. I don’t document them with photographs or anything.
That’s awesome. Nowadays if there isn’t a photo of something on Flickr, it’s like it never existed.
On the internet, we have all this information but it doesn’t necessarily have any value for us because we didn’t work for it. You turn on the tap and information comes out. We don’t know what the consequences of that will be yet.
OK, so you’re an S&M switch, you’re a pipe man, you do the garbage-man thing… are you a bear too? I mean, what else are you?
I guess I can come out publicly as bi now, although I’m not really using the word “bi.” I’m using “pan.” But yeah, for the past few years I’ve been with both men and women.
I would imagine that, after living in the queer world for so long, admitting that you’ve been sleeping with women could be just as scary as coming out for the first time years ago.
Completely. Yeah. There definitely are people who are freaked out. I have friends who are confused by it and friends who are into it. And yeah, the bear thing? I’m fine with that identity. One of the reasons I started identifying as a bear in the late 80s was because those were the guys who were around the leather scene in San Francisco but weren’t tidy enough to really be a part of it. Bears were the outcasts of the leather men.
And then they became such a dominant thing—a bear world of their own.
It’s been interesting to watch the way that identity became fossilized really quickly. It was like, “Who’s a bear? Who’s not a bear?” It was instructive for me because I’d seen it happen around punk rock too.
It’s similar to the way a lot of alternate cultures organize themselves, and it’s a fucking bummer. What starts as a refuge for weirdos becomes just another set of rules. The misfit kids from high school move to New York or San Francisco or wherever so that they can be among people they can have fun with, but then they create their own microcosms of the shitty world that marginalized them. It makes me want to puke.
These identities get postulated by people who are trying to break out of categories and escape that trap, but once that space of freedom is opened up, it gets filled up with all these other people who want to police the border. I’ve always found myself disappointed in that. It’s much more interesting when the boundary is kind of fucked up.