Some Roughs Are Really Queer, Some Queers Are Really Rough

Bruce LaBruce and Slava Mogutin in conversation with Ben Reardon

Man About Town (UK), Winter/Spring 2016/17


Caustic and cheap, vulgar and purposefully offensive, Bruce LaBruce and Slava Mogutin are provocateurs of the highest order. We sit down with the terrible twosome to discuss their political writings, movies, photography and art which have seen them duly heralded and reviled, censored and sensationalised. In the here and now, they stand as an honest and welcome antithesis to good taste.

When did you first meet?

Bruce LaBruce: Slava has a better memory than I do. But I believe it was in something like 1997? I think he emailed me to ask me if he could interview me for a book he was publishing in Russia - interviews with remarkable fags - and so the next time I was in NYC we got together and he interviewed me, and we got along so famously that we met again the next day and have remained good friends ever since. 

Slava Mogutin: We met in flesh at the Verbal Abuse night at Club Mother when Bruce had a launch for his book The Reluctant Pornographer. I’ve been following his work from the time I saw it as a teenager in Moscow. It was a bad VHS bootleg copy of No Skin of My Ass and I found it the most poetic and honest film ever.

How long have you known each other and when did you realize a longstanding friendship was forming?

BLaB: Okay so that would be 19 years ago we met? We were really sympatico from the moment we laid eyes on each other. It was like love at first sight! So I think we knew right away. But we never had sex.

SM: I think the platonic part is what made it work long-term. I guess, maybe because we were both into black guys? When I first moved to New York, I used to go out mostly with the boys of color, some of whom Bruce met (just like I met his). But it was more of a sister act from the get-go, a unique artistic synergy that outlasted all my other relationships.

What is it you love most about each other?

BLaB: Well, Barbara Walters, I think what I love most about Slava, besides his supersexy Russian accent and his slow way of talking and his high cheekbones and body of death and brilliant mind and sunshiny personality, is the fact that he not only has the soul of a poet (and he's actually a great poet), but the soul of a Russian poet, which is about the most poetic soul on Earth. 

SM: Let’s see, where do I even start? I admire Bruce’s rebellious spirit and altruism, as much as his encyclopedic mind and incredible work ethic. We’ve traveled the world together and have seen each other in various stages of success and undress. Once in Pittsburgh, we arm-wrestled after our performance at the Andy Warhol Museum and Bruce beat me like I had zero muscles. He can out-party and drink under the table kids half his age, and the following day he’ll be back to work, directing or shooting or writing or doing all of the above. He’s one tough mofo and a true inspiration.

Tell us a favourite memory/story of a time spent together.

BLaB: I bet we'll tell the same story. In 1988, after I brought Slava to London to appear in my neo-Nazi porn film, Skin Flick, we took a little vacay afterwards and spent week together in Prague at the house of his friend Dmitry, who at the time worked for Radio Free Europe. We watched Andy Warhol's Women in Revolt together for the first time, and we laughed and laughed. And then we went to the famous, now defunct, hustler bar called Pinocchio, and we both picked up teenage hustlers and brought them home and fucked the living daylights out of them. And when I woke up in the morning, my hustler, who was gypsy, incidentally, had stolen all my socks.

SM: Indeed, it was a night to remember! I took lots of incriminating pictures yet to be published. It was a classic Bruce LaBruce scenario, especially considering that my friend asked us specifically not to bring home any gypsies. I guess, a few dirty socks was a small price to pay in that elite diplomat area of Prague. I remember my hustler being really sweet and submissive and yours looked like a little devil, covered with scars and with a prosthetic (or lazy) eye? Very alluring indeed! Naturally, we were completely wasted on Absinthe!


 Bruce LaBruce and Slava Mogutin by Terry Richardson, NYC 1998


What is your favourite moment in each others career?

BLaB: Well, there are so many, but I love Slava's whole dissident poet/activist phase when he was still living in Moscow and at eighteen years of age he was writing for mainstream Russian newspapers and publications and outing well-known Russian politicians. He also staged a symbolic marriage with his then boyfriend, the American artist Robert Filippini, and invited all the press to come and cover the event. This led to him being put on trial on television, and eventually being forced into exile or face prison time. And that allowed us to meet, so that's my favourite moment in his career.

SM: I really loved Gerontophilia, which reveals Bruce’s sensitive side that very few people are aware of. The first time I saw it was with Spanish subtitles at Asterisco Festival in Buenos Aires, and there was a line of Bruce’s fans going around the block. Then we presented the film together during his recent MoMA retrospective in New York. It’s such a radical departure from his queercore work that he’s revered for and I cannot wait to see more sensitive films like that from Bruce.

What was your first touchstone for counter culture and gay culture?

BLaB: Slava and I actually realized immediately that we shared a lot of irreverent and contrarian views about gay culture and homosexuality. We were both kind of anti-gay, in a way, in the sense of being very critical and disdainful of the gay orthodoxy, and identity politics, and gay assimilation, which really got out of hand after the turn of the century. Slava fucked the occasional girl, which I appreciated - he loves women, and is in fact an honorary lesbian. You should see his collection of herbal teas.

SM: Very true, I live in the lesbian epicenter of Greenwich Village, right above Henrietta Hudson Bar & Girl. Coincidentally, I have a lesbian landlady who I affectionately call my Land Dyke. I do identify more with lipstick lesbians than with the omnipresent bearded gay men whose name is a Legion. This is the gay norm, the gay mainstream and the gay body fascism all in one smelly package. To answer your question, my first introduction to the counter culture were the books of Arthur Rimbaud, Genet Genet and Georges Bataille and the films of Pasolini, Visconti, Fassbinder, and Godard. I happened to be exposed to them all at once as a young hooligan poet in Moscow at the time of Perestroika and Glasnost and my world has never been the same again.

You have always existed in the margins, do you think you will ever occupy a place in the mainstream?

BLaB: Oh I hate this question! It's so passive aggressive. Existing in the margins makes it sound so... marginal. I prefer the term underground, or avant-garde. Slava is more mainstream than I am. He sells his art to big dealers and publishes in big magazines. I started out as a punk rocker in the eighties, and that was all about giving not a tinker's damn about the mainstream, or corporate media, or conspicuous consumption, or material aspirations, and I've maintained that ethos to a degree. I'm very anti-materialist. It used to be fun for me to flirt with fame - it was especially glamorous when I began to become famous in punk rock circles - but celebrity has become so grotesque and twisted and boring that it really doesn't interest me much anymore. I prefer obscurity. But I'll probably become mainstream someday. My karma will catch up with me.

SM: What is the mainstream and what are the margins? All my favorite works of art, literature and cinema used to be considered marginal, obscene, pornographic or “not safe for work”—as they put it in today’s corporate America. The mainstream culture is full of gore, guns, violence, death, blood, and destruction, yet the corporate moral police censor and marginalize queer imagery and documents of queer sexuality just because they don’t fit into their rigid Victorian “Community Guidelines.” Mainstream never leads, it only follows. Morals, perceptions and laws change and become obsolete. The works of art remain.

When you see your work influenced or co-opted by the mainstream, how does that feel?

BLaB: Well, the obvious response is that you're flattered at first, and then it kind of pisses you off that you've been ripped off. But I rip off people all the time artistically, so I guess it all evens out. As the saying go, talent borrow, genius steals.

SM: Oh no, not again! I used to get really upset seeing my work replicated in fashion campaigns or on magazine covers—sometime by the very celebrity photographers who collect my art. As they say, imitation is the best flattery but a check in the mail would be better. Now I feel like, let them run with it. Mainstream never invents anything because it’s hollow inside—a giant black hole that will eventually swallow them all.

Has money every been a decision maker?

BLaB: I've done I few things in my life for the money, but it has to be something that I can get over with quick, and which isn't too high profile. I don't want to tarnish my "brand" (how I loathe the word), which is basically a joke because you my brand is already pretty tarnished. I could never make a movie out of a script that I don't like, just for the money, and I have turned down several. I just can't imagine putting that much time and effort into something I don't believe in.

SM: Coming from nothing, it’s only natural that I want to have everything. I’ve always enjoyed doing commissions and having piles of cash at hand. Lending my God-given talents to some non-human entities is like being a double agent, an infiltrator in alien corporate environments where you’re being made feel like an alien. As long as I can continue with my personal art and poetry, nothing else matters.

In visual imagery, when is extreme too extreme?

BLaB: For me it's always about context. You can use the most extreme imagery you can possibly think of, but you have to put it into a context that makes sense of it, or expresses your own aesthetic or style, or that deals with the material counterintuitively, or in an unexpected way, which for me usually means presenting it in a romantic or spiritual way. I made a movie called L.A. Zombie about an alien zombie who finds dead bodies of people who have died violent deaths and literally fucks them back to life. He resurrects them by fucking them in the gashes and holes of their wounds and whatnot. So when the film was banned in Australia (the softcore version!), I asked Camille Paglia, who is a good friend of a good friend of mine, how I should frame my press release. I was going to defend the film on "moral grounds" in a way - that I was inverting the paradigm of sexual violence, turning death into life, and also at the same time reversing the stigma of the pathologization of gay sex in the era of AIDS. She told me I would be crazy to defend the film on moral grounds, that I was making a film that showed necrophilia and corpse-fucking, and I was also making "poverty porn." The alien zombie is represented as a homeless person, and he fucks back to life another homeless person who is dead at one point. She advised me to defend it on artistic grounds, carrying on the tradition of the avant-garde and surrealism. I never forgot that lesson. I'm not an activist. I'm an artist.

SM: We live in the time of neo-conservatism where any notions of sexuality and sensuality are being replaced by the images of perpetual war, death, violence and destruction. I’ve been struggling with censorship my whole life, first as a poet and journalist in Russia, then as a multimedia artist in the West. Even when I used to shoot for porn magazines like Honcho, Inches, and Playgirl, my editors complained that my bondage and pissing pictures were too hardcore for general porn consumption. Little did they know that years later those “hardcore” images would be shown at galleries and museums around the world. That said, my work is still being routinely censored as “pornographic” or “unsafe” and I feel like it’s my mission to combat censorship and hypocrisy in art and life, any way I can.

Bruce LaBruce and Slava Mogutin by Terry Richardson, NYC 1998


Have you ever said no?

BLaB: Only when I'm sober. So no.

SM: I’m still learning how to say it… nooooooo?

Was there ever a time you hadn’t gone far enough?

BLaB: Oh, you mean in art? Well, some people accused me of not going far enough with my film Gerontophilia, which is about an 18 year old boy who is sexually attracted to the elderly and gets a job in a old folk's home so he can have sex with them. It's actually the first feature film I made (my ninth) that didn't have any sexually explicit scenes in it. But this was totally done deliberately. It was an experiment for me, to try to make a more romantic film, almost a romantic comedy, with a very extreme subject, that could be distributed more widely. Predictably, some critics, particularly Variety - who has always hated my sexually explicit films - said I'd "gone limp." So, I guess, I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't at this point. 

SM: I’ve gone far enough in my life that I almost didn’t make it on several occasions. I’m grateful for the second (or maybe third?) chance I’ve been given. I use my writings and art as a therapy of sorts, and if I’d gone as far in my real life, I’d be locked up forever.

Do you have any regrets?

SM: I forgot all my regrets long time ago, in one of my past lives.

BLaB: As George says in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, after Martha tells him he's going to regret what he did or said to her, "No doubt. I regret everything." Of course I have regrets. If you don't have regrets, you're a mindless idiot. It's like I always say about tattoos. Tattoos are meant to be regretted. That's their whole purpose. The permanence of them makes them perfect for regret. 

What boundaries are there left to cross? Are there any taboos left?

BLaB: A friend of mine used to say pedophilia is the last frontier. It was a joke, okay! LOL. But of course there's some truth to it. It's still probably the biggest cultural taboo left, and for good reason. But as Mia Farrow said in her book "What Falls Away" to Woody Allen, "You're not supposed to fuck the children!" The thing is, when I was a child, I did have all sorts of sexual fantasies, and many people have told me the same thing. But for an artist, it's a very tricky subject. Very tricky. Freud's concept of child sexuality was hugely controversial when he wrote about it, and it remains so to this day. Very tricky.

SM: Taboos are for people who have morals and morals are for those who cannot think for themselves. Taboos change throughout our life and we forget they even existed. Queer imagery seems to be one of the last taboos in social media. You cannot even show a nipple or any unfiltered documents of queer sensuality and sexuality without being censored.

Who were your heroes growing up?

BLaB: Faye Dunaway, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Karen Black, Sandy Dennis, Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Tuesday Weld, and Jerry Lewis. 

SM: Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Kazimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, Alexander Deineka, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Later came Rimbaud, Genet and Bataille, Henry Miller, Burroughs and Bukowski. I was a well-read boy as I grew up in the house with more books than furniture. I also consider myself a proud student of Allen Ginsberg, whose work I translated into Russian and who helped me to get my political asylum in the US.

How would you describe your perfect queer space?

BLaB: Well, its fairly small, and round, and you can often find it in the cubicles of men's toilets.

SM: A perfect queer space for me is where I make it. I once got a hot blowjob on the steps of the Russian State Court building right next to the Red Square. I came down a guy’s throat thinking I just turned the entire Russian State Court into a giant cum gobbler!

How inspiring do you find the new generation of creatives?

BLaB: Oh I love them! Well, some of them. I recently shot a feature film in Germany called The Misandrists, and i worked with a lot of young female artists and actors, and it was so inspiring. There's a lot of gender fluidity, and a real openness to experimentation and reinvention in terms of style and attitude and expression. I found it in the boys that you rounded up for me to shoot for Man About Town. They're very open to experimental and avant-garde style and queerness and difference. My one complaint would be that some of the new generation are far to willing to suck corporate cock. But hey, you gotta make a living I guess.

SM: I often give talks at art schools in New York and beyond and it always strikes me that most of those privileged kids are basically wasting their trust funds creating fictional narcissistic social media identities or masturbating over some magazine pages. Truth to be told, I meet more young creatives online than in real life and I’m very fascinated by this extreme narcissism and exhibitionism. I come from a generation that used typewriters, Xerox and fax machines and worked hard to produce every analog image and word we published. Now it seems everything and everyone is just a click of a button away. Easy comes, easy goes? But is it going to last? Let’s see how these virtual girls will do in the material world. Who knows—maybe they’ll forever remain digital slaves of their fake online personas.

Whose work has recently piqued an interest?

BLaB: Well, I love the Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who I've chatted with a bit on Instagram. You know, the guy that nailed his ball sack to a stone in Red Square in Moscow, or who wraps himself up in concertina wire, or has himself nailed inside a tiny plastic box and placed in front of a bougie fashion show. He's really political and kind of crazy and super sexy. And I also have a big crush on Andrea.

SM: Yes, Pyotr Pavlensky. Also Voina (War) Group, which graffitied a giant erect penis right in front of the FSB (former KGB) headquarters in St. Petersburg. Without Voina there would be no Pussy Riot. Despite Putin’s oppression, there are still many incredible talents living and working in Russia—Gosha Rubchinskiy, Andrey Bartenev, Oleg Kulik, Sergey Bratkov, Arsen Savadov, Blue Noses, AES+F group, Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich…. These are my dear friends, but please forgive me if I’m forgetting someone!

 Do you worry inspiration will ever run dry?

BLaB: Nope. 

SM: My inspiration doesn’t let me sleep at night. Too much to do, too little time!

What is your proudest working moment?

BLaB: When I turned a trick once on Halloween when I was in drag. I was dressed like Gene Davis, Brad Davis' brother, who plays the transvestite hooker who is forced to blow a cop in the back of a cherry top in Cruising. So I was walking home - this was in Toronto in the early nineties - and this trucker type guy thought I was a real hooker and picked me up in his van. So that's my proudest working moment.

SM: I’m proud of my recent show in Prague, Lost Boys: From Russia with Love. It was my first outdoor public exhibition and it was very empowering to see my work on such a scale so prominently displayed in the historic heart of Prague, a perfect intersection between the East and the West, the Communist past and the capitalist present. The place was also very symbolic, as my billboards were overlooking one of the most beautiful bridges next to Letna Park where the world’s largest monument to Stalin used to stand. It was gratifying to see my pictures being a part of the public domain and everyday life, as my art has come a full circle from the street to gallery and museum walls and then back to the street again.

What was the last book you read/film you watched/record you downloaded?

BLaB: The last book I read from cover to cover was Dirty Poole, the autobiography of Wakefield Poole, the great gay avant-garde porn director whom I recently showed films with together in Jacksonville, Florida, and interviewed in front of his home-town audience at the Sun-Ray Cinema. The last film I watched is Daisy Miller directed by Peter Bogdanovich, based on the story by Henry James. I'm writing about it for my monthly column, The Academy of the Underrated, for the website Talkhouse Film. The last record I illegally dowloaded was probably the soundtrack from the Billy Wilder movie Fedora by the great composer for film Miklos Rozsa. It was the last soundtrack he composed before he died.

SM: I’m now reading The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and a brilliant new novel by Garth Greenwell What Belongs To You. The last movie I watched was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality, which I found very inspiring and compelling.

What does family mean to you?

BLaB: Well, not everything, as everyone always boringly says. My immediate biological family is pretty cool, but I don't see them that often. I love my parents, who only had grade school education but put all their five kids through university. I know that because Slava is in permanent exile and has never really had a family per se, his friends are his family, which is really cool. I'm a bit like that too. My husband and my friends are my family.

SM: I came from a dysfunctional and homophobic family. My parents separated when I was 13 and I lived on my own since 14. Over the years, I built my own queer family and Bruce is an important part of it, that’s why I call him my Red Beaver Mama!

What is your hope for the future?

BLaB: The future or my future? I guess it's the same. Love, love, and love.

SM: My personal hope is to spend less time on various digital devices and more time making art and writing poetry. Nothing else really matters. My hope for humanity is to stop breeding in such numbers and find common ground that would bring us together across religious and cultures divides. No more breeding, no more killing!

Do you believe in God?

BLaB: No, I believe in Goddess! Blessed be the Goddess of all worlds that has not made me a man!

SM: I believe in God and Satan. I believe in karma and reincarnation. I used to think that I was a reincarnation of Peter the Great and it helped me through my rough childhood. I believe we’re all vessels for higher powers and I’m grateful for the tools and talents given to me.