Resurrecting an Expletive

The nightclub’s named was legendarily unsubtle. It sidestepped nuance, proclaimed hedonism, and dared one to do more than just say it aloud. It commanded exclamation. Legends survive that way, by being belted out from one generation to the next. More than just a nightspot, Fuck was a bloody, sweaty, and hungry social organism, a kinky kiki that celebrated the queerest of the queer and the coolest of the queer. From 1989 to 1993, Fuck brought together weirdos, perverts, artists, and tastemakers for dancing, drinking, and of course, interesting flavors of fornicating. Vogue magazine cautioned and counseled, “Go at your own risk. Wear leather—or less!” and Fuck continues to be touted as one of the most transgressive jewels LA’s queer demimonde has ever produced.

Fuck represents a Bonnie and Clyde, or rather, Bonnie and Bonnie, way of being queer in Los Angeles that has largely, but not entirely, been lost. Instead of industrial strength resistance to mainstream American values, much of today’s queer culture places marriage equality, not public sex, at the top of its agenda.

The legend that was Club Fuck is resurrected by co-curators Lucia Fabio and Toro Castaño in a multimodal exhibit entitled Fuck! Loss, desire and pleasure that blends artifact with art at USC’s ONE Archives.

A card-carrying club member, Castaño describes a quintessentially Fuck moment, a holiday unfolding in Hades: “[It was] Easter Sunday. Double crucifixion procession with Michelle “Hell” Carr in Jesus drag with black spiked heels…Apex was fake blood spray and Ministry blasting our ears off, revelry in blood bath. [I was] wearing thigh high Wesco engineer boots, a codpiece, and black eyeliner. Blissful! Profane. Shocking. Fun!” Castaño’s reminiscence pulses with ecstatic and exclamatory blasphemy.

Castaño holds a tender stake in the exhibit.

“I saw the exhibit as an opportunity to theorize, clarify, and make sense of my own experience [at Fuck!]” he explains. “It was so key in my self-actualization, formation, and understanding of the world in which we, as LGBT people, reside.”

Fabio, his collaborator, adds, “It was important for us no to let this be solely an historical exhibition. We felt that Fuck influenced younger generations of artists though not in a direct manner.” Fuck’s zeitgeist, for instance, still echoes in the work of marginalized artists like Los Angeles based performer Daphne Von Rey. Von Rey’s work embodies her reality as an HIV+ transgender woman. Los Angeles based curator Selene Preciado, who saw Von Rey perform at the library on the exhibit’s opening night, says, “[She] reminded me of Ron Athey and other artists from [Fuck’s] circle. [They] created ritual performances about pain, endurance, and bodily fluids as a form of resistance.”

While Von Rey’s work has tried and true roots in Fuck’s ethos, Fuck’s aesthetic has leaked into popular culture in superficial ways. If one scrolls through the Instagram Account of many an aspiring model, one will find a young woman trussed in rope or showing off curves in bondage gear that probably won’t get put to its intended use. Pop stars like Rihanna don leather, latex, dog collars, and studs for music videos, making Fuck’s once rebel style fit for the boring masses to consume.

Rush Riddle, Dancers at FUCK!, March 1991.Courtesy of the artist.

The Transcendent Glue

Club Fuck’s genealogy as well as that of artists selected in the exhibit -- Jordan Eagles, Siobhan Hebron, Young Joon Kwak, and Dominic Quagliozzi-- can be traced to a time before the Stonewall Riots, to a watering hole called the Black Cat Tavern. At this Silver Lake queer bar, plainclothes cops trounced and beat New Year’s revelers welcoming 1967. Cops swung pool cues, brandished side arms, and arrested men for making out. That February, queers protested the raid. Approximately two hundred history makers gathered on Sunset and Hyperion and staged the largest rally for queer rights ever to occur in the United States.

This birthplace of queer resistance became the Bushwhacker which, in turn, became Basgo’s Disco, a brown queer bar and Fuck’s first official home outside Hollywood’s Fontenoy Apartments. Sexy house parties thrown at this complex outgrew their locale and turned into a Sunday club happening where bodies thrashed and swayed to post-punk, queercore, tribal and industrial dance music. Fuck became a theatre of sorts where modern primitives spilled beer on leather daddy’s cowboy boots, fakirs gossiped with wannabe vampires, and dudes with gleaming nipple piercings sought partners for BJs and barebacking. Disco wizards psilocybin tripped to nearby dimensions where fog and strobe lights replaced moon and stars. Grinning Bettie Page clones with lipstick on their cigarette stained teeth shimmied to the screech of live bands like Pedro, Muriel & Esther, vocalist, and cultural terrorist, Vaginal Davis shouting, “She’s a real fine chick! She’s got tits and a dick!”

Castaño cites Melrose Avenue circa 1980s, a then seedy place unblemished by Starbucks, as a critical influence on Fuck. “There was a whole confluence of art, design, and music that coalesced [in that area],” he says. “[Neighborhood] borders weren’t so strictly observed and the economics of the time supported low cost living which in turn supported a more leisurely artistic [lifestyle].” Many of Fuck’s habitués and stars chilled in or lived in and around this area. A clutch of these iconoclasts went on to form the canon of Los Angeles queer arts and letters, making work unified by themes¾carnality, stigma, illness, and death¾ that can be traced to values nourished by Fuck. Some of these luminaries include the writer Dennis Cooper, the photographer Catherine Opie, and Michelle Carr, the grand dame of neoburlesque.

In addition to musical acts, performers partook in sadomasochistic rituals, many involving blood sports and stamina. Some of these were formally produced stage shows, others were floorshows, and others still were demonstrations held in cooperation with piercing salon Gauntlet. These spectacles bathed participants and onlookers in adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins. These hormones and neurotransmitters were the transcendent glue holding black sheep together, creating emotional orgy and community.

Fuck’s mixed atmosphere differed from LA’s typical queer spaces where men, regardless of their subcultural affiliations, dominated nightlife. The presence of diverse women put the space at a vanguard. Dykes straddling steel rumbled up to the club’s curb, and butch supermodel Jenny Shimizu is rumored to have been discovered this way, while gloriously pulling up to Fuck oozing Brandoesque sexuality. Powdered femmes go-go danced to My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, musky armpit hair spilling over crinoline bra bands. Fuck’s attitude towards gender went beyond anything goes; it intoned do gender in a way that feels right. Embody it as hard as you can. Drink, breathe, and bleed your rebel sexuality on this floor. That’s what this space exists for. A display of photographs of fag-dyke SM play at a Fuck sponsored fetish ball underscore this commitment to complicating gender and sex through art, especially the art of pain.

Rush Riddle, Dancers at FUCK!, March 1991.Courtesy of the artist

Bodies are Not Archival

At Fuck, being sick wasn’t a call to hide. Sickness got spotlight. Sickness got love. Through participation in rites like scarification, mummification, and needle play, the ill were recast as powerful, sacred, and erotic entities. Performance artist Bob Flanagan, one of the longest living survivors of cystic fibrosis, flexed his playful yet extreme masochism for Fuck audiences, and music videos by Nine Inch Nails and Danzig document Flanagan’s preternatural tolerance for pain, genital and otherwise. Ron Athey, an HIV positive performance artist, developed his sexually charged, endurance-pushing, and nearly operatic stagecraft there.

The outlaw nature of putting the sick on stage and asserting their “right to bleed in public” was underscored by Congressional debates vilifying Athey’s work. Archival footage pans across the Senate floor where Jesse Helms stands beside a large black and white photograph of Athey propped against an easel, shirtless and looking much as he must have disrobing at Fuck. Glancing at the photo, Helms describes him “as a very handsome man, if you like that kind of man,” and accuses him of sending an audience into an HIV panic by exposing them to positive blood at an event sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

This was Fuck penetrating the federal government. This is how far-reaching its influence was.

Jordan Eagles, Blood Illumination, 2015. Blood of Oliver Anene, Blue Bayer, Howard Grossman, M.D., Kelsey Louie, Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., The Reverend John Moody, Loren Rice, Ty Spicha, CPT Anthony Woods, preserved in UV resin, overhead projector(s). Site specific, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

AIDS-related illness killed Miguel Beristain and Cliff Diller, and James Stone died of cancer, the trinity of queerdos credited with founding Fuck. In the USC exhibit, their memorial cards, one bearing an excerpt of David Wojnarowicz’s Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, “I can no longer find what I’m looking for outside myself…” and other funerary ephemera are mounted behind glass in a fashion that invites creation of a makeshift shrine. The empty, white space beneath the objects whispers, “Leave red roses, Crisco, poppers or cat-o-nine tails…” Diller died a month before he was to perform in Athey’s first show outside Fuck, Martyrs and Saints, which was held at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibits. A Martyrs and Saints’ program is displayed among the memorial cards and features a dedication to Diller. It reads, “This is not just an AIDS piece, or just a piercing demonstration, but a work about a group of people who have been branded black sheep because of the things they do with their bodies.”

Some say Fuck died the night Liza Minelli showed up to party, while others argue that déjà vu ruined it. Although the club operated in post-Stonewall America, it was still regarded as outlaw. Uninitiated patrons, also known as cultural tourists, had started frequenting Fuck, and it was presumably one of these looky-loos who phoned the vice squad. They described a sadomasochistic demo given by Paul King of Gauntlet, and the following Sunday became New Year’s Eve 1967 all over again. Undercover vice cops raided Fuck. Amidst accusations of lewd conduct and obscenity under a human trafficking statute, LAPD arrested twenty people. Gawkers and “law and order” wrecked this place of perverted worship.

It’s hard not to think of heaven versus earth analogies when considering the structure of the Fuck exhibit. The library’s mezzanine, which holds the historical part of it, floats above the contemporary artwork below. It’s as if Fuck’s angels and demons, both of whom have decamped for the heavens, are watching and contemplating their legacy from black leather clouds. Not only do these angels, demons, and ghosts see their influence in the gallery, they see it all over America. They see it in the girl on an Iowa farm clacking her tongue piercing against her front teeth. They see it in the frat boy with tribal tattoos unfurling around his underperforming nipples. This sartorial influence seems to be the biggest impact Fuck, and subcultures like it, had on mainstream culture. They gave the uninspired an aesthetic to mine and cannibalize, a road map for how to look and be cool.

Down in the gallery, artist Quagliozzi’s four prints repeatedly declare BODIES ARE NOT ARCHIVAL. They make an exquisite point, one that Western Civilization, in large part, exists to mask. The body bleeds, gets ill, decays, and dies. And the body has a right to do this in public. The body has a right to be bodily in public. It is our duty to try to remember this and to treat history as the body of Lazarus. FUCK! Loss, desire, pleasure successfully resurrects an expletive that isn’t interested in dying but knows that it will.


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