David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), multimedia artist, musician, AIDS activist and provocateur, brought a punk sensibility to NYC’s downtown gallery world. Aligned with the transgressive art movement of the 1980s, Wojnarowicz collaborated with the likes of filmmaker Richard Kern, but he was clearly on his own path, diving into Dumpsters for materials, hustling, and fighting mightily against the AIDS-denying Reagan tide. Director Chris McKim (Tammy Faye: Death Defying;RuPaul’s Drag Race) has released a searing new documentary, Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker. Eric Davidson spoke with McKim for PKM.
There are those artists who have to live and fight through the shit so it’s not as shitty for us later. Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker is a great new documentary of such a soul, the multimedia artist, David Wojnarowicz. A classic character of the grimy streets of bad old New York City, he stayed alive on the Lower East Side of the late ‘70s as a gay runaway while ingeniously utilizing Dumpster detritus and back-alley hustling as his “art school” path to brief gallery fame. (His stenciled burning house image became a familiar cryptic image during that lower Manhattan gallery-sprouting era.
In fact, he may be more known for his AIDS activism, born of the sickeningly weak response from the Reagan administration and Wojnarowicz’ own battle with the disease, fought hard, loud, and desperately until his death in 1992.
Wojnarowicz was aligned with the transgression art movement of that time and worked with some of its leading lights, like filmmaker Richard Kern; and he had his own post-punk electro-noise outfit, 3 Teens Kill 4. Wojnarowicz melded the burn-it-down humor of punk with the anti-budget creativity of the transgressive movement in amazing ways. Dumping bloody cow bones in front of a hoity-toity gallery and creating a curated installation of rotting garbage and maggots inside a Mnuchin family mansion are just a few of the crazed, subversive stories told in the film, and told in a consistently inventive way throughout. Yes, overall Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker is an intense, ruminative, and often sad film. But the inspiring beauty, energy, and hilarity of his work shines through the darkness.
Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker-trailer
Eschewing the usual talking heads format, director Chris McKim and editor Dave Stanke create a liquidy movement (not unlike the media mixtures of Wojnarowicz’ paintings) made of 8mm footage, TV clips, recent sound-only interviews, Wojnarowicz’ art, and especially his personal miles of audio and video documentation. It pulls us into the gay liberation movement’s ascendance into mainstream dialogue, and the parallel destruction of some of its strongest voices from AIDS. Among all the analog imagery, two quick recent shots of Trump have a shocking effect of reminding how far we still need to go.
Wojnarowicz melded the burn-it-down humor of punk with the anti-budget creativity of the transgressive movement in amazing ways.
McKim has developed his style over a career of acclaimed documentaries (Out of Iraq, Tammy Faye: Death Defying), though his greatest legacy may be as executive producer of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which he worked on for its initial four seasons. It’s an intriguing connection, as our current drag-friendly pop culture has a way of engendering possible complacency. Wojnarowicz, for all its circa-80s setting, has a way of shaking our shoulders right now. There are downright chilling sections in this film that mirror our current social justice battles, often in surprising, challenging ways. Between fist-raising admonitions of right wing fascism, Wojnarowicz mentions storming the Capitol as a protest option, and uses language that definitely wouldn’t fly in most leftist circles today. This was someone who did the hard work of creating the notion of a “transgressive gender-fluid artist” before we had many guidebooks for that.
Wojnarowicz’ abrasive art and infuriated personality brought nationwide attention to the AIDS crisis, not to mention his artwork is amazing. Hopefully, McKim’s excellent documentary will bring more notice to Wojnarowicz’ searing legacy. We spoke with McKim about the film and David Wojnarowicz.
PKM: I’m being somewhat facetious, but am also aware of annoying name mispronunciation, as I grew up in heavily eastern European-descent Cleveland – but I noticed I heard at least four different pronunciations of David’s surname throughout the film. Did you come across any tapes of David complaining about how people said his name?
Chris McKim: I’ve heard David say it multiple ways on the tapes, and I’m guessing there was a reasonable spectrum of acceptability.
PKM: David says in the doc, about his early hustling days, that he was “constantly working against it, rather than alongside it.” I’m wondering your take on what he meant with that observation.
Chris McKim: David said, “The world is set-up in such a way that it seems I’m constantly working against it, rather than alongside it,” which speaks to the sense of alienation he felt throughout his life and explored in his work. As he told Teri Gross on Fresh Air, “Whatever work I’ve done, it’s always been informed by my experience as an American in this country, as a homosexual in this country, as a person legislated into silence in this country.” That legislated silence, homophobia along with the abuse and traumas of his childhood, did not make the world an inviting place.
PKM: Tell me more about finding the music of 3 Teens Kill 4 while researching for the film.
Chris McKim: The band’s album, No Motive (Dark Entries, 1983), was already streaming when the project began in July, 2017, and I spent a lot of time over the next two-plus years listening to it to the point that it was my most listened to band in 2019, according to Spotify. In the film, Jesse Hultberg describes the band’s sound as “a cacophonic barrage” which also captures the experience of going through David’s collection of nearly 200 cassette tapes, and inspired the film’s sound design.
David talked about wanting to start a band with Brian Butterick on the mixtape he recorded in Paris in 1978, about two years before 3 Teens came together. In fact that same tape is the source for the 3TK4 song, “Stay and Fight,” which is made up of samples of European shortwave radio broadcasts David recorded.
3 Teens Kill 4 – Stay and Fight
PKM: Hultberg had a great quote about David using his recorded samples in their music like “a film for your ears.” Aside from the collaborations with Richard Kern covered in your movie, did David have wider aspirations to do film work, or was that primarily Kern’s imploration?
Chris McKim: David was drawn to filmmaking through his adult life, even if he didn’t always finish the films he started. Wojnarowicz is filled with Super 8 footage David shot from the late 70s through the ‘80s, including undeveloped rolls we found in his archive at Fales Library. They processed that film for us, and it’s seen in the documentary for the very first time. David made the film Heroin in 1979 with future bandmates Brian Butterick and Jesse Hultberg. Tommy Turner and David made the short Where Evil Dwells, and he starred in Richard Kern’s The Manhattan Love Suicides. He also made films with Marion Scemama and Phil Zwickler who shot the footage of David in his loft during the Witnesses: Against our Vanishing 1989 controversy.
The Manhattan Love Suicides: Stray Dogs (1985)-Directed by Richard Kern:
Heroin-unfinished film by David Wojnarowicz
PKM: In the recent Film Forum Q&A you did, there’s a story of David and some friends going to The Anvil, and there being some video footage of that. Can you tell me about that footage?
Chris McKim: The Anvil was fun because it was David talking about a night out the way a friend might tell you about last night, but nothing to make anyone blush. On par with the cruising in the park story and less graphic than the john with the gummy mouth. Had there been footage, it definitely would’ve been in the film, but this was just one of many good stories David shared on his tape journals, which were an embarrassment of riches.
PKM: Also in that Q&A, you alluded to not going into some of the crazy partying situations of David’s life, and I’m wondering why, as with that end of gay subculture in the later ‘70s and ‘80s, the sheer act of going out clubbing and fucking around was so central to the idea of finding yourself.
Chris McKim: I said, “I thought there’d be more sex in the film,” which I could say about so many things from David’s furiously lived life from childhood on. We certainly didn’t hold back on anything, and I don’t think there’s anything on the cutting room floor more graphic than what we chose to keep. I can’t think of anything that struck me as “partying.” The clip of David on heroin doesn’t sound like a good time, though I suppose shooting ecstasy with Richard Kern may have been.
PKM: I was wondering about your conscious decision to not utilize the usual talking heads documentary tact here.
Chris McKim: This was inspired largely by David. The goal was always to create an immersive, visceral experience. When the audio files started arriving from his archive at Fales Library at NYU, I loaded up my iPhone and went on many long walks listening to the tape journals. It became a really moving experience, like listening to a close friend share their most intimate hopes, fears, and frustrations. Those tapes brought David to life for me, and by keeping all of the new interviews off camera he’s as alive as anyone else in the film. It was a lot more work to do that, but having worked with Dave Stanke previously on Out of Iraq, I knew we could make it something special.
Out of Iraq – Trailer
PKM: During that Q&A, David Stanke discussed how Wojnarowicz was sort of doing selfies with some of his film clips; and the moderator claimed David was a kind of harbinger of memes. And there was an agreement that David would probably be using the internet in that way were he alive today. Now of course you all know way more about David than I do, but my gut feeling was I think David might’ve hated social media. In one way, as it’s an extension of capitalist self-centeredness and ersatz marketing; that outlets like TikTok and the notion of “likes” reward nihilists; and that these things go against David’s basic demand for physical social activism and collectivism. I’m wondering if he would think sitting at home complaining on Twitter about politics would be the most effective way to make change.
Chris McKim: David Wojnarowicz took a lot of selfies, and I’m grateful that he did because they helped us illustrate his story. He also had a keen understanding of the way mass media and culture is used as a weapon to maintain the illusion of a One Tribe Nation and deny people their rights and representation. Those are themes he tackled throughout his multimedia art and writing. Had he lived longer, It would not be a surprise if his work addressed the role that the internet has taken in our pre-invented existence. That’s not necessarily the same as thinking he’d be on Tik Tok or ranting on Twitter. In his lifetime it would’ve been hard to predict the many directions his curiosity took him. I’m sure David would still be surprising us today given the chance.
Chris McKim: I was lucky enough to join Drag Race when it was just a logline, and have Randy and Fenton to thank for that. To be there from the beginning and dreaming up the madness that became the show with Ru, Randy, Fenton, Tom Campbell and Mathu Andersen was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m really proud of what the show has meant to so many people, and to have literally put the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent into that world.
PKM: Why did you leave that gig? And what are you working on today?
Chris McKim: Creatively speaking, four seasons of anything is more than enough for me. The world building aspect of any project is one of the things that I most enjoy, and while every season comes with a new set of queens, challenges, and innovations, I was ready for new stories to tell. There was also the sign from Tammy Faye.
Years ago I made Tammy Faye: Death Defying which followed her through the early stages of cancer and was a follow-up to Randy and Fenton’s Eyes of Tammy Faye. I was with Tammy when she started chemotherapy, and we shared a lot of laughter and tears over the years. When Sharon Needles – the fright queen from Pittsburgh with the Tammy Faye tattoo – won Drag Race season 4, I took that as a sign and confirmation from Tammy that things had come full circle and it was ok to move on.
A sidestory: Wojnarowicz is dedicated to Tom Rauffenbart, David’s partner, and Jacqueline Wilson, who I hired to run the story department on season 2 of Drag Race. She never left the show and became a good friend. Jacqueline’s contribution to everything the show has become and everything people love about it is unparalleled in that universe. Among Jacqueline’s many talents, she always knew the best editors and introduced me to David Stanke. She passed away while we were making this film, and it does feel like without Tom’s initial blessing and Jacqueline’s introduction, the film may not have happened.
“Desire”-3 Teens Kill 4 (narration by David Wojnarowicz):