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Patrick Staff — $5 To Those Who Deserve It

R and I were in the Circus of Books on Santa Monica a few months back, a while before learning that the Silver Lake store would be shutting down. We were killing time, though I don’t remember why; killing time, I think, despite a shared pleasure for subterfuge in gay cis male spaces, and horny anthropological interests. At a certain time, in another version of Los Angeles, I’m told, Circus of Books was a landmark, a cruising spot, a crossroads, an active feature of the city. When I look up the address now, Google lists the names of adjacent businesses each still trading in desire: joyful nails, smoke for less, tasty donuts.

I bought two things at Circus of Books that night: a pair of photographs that had been jettisoned in the discount bin and a photocopied booklet of Bob Flanagan’s poetry.

The photographs are of a man: in one image he is seated, looking straight into the camera, wearing a leather cap and a harness on his bare chest. In the other, he is standing, staring into the camera again, wearing only tight black (plastic?) underwear and a perfect, snatched back tuck. His arms are up, as if to say: “I surrender.” I realise, a little while later, that my reading of this gesture is implicitly tied to current events, to the violence of this city and America now. I wonder if, in fact, his pose is as to say: “Here I am.” There is a stillness to his expression in both photographs: calm, blank. There is nothing to indicate the identity of the photographer, and I don’t remember the clerk charging me for the prints.

The second item is a booklet of poems by Bob Flanagan, edited by Sheree Rose. An image of Bob, young, is printed cheaply on the faded pink fluoro cover. A worn sticker for $1.98 indicates the price, though I was only charged a dollar. The back cover says “$5 to those who deserve it, Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center.”

LOVE IS STILL POSSIBLE IN THIS JUNKY WORLD
LOVE IS STILL POSSIBLE.
LOVE IS STILL POSSIBLE.

Like many of my peers under precarity, I am increasingly preoccupied by care. What is taken, and what is received. How we are held, and hold, and harm. I reach more and more for ways to describe how we are bound together, the positions bodies occupy, and the vacillations between immunity and infection. Constitution, relationships, and dosage. I came to these handles through the slow lessons of working with queer people who’re older than me; through a handful of deaths, and certain illnesses, and disabilities of friends and lovers in my community; through the ongoing grief and raggedness of my own queer identity and body—its marking and codification always in negotiation with you, whether you’re a stranger, friend, lover, family member, physician, government, cop, or pig.

SUFFERING ENDS WITH A BEAUTIFUL, BLIND FOLDED, TIED SPREAD-EAGLED FUCK IN WHICH I AM BEATEN, BIT, CHOKED, AND PINCHED INTO A WONDERFUL COME BY MY MOST COMPETENT MISTRESS. NOW, BLISSFUL, SLEEP. MORE PUNISHMENT IS PROMISED AND I AM THRILLED AND TERRIFIED. HELP.

–Bob Flanagan, Fuck Journal (Hanuman Books, 1987)

I work these terms through Bob and Sheree. Bob’s poems do not tread lightly; love is pinched, squeezed, and bitten. My attraction to pain and release as a practice is channeled through theirs. Their love. As I talk about intimacy, bitten and choked, it is not an intimacy that is soft and sweet, but one of an almost unbearable heat. One that challenges tolerance, and where resistance is calcified. You and I, the city, violence, these photographs, are intimate and on a knife’s edge. It is not clean, it cannot be fixed or inoculated; to try to flush it out and sterilise is a violent deception. It is not the space where vanilla fucking prevails. Instead, there is this unbearable heat, a weight and heat through which our togetherness is constituted. We do not cleanse one another, but I might be undone by you. Arms up as if to say, “I surrender” or perhaps “I am here.” $5 to those who deserve it.

Patrick Staff is an interdisciplinary artist who works with film, installation, dance and performance to investigate dissent, labor and the queer body. Recent solo exhibitions have taken place at Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK; Spike Island, Bristol, UK; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Australia; and Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada. They are currently part of British Art Show 8, which tours UK venues throughout 2016, and their first US solo exhibition will take place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 2017.