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Interviews and Articles | SURGERY OF MODERN WARFARE interview - January-March 2002 - questions by Amy Fusselman

Writer/artist/musician Amy Fusselman is a long time friend and former band mate of mine. We did time together in Boston-based combos the Mud Sirens and Lurch. After moving to NYC's Hells Kitchen in the early '90's, she published numerous issues of her "Bunnyrabbit" litzine, created the Surgery of Modern Warfare site, wrote a novel "The Pharmacist's Mate" which was published by Dave Egger's McSweeney's imprint, and tied the knot with her longtime love. Since this interview, she has popped out another baby.

I thought of you and your work several times in the weeks after I had my baby because I kept hearing that infants supposedly love looking at high-contrasty things.

I've heard that too. I think the first time I encountered a reference to it was in a book of Disney art. There was a full page reproduction of a Mickey Mouse face - the old 1930's style Mickey where he's just black and white and his eyes are big black dots - and this comment to the effect that all over the world, in every culture, every time a baby was shown the image of this happy black and white mouse face, they would start smiling and grabbing at it. This may just have been Disney self-aggrandizement, but I could kind of see it. It was a very graphically pleasing image - very clean, simple, and symetrical - probably a much easier thing to process when you're just out of the womb and still learning to use your eyes.

It made me wonder if there is some connection there as to why your tightly- constructed black-and-white images are so pleasing to look at, particularly when you take into account that so much of your imagery involves bondage which has a major element of infant-like helplessness in it.

There might be some connection. I feel it's the most effective style for the subject matter I explore which has a lot to do with intense contrasts. Your comment about bondage and "infant-like helplessness" is interesting. It immediately made me think of some B+D/SM practitioners for whom infantilism - being treated as a baby - is a erotic turn-on. To be honest, I personally find this kind of behaviour disgusting - mainly because I often feel as though I have adult babies inflicting themselves on me during the course of any given day or night (for the record, they are usually driving SUV's or trying get spare change). I also thought of people who use intensely restrictive bondage involving supension and occlusion of the senses to return to a foetal/womb-like state. I think I can personally relate a little more to this form of helplessness - sensory deprivation/expansion as a way to achieve the ultimate inward focus - an ecstatic trip with or without the chemical aids.

I've tried to show examples this type of bondage in the Spider Garden books and some of my illustrations for Lumenagerie. People who are trapped in a some form of intense restriction and have reached a point of sexual overload where erotic pleasure has become an infinite loop, perpetually feeding back into itself. They're helpless in the grip of this pleasure - vulnerable and ready to submit to anything that will perpetuate it. They usually end up being made sexually available to others, either casually or ritualistically.

I'm very fond of the Ouruborus image, the snake devouring it's own tail as a symbol for eternity. Sometimes, this comes out very literally in my drawings - characters bound into a 69 or being forced to suck themselves.

It's like you have woven an actual physical representation of the perception of helplessness into the craft of your work.

I find an element of helplessness, of physical, mental, and spiritual "openess", to be very erotic, particularly when it involves a conscious surrendering on the part of the person being dominated - for someone who is fully developed, physically and intellectually, to make the choice (or to be "forced" to make the choice) to give in to someone else's will and be their plaything. I also like to explore the idea of people being modified physically and taking an active role in a new enviroment even though they're restricted in some way. The naiads in my book Hydrophidian are a good example of this. They are human women who have been remade as latex mermaids by their mistresses, the Serpentine Sisters. The naiads swim in Hydrophidian's artificial sea with their arms bound behind their backs and their legs held together by a sheath ending in a fish tail. Their eyes are protected by lenses that function as surveillance cameras and they have large metal plugs strapped into their mouths and asses that are attached to hoses. The Sister's direct their movements from the surface, feeding them air and intoxicants through the oral plugs and using the anal plugs to reward them with vibrations or punish them with enemas. They exist only to swim and to be aesthetically pleasing for their owners.

This element also comes strongly into play in my work that involves people who have been transformed into pets - dogs, cats, ponies, etc. I like the tension, the perversity of a situation in which a rational being is reduced to this fetishized animalistic state; helpless in a sense, but also protected and free to operate on a totally physical level without any inhibitions. There's also the element of an additional taboo, bestiality, added to the mix. I love creating scenarios such as a mistress who spends the afternoon riding her "pony", then takes it back to the stable for some mounting or semen collection ... a "dog" whose reward for obeying it's trainer is to do some heavy-duty licking ... In my last couple of solo shows, I've exhibited drawings from a series involving a cat girl and her mistress. There's a lot of licking and ass worship. A scene I'm currently working on has the cat girl drinking her "milk" from a specially modified strap-on.

Can you tell us a little about your own erotic image viewing history?

The first images I can really remember responding strongly to were illustrations and paintings. I was still too young to know what sex was or even to have an erection, but there was something about them that spoke to me on a deeply intuitive level.

One that sticks in my mind was a book of myths and legends of the world, each chapter of which had a beautiful black and white illustration by Boris Artzybasheff in the style of the culture that the story was taken from. I particularly loved the Japanese section with it's portrait of the goddess, Amaterasu, and the Chinese section which had Quan Yin wrestling with a devil.

The Greek section had my favorite image which was taken from the story of Cupid and Psyche. It illustrated the moment in which Psyche conquers her fears and enters Cupid's bed chamber to discover that, instead of the monster she had been told to expect, he is actually a handsome youth. It was a very powerful intimate scene - the nude Psyche emerging from the darkness, holding a burning oil lamp and pulling aside a curtain to gaze down at Cupid, who is asleep and looking very langorous and androgynous.

The Attic vase painting style that Artzybasheff was riffing off of was (and still is) very attractive to me: deep black backgrounds with stylized, boldly-drawn figures - very manga/comic book-like. Later on, closer to puberty, I was given a book of Greek mythology that was illustrated with reproductions of sculptures, friezes, and vase paintings. There were so many erotically charged images and stories in that book, many with S/M overtones. I remember being very turned on by some of the more intense images - Prometheus and Odysseus bound and attacked by eagles and harpies, Laocoon and his sons, entwined with serpents and being devoured, or the death of Acteon who was turned into a stag and slain by his own hounds.

I loved the way the painters and sculptors into were celebrating male and female beauty equally. There were a lot of beautiful male figures in there as well as female. I think it helped me to form some of my ideas about how to portray male sexuality and androgyny.

What made you want to pursue this type of imagery in your art?

Early on, I realized that I was dealing with very intense subject matter - concepts I didn't fully understand - anymore than I understood my own emerging sexuality. I only knew it caused a very strong reaction in me and in other people as well.

My parents gave my siblings and I the "facts of life" talk once we hit puberty. Sex (the physical act of which still seemed very abstract to me even after the mechanics of it were explained) was for married couples for the purpose of making babies. Masturbation was a sin. Pornography was bad. The idea of taking pleasure in sexuality in general was not encouraged.

And yet I was fascinated by it - even knowing that this interest was morally "wrong". So I hid my erotic drawings from my parents who, of course, eventually found them (we were a family of six in a very tiny house and privacy was at a minimum). They were shocked and upset - rightfully so, I think - and made me destroy my drawings and go to church and confess my sins. I would feel mortified and embarassed, then relieved to have this burden of guilt removed, then after a while I would get horny again and start drawing and writing out my fantasies. This became a cycle.

I knew that there was no way I was going to stop drawing what interested me. I got better at hiding my erotic work from my parents, but I felt horribly guilty about it. I knew that they would never approve of what I was doing and, while I had aspirations of making a living as an artist, the possibilty of doing erotic work - being a pornographer - seemed highly unlikely. It did make me realize that at some point I would have have to either give up what I was doing and fully embrace my parents' morality or that I would have to break away and work things out on my own.

In junior highschool, I started to show some of my erotic work - nudes actually, really tame stuff - to some close friends and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive - so much so that it freaked me out a bit. I remember one guy offering to pay me to draw him a picture of a nude girl. I had to turn him down. I knew what pictures of nude girls were for and that was still a very private thing for me. The thought of gaining notoriety for doing work like that was still too much for me to deal with. What if his parents found my artwork and revealled to the world that instead of a shy sensitve artist, I was really a horrible masturbating porno- grapher? I was still entertaining hopes of dating, having a girlfriend, etc. at some point and the possibilty of being exposed as someone who did more than just think about sex didn't seem like it would help to further that cause. On another level, I was very proud that the work I had so many insecurities about was admired, even covetted, by my peers. Without really knowing it, I had made an important step towards accepting something about myself.

It wasn't really until I was out of artschool that I began to entertain thoughts of publishing or exhibiting my erotic work. Even then I figured that I should self-publish it because I thought that no one would ever want to take a chance on me since my concepts were so weird. I'm ultimately glad I that did go the self-publishing route in the long run and that I stuck with the erotic work. The field seemed wide open and I wrote and drew whatever I wanted to, never feeling like I had to censor myself or apologize.

That's pretty much the way I still feel. Personal freedom is a very precious thing to me - now more than ever.

I read in an interview that you did a couple of years ago that you consider yourself to be a pornographer. Can you talk a little bit about the distinction between erotic art and porn?

It's funny. I've been asked to comment on that statement in almost every interview I've done since then.

At the time I first said that, there was a lot of what I considered to be hypocritical behaviour with some artists attempting to define what was erotic art and what was porn. Most of it seemed to be motivated by some kind of socio-political agenda - a lot of post-collegiate, politically-correct huffing and puffing: "My work is erotic ART because it doesn't offend this group or that group and you'll never see ______ in my work because that's mean and exploitive and pornographic." Most of this work was incredibly bland and mediocre and I think that the people who created it were definitely flattering themselves by thinking that it might turn anyone on.

I don't feel anymore kinship with mainstream pornographers than I do with the politically-correct erotic intelligensia, but when it comes to my artwork, I don't want anyone to have any illusions about what I'm doing. I'm trying to make a living off doing art whose main goal is to turn people on. In my mind, that makes me closer to being a pornographer than some one who is doing their erotic art to advance a certain social/political cause or doing it just for the pure love of it with no financial aspirations.

Ultimately, I think the only distinction between erotic art and pornography is how it's presented for consumption. It's all in the eye of the beholder. Are you looking at it on the wall of a gallery and paying $500 for a limited edition print or are you buying a sealed copy off the rack for $5.95?

A few blocks from where I live, you have Mission News with it's peepshow booths, Spanish Fly, and blow-up dolls. A couple of blocks in the other direction, you have Good Vibrations, a sex boutique with art shows, Kama Sutra oils, and Hitachi Magic Wands. Each of them provides a certain type of experience, each has it's own audience (with some cross-over), and each is valid. Both sell porn, but probably only one would claim to sell erotic art (for the record, that's the same one that sells my books).

How about the distinction between erotic art and "art" art?

I think it's mainly economic. There is a tradition of erotic art in most cultures and while it usually isn't too openly celebrated, it is "art" art and it's not going to go away any time soon.

Most established gallery owners and museums seem to be mainly interested in the erotic work of classic masters, "primitive" cultures, and troubled or conveniently dead "outsiders". They are often contemptuous of erotic artists who have the audacity to promote their work while they're still alive. I think this attitude is changing, but very gradually.

We know that music can be intimate. Can it be pornographic?

There are certain pieces of music that I think are very erotic.

An obvious one would be "Slow" by My Bloody Valentine. I think that all of MBV's music sounds very sensual, but "Slow " takes it a step further.

It starts with wailing guitar noise, vaguely sick and disoriented sounding, that resolves itself into a repeating loop. Then a deep grinding bass line lurchs in accompanied by pounding drums and finally, Kevin Shields' slightly off-key singing. His voice is conversation-level, intimate despite the wall of sound behind him. He sounds stoned and vaguely con- temptuous - a do-what-you-want-with-me-I'm-too-fucked-up-and-horny-to give-a-shit attitude.

I got the rush
and don't feel no shame
on top of me now
and I don't know your name
and we got no reason
just a slow slow slow slow

A friend of mine once said that one of the most disorienting things he ever experienced was sixty-nining on acid, which is what this song seems (to me) to be about: that feeling of being intertwined and forming an physical loop with someone, totally subsumed in their body's tastes and scents - "eating" them, as it were - and being so stoned on chemicals and lust that you reach that point where you lose your sense of identity and purpose, drowning in the purely physical.

When I first heard this track (1988/89), it made me think of the Butthole Surfers' sound from around the same time - the REMBRANDT PUSSYHORSE and LOCUST ABORTION TECHNICIAN lp's with the double drums and that thick fudgey wall of sound. The Surfers' music also sounded pornographic to me, but in sick, almost anti-sensual way. The first time I saw them play live, they were projecting brain surgery and autopsy films. Combined with that heavy, fucked-up, bad-acid sound, it was very powerful and cathartic - revelling in a sense of deragement, violation, and physical disgust.

"Slow" is about conquering some of that fear we have of other people's bodies and our own - even if it's just long enough to get off together.

Can you think of an aural equialent to your work?

I listen to a lot of music while I'm drawing - mainly instrumental, some of which I think could be complimentary to the visuals. I like variations in mood and rhythm, when contrasting sounds weave together - something very heavy and psychedelic morphing into something subtle and ambient, with an almost cold alien feel that in turn becomes very langorous, stoned, and bass-driven ...

I think I've done only one drawing that references a specific piece of music. There's a really gorgeous instrumental on Can's UNLIMITED EDITION lp called "Ibis". It has this eerie shimmery late-night sensuality to it that I really love. The title made me think of bird images from Egyptian frescoes and eventually a picture of two people, locked together like mating birds - a living hieroglyph.

In late 1999, I was interviewed for Sex TV, a cable show produced in Toronto. They asked me to send them some music so they would have an idea of what to put with the visuals they shot. They didn't use any of it (they couldn't afford to pay for the publishing rights), but for what it's worth, here's what I sent them:

BOWERY ELECTRIC Without Stopping (Witchman Mix)
MAIN Firmament lll
SCALA Hold Me Down
LLOOP 6:27
WE� Illbient
BYZAR Transpyrator
SCALA Ride me
SEEFEEL Filter Dub
BYZAR Skytyr/Twylyt of the Cheap Robots

This was all music that I'd listened to while working on my last five books and which I've sometimes used for live performances at local fetish events.

I'm also very fond of Atom Heart, Mescalito, Sofa Surfers, Amon Tobin, Tricky, Faust, Neu!, Sub Dub, and many others that I don't have time or room to mention.

Do terrorists help make the world more or less erotic?

I've heard that immediately after the World Trade Center attack, prostitutes were getting record business. I went to a house-warming party in my neighborhood a couple of nights after Sept. 11th and Capp Street, the local pick-up strip, was crawling with working girls and bumper-to-bumper with johns - more than I'd ever seen before. I would tend to associate this with recklessness and fatalism though rather than a fresh new open-mindedness about the erotic. "Let's make love before we die" as Daniel Miller put it.

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