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BRUCE LABRUCE

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In Bruce LaBruce’s work, as bodies ooze in cum like goo, flesh becomes one. In the latest film by the Toronto-based artist and father of the queercore movement, The Visitor – produced by London-based arts organisation a/political – a posh British family is sexually liberated by a black refugee. The film is a post-colonial gender clusterfuck redux of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968); a renewed take on bondage-core for a generation without values. In the years since his film Otto; or Up with Dead People debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, LaBruce’s films have been censored and dropped by film festivals, but accolades and cult fame have followed. 

Interview by Dorian Batycka
Portrait by George Nebieridze

DORIAN BATYCKA Your latest film The Visitor is based on an interpretation of Pasolini. What drew you to him?

BRUCE LABRUCE Pasolini blew my mind in terms of how far he went, liberating cinema by connecting film – and specifically sexually explicit film – to perversions in religion and politics, too. 

DB Do you think this liberates the viewer? Or functions as a type of catharsis? 

BLB Porn is a ludic space where you can explore your innermost extreme sexual fantasies, no matter how dark. Some of these sexual fantasies are based on non-consensual desires like rape and race-based fantasies of domination and submission. 

DB Do you have those?

BLB I think we all have those. People have these dark fantasies and there’s a lot of shame attached to them. Many people think that the politics of their everyday life have to coincide with their sexual desires, but sexual fantasies are hard to reconcile by any stretch of the political imagination. That is what I find so interesting about them.

DB How did you get into film? 

BLB A lot of my early interest in film was ignited by the underground punk scene in Toronto back in the 1980s. My early films were inspired by places I used to go and hang out, punk palaces like Larry’s Hideaway, Idiko’s and Quoc-Te. When we did J.D.s, my queer punk fanzine, most of the artists were based around Queen West, the arts district in Toronto at that time, but many of them were already institutional. My friends and I totally rejected art. We didn’t call ourselves artists. We were much more politically motivated and interested in the underground queer punk movement than in any kind of validation from institutions. 

DB Do you find any contradiction in politics? 

BLB I think there is hypocrisy on both the left and the right. Trump’s an asshole but his use of punk strategies is what makes him so invincible.

DB Do you have any feelings about the market, either the art market or the film industry itself?

BLB I’ve seen so many artists in big institutional shows who completely water down their work or start self-censoring themselves. Fuck that.

DB What about institutions like Catholicism and fascism – how do you reconcile these in your work? 

BLB As I mentioned before, I have always felt a deep connection to Pasolini’s work, especially his films that explore queer themes. My first encounter with his films was through the “Trilogy of Life”: The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974). I remember watching poor-quality copies of these films in Toronto. Initially, I was unsure what to make of them, mistaking them for something akin to softcore porn. Later, I discovered Pasolini’s “Death Trilogy” - Oedipus Rex (1967), Pigsty (1969), and Medea (1969). These films profoundly impacted me with their explicit sexual content and the way they intertwined masochistic sexuality within a political and social context, particularly in relation to Catholicism and fascism. 

DB You and Pasolini share an interesting multi-capacity, with both of you working as writers, photographers and poets, dare I say. Does the medium have any message for you? 

BLB Considering Pasolini’s stature as a philosopher, poet and visionary, I find it quite ambitious to even think of attempting my version of his work, especially something as iconic as Teorema. But I believe in setting high goals.

 

DB How about your stance with respect to current strands of queer culture? Has the rainbow flag become the postmodern neoliberal floating signifier of the shittiest order? 

BLB Expressing one’s queerness goes beyond conventional homosexual norms. I think challenging the standard homosexual orthodoxy is just as crucial as opposing any mainstream societal norms.

DB How do you explore this theme in The Visitor?

BLB In The Visitor I have a scene where the mother is in bondage in a sling with a ballgag in her mouth getting eaten out and fucked. According to some feminist orthodoxy, that’s offensive, even though it’s clear that she has complete agency and autonomy and is enjoying it. It’s also symbolic of liberating the frustrated bourgeois housewife. But then I’ve always rejected the gay mainstream, especially after the assimilation movement when everyone really wanted to gain cultural acceptance. I think that in the end they disassociated themselves from all the radical fringes, the freaks, the marginalised. They would say, Oh, you’re being a bad gay. You’re giving gays a bad name. It’s more important to be domesticated and behave so that we can get our rights like everyone else. Well, we’ve seen how well that’s worked out, leading to a backlash where gay rights are being rescinded. We’re in a totally regressive cultural moment. 

 

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Still from The Visitor (2023). Courtesy a/political © Bruce LaBruce

 

DB So you reject the strategy of assimilation? Minorities should stay marginal? 

BLB I never thought that the strategy of assimilation was a good idea because it stripped the gay movement of everything that made it strong and different. An emphasis on sexuality was the engine of gay liberation. 

DB In what ways did you tackle non-orthodoxies of queer culture in your early work? 

BLB Well, they were so cheap to make that it was really more like documenting our scene, which later became what we jokingly referred to as the queer punk movement. It was me and G.B. Jones and my friend Kenny. We’ve made it seem like there was a full-fledged queer punk movement happening in Toronto, even though there wasn’t. People thought that there was this crazy movement of hundreds of queer punks, but in the end it was just me and a couple of friends filming everything on a Super 8. 

DB How did that lead to making feature-length, film festival circuit-touring films?

BLB Well, I started introducing hardcore porn into my work – first as found porn that I spliced into my Super 8 films, then later I started to shoot scenes splicing them together with porn, before finally making my own crude idea of what porn was – that’s when I met Jürgen Brüning, who became my producer. He was then visiting film and video curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Centre in Buffalo and would come to Toronto all the time. He saw my early films and gave me the money to blow them up to 16, and it just took off from there. 

DB Did you develop a cult reputation as an arthouse porn maker, or did people pigeonhole your films as pornographic?

BLB Well, I was gaining a reputation for doing porn but because what I was making was getting love from the art world and the film festival circuits, I got away with it. But there was a class feeling where people started treating me like I was an enfant terrible

DB Did you ever dabble in any other types of performance, like music or acting?

BLB I used to DJ a lot and I’ve done a lot of live performances too. In my Death Book (2021, reprinted 2024) published by Baron Books, I created a compilation of all these performances I did at my art openings where I would do live photo shoots using Polaroids and would hire performers. It was a whole series. One was about Abu Ghraib. 

DB The prison in Baghdad where the U.S. famously tested out and sanctioned torture methods? 

BLB Yes, we acted out terror seduction scenarios. I documented it by asking members of the public to participate in acts like waterboarding. Sometimes they got naked, other times they would pose bloody as if they were victims of abduction. I did one in Toronto at Gallery 1313, a full Polaroid show. Later I did ones in Madrid and London. There was an event that Ron Athey did called Visions of Excess (2009). I did an abduction scenario. ◉