It is strange to write about someone you didn't know. Especially someone who you probably know people who he knew, or to admire someone who is dead or someone who is dead and relatively obscure. It feels like someone else should be writing this, but I don't think anyone IS writing about it, and in the wake of all this 50 Shades FUCK ALL bullshit, Bob Flanagan should be remembered. Someone who took his body to extremes, cut his teeth on the edges of BDSM, elevated it to an art form, and did it twenty years ago. This, when hardly anyone other than Ava Taurel (someone I've also written about) was coming out of the closet. Flanagan prostrated himself in public without a second thought about what it meant politically or whether it was provocative. He was just doing what he did, like any great artist.
He was anomalous not only for being the quintessential "supermasochist", but doing it before the age of the internet. Born with a disease called cystic fibrosis, his childhood was spent being prodded and probed, tied to his bed, and even sealed in a plastic bag. Flanagan, like a lot of masochists, found a coping mechanism through touching his penis to offset the trauma. (Before we go pathologizing too much, let me say that Bob admitted that his kinks were probably triggered by these experiences, but not necessarily indicative that formative experiences are what makes all kinky people kinky. It was simply his experience.) Cystic fibrosis is a disease in which the body does not have a proper mechanism for dispelling mucous, so it collects in the person's lungs. Most people die when they are in their early 20's or 30's, but Flanagan held on until he was 43. One of the longest survivors of the disease, he attributed it partly to the endurance he acquired through practicing BDSM.
Someone was kind enough to send me a copy of the documentary, SICK, about his life and art, and I have since read a few of his books. I highly recommend that documentary, and a short-lived magazine by the name of ReSearch Volume I, which features a lengthy set of interviews with him over a period of a few months. He also wrote The Pain Journal (in which he documents the last stages of his disease up until his last few days), and the Fuck Journal, which recounts every sexual encounter he had with his long time mistress, Sheree Rose.
It is not only admirable that he had the discipline to nail his scrotum to a board or hang himself upside down as a symbolic sort of inverted crucifixion, but that he knew exactly what he was doing and why. Without being too precious about his "art", he could articulate the reasons and the drive.
On the inherent strength in submission:
Bob (referring to a kinky event): "They put me in stocks and caned me and spanked me and it was pretty intense-- it went on for awhile. Afterwards, there were guys sitting around naked drinking beer, and one of them said [bass voice], 'Well, he's got more balls than I do!' So there's a certain cockiness to this-- right, I do have more balls than you! There's a certain pride in the fact that you have the guts to live out your fantasies. In this situation I didn't plan it, I just had to think fast and cooperate."
On SM and the idea that it is related to childhood abuse:
"I've heard that from people into SM, and I've also heard that from people who are completely turned off to SM because they were abused as children. People process information and experiences differently; someone who's imprinted with nylons and bras when they're a kid may want to dress up in those after they grow up. People have all sorts of strange imprinting-- I think the bondage aspect of my situation (being a prisoner to other forces) was sexualized so I could survive it. In order not to be terrified by it, I sexualized it...
Maybe role-playing as a slave is just a milder, healthier form of having multiple personalities to escape difficulty. Saying this, I hear a million voices in my head of people who swear that nothing happened in their childhood; they just, in their adult life, heard about this and got involved, like Sheree-- she heard about this scene and it "clicked" in a certain part of her. She can't rationalize or explain it by any kind of imprinting. For me it's much deeper."
On religion and pain:
"In Catholicism, torture was considered something beautiful and spiritual: something to rise above and change your life. And as kids those influences stuck with us... we never shirked from torture or pain because of the church. So it's not a reaction against, it's a reaction to. The Catholics teach the Stations of the Cross, where whipping and scourges ending up in crucifixion-- death by torture. Jesus always has this great smile on his face and this expression of release when it's all over."
There is also a small interview with Sheree Rose, whom they asked about Bob's art and its relevance to contemporary society:
"Linda Kaufman... wrote a brilliant piece about Bob's work-- the idea being that violence is part of the human condition, and that everybody gets off on violence in one way or another. SM has been disparaged and shunted aside as something horrible, but it is a very positive way of channeling those violent impulses... I don't know how SM could evolve toward being socially accepted, but there has to be a way to deal with this violence which is now out of control."
If you are someone who thinks about BDSM as much as I do, none of these statements are especially revelatory, however, they are when you think of them in the context of their time. Flanagan is in a sense a product of his generation in that not all kink, but masochism in particular, is probably the result of a combination of a genetic misfiring of pain and pleasure receptors coupled with a fair amount of physical pain endured during childhood. I know I said I didn't want to pathologize, but being a sexual sadist, one of my fears is that masochism as an integral part of one's sexuality (and not just something someone reluctantly agrees to) will become extinct. No one beats their kids anymore! I mean, what the FUCK? Ha ha, just kidding. Kind of. No really, I don't condone beating kids. Unless it becomes socially acceptable again. No, no, just kidding.
In SICK, they include a few songs Bob wrote regarding the intersection of his predilections and his illness and also a bit about being a SAM (smart-assed masochist) which are hilarious, and also a poem he wrote, called, "Why?" I've included all of them below because they are just so entertaining and, well, true. Also, although he liked to write songs, they were not considered his fine art. You have to go to The New Museum website to see that stuff.
This is a wonderful demonstration of the playful yet derisive attitude he had toward his illness. It's a bit difficult to watch because he is fully hooked up to the various machines keeping him alive, but very excellent: