By Yetta Howard
All Rights Reserved.
For more than 30 years, Los Angeles-based performance artist, photographer, and activist Sheree Rose has been engaged in embodied practices of making art. As an extreme artist, Rose takes “lived experience” seriously. She is a pioneer of integrating BDSM practices into artistic practice in ways that allow us to consider how we chronicle our experiences and how we imagine the body itself as an interactive text about time, as a fleshy document that reflects its own chronology. In collaborating with her late partner of 16 years, Bob Flanagan, with whom she had a full-time mistress-slave relationship, Rose and Flanagan’s life/work challenged how we perceive of the temporariness of existence and made it palpable as an alternative erotic art practice rather than a morose inevitability. Flanagan died of Cystic Fibrosis (CF) in 1996, but Rose’s creative legacy with him lives on, particularly in recent collaborative work with London-based Martin O’Brien. O’Brien, who is several decades younger than Rose, also has CF and his work investigates endurance-as-survival, disability, queer sexuality, and agency in light of pain and chronic illness. Rose’s and O’Brien’s bodies of work push those who experience it to ask provocative and uncomfortable questions about the status of the body through its risky but necessary engagements with endurance, time, and memory.
On June 23, 2013 at noon through June 24, 2013 at noon, Rose and O’Brien collaborated in a performance called Do with Me as You Will, which explored the contours of temporality and submission. Rose permitted audience members literally to do whatever they wished to Martin O’Brien’s body over the course of a 24-hour period. The performance took place at Sanctuary Studios LAX, a dungeon near the Los Angeles International Airport, an exceptional and fitting space for the performance piece. We might think of the performance as a way to modify the concept of chronophilia, which loosely has been designated as “unnatural” attractions to persons of a particular age group, a kind of “uneven” age dynamic, if thought of in normative terms. But if we expand the notion of chronophilia to mean a fetish for time, then perhaps we can begin to arrive at an understanding of how to approach Rose and O’Brien’s 24-hour performance. The stakes of experiencing time were made explicit, not just through the differences in their ages or how the work calls up O’Brien’s illness and Rose’s artistic practice with Flanagan but the way that the performance radicalizes the framing of a quotidian temporality. Even with such a revision of chronophilia, time is the vehicle through which a range of other philias took their form on and through O’Brien’s body as orchestrated by Rose. The chronophilia in this performance is therefore oblique and disrupts as it re-imagines how we characterize “late” versus “early” while breaking down the distinction between day-time activity versus night-time activity through an erotic framework defined by relinquishing control. The following discussion took place about three months after the performance, in October 2013.
YETTA HOWARD: Talk about how you came up with the idea for the performance.
MARTIN O’BRIEN: Maybe a year before, we worked on a 12-hour performance together: we were interested in ideas of endurance and time and Sheree really wanted to do this work over a 24-hour period, thinking about doing something over the entire period of a day and what it means to be engaged in an art practice together for an entire one-day period.
SHEREE ROSE: Martin’s work is all about endurance and duration and he did these three amazing Regimes of Hardship, three separate 12-hour pieces. The first two, he did everything to himself, but then I got involved. We would set up 12 or so different events every hour and he gave up his control to me and we did it very formally with a contract. That was in the last 12 hours and it was quite active: we did things I’d done with Bob [Flanagan] and things that Martin and I came up with. We had a great time finding all the materials and it went really fast. One of the fun things was my dressing him up as this little go-go dancer with beautiful four-inch heels—and he’s not a cross-dresser—with a beautiful wig. We got a gorgeous wig. He looked adorable and he went around the room dancing to “Love To Love You Baby” by Donna Summer, who just died, so it was sort of an homage to Donna Summer and then he went up to different people and said, “Wanna fuck me?” or whatever. What was it I had you say?
MO: “I’m a dirty slut. Would you like to fuck me?”
SR: That was sort of improvisational and what I really like to do in all my performances is to get the audience involved. I don’t like it to be just a spectacle where they’re watching people do weird things. And we had talked a lot about doing a 24-hour piece because I love Marina Abramović and what she was doing. My first idea was Martin and I would be in this room and there’d be all this equipment around and people would call us up or tell us what we should do with the equipment. But then I thought that maybe that was too much Marina Abramović.
MO: There’s sort of two things going on with this piece in developing it from the other, which was, first, about developing the time aspect and spending a longer period of time together working through particular ideas and in a different context. The second thing was the control idea, which was the first time I had ever given over control to an audience. I had given over control to Sheree before. I had never in a performance allowed audiences to come and do things to me. That was the other aspect for us, wasn’t it?
SR: Right, it was. I was very nervous about the whole thing.
YH: What were you nervous about?
SR: Well, I was giving up control to a certain extent. I had flyers made up, Make Martin Suffer for Art, and what was the other name of the piece?
MO: Do with Me as You Will.
SR: Do with Me as You Will. Right. Those were the twin ideas that were going on so I asked a lot of my friends and we put it on Facebook but what I liked about it was that it was totally up to the whim of what was going to be happening. I had no idea who was going to show up. I had no set ideas about what was going to happen when. I had friends coming. My friend Pony Lee Estrange came and shaved all of Martin’s hair. Later on, Pony and I put needles around Martin’s penis and scrotum.
YH: What point was that? Early the next morning?
SR: No, it wasn’t that late. 24 hours is a lot of time. But we did do a video diary. Every hour, we marked the hour with me cutting Martin on his arm: making just a very simple little cut to mark the hours and then we would talk for a few minutes together.
YH: So a lot of this performance is obviously about inviting these unexpected moments. Were there any moments within that 24-hour period that were truly surprising or unexpected?
MO: One of the things about the performance that elicited particular responses was that it was in a dungeon so it was already set up with a contract which had to do with submission. So I think that people came with an idea of doing something that came out of that context, if they were interested in it themselves. Some of the things that happened to me I was completely unprepared for: one of the most intense experiences was when Dirk Dana from the Tom of Finland Foundation rolled up at about 11 o’clock at night. The room was really full and at that time I had done a few things that were a little difficult but nothing too major and I was a little bit tired but was quite enjoying it. I just remember the doors swung open and these two leathermen came walking in and then I just remembered Sheree telling me the day before, “These two guys from the Tom of Finland Foundation are going to come and they play heavy.” He spent about 45 minutes, 50 minutes—one of the things he did was psychological play. He really scared me. For a long time he didn’t really do anything but he made me lay out all of his equip- ment on the table: these huge elbow-length fisting gloves and huge dildos that would never fit in my ass, and I was completely terrified and he was speaking very calmly to me. But in the end, he beat me a little bit and whipped me with a single-tail whip quite a lot on my chest and back—the marks stayed on me for a couple of days after that. That was really one of the most intense experiences. One thing to note here is Sheree’s position in all this as a sort of orchestrator, as someone in charge. One of the things I found interesting was how she positioned herself in relation to different people. She had known him for a long time and she just kind of sat away, laughing and enjoying it, whereas with other people, I felt her really close to me, just a few yards away. For instance, the girl who we didn’t really know, who put ginger in my ass. Sheree was quite close at that time, just making sure . . .But nothing went wrong. I felt Sheree was present in those moments.
SR: Well you never know. One of the things you have to do in a performance like this, part of it, for me, was having to give up a certain amount of control and trust that the things that were going to be happening would be all for the good. No one was going to do anything untoward or really harmful. But I didn’t really know and I didn’t know everybody who was doing things with him. But I found that a lot of the people were very shy about it. One woman, very early on, led him around on a dog leash and had him eat some baby food in a dog dish and that was her first time that she had ever done anything like that, so you got that range of experience: people who had never been in a dungeon before, number one, or seen a naked man in a cage—I mean, just the visual of that alone set up the mood. Toward the very end, in the middle of the night, some of the women who were professional dominatrixes and my friends came in and they gave him some pretty good workings over with whippings and fire. I love the serendipity, synchronicity, coincidence of who came when and there were never too many people or people waiting or not enough people. It all just sort of flowed in a very natural way. For me, there was only one thing that hap- pened that I still worry about a little bit or think it wasn’t exactly what my plan was, but I gave up because I wanted it to be spontaneous. A friend of mine, who had just come out of the hospital, and had hip surgery, comes into the room . . . okay, Martin, you can tell the story from there.
MO: I could see him speaking with Sheree, but I didn’t really know what was going on. What he wanted was to be stripped naked, tied up, whipped by someone else, and then sponge-bathed and dressed again by me.
SR: His concept was that he had just come out of the hospital, and he’s disabled, so part of it had to do with Martin’s CF and taking care of people, the idea of being taken care of. It wasn’t my agenda, it was his agenda, and I had to make a decision to say no, but I’m of the belief that when you’re doing something you don’t want to say no. That sort of stops the flow of things. So I agreed to it and I also ended up cutting his hair. But it was a little bit uncomfortable because this was supposed to be make Martin suffer for art, not you be his surrogate and suffer. He was somebody I’ve known for many years, a dear friend who left the hospital to come to this so I didn’t feel that I wanted to stop the action at that point.
YH: That gets to this question of where to draw the boundaries. Did you have boundaries going into it or was it just this situation that made you think about boundaries in a different way?
SR: Well, I was aware of it. Most of the activity either I was involved in or I could see was about scenarios like spanking, or it was about things that weren’t going to be dangerous. A woman that came in was a beautiful young dominatrix, dressed all in latex and she had called me earlier and said, “Can I have him drink my urine?” and I thought to myself, well, I don’t know if she has any diseases and I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize Martin. That was my number one concern. I wanted nothing that would jeopardize Martin. So I told her no, but she did a wonderful scene with him. Actually it was one of the best scenes where she had him eat all these cookies from a platter and then she carved a little ginger and put the ginger up his ass. You can explain how that felt, Martin.
MO: Just the pure sensation . . . that was the worst, the least enjoyable part of the performance. It was this intense burning: a small piece of ginger up my ass just to sustain the intensity of the burning. I did not like it at all. It was very intense and it kept slipping out as well, because it was quite small. Every time it slipped out, she would bend me over, laugh, and shove it back in. And each time it went in, she didn’t lube it or anything. It was just dry and burning and I could just feel it dragging across the edges of my asshole. It was a really horrible thing but a really good scene.
SR: Well, it was distressing, but it wasn’t dangerous. So that was my concern. I wanted him to be distressed. I wanted that danger, that unknown quality of what was going to be happening. I wanted that. I was excited about it, too. That kept our energy up, I think: the unknown quality of it and not knowing.
YH: It almost seems like drinking the urine would have been more preferable in that situation.
MO: It was interesting the way the 24 hours went. There were real peaks and the energies changed all the time so that there were moments when there was absolute silence in the room or when it was crowded when Dirk Dana was there, for example. Around that time, it was absolutely silent and it felt very intense and there were other times when it was quite playful, like when you were there at the beginning. People were talking and drinking wine later in the evening and things. But it just sort of moved naturally.
SR: At about five or six in the morning, there was nobody there and Martin and I were alone for a couple of hours and I was blabbering to him as I usually do. We thought it was over. We thought, okay, it’s over, no one’s going to come and, then, around nine in the morning, about three of four young men came in and a couple of them were really smart, and I wish I would have recorded some of the things they said about the performance—do you remember . . .?
MO: I don’t remember anything from that moment. At that time in the morning my capacity to speak was . . . [laughter]
SR: But we did it the whole 24. At first I was really nervous that nobody would do anything. That we would just be sitting there but we decided, well, that’s okay, too. If that’s what’s going to happen, we’ll just sit there and be bored and that will be alright. I think part of it, for me, was I felt like I had to do something. I had to make it happen. If it was boring or dull. . .To that extent, I had all kinds of different things: I had pens. I was going to write on his body. We had games. We were going to play bingo. We were going to play chess.
YH: There was a whole stage full of sex toys . . .
SR: A whole stage full of things that I had set up in case there was a lull in the action, thinking, what if nobody shows up? What am I going to do—this is 24 hours.
YH: Do you think you could have gone on longer if you didn’t set that 24-hour period of time or was that enough of an exercise in endurance? Something like 36 hours?
MO: I could’ve, but when I do my work I usually set a particular time limit and I sort of work toward that and there’s a feeling that it’s building, it’s building, it’s building toward the end and I’ve got an endpoint. So by setting 24 hours, that was the natural end for the performance, for me, at least. And it also makes sense, as well, to have 24 hours, so it’s kind of like, how do we fill a day, a day in the life of Sheree and Martin. How do they fill a day in the dungeon.
SR: I was very interested in that whole aspect of time, because for Martin and me, for different reasons, time is extremely precious. Because I’m older and because he has CF, we’re very aware that time is limited and we only have so much of it, and how we decide to fill that time . . . and that’s everybody’s existential dilemma. It’s not just Martin and me but we’re bringing it to the forefront, especially in this piece and in all of Martin’s work, time is definitely of the essence. So, we were really playing with that concept of the 24 hours. Also, we were in a dungeon, so we had no idea what time it was in terms of day or night. We didn’t have any cues, like the sun or nighttime or anything like that. But your body does have rhythms and we definitely played to those rhythms and, at five in the morning I was awake and thinking about it and thinking about this whole piece and it was very spiritual in the sense that this time—it’s never going to happen again and we’re doing this particular time and it made me feel very happy. I was pleased with how well it had gone. Trusting the universe.
YH: You felt that time was cooperating with you—it didn’t feel like it was moving too fast or too slow.
SR: Not at all. It really cooperated.
MO: It’s quite interesting: a lot of the work that I do is much more where I’m sort of actively doing particular tasks that are usually quite repetitive, some of the things over and over again. . . After a few hours, I start to really feel the endur- ance of it and that word is really important in my work: endurance. That I’m going through this thing and I really feel it and I’m thinking what time is it? How long do I have left? But it was quite different I think in this piece for me. There was something about lying back and taking it and letting time wash over me and I didn’t really feel as though I was enduring it so much. Overall, there were certain periods of endurance within it, when I had ginger up my ass or when I was really feeling that I wanted it to finish. But I just felt as though, in this performance, my experience of time was rather distinct from how it usually is in my other performances. In this one I felt as though my relationship with time was a little bit different. It could have been going on for three days, two months, or ten minutes. I really lost a sense of time in this performance. I lost a sense of how long things were lasting. I really didn’t know how long each person’s session lasted at the time. The endurance element of it, even though the length was so prolonged, was less than it sometimes is in other pieces when I’ve been more active on my own. There was something about the kind of community that was built there which helped. People who chose to spend some of that time with us came and this bizarre ad-hoc community inside this dungeon formed. Some people brought me chocolate, some people beat me up, some shoved things up my ass or stuck pins in me, but whatever they came to do they came to do it to spend part of this 24 hours with us and act in this community somehow.
SR: One of the major elements was making sure that people would come. Whenever you give a performance, the idea of an audience is very important. At one point we thought about maybe stopping it at midnight and then having people come in and then we thought, no, no, whoever wants to come in, even if it’s 3 in the morning, let them come because this was our parameter: 24 hours. I think it worked out far better than I even imagined. We had so many different people from all different walks of life, too: people who had never been in a dungeon to people who were professional dominatrixes and professional masters. It was a great mix of people. There were a lot of academic people there. I thought that was really interesting because Martin is an academic as well and so I think people got the idea of it. And I thought 24 hours, wow, but then there’s the Chinese artist Tehching Hsieh who did several performances that lasted a year as did Eleanor Antin and Linda Montano. So when I thought about that in contrast to our thing, I thought we can do 24 hours, that’s a piece of cake. That’s going to be easy compared to doing something for a year.
YH: Would you do another version of this and, if so, do you think you would do it in some place other than a dungeon?
SR: Oh yeah, it would be something different. . . When we first met, it was an amazing experience where I spanked him 100 times in front of an audience and that was one of the best experiences and I’ve done that piece many times . . .
YH: That’s a version of 100 Reasons [Sheree Rose/Bob Flanagan performance]
SR: After that, I felt this connection with Martin. It was such a beautiful spontaneous connection that we had. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to just say, oh, I don’t want to see you again forever, so we devised a 30-day performance.
MO: Sheree was in L.A. and I was in London, actually I was living in Oxford at the time, so we were trying to figure out a way of continuing the collaboration across continents. We came up with a project for 30 days, a period of one month’s time. Each morning, Sheree would send through a task or a starting point and then I would have the day to either complete the task or to make something from the starting point and then send back the documentation to Sheree that evening. The starting points ranged from responding to the work of different artists and performances to dressing up as a princess on the day of the Royal Wedding and walking around in Oxford and then going for high afternoon tea.
SR: I had so much fun with that because Martin just did whatever I said. I went to the library and got a bunch of books on performance art and on Allan Kaprow and the Happenings. The difference between the 30-day piece and the 24-hour piece was that the month-long piece was just between Martin and me and we didn’t have an audience. I like an audience. I feel, if it’s going to be a performance, you need an audience because that brings it to another level of understanding and complexity. But I don’t know . . . Do we have to do something longer now because we did something 24 hours? Does it have to be months? . . . I’ve been at this for a long time. Let’s just say that. Although I don’t think I’ve really slowed down necessarily. I’m having a show of 100 Reasons coming up in a couple of months here in Los Angeles. It will be the first time I’ll have photographs of 100 different asses bruised in some way all with captions by Mike Kelley, so, an homage to Mike Kelley who unfortunately passed away last year . . . and that piece was done in the 80s. It was done over a period of 5 or 10 years in the 80s and now finally, in 2014, it’s going to be shown. So it’s slow, but it’s happening.
YH: Along those lines, you mentioned Mike Kelley, you talked about your past collaborations with Bob [Flanagan], and you discussed Marina Abramović earlier. Do you both see Do with Me as You Will as working in a particular kind of lineage or—I hate to use the word tradition—of radical performance art or do you really see it departing from those other kinds of endurance-based performances?
MO: For me, I think the fact of me and Sheree working together puts it within a particular lineage or at least calls a particular history to it: that Sheree was mak- ing all this work in the 80s and 90s with Bob [Flanagan] and then I come along 20 years later with Cystic Fibrosis and that our first collaboration, really, was about a kind of homage to the work that she was making with Bob. For me, it was about thinking through their influence on my work and addressing those ideas. How can I address this within a performance—how can I do this without being overshadowed, but also acknowledging the influence of the work that they were doing? The way to do it was to actually work with Sheree. I think the work fits into a particular lineage especially since we were doing it in an SM space, a dungeon in LA. That was important for me.
SR: When Bob and I started doing our work, we performed for SM audiences only. We did not perform for an art audience. In 1989 when the book Modern Primitives came out, Bob did a performance called Nailed at a very small venue in Los Angeles, and there were about 200 people that came in and that was the first time we actually combined my slides and SM activities . . . Bob nailed his scrotum to a board. I had a woman bound up and I cut her breasts and there was blood dripping on the floor. Plus, we had go-go dancers and all kinds of other things happening. That was the very first time, for us anyway, that we mixed in the SM and the art scene together and that, I think, started a whole new sort of lineage because after that many of the other artists expanded their audiences, including Ron [Athey], who had been doing work before, but, again, those were more limited audiences. . . Our work really started blending SM into the art world saying, SM is not something horrible and nasty that you can’t talk about but actually can be an art form if done artfully. Now, I don’t know. I think that legacy is there and we acknowledge it and we’re proud of it. I’m very proud of it. I think I’ve spawned all these younger artists who are willing to do all kinds of things now, much more radical than anything Bob and I ever did. But we started it. We were the founders and I think it’s blossomed in a way that’s really beautiful. What I’m going to do now with Martin, I don’t know. Obviously the issues are still there, for me, the issues of aging. . . Death seems to be hovering. Several of my best friends now are dealing with cancer and are terminal. And my daughter had cancer last year. She had breast cancer and had to have a double mastectomy. So issues for me of mortality and illness and my own mortality . . . my own body that is not what it used to be . . .
YH: I think what you’re also talking about is fascinating in that this performance, even though it’s about time, is working with time in these theoretically innovative ways that exceed the temporal characteristics of the performance—not just in terms of age-play, but how illness and age have affected your approach to the performances. I know you were about 10 years older than Bob and that Martin is significantly younger, but he has Cystic Fibrosis, so it really revises time in relationship to age.
SR: Yes, it does. Also, I like playfulness. Martin and I are not grim or morbid around each other. We’re very playful with each other as Bob and I were. Even though he was dying, he still had the most amazing sense of humor and we laughed to the very end. There was no grimness even in his death. It was poignant and heartbreaking, but, at the same time, we approached it with humor and with the acknowledgment that this is life. We don’t shy away from those realities. Bob never did and I hope I never do and certainly Martin doesn’t.
MO: Well, I suppose now it’s quite a few months after [the performance], so one thing to note is how to think back to a performance that was about time. All this time has passed since I was there in L.A. I was contemplating that time and trying to remember what took place. Earlier today, I was reflecting on some of the things that happened in the performance and the way in which, over time, things decay or you lose things . . . trying to remember these things that slipped away that I had forgotten about that came back into my head . . . A performance about time over time: some bits are forgotten, some bits are remembered so strongly and it’s just remarkable what time does to memory.
YH: Memory is so inaccurate, too. It’s not a precise form and it definitely changes what the performance might even mean in terms of how you experienced it.
SR: If I do a new performance, it might have to be about memory, which I find difficult. I don’t remember things. If I’m reminded of them, then of course I remember them perfectly. But it’s bringing them back to mind. Things fade, but it’s like photographs. I used to photograph everything I did with Bob. I photographed him every day for 16 years, but those photographs are faded. So what’s left? I think what’s left for me are the emotions that I felt doing it, how my body was excited and engaged for 24 hours, which usually doesn’t happen. The days go by and you sleep for maybe some of those hours and you don’t really recall everything that happened. But I really want to try to record and keep alive the memories.
“Martin being Intimidated” by Nancy Popp
“Martin in Cage (with Sheree looking in)” by Yetta Howard