The year Mason and I moved to San Francisco, we ended up working for Re/Search Publications. That meant transcribing interviews on cassette — my goodness, is Diamanda Galas incoherent on a sentence by sentence level — helping to load boxes of Modern Primitives into Vale’s little green car at the dock in Oakland when they came from the printer, and providing “security” at the gallery events AJ and Vale hosted at Southern Exposure.
There were four of us at that time: Ron, my husband Mason, our roommate Jeff, and me. We collected money at the door, checked IDs, stamped hands, ran out to get burritos for AJ, and generally felt like part of the cool crowd, even if we were just go-fers.
I don’t remember much of the series, although we attended every one. There was an art opening, which displayed tattoo flash from the premier tattoo artists in the country and tribal stuff collected by Hanky Panky in Amsterdam. There were lectures on safe and consensual SM: pretty ground-breaking stuff for a vanilla crowd in 1989.
The closing event blended poetry readings and spoken word about body modifications with performance art. AJ had seen Bob Flanagan perform down in LA and brought him up specially to cap off the series. Flanagan was really suffering from cystic fibrosis that would eventually kill him. But his skeletal body was very strong, on fire from the spirit within him. His girlfriend Sheree Rose tortured and bound him while he read about transcending his disease.
The culmination of the evening was when he nailed his own scrotum to a board. The other Re/Search events had been kind of dry and scholarly, but this one had been heavily publicized and drew a huge crowd. AJ had instructed us to keep an eye on the drunks and eject anyone who wasn’t respectful. Yeah, right. Little me wasn’t about to eject anyone.
The audience crowded toward the front of the room. The gallery was very hot, since Bob was sick and naked on stage. I stood toward the back, where I couldn’t really see what was going on but where I could get a breath of wind from the open doors.
Behind my back hung a tattooed human skin in a plexiglas case. It leaked embalming fluid, which puddled on the floor behind my feet. The stench is still very memorable.
Video monitors broadcast the events on-stage to those who couldn’t get closer. It was enough for me to listen to Bob’s groans as he hammered the nails in. The endorphins had lifted him enough that he decided to put the final nail through the head of his penis.
I will never forget the quiet in the packed gallery, the sound of the hammer falling, and the moan that followed.
I don’t have any idea what happened next, because the six-and-a-half-foot-tall skinhead next to me keeled over like a felled tree. I caught his shoulders and prevented him from dropping into the pool of formaldehyde. Then his friends took over, hoisting him up and dragging him outside.
It seemed everyone in the room had their own endorphin rush that evening.