Porn: An ideological weapon

In his own words, Canadian artist and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is an “international pornographer”. His avant-garde gay porn movies are the benchmark of the genre. His second-to-most recent film Otto; or Up With Dead People was part of the official selection of the Sundance and Berlin International film festivals.
At a screening of Otto—a “melancholy gay love story” with zombies—some people walked out during what LaBruce describes as “the gut-fucking scene”.
LaBruce is in Johannesburg to produce a work for X Homes, a semi-public art project, which runs until July 10.

Can you tell me a bit about the work you’re doing for X Homes?
I don’t want to talk too much about it because part of the whole X Homes experience relies on an element of surprise. I can say in broad strokes that my piece is in Hillbrow and it has a football theme. But I’m not a big football fan. My piece is about the fetishisation of football and I’m kind of taking it to the next level and turning it into a sexual thing, with total political undertones. The way that the gay experience is inscribed in this city is very complicated, I find.

How so?
The first time I was here 10 years ago was for the gay and lesbian film festival Out in Africa and they did a retrospective of my first four films. At that time there were some gay bars open. And what I understand is that shortly after that many of them disappeared and there aren’t many official gay bars now. It’s so complicated now to say whether that’s because homosexuality is less open and accepted now or whether it’s because in general gays aren’t so gay identified anymore that they need their own gay bars.

What is it like working in someone’s home in Hillbrow?
This whole project is blowing my mind a little bit, because I’ve never done an X Homes before and we’re doing it right in the heart of Hillbrow. I’m working in the home of a guy who lives in this huge apartment complex. He’s gay and his brother’s straight, but they live together. Although it’s a slightly rundown building he has a really cute apartment with the nicest refrigerator I’ve ever seen. It’s a small, modest-sized apartment, but they’re so open to having us move in and do this project. They don’t care if we move out the furniture and totally redecorate the whole apartment.

You don’t strike me as the sort of artist who would ordinarily work on a “community-engaged” project, which is essentially what X Homes is.
No, this is so hardcore. It’s not for sissies. And it’s not politically correct. It’s not tiptoeing around race and culture issues. On those terms, there’s nothing bleeding heart liberal about it. It’s not about outreach, you know, trying to improve the lives of these poor under-privileged people. It’s nothing like that at all.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent incident in which South Africa’s minister of arts and culture condemned some photographs by the artist Zanele Muholi—which depicted lesbian couples embracing - on the basis that these images were “pornographic”, “immoral” and “contrary to nation-building”. Zanele’s photographs were not pornographic, but the minister’s response to what she thought was pornography was quite typical. People seem automatically to associate pornography with immorality. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s a pet peeve of mine that people always associate pornography with a lack of morals or with amorality, but I’ve always argued that the world of pornography is exactly where you really need a strong moral and ethical compass. It’s true that it is a world that is very problematic.
There is a lot of exploitation in porn. A lot of people who get into porn are already damaged, have a history of sexual abuse. A lot of people get into drugs and things like that. On the other hand, a lot of people are conscious of all that and become aware that they have to be even more ethically responsible because that world is dodgy. That’s part of it. The other part is that sex is political. You cannot pretend that porn and sex don’t have a political dimension. I personally think that they should be used more ideologically, which is what I try to do.

Your most recent two feature films, Otto or Up With Dead People and LA Zombie are reputedly gory, LA Zombie much more so than Otto. After working with serious gore yourself, is there anything you struggle to watch?
Well, for me the gut-fucking scene in Otto, for instance, doesn’t seem that extreme really. I just watched this Hollywood horror film that came out three years ago—it’s called Slither, and it had imagery that made Otto look tame. This alien [in Slither] had tentacles coming out of its chest which it used to rape a woman. And then there are all these torture porn movies in which women are tortured and eviscerated and everything, and it’s in technicolour, in these slick high budget movies. It kind of baffles me why people think that Otto is that intense. Having said that, LA Zombie goes way, way further.
For me porn always has to be tempered with a romantic narrative or another side that isn’t purely exploitative. For example the plot of LA Zombie is that the creature, the alien zombie, goes around Los Angeles to find dead bodies and he fucks them back to life. They don’t come back as zombies, they actually come back to life. He’s a kind of superhero or saviour. A lot of these torture porn movies just exploit the pure anxiety that people have about torture and rape. I try to at least make something that has a conscience or a narrative that you can identify with.

In both Otto and LA Zombie the protagonists are gay zombies. Do you have any more zombie movies in the pipelines? 
It’s funny you should ask that, and it’s probably premature to announce this, but my assistant here, Stanimir [Stoykov], and I were talking today and we came up with an idea for a new movie called “Nollywood Zombie”. They just showed me Nollywood [Nigerian movies] for the first time and I’m obsessed with it. It’s perfect cinema. It’s direct cinema combined with soap opera, it’s anthropological, it’s melodramatic. And it’s so simple in the way it’s shot. I won’t go into details, but Nollywood Zombie... At this point it’s just a dream, but I would love to come back to Johannesburg and shoot Nollywood Zombie.

And Nollywood films are already riddled with zombies.
I know, it’s perfect. We already have an elaborate plot worked out, and we have a cast [laughs]. Hopefully, if we can dig up, you know, R10 000 ...

Your film Raspberry Reich was about how the terrorist activity of the Bader-Meinhoff gang came to be assimilated into mainstream culture in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. Terrorism is at the fore of public consciousness today. Is there ever going to be a Bruce LaBruce Al Qaeda porn flick?
Well, that’s funny because my friend, Kembra Pfhaler is a performance artist from New York who also does soft-core fetish movies, and literally two or three months after September 11 she made a soft-core fetish video where she and a trannie took a guy who was dressed up as Osama Bin Laden and shaved his beard off and sexually tortured him, like, spanked him. And I thought that’s exactly what porn and fetish movies are designed for. They’re about coping with these extreme things in life. The unconscious can process things that the conscious can’t, and that’s what porn does. It allows people to work out anxieties and politically incorrect fantasies—even rape fantasies or whatever. Your conscious can’t really deal with them, but your unconscious can, and in porn you can work out those things as well.

I was surprised when visiting your public blog to find the front page full of pictures of your husband. In the past though you’ve been very critical of gay marriage.
I try to contradict myself at least once a day, and to majorly contradict myself once or twice a year. Having said that, I really don’t support marriage. I think that it’s an archaic and reactionary institution, but I am married. It doesn’t mean that I’ve bought into it though.
I know it looks like I’m not practising what I’m preaching. But that’s the problem with ideologues and people with doctrinaire politics. They set themselves up as living this life where their politics are absolutely consistent. But that’s impossible. You can’t live life like that.

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