Chris McKim Fills in the Picture on 'Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday May 22, 2021
Originally published on May 22, 2021

Chris McKim's documentary about painter, performance artist, filmmaker, photographer, writer, and activist David Wojnarowicz draws from a trove of material the artist left behind after he died from AIDS-related complications in 1992. It's a richly diverse output that chronicles both the inner experience and the outward biographical facts of a multifaceted life. Wojnarowicz was a complicated person, who saw the world in complex ways; more to the point, he had a piercing wit and — to borrow a phrase — "a fire in the belly."

Though his activism and writings may now give the impression of an archetypal "angry young man," Wojnarowicz was also a very funny man, and his humor is retained not only in his paintings (canvases that blend stencil art, collage, and documents; indeed, the film's title comes from words scrawled onto a piece of paper along with a crude sexual drawing that Wojnarowicz incorporated into a canvas to which he gave that same title) but in his archive of hundreds of cassette tapes (onto which he dictated a diary) and films he created.

McKim's film looks into Wojnarowicz's life through the media of all the artwork and records he left behind. Clips of his films and passages from his audio diaries are well represented in the film, as are an array of artists who knew him or can comment on how the work he did in the 1970s and 1980s affected the East Village art scene — or virtually created it, the documentary suggests — and still resonates today.

EDGE had the pleasure of chatting with McKim, and started the interview with the obvious question...


EDGE: Let's talk about the title, which comes from a crude drawing David Wojnarowicz incorporated into one of his paintings. Was it the cheekiness and the in-your-faceness of that phrase that made you want that as the title?

Chris McKim: [Fellow producers] Randy [Barbato] and Fen [Fenton Bailey] and I were talking about it for a really long time. Now, in my heart, "Fuck You Faggot Fucker" in some ways seemed really obvious, but I never threw it into the mix, because I never imagined it flying. There was a meeting where we were talking about this, and getting ready for Tribeca a year ago — because we were finishing the film in February 2020 — and we were getting to the point where the name might be out there soon. I said to Randy and Fenton, "Fuck You Faggot Fucker," and Fenton was like, "Yes!"

[Laughter]

Chris McKim: It certainly speaks to the spirit of David's work, and it definitely keys an audience into some semblance of what they're in for. And it also meant that right out of the gate we cannot be accused of not trying to live on the edge with David's work — where it belongs, where he created it.

EDGE: And which is authentic to him and his voice.

Chris McKim: Yes, thank you. The whole process has been daunting, but it's been really exciting — mostly because of David's audio, being able to spend so much time with his archive and listening to his personal story — his hopes and fear and personal journey.

EDGE: Was it tough to gain access to those audio recordings and the films that he made? Or were you able to find a resource for a lot of that material?

Chris McKim: The first step was really getting the estate on board, which is managed by [New York art gallery] PPOW, and Tom Rosenbart was the executive of that, so the first thing I did was reach out to them and went to New York and met with Tom and [gallery co-founder] Wendy Olsoff. Once I got their approval, it really opened everything up because David's archives are all housed at The Fales Library [& Special Collections] at NYU, down near Washington Square Park. Once I got their OK it really gave me access. The ability to then use that stuff in the film really made the difference.

I was aware that there were audio cassettes, and having read Cynthia Carr's book "Fire in the Belly," I had some sense of what might be on the tapes, but I still hadn't heard them. So once I got access to his 200 or so cassettes I heard all that stuff, and continued listening to it for, like, two and a half years. That's really what set the tone for the whole film. We sort of built it, beginning with David himself, from the audio up. It was such a rich collection.

EDGE: Those taped journals are revealing because they're Wojnarowicz just talking — they're not intended to be art or some kind of finished statement.

Chris McKim: Oh, yeah, certainly! In the collection there were mixtapes, there's a tape from, like, Paris in 1979 that we include parts of. He just kind of threw out his observations on life, and the beauty of those tapes is that they felt like sitting around and listening to a friend talk. They contain the entire spectrum of what that experience might be — the comedy, and the pain, and the drama of life. And the sounds of the street: Cars careening around the block and police sirens. It's very New York in that way.

EDGE: Another contemporary of his was Keith Haring, who also did graffiti art, and then years after that, of course, Banksy became the big name for street art. Did you get a sense that his street art was influential at that time?

Chris McKim: At the time, he didn't necessarily set out to make that his art. It really did come out of trying to promote the band, because people were ripping down their posters. At the time that graffiti as art was being recognized for the very first time, probably, so Haring, and Basquiat, all those sorts of people, were on the front part of that, and David was very much part of that time.

EDGE Wojnarowicz was also a performance artist, and that fed into his activism. Could he get away, these days, with the sorts of things he was doing then — throwing blood on a public stairway, turning buildings on an abandoned pier into an impromptu gallery space?

Chris McKim: The blood is probably a public hazard, unless maybe it's in the Meat Packing District.

[Laughter]

Chris McKim: But those types of protests are important. We've seen it in the last year, and the times in between; you do have to shake things up, and the protests, and people's individual actions at the protests, whether it's BLM or the early days after the 2016 election when everyone was out in the street, you know, whatever you can do to command attention and get the word out in a way that furthers your cause is important. As David said, if he were a violent person he would storm the Capitol, but it was not about violence — it was about ideas.

Art is about evoking emotions and ideas, and the combination of whether that's humor or sorrow or some of the other work, those are all important elements. A lot of times we're trying to move ourselves through our work and hoping that people identify with it. I think David was first making his work for himself, as a collection of these ideas. For all of his rage, he did experience [his times] like a regular person and could see the humor in it.

EDGE: Wojnarowicz might be remembered now mostly as a painter, but he was also a writer, and it was an essay he wrote for an exhibition that kind of put him over the top and made him famous not only in the art world or in New York, but more broadly.

Chris McKim: That certainly happened at a time where was a lot of attention on that kind of censorship. But David started off wanting to be a writer. He wanted to be a poet, and the idea of even performing originated with that, and doing readings in the mid-'70s. But writing and language were always such a big part of David's process; that's why you see so many words and essays incorporated into his collages. Even with the photos he talks about — I don't think it's in the film, but he talks about the idea of building these collages and these images. Each image was another word, and he was sort of collecting these to tell a story.

EDGE: In addition to this documentary and others, you've also been a producer for "RuPaul's Drag Race" and "RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars." Do you see any connective thread between RuPaul and Wojnarowicz, or between drag and the sort of political art that Wojnarowicz created?

Chris McKim: Yeah, certainly! I think the connection is just so natural; drag is political, and it all comes from the same, sort of, growing up on the queer fringes of society in these different communities and having a different way of seeing the world, and putting that into your art, and putting yourself into your art, and making your art speak to diverse [audiences] in some way. As David says at the end of the film, if the work we make as artists doesn't contribute to the resistance, then we're helping a system of control become more perfect.

I think that's always been the spirit of drag, and "Drag Race," and RuPaul. Certainly in the early days, [drag] had a lot more in common with the punk edge and that sort of lower East Side vibe, you know, like Randy and Fenton and Ru didn't know David personally... Ru may have, I have no idea, actually. But they were all contemporaries of David and knew people he knew. They were all playing at the same clubs. I think that spirit was always part of "Drag Race" — in the beginning, certainly. It was very scrappy. Scrappy and found art!

EDGE: And that also speaks to the purity of the art that Wojnarowicz was so dedicated to: He didn't want art to be a commodity, something bland and comforting. It should afflict people, as they say, and make people uncomfortable, or else maybe it's not saying anything.

Chris McKim: Yeah, certainly, and I think because he was always so close to the work and figuring out his own life through his artwork, I think it became important to have that mean something. In the film he says, "Here I am at 26, trying to figure out what to do with my life and wondering if any of it is meaningful." I think that's very relatable to any artist. I think that the fact that David didn't just put himself in his work, but made a point of making his work speak to the lack of representation of other people — he understood that his work was on the outside. Part of the beauty of David was that because he was also a writer, he had fully-formed thoughts, and essays and stuff that spoke to the "one tribe nation," and he knew that he was on the outside of that, along with a whole lot of other people — as we continue to be.

EDGE: You bring up a good point; he had a rough childhood; he suffered physical abuse; he had to turn to hustling in his teens in order to survive. All of that must have informed and influenced what he wanted to say in his creative life.

Chris McKim: Certainly, because he was just trying to document his life. Regardless of how complex some of his later collages might be, or installations that he did, they still reflected elements of his life.

EDGE: Like Wojnarowicz, you seem to be drawn to political issues — your earlier docs include "Out of Iraq," "The I Do Diaries," "Sex Change Hospital" all of which touch on cultural hit-button LGBTQ issues like gays in uniform, trans rights and medical care, and marriage equality.

Chris McKim: "The I Do Diaries" was in fact just a Lifetime wedding show — though on [another show I did], "Tory & Dean: Inn Love," in 2007, Tory [officiated over] a gay wedding even before it was legal [on a national level], and it was sort of a hotbed of opportunity for people to get ordained online and get married in the back yard. But in a similar sort of place, I really enjoy telling these stories and the opportunities they give me to witness and experience other parts of society that I wouldn't, necessarily, and even though there's a strong queer thread to a lot of the stuff [I've done], I think at the same time it's an opportunity to help bring these stories to the broader audience and to pop culture. I think that's important in helping to break down barriers.




"Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker" can be viewed at Kino Marquee.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.