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Leather, sex, archives, and contemporary art
Author: Andy Campbell

Bound Together: Leather, Sex, Archives, and Contemporary Art considers historic gay and lesbian leather communities by way of two interrelated lines of enquiry; addressing the archives where leather histories and their attendant visual and material objects currently reside, while also examining the projects of contemporary artists who bring leather histories to the fore, making an implicit argument for their potential queer political force in the present. Arguing for an expansive, yet grounded, consideration of the vicissitudes and pleasures of archival work, the book centers the material and visual cultures produced by members of gay and lesbian leather communities, tracing their contextual meanings at the time of their making, as well as their continued ability to produce community-specific histories in archival repositories (that may or may not be solely dedicated to leather communities). Contemporary artists such as Dean Sameshima, Die Kränken, Monica Majoli, A. K. Burns and A. L. Steiner, and Patrick Staff have incorporated the themes, materialities, and/or histories of such archival holdings into their heterogeneous practices, establishing leather history as a persistent and generative touchstone for rethinking queer life, relationality, and sexual politics.

Andy Campbell

Detailing the history of the Leather Archives & Museum, the only bricks-and-mortar archive to be solely dedicated to the collection, preservation, and display of leather histories, this chapter takes a cue from Michel Foucault’s habit for reading archives on the diagonal, using the hanky code, a color-coded sexual signaling system developed in the 1970s, as an organizing principle for apprehending the social lifeways of gay and lesbian leatherfolks. By choosing yellow as a focal point in unspooling leather histories—a color whose relation to golden showers, or the erotics of pissing, remains consistent across the many historical iterations of the hanky code— the depth and breadth of the institution’s collections are put into coordination with the constellated visual and material cultures of gay and lesbian leather communities.

in Bound together
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Bound together
Andy Campbell

Making the argument that leather archives and certain strands of contemporary queer artistic practice are bound up with one another, and that each gives the other meanings that enrich and deepen their respective significance to their own times, communities, and even, to culture at large, the introduction sets out to define the book’s critical terms—chiefly, leather and archives. Leather, for the purposes of this text, is proposed as a diverse sexual ecology that privileges fucking and improvisatory play, genital and non-genital pleasure, rules and their effacement—all under the rubric of a seemingly static visual iconography, which in actuality is always in the process of being amended, shored, repurposed, and obliterated. Eschewing the metonymic linguistic figuration of ‘the archive,’ the introduction argues for taking a more on-the-ground approach to assessing and working with archives. A work by queer/non-binary artist Roy A. Martinez, a comic strip by leather artist Bill Ward, and the online archive ‘The Colors of Leather’ are discussed as brief case studies.

in Bound together
Andy Campbell

The third chapter discusses the recent reception of Tom of Finland, perhaps the best-known artist within and outside of leather communities, and asks the question: What does Tom of Finland’s work gain when it is collected by major art museum in the U.S.? In exploring a potential answer to this question, the historical influences, reception, and distribution of the artist’s work are detailed; it is a history that is now primarily told by the Tom of Finland Foundation. The Foundation, located in the house the artist lived in for a time, is one of the primary subjects of a video by artist Patrick Staff entitled The Foundation (2015). In it, Staff explores the limits of normative leather masculinities through verité footage of the daily activities at the Tom of Finland Foundation and a constructed studio scenario, wherein Staff and an older gay man (roughly fitting into the ‘gay daddy’ type) dance together and explore their differences.

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Andy Campbell

Berlin-based artist Dean Sameshima’s painted silkscreen appropriations of erotic connect-the-dots activities (which initially appeared in the pages of Drummer magazine) are the subject of the fifth chapter. Reading his interest in ‘numbers’ broadly—including Sameshima’s direct reference to John Rechy’s 1967 novel of the same name—the chapter discusses the work’s capacities to frustrate handy readings of archival objects. One work in particular, Bodily Fluids, 2007, is emblematic of these efforts, and it brings together various concerns across Sameshima’s oeuvre. Bodily Fluids not only entangles racialized subjectivities with historical sexual codes, but also intimates the ways in which we may be alone while also with others.

in Bound together
Andy Campbell

Housed in a mobile library and archive, Viola Johnson’s pin sash—a leather garment onto which hundreds of metal pins and buttons have been affixed—spotlights the terms of her expansive leathersexuality. Such a sexuality, for Johnson, is predicated on a notion of service that primarily manifests in the constant upkeep, revising, archiving, and presenting of leather history, through the display and interpretation of her sash and library. After detailing the genesis and social milieu of the Carter/Johnson Leather Library and the significance of pins and buttons in leatherwear more generally, this chapter focuses on a button reading ‘The L.A.P.D. FREED the Slaves April 10, 1976.’ Initially made to protest the raid of a mock slave auction at the Mark IV bathhouse in Los Angeles, the button underscores the dyadic yet fungible terms of freedom and enslavement, and thus the relationships between sexual power-play and non-consensual state violence.

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Andy Campbell

Attachments to historical and archival sources are at the center of Nayland Blake’s 2012 installation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Entitled FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX! the components of the exhibition, as well as one of its public programs (a piercing demonstration conducted by Blake and his long-time familiar Lolita Wolf), is the subject of the seventh chapter. As a young artist Blake was a participant in San Francisco’s changing arts landscape, and his relation to the massive development of the South of Market area (where YBCA is located, and also where many leather bars and institutions were established), structures his questions about San Francisco’s leather histories. By literally attaching himself to a reproduction of an iconic mural decorating one of San Francisco’s earliest leather bars, Blake stages an encounter with history, exhorting his audience to participate in claiming historical networks and lineages.

in Bound together
Andy Campbell

This chapter discusses Fred Halsted’s pornographic leather film, L.A. Plays Itself (1972), and traces its editing and exhibition history. Composed of two dissimilar sections—one focusing on urban cruising and fisting and the other on penetrative sex in the natural grandeur of the Malibu hills—Halsted switched the ordering of these sections in the early years of the film’s history. His 1974 screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and his subsequent gift of L.A. Plays Itself and two other films to the museum, became a point of pride for the director, who may have reordered his film to suit the narratives of Modernism pervasive in the museum’s permanent collection installations. Decades later, the artists A. K. Burns and A. L. Steiner watched Halsted’s film in MoMA’s screening room and it inspired the pair to make their own pornographic art video (also now owned by MoMA), Community Action Center (2010). In a sequence of polymorphously perverse scenes, Burns and Steiner directly quote L.A. Plays Itself and incorporate its gritty, experimental attitude with lesbian-feminist, queer, and trans performers and sources, assembling a heterogeneous pornographic archive in the process.

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Surrogates, envelopes
Andy Campbell

Bound together’s conclusion ruminates on two series by the artist Monica Majoli, who sees her works as both ‘surrogates’ and ‘envelopes’ for herself. In luminous oil paintings of gay male piss orgies and monochromatic gouaches of suspended rubbermen, Majoli visualizes leather scenarios that center the masochist’s body and experiences. Each extrapolates from an archive of lived experiences of an other, forcing Majoli to grapple with questions about subjectivity and sociality. Like Majoli, these paintings have become, over the years, ‘surrogates’ and ‘envelopes’ for the author and the work of collecting, archiving, and entering the scene of leathersex. Connection begets connection, and the transmission of sexual gifts is discussed as a hallmark of leather and queer cultures more broadly.

in Bound together
Andy Campbell

The second chapter discusses an installation by the California-based artist collective Die Kränken, who made use of the Blue Max Motorcycle Club papers (owned by the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives) in a wide-ranging installation that translated a theatrical production staged yearly by the Southern California motorcycle club. In thinking about history, care, and relationality Die Kränken puts particular investment in the nurse as a figure of historical stewardship. Die Kränken’s project is placed in stark opposition to an exhibition of a ‘found’ album of photographs discovered by New York gallerist and poet Scott Zieher, who refused to contextually place or research his find before separating the album’s contents and selling them. In critically engaging with Zieher’s project and book—both entitled ‘Band of Bikers’—the chapter concludes that motorcycle clubs, an important engine of the social lifeways and aesthetic programs of broader leather cultures, deserve better than to be shrouded in mystery.

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