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Sheree Rose: A Legend of Los Angeles Performance Art

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Sheree Rose and Bob Flanagan, New York, 1994. | Photo: Michel Delsol.

At noon on Sunday June 23, Sheree Rose will reprise her work as a performance artist. Rose will stage "Do With Me What You Will," a 24 hour durational performance with the London-based artist Martin O'Brien, at a dungeon on La Cienega, just under airplanes taking off from LAX's runways.

Rose is a legend of multiple Los Angeles underground scenes. Punk shows, feminist reading groups, poetry scenes, fetish clubs, underground performance art events -- she's been there and done that as an active participant and also as a documentarian.

Sheree Rose come out as a feminist in the 1970s -- she had been married with children and realized that being a housewife wasn't for her. She divorced and began to counsel single mothers on education and economic independence. While getting a masters degree, she participated in feminist reading groups and found herself in dialogue with women who saw lesbianism as a sexual expression of a feminist politics. Some of the women she talked to saw men as "the enemy." Rose wondered, however, if there was a different way of practicing heterosexuality.

Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose.
Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose.

For 16 years she explored this question with Bob Flanagan. Their romantic and creative partnership is hard to classify -- our vocabulary isn't nearly as elastic as it needs to be on this point. Contemporary art features a handful of artists whose practice is expressed through their romantic/domestic relationships: Marina Abramovic and Ulay (who worked together from 1976 until 1989), the British artists Gilbert and George (who have described their partnership and collaboration as "living sculptures"), General Idea (a 25-year partnership, artist collaboration and media experiment between AA Bronson, Jorge Zontal and Feliz Partz). All of those artists explored ways of being together, as a part of their creative work. They challenge ideas about authorship, expression, and the line between public and private life.

Rose and Flanagan belong in that company -- but their importance is different. Their history is worth knowing not for what they did to art, but for what they did to love and sex. This is where Rose's relationship to her practice is quite different from that of the people mentioned above. It was an already-existing active engagement with sex politics as lived and felt that brought Rose and Flanagan into galleries and museums. They were together for years before that relationship morphed into an art practice, and their activism was, at first, an explicitly sexual activism localized to their personal lives and to their activism within and on behalf of the BDSM community.

Bob Flanagan was a pathfinder as a writer, as an artist and performer, and as a person. He had cystic fibrosis, and lived into his 40s -- this was almost unheard as most people with this illness struggle to make it to 30. A big part of his story is the way he integrated pain into his life as a source of pleasure. Flanagan was a self-described "supermasochist." And it was through their sadomaschistic practice that Sheree Rose and Bob Flanagan rewrote the history of performance art.

Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose, "Wall of Pain," 1981-1992. | Photographs and hypodermic needles, 132 x 168 inches.
Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose, "Wall of Pain," 1981-1992. | Photographs and hypodermic needles, 132 x 168 inches.

In a 2009 interview with the artist Tina Takemoto, Rose explains how she and Flanagan developed their practice:

I would say that there were three main phases in our relationship. The first phase was our personal life -- just him and me and all the crazy, wild, fun things we did together during the first couple years. Even though I photographed everything, this documentation was just for us. The next five years, the second phase, were spent organizing the sadomasochistic community, which had not been done before. SM was a really important aspect of our lives. We believed in it enough to pour all of our energy into making SM a national movement and creating public and community spaces for it. We became spokespeople for sadomasochism, giving lectures and demonstrations and raising awareness about the SM community. Nowadays, it's gone much further than we ever expected. But at that time, the SM movement was just beginning. And, because we got such good responses within the SM community, we flirted with the idea of bringing SM out into the mainstream. That was the beginning of the third phase, the art phase.

Perhaps what we are seeing from Rose now is a forth phase -- a return to performance, as a mentor to younger artists exploring how SM, power and sexuality might figure in their practice.

There is so much that is inspiring about Rose and Flanagan's story -- and also about Rose's relationship with this part of her past. The media is filled with headlines describing especially young women's sexual victimization (e.g. Steubenville); we need to pay attention to the way that Rose and Flanagan didn't just consent to participate in an SM relationship: they eroticized consent itself -- their public practice allows people to expand their understanding of how the negotiation of intimacy itself doesn't have to be a soul-crushing enterprise. Consent, agreement, negotiation -- all of this was, for Rose and Flanagan -- part of their daily poetics (and this is part of SM political culture). They wrote contracts, for example, describing Flanagan's obligations as a slave and Rose's obligations to him -- those documents structured their relationship in ways that were both practical and sexy. They sought to recover all that the marital contract removes in its naturalization of the structures of domestic relationships -- they found a way to constantly renew their relationship as one of active, and sexualized negotiation of domination and submission -- and they opened that process up to the public in performance actions.

As much as BDSM has entered into the popular imaginary via "50 Shades of Grey" and the cross-over appeal of a kink master like James Deen, the profoundly feminist project of surfacing the dynamics of complicity and resistance, of suffering and pleasure within sexual life is still punk, revolutionary -- and necessary. For the question that nagged Rose in the 1970s - What does it mean to "be with" a man, as a feminist? -- that question is as relevant as ever. And I'd like to think that today we have to room to see that question as not "just" about sex -- it's about collaboration, intimacy, and conversation -- it's about being in the body you are in, and with the bodies you are with.

Martin O'Brien
Martin O'Brien.

Years after her practice with Flanagan was ended by his death, Rose returns to this project -- this time in collaboration with Martin O'Brien a young gay man (who also has CF and integrates that fact into his work). O'Brien could easily be Rose's son, and their performance dynamic has a hard maternal edge. (Rose is mentoring Martin O'Brien with another Los Angeles performance legend -- Ron Athey.)

Together, Rose and O'Brian explore the power dynamics of age and gender - Rose is the demanding mother to his child. On Sunday, he will be her "slave," to do with what she will. Rose is taking suggestions; people are invited to sit with them anytime between noon on Sunday and noon on Monday.

Sheree Rose and Martin O'Brien, "Do With Me What You Will," starts 23rd June at noon at Sanctuary Studios LAX 10914 S. La Cienega Bl., Lennox, CA 90304.

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