On Kevin Killian’s “Tagged” Project

In his own words, Kevin Killian’s “Tagged” was a project in which he photographed “individual artists and poets, mostly male, naked, their junk covered often by a squarish drawing, almost a caricature, of a cock and balls by Raymond Pettibon.” Kevin’s essay “The Future of the Body,” which he would read as part of his “Tagged” performance, continues:

Through this device of double distancing, I aim to lampoon outward signs of masculinity, as overdetermination nearly always reveals a gap between what is valued, and what is fact. Genitalia is an ‘outward sign’ in name only, of course, as most of the time society and jurisprudence dictate that these areas remain covered, occluded, by pain of law. But what has a cock and balls to show anyhow?

This was how I first encountered Kevin, suspended in total fascination. When he finished reading, it was odd but the only thing on my mind was that I wanted him to photograph me. And since I hadn’t yet read much of Jack Spicer’s poetry—Spicer’s stained-glass tomb is where Kevin photographs many of his subjects—what struck me about Kevin’s performance was his spellbinding voice, and I was in a trance. After the event, Kevin, who seemed to be constantly surrounded by dizzy friends and fans, was walking toward me down the hallway of the theater and he said, “if you’re ever in San Francisco I’d love to photograph you.” He spoke so casually I knew that he must say that to every young poet he meets, but then again it didn’t matter because for a split second he made me feel like a star. Jump ahead one year. I get really sick, my large intestine closes up due to severe Crohn’s disease, my belly is pumped full of air, a four-inch incision bisects my abdomen and a piece of my gut is cut out of me. I ask one of the surgeons if I can keep the piece of intestine. She says no but takes a picture of it for me on her iPhone. But what has a piece of intestine to show anyhow?

Less than three months after my colectomy I stripped naked in front of Kevin’s three cameras, my belly scar still as red and bumpy as an open wound, a place from which almost anything could emerge. Kevin and I both enjoyed how my fresh surgical scar dovetailed with the painter Forrest Bess’s self-surgeries, his attempts to increase sexual pleasure by slicing a hole between the bottom of his cock and his balls into which nearly anything might enter. Kevin asks his models to look at photos of Bess, to dream on them, to think of our digital age, in which genitalia has become vestigial, and perhaps could belong to anyone, and mimic Bess’s alchemical rituals with their own bodies. Bess theorized that this new hole, this new body, would be capable of eternally rejuvenating stimulation, an orgasm unlike any other.

The green light in Jack Spicer’s tomb fell like liquid around me while my two friends, Add and Kellie, read Spicer’s poems to his ashes in an adjacent room. Their muffled words complemented the feeling that I was underwater, and the sensuality of my slowed limbs haunted Kevin’s lenses like the specters who wrote Spicer’s poetry. In contrast with the sensation of swimming through the thick green light, I was quick to obey all of Kevin’s artistic instructions: “get down on all fours;” “strip tease with your briefs so just the top of your dick is showing;” “bark like a dog at the dead god.” Kevin then asked me to coax Spicer back from the dead by offering him sex in exchange for a new poem. I can’t remember how hokey this felt, but I’m pretty sure Kevin left the room and did not take pictures during this part of what felt much more like a ritual than a photoshoot.

Hi Davey

Not to be a bother, but I finished the script for my reading tonight and I knew you would like to know how it turns out, so I’ll attach it here.

It has about 35 slides in it because it’s only supposed to be 15 minutes worth… and the first part is me reading my poems (and one of Spicer’s) with a few slides here and there, then the essay “The Future of the Body” interspersed more rapidly with photos from “Tagged.” It all climaxes with you, and the picture is one of the ones with you standing upright on top of that ladder with one ankle balanced along the railing to perform a triumphant letter K (sort of) with your scar in the middle of the picture (and your dick 🙂 )  It will be a beautiful ending and leave the crowd breathless,

Cheers Davey, have a great weekend, you are very sweet! xxxx

Leading up to the photographs, in the months after surgery, I spent a lot of solitary time recovering. In his last email to me, Kevin wrote, “People were flocking [to my bedside] for a while, but the novelty wore off I guess.” I experienced something similar in my long recovery and emailing with Kevin about his “Tagged” project, and being photographed for it, helped me heal. But sometimes healing takes a long time, a lifetime even, and I remember hearing about how Dodie Bellamy, Kevin’s widow, suggested that he get back into writing after recovery from a heart attack by reviewing products on Amazon. A suggestion that led to thousands of flavorsome reviews.

Kevin also helped me get back into writing after my surgery. In our emails he introduced me to the work of Bob Flanagan, another sick poet whose bodily horrors were the subject of much of his writing and his S/M performance art. Bob’s mantra, “fight sickness with sickness,” is not for the faint of heart. But since so much of my life revolves around the lower half of my digestive tract, which is riddled with pain, I’ve often found myself, like Bob, turning that pain into something else, sometimes something erotic. The distinction between sickness and health, pain and pleasure—much like male sexuality in Kevin’s “Tagged” project—is left up for interpretation.

Is Kevin’s lampoon of male sexuality—by having mostly male, nude poets pose with a cartoonish cock and balls from a Raymond Pettibon painting, a forced double-distancing—a way to get closer to sexuality? Does Bess’s, Flanagan’s, and my masochistic kink exist somewhere beyond gender—as Kevin proposed to me via Facebook messenger? I continue to draw upon these questions, like sucking a wound, as this ossified connection grows between Kevin’s photographs of my fresh scar and my body here and now. Like Forrest Bess slicing open his perineum with a razor blade, I felt the flash and shutter of Kevin’s cameras cut through me, each photograph freezing a slice of me and my new flesh, somewhere—that mysterious place where Kevin will always exist—both in and out of time.

David Kuhnlein

David Kuhnlein lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan. His writing is published or forthcoming in Burning House, Mirage/Period[ical], Tragickal, BathHouse, Cough Syrup, Nauseated Drive, Rogue Agent, Abandoned Library, and others. He co-edited a witchcraft/ gothic romance novel his grandmother wrote in 1979, set in her home country--Trinidad. Follow along @olasgrandesnovel.