24 August, 2008

Fine Arts 102

Switching from photography, in whose bright precincts I have spent most of my slavish devotion to the representative arts, I take you now to the rarefied world of my fellow subversive and friend Sophi, aka Carolyn Weltman, multiple-award-winning figurative artist, flyweight dominatrix, faerie Queen and Her Majesty's Registrar of Secrets-Hiding-in-Plain-Sight.

Our kinky compatriot Jane Duvall inadvertently introduced us by posting a gallery of Sophi's work on her site, into which I'd fallen from a link at my future business partner's site where Jane was guest-bottoming. I was immediately smitten with the toppish impatience revealed in Sophi's drawings and her obvious affinity and intuitive feel for the human form in bondage. I say intuitive because it was immediately apparent that the ropework in her pieces were either purely imaginative constructs or renderings of restraint limited in their potential efficacy only by... well, for starters, physics (e.g., certain troublesome aspects of gravity - as much a problem in art-making as in bondage rigging, apparently).

But apart from such pissant and geekish exceptions these pieces were a revelation. It was clear that Sophi got it, and this at a time when I was having difficulty describing "it" even to myself. I inquired to the proffered email and received a polite reply with the indication that the artist had some connection to New York City...

Within a few weeks I would be accompanying Delano and other fellow rope freaks at the first BondCon in Queens. By then Sophi and I had developed a dialogue and she had allowed that she would be on West Broadway in Soho presenting her wares on dates when I would likely be showing out-of-towners a bit of my home turf. I found her holding court under an umbrella and surrounded by a bottomless wealth of erotica, all of her own devising. We were chums as of the first embrace.

Among the first of my entreaties to her (for I was at once extraordinarily admiring, turned on, inspired, but largely mystified by her work) concerned her faces, or the lack of them. While her figures were delightfully amplified in irregularity of torso, extremity and mane, not a one of them had but the vaguest hint of physiognomy. In my journal entry for that night I quoted Sophi as asking me "Well, dear Mac, who would you have them be?" Who, indeed. My rumination on that point would end up informing much.

Over the years I have modeled for Sophi on numerous occasions, elaborating on my long experience sitting for life drawing classes. The results have varied from merely excellent to world class. One of our collaborations (a drawing of an exercise Fakir Musafar reminds us is traditionally referred to as a lingam pendulum, right) hangs now in the permanent collection of the Kinsey Institute. In the leading r├┤le is a glass block that still haunts Sophi's studio and still makes a good story when visitors call.

Fin and I have modeled together as well, most recently logging 25 images over many sessions for Sophi's contribution to the soon-to-be-released Mammoth Book of the Kama Sutra. As a fond interpreter of sadistic self-expression I can vouchsafe that most severe erotic torture is wholly inadequate to more than even a few short minutes holding Utthita-uttana-bandha so it can be drawn. Still, by all means, do try this (and everything else you see in this very well-done book) at home - just keep moving.

With as many years as I've been back in NYC I've had the faith and confidence of this most dear friend to participate in her art and way of world-making. The record is large - much more than could ever be done justice here. I'll be posting more of Sophi and about our connection in the near future.

14 August, 2008

You Want to Make It Yourself, or Have It Delivered?

“Can you imagine old age? Of course you can’t. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had no idea what it was like. Not even a false image. No image. Nobody wants anything else. Nobody wants to face any of this before he has to. How is it all going to turn out? Obtuseness is de rigueur.”

Philip Roth writing as David Kepesh in The Dying Animal
A few months ago I wrote an essay about stalking game fish and wild fungi. Although my conscious focus at the time was on patience and to some degree the election to suffering in order that the very best of things can learn of the sincerity of our interest in them, at the same time I less consciously eluded to the possibility of a relationship between myself and my delicately elusive quarry.

Much of that relationship and the messy excellence of it was predicated of the time devoted to it, specifically when the goal of my elaborate efforts (to eat fish and mushrooms) was deferred, when my ultimate reward still lay before me, when the going was the toughest. Merely eating fish and mushrooms could have much more easily been satisfied by a stop at Fred Meyer (sprouting all over the West these days like a mushroom itself, usually in the shittiest of circumstances), or easier still by occupying a booth in a Bennigan's or TGI Friday's until a Brobdingnagian combo platter of beer battered "fish nuggets" and 'shrooms heaved into view.

After all, some things are available just for the asking (and $9.99), so it's perhaps interesting to ask what the non-obvious qualitative differences are between my time-consuming and labor-intensive approach to a quantitatively small (but intense) payoff, and the passive, leisurely route to rafts of fishrooms. In terms of the biological necessity of getting calories into my body the latter would seem to have much to recommend it. What is it about foraging that should be so persuasive when the biological essentialist in me can simply open my wallet and fill my hole?

Perhaps it has something to do with adding a little more time and effort to my pleasures to make them not merely meaningful, but more obviously substantial. Eating food used to be a central tenant of life, and the quality of one's life varied dramatically depending on what, if anything, was to be found in the fields, wood or crosshairs. Our senses used to be acutely geared toward determining ripeness or rot - hard to do when your lettuce is barricaded in a blister pack, or your peaches have been dipped in a chemical agent to stall their ripening.

There is a relationship one has with food, or can have with food, that is fundamentally life-giving and life affirming. Anyone who has traveled in France or Italy invariably takes strong note of the cuisine and the culture surrounding it, and of the (concomitant) sexiness of the people, their joie de vivre, as it were. Ever notice how one does not jump to such conclusions so readily in Germany or England?

Relating to the foodstuffs marketed by industrial outfits is kind of the equivalent of having a relationship with Internet porn. One can have a relationship to porn, and we all by necessity have a relationship to food, but it's impossible to have a relationship with porn because it's not the real thing. Permit the suggestion that a relationship with industrial foodstuffs is an equally dubious proposition - one does not have a relationship with food through the intellectual exercise of reading the nutrient labeling. One eats. One, however, is not obliged to eat the real thing.

There are certainly pleasures to be found in paid procurement, as I'm sure Eliot Spitzer would agree. I myself tremble in lust before Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey. But prostituted goods are not what our better natures crave, they are not what we get to the end of our lives wishing we had not missed.

At the center of what will have been a life well-lived is how much of it we gave to surrendering ourselves to forces we thought were not us - other people, nature, eroticism, etc. In this sense a relationship is only the entry point to the really important stuff - the surrendering. The ultimate surrender is given ("Most things may never happen: this one will." - Philip Larkin). In the end it will pay to have gotten good at surrendering while you were able, that is, unless one finds a dreadful exit somehow attractive. Death won't care one way or the other. Good examples of surrender come to you daily by way of what you put into your body, and claiming the life of the plant, or better still, the animal that is headed for your dinner table is to understand the nature of having a relationship with something. I can relate to killing - lots of fish have met their ends at my hands, and if I were a better shot I might also have had relationships with a few deer.

I should think that if something is inevitable and there's a option to have it at least tolerable, maybe even enlightening, that'd be the choice I'd like to make. That's possible when relating, which in order to be worthy of the word requires vulnerability, access, risk - in a word, surrender.

But, that means: Relating! - not the sort of thing that happens when what sustains you shows up for a few bucks on demand, like so much fried fish. Such cheapness casts the erotic (and food, for that matter) as entertainment - no risk, no edification, no surrender possible... a pastime and detour many pervert into a way of life. Food, sex and life itself become art when we have discovered ourselves opened in a kind of voluptuous, abandoned and carefree way, fearless of the entailments, final and otherwise, loving the moment and knowing that we're in it... in a relationship with it.

You'll know you're in it, of course. It'll be very close, too close for comfort, really, it'll be very difficult...

...and, unless it's death, it will not be delivered.

07 August, 2008

Ring Around the Collar

The cards and letters keep coming...
I am having trouble figuring out BDSM culture... I'm very interested in collaring and wonder if you've ever collared a partner or participated in the ceremony, or can tell me more about the symbolism and so forth. I don't even know what I would wear with a collar! How for example did collaring become special in BDSM? Also, do you have anything you can say about wearing a collar in mainstream society? Obviously I know you don't wear one, but maybe you know people who do.
This from someone who stumbled into kink through association with an artist friend we have in common. I've not heard of what progress she's made in her experiments, but elaborating on my reply to her for posting here has been interesting.

I understand that as a novice the norms and mores of the "culture" should be of exceptional interest, but what I think I know on this front is likely of very small value to someone for whom the interest is keen. Many years of exposure to and participation in (to varying degrees) the club, porn, house, Internet, fine art and political BDSM scene has lead me to surmise the following with respect to norms in BDSM and that which, within the framework of an interpretive apparatus, would identify it as a distinct culture: they are the very norms that identify the larger culture from which they emerge, merely amplified.

Let's consider the example of collaring. When two people avow to one another that between them a commitment to one another obtains, it is customary in the West for this oath to be materially symbolized somehow. In my business I use contracts - legally defensible though they may be, they are in fact merely betokenings of a common understanding. In trade, value is expressed via money, which, like a spoken word, has no intrinsic value other than that ascribed to it by the receiving party; even gold fluctuates daily with respect to the perception of its worth.

In marriage, we use rings, a convention which, as I understand it, emerged from Egypt and is symbolically derivative of the Uroboros, the serpent consuming its own tail and symbolizing the pelastrational nature of integration and assimilation (see Mysterium Coniunctionis by C.G. Jung). Moving forward a couple of millennia, the Romans had culturally calibrated the ring symbol as representative of value, and employed expensively tooled rings of precious metals as trade goods in marriage - the wedding band was regarded as a legal agreement expressing ownership of its wearer, i.e., the woman. Arguably, we preserve more of our current cultural, civic, intellectual and social cues from the Greco-Roman tradition than have persisted from the high era of the Pharaohs.

Even in our modern age we speak of "taking" a mate, and wedding bands are looked to as symbols of "goods" that are "spoken for". I never remove my band, and it is frequently a topic of conversation with partners who are eager to plumb the meaning of the ring as I've perverted it. Even among long-time kinky people there is often the residuum of cultural conditioning regarding possession and its symbols. One learns about one's kink on the tricky terrain of intimacy - through vulnerability, openness and the making of mistakes, false assumptions, or sometimes going 'round in circles (or, if you're lucky, in the making of circles, such as dear A. below - ed.).

In that accelerated world, the lessons come more quickly, more clearly and often more extensibly. This is how it is, I think, that kinky folk tend toward the somewhat more polite and decorous end of the spectrum in the broader cross-section of society. Again, not different so much as simply amplified.

A collar is, to my thinking, merely a variation on the same theme, albeit amplified to an unambiguous degree, whereas the ancient meaning of the wedding band has been diluted by years and the general principle of democratization. Collaring is something we do with our pets, a factor in our lives our laws tell us we "own" and for which we are responsible. I expect the pervy world to keep pace with whatever most clearly and most subversively represents unambiguous commitments (which, of course, are every bit as fragile over the long haul as any commitment expressed elsewhere in society), be it collars or something else. That it be openly defiant or contrary to convention is definitionally its perversity.

Personally, I find collaring symbolically facile. In far more recent times metal collars and chains were expressive of ownership and were also punitive instruments, as they are still. Yet, today, the wearing of metal chains about the neck is not merely fashionable, it's practically uniform. The more bombastic and aware of the Gangsta community here in Brooklyn openly declare the wearing of heavy metal chains about their necks as the subversion and appropriation of a potent symbol from the habit of their historic white oppressors. It is apt, therefore, that proper white society should look upon black "bling" with distaste and discomfort, for it is emblematic of pain white visited upon the body of black on these shores. In much the same spirit the word "nigga" is now exclusively the dominion of black-on-black communication. There is no white person still standing who does not appear a knuckle-dragging cracker should the word escape his lips with any sense of conviction.

Given that most kinky folk come from solidly middle class circumstances and would not be thought "oppressed" in any conventional sense of the term, one wonders about the subversive value of the collar, or what exactly is being defused through reappropriation. This is true for all symbolic expression in kink. The psycho-historical aspect to kinky expression may not be as labyrinthine as Gangsta culture, but then again, perhaps it is. Another way of looking at the issue may be to follow the path backward to what the dominant culture identifies and endorses as normal, and see how behaviors someone such as myself (a scion of middle class comfort if ever there was one) practice (and even call sacred) emerge from that so-called normalcy. In the end, all subcultures end up being commentaries on that of which they are derivative.