Artist Bruce LaBruce Thinks Gays Should Stop Selling Their Souls to the Corporate Devil
The pioneering "queercore" writer, director, and photographer talks with us about his upcoming retrospective at MoMA, gay conformity, and Andy Warhol.
Bruce LaBruce came of age when being gay was still hardcore—when being a homo was more punk than even punk itself. A self-described "sissy" who grew up on a farm in Canada, Bruce LaBruce ditched his birth name at an early age. He adopted his artistic pseudonym as a means to fully embody his persona, which was rooted in his pro-gay, countercultural ideologies. As a young man in the 80s, LaBruce made himself the editor, author, and publisher of his own DIY queer punk zines, which would come to play an important role in promoting a new generation of homosexual creatives, including the author Dennis Cooper. If the choice to defiantly glorify gayness in the face of a looming AIDS crisis isn't punk rock, then I don't know what is.
Over time, LaBruce used his creative savoir-faire to maneuver into a career as a director, photographer, writer, artist, and all-around provocateur. As a filmmaker, his work would fall largely into the "queercore" movement. LaBruce became infamous for employing transgressive narratives to marry the vulgar with the poetic, and the distasteful with the brilliant. But although his subject matter is undeniably queer, gay kids aren't the only ones who look up to LaBruce. His work has also gained famous hetero fans like Harmony Korine and Kurt Cobain.
After decades of being misunderstood outside of the underground, LaBruce is surfacing to the mainstream with a major moment: an upcoming retrospective feature at MoMA between April 23rd and May 2nd. Already anticipating this spring's LaBrucennial, I called up BLaB over Skype to ask him about his new work, gay politics, and the ways the art world has changed in the new millennium.
VICE: Congratulations on your MoMa show. What are you doing to celebrate?
Bruce LaBruce: I'm going to do a Hustler White party sponsored by Rentboy.com, and I'm also curating a special screening at Nitehawk on April 29th.
Now that you're having a retrospective, do you still have the same creative drive you did earlier in your career? Do you have any more projects in the works?
Yes, I still write about four hours daily. I also have two upcoming films. There's Twincest, which is a fairy-tale period piece that's set in the 70s. It's about twins who were separated at birth—one is a prude who grew up in the seminary, while the other is a narcissistic biker. They meet again in their early 20s and end up hooking up. I'm also working on a project called Ulrike's Brain, which is a low-budget sequel to The Raspberry Reich. I'd describe it as a female melodrama with a twist.
So what attracted you to filmmaking to begin with?
I always intended to be more of a writer or a film critic, even when I was a teenager. But then I went to university for film studies and took a few years of production [classes] just to see how films are made. I had a great mentor, Robin Wood, who was a Marxist and a feminist. He really instilled the love of filmmaking in me. My first feature was on Super 8, but then when I made my first film, in black and white, it was a real challenge because I hadn't worked in 16 millimeter. It was a torturous process to complete it.
Because I was in the punk scene and was very anti-capitalism, I never had the mindset of being a professional or having a career—even a career as an artist. In the 80s, we were contemptuous of artists because we thought they were bourgeois. So it was more of a strictly creative drive that I had ... but then I started doing photography in the 90s and started working in fashion and porn, and getting paid for it. It was just a bonus for me when I actually make money doing something.
Did your education help you as an artist?
Yes, because [York University] had a really great arts department. I was really more of an academic, until I rejected academia—I call myself a recovering academic. But at the time, it was great to be in an environment surrounded by creative people while I also got my academic training.
You started out making films as a part of the queercore movement, and your work has been consistently labeled as "transgressive." In the age of the internet, when nothing is taboo anymore, what do you consider to be transgressive? Is it even possible to be transgressive anymore? What's the point?
John Waters once said "Gay is not enough," and I feel the same way about transgression—it's not enough. It's how you express the idea of transgression, or the concept of it. So what I've done is, I've taken things that are taboo and shocking, and I've tried to make them more human, more romantic, against expectations. For Gerontophilia, for example, this transgenerational fetish is something that a lot of people find really disgusting. Usually when it's presented in pop culture or movies, it's presented as something that's disgusting or something to laugh at. So I went in the opposite direction by making it lovable, or believable. For me, a fetish isn't something that's creepy. It represents an appreciation, or a reverence for the object of the fetish.
What does gay transgression mean in the age of political correctness?
Just as it's not enough to gross people out with something, I have to put it in some kind of political context, or deal with it in a personal or romantic way. So it's not enough to be just politically incorrect—you have to do it in a more clever way, in a way that challenges politesse or properness. If you challenge that, you have to do it in a smart way that actually challenges people's repression and their adherence to the decorum that they're told they're supposed to enact.
Should gay culture define itself in opposition to the mainstream, as your films often do?
The gay thing is a bit more complicated because I'm really beyond ambivalent about the assimilation movement—not just with gay movement but with the feminist movement, black movements... It just seems like everyone drank the Kool-Aid and is so willing to go corporate. The whole thing about the punk scene was it was DIY and it was out of corporate control and everyone wasn't so desperate to be famous and rich, so it was just creativity for its own sake. Maybe that's why I find it annoying that the gays have been so willing to sell their souls to the devil. And of course, it's really always a matter of gay orthodoxy disassociating itself from the most interesting parts of the culture, or any alternative sexuality. They only want people who are well-behaved and domesticated.
The whole point of creating a persona used to be to protect yourself and maintain a distance from the media or your audience.
Has the extreme accessibility of the internet affected the way that you work?
When I started out, there was no Internet, basically. When I did my experimental films and my first feature film and my zines, it was just done by hand: cut and paste, everything was mailed, and you had to communicate through a network of fanzines and alternative publications. Even with promotion (I've always considered promotion and distribution as a part of the artistic process), I had to become really savvy about how to promote my work and get it out there. That was a whole education in itself.
I was doing things pre-internet that everyone does now. I was writing columns that were like blogs, except for in alternative magazines. I was publishing fanzines that were the equivalent of a Tumblr. I was taking photographs, writing fiction, writing manifestos. It was like an early version of branding—my friends and I created these personae that were these invented, fictional version of ourselves that we propped up as a spectacle, and that distanced ourselves from our own public image.
What was different about those times?
Back then, all the communication was in a small, insular community of like-minded people who you had to work hard to seek out. Today, it seems like it's easy to get lost, and there are a lot of delusional people who think that the whole world is watching them and cares about what they're doing because of their Facebook page. So you still have to find a way to operate in the real world.
The difference, I'd say now, is that everyone creates these personae but they are losing track that it is an artificial construct. So they actually believe what they're creating to be real, so they become narcissistic or delusional to the point that they believe that they're real celebrities. And at the same time, they're giving away all their personal information or personal details, oversharing their private lives. I don't share my private details at all, and I feel like a lot of people have lost their privacy. The whole point of creating a persona used to be to protect yourself and maintain a distance from the media or your audience.
As an artist, how do you feel about the mainstream?
I never had a problem with pop culture. I always loved classic Hollywood film, and I loved American film right up to the early 80s... and then I sort of lost interest. I've met people who are pop-culture snobs, people who dismiss it. But then in the film world, certain film critics like [those who write for] the New Yorker film are sort of reverse snobs, and only like things that are pop and turn up their noses at anything that's experimental. But I'm sort of in the middle: I like both. I've always used narrative, and I've also stolen from Hollywood form.
Otherwise, I think people need to get over this worship of celebrity. It's really disgusting. [Fame] is just based on nepotism, really, and money. You just have to focus on your work and regard the industry side of it as a necessary evil.
What's the most difficult part of making a movie?
For me, it's always raising the money. And second is the writing, because I've written and directed all of my movies. It's always a challenge to keep on inventing new things and not be repeating yourself.
Who are some of your favorite artists working today?
I love Ryan Trecartin's work, I love Gio Black Peter, I like what he does. I like my friends in No Bra. I like cool photographers like Ryan Pfluger, Slava Mogutin and Brian [Kenny], Harmony [Korine], Gaspar Noe...
I read a piece you wrote for VICE back in the day, called "The Warhol Delusion." It struck me as overly critical, but I couldn't actually figure out how you feel about Warhol's work. Can you clear that up for me?
Warhol's influence has been destructive mostly because it's been misinterpreted. I can relate to him because he was tortured farmboy from nowhere, he was picked on, and he was a sissy. So that [identity] is part of the thrust behind his whole work. But for example, when he said "15 minutes famous," he didn't really mean it as a good thing. He meant it as a very detached way, like everyone will be a product from a factory that's slotted for this moment of fame, and everyone is just interchangeable—it's a dystopian vision. I mean, the truth is that he was incredibly morbid and detached. On him it looks good, but when you have super-rich artists trying to emulate his philosophy, they totally misunderstand it and it becomes a capitalist indulgence.
Do you have any advice for young filmmakers?
For me, the rules of filmmaking for kids are:
- If you call yourself a filmmaker, you have to make movies. You don't just talk about it. You have to do it.
- You have to finish your movie.
- The thing that will ultimately distinguish you from everyone is else is to be good and keep doing it. It's the people who hang around who get noticed, because there are so many people who are just playing at it.
- Make something personal. That's what I think is important.
See Bruce LaBruce's retrospective at MoMa, starting April 23.
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Correction: An earlier version of this piece misquoted LaBruce. He said "black movements," not "the civil rights movement." Additionally, the follow-up film to The Raspberry Reich is called Ulrike's Brain, not Mother Mary. We regret the errors.