Left: Spread from LIFE Magazine Vol 56, no. 26 (June 1964). Paul Welch, “Homosexuality in America.” Photo: Bill Eppridge. Right: Nayland Blake installing “FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX!,” 2012–13.


Nayland Blake is an artist, teacher, activist, writer, and kink enthusiast who explores the ways in which artmaking and community construction can mutually inform each other. His latest show, “FREE!LOVE!TOOL!BOX!,” is on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through January 27, 2013. Blake will also have a solo exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York from February 2 to April 19, 2013.

I HAD BEEN READING the historian Gayle Rubin and I ran across these descriptions of the Tool Box, which was a San Francisco leather bar that opened in 1962. The Tool Box was not only San Francisco’s first gay-owned leather bar, but was also featured in a June 1964 article in LIFE titled “Homosexuality in America.” This was the first major magazine article to talk about homosexuals and depict leathermen in three cities: New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The story that the article tells about San Francisco concerns the Tool Box and the Mattachine Society—a homophile group that began in 1950 and worked for the acceptance of homosexuals within American society. That story in many ways was the start of a gay migration to San Francisco. It became a contributing factor to the queer culture in San Francisco becoming even more concentrated. The Tool Box was torn down in the late 1960s as part of San Francisco’s SoMa redevelopment plan. The Yerba Buena Center is part of the final portion of that redevelopment plan.

For my show at Yerba Buena, I wanted to look at the city in the early ’60s as well as a period in the early ’90s, a time when I lived in San Francisco, as eras in which there was an invention of a new kind of gay or queer identity based around spaces, bars, and clubs. The 1990s were a time of liberation––post–Queer Nation, but before there was investment in the gay marriage and the gay military model. That’s something that gained force in the late ’90s through the 2000s and, to my mind, hijacked the activist moment that was interesting and inventive about rethinking ideas around gender and sexuality. The idea was to take that space in Yerba Buena and reactivate it—to make it less of a showcase for my work and more of a platform for people to come together to think about these ideas of liberation by hosting workshops, lectures, and informal classes.

As an artist, I am most excited not by those moments of definition but by those moments that lack definition. To me the best thing about a movement like Occupy is the refusal of a narrative and a goal. That’s what these two previous moments felt like. I wanted to construct a space that is a great party celebrating creativity and also one that offers an examination of these previous eras, suggesting therein that institutions can learn from leather bars. Recently I have been spending a lot more time in the kink and BDSM worlds than I have been spending in the art world. This is in part because I feel there is a kind of creativity going on in those spheres that is coupled with the knowledge that there is never going to be a “valid” career in them. Furthermore, the audiences are also participants.

One of my pet theories is that there was a situation in the mid-’60s into the mid-’70s where there was a rise of bodily based performance art and at the same time there was an increase in consciousness raising, discussion, and organization among sexual minorities. These are two groups of people who were doing the same thing, often literally. And what happened was that an idea became popular, one stemming from people like Norman O. Brown who said that transformations in the consciousness of bodily expression could result in transformations in societal structures. The civil rights model that mainstream gay activism has been engaged with in recent years doesn’t buy into this notion, however. It doesn’t want to transform society. It just wants to ensure equal access to all of the benefits to the current society. To me, the amazing potential of art—and this is where I see my relationship to Beuys—is that transforming society and art consciousness can provide us with different sorts of models for social organization.

We continually need to ask ourselves what we mean by “success.” I feel like part of the interest that people have in this activist moment from the 1960s is tied to this index of success. If your index of success is finding romance, finding someone to be with, or just having someone excited about doing something, then you are fortunate. Throughout history, making art has been about visualizing and creating community. I suggest that if we are going to talk about activating spaces, let’s actually talk about it instead of these twee notions of interactivity.

— As told to John Arthur Peetz