Tess Edmonson: The Tom of Finland Foundation is located in a house in Los Angeles’s Echo Park, containing the archives of the late artist as well as operating as a residence for those who maintain it. You visited there for the first time in 2012, and shot The Foundation there over the course of the following years. What drew you to that space?
Patrick Staff: At that point, a lot of the work I was making was about different communities and collectives, often historical moments that flourished in resistance to capitalism or in resistance to industrialization in one way or another—ones that often were quite short-lived, or maybe ones that had failed.
The first time I visited the house, I was immediately struck by not immediately being able to tell who worked there and who lived there, who was an artist and who was an archivist, and who just had a room in the house. That was really exciting to me—I felt like this was really genuinely an alternative structure that I’d not encountered before. I felt very sensitive to how it had been set up as a commune or as a shared living situation really implicitly informed how it functioned as an archive today. Through spending time with the people there, it became apparent that—although they wouldn’t call it this—essentially the house was bought in the seventies as a commune, and as a collective.
I found it compelling and beautiful and strange how certain rooms in the house had been converted to archival rooms, or people had modified the house themselves, and in some ways rebuilt it to fit the needs of the community as it changed over the years. The tour that I got was really incredible because it was like, here’s the kitchen, here’s my office, here’s my bedroom, and then this is the archive, and this is the sex dungeon, and this is the garden. And again I don’t think they would necessarily talk about it in these terms, but it was like a living project. The domestic space was as important as the archival space and in a way that was very natural and very genuine.
The other thing that I was really aware of in going to the house was a kind of question of access. I was at a point in my life where I was really questioning my gender identity and I was quite aware that the house—even though it’s not a male-only space—it’s a very andro-centric, male-oriented space, something visible through the archive’s images as much as the people who live there and work there. Though there’s actually a number of women who are at the very core of the organization and a lot of the younger people are attracted to the house are very queer, a lot of trans people, it was only in time that that became apparent to me. When I first visited I thought, ‘I’m welcome in this space by virtue of passing as a man and having a male body in some way or another,’ and that was very immediate to me.
TE: There’s a part in the film when someone says, “you’ll grow into being a man.”
PS: That was something that an older gay man said to me when I mentioned that I thought I might be trans. Or I was kind of figuring out if I was going to transition, or trying to understand what was going on with me. I think part of that was about a desire for him to see himself reflected in a younger generation or for a younger generation to be the torch-bearers. And for me, it was like—does this sever the family ties? Am I breaking the code? Or rejecting it?
But the community at the Foundation, they are so generous, and it’s such a compassionate and generous space despite the difficulty in understanding generational shifts in politics, identity, and language. And actually it feels very familial because it’s filled with this care and love and attempt at support, but there are ways that you just inherently don’t understand each other’s experience. I guess I had a desire to not be stuck in these very strictly oppositional positions. A lot of the work I’ve made in the past has been about culture and counterculture, institution and anti-institution, and I suppose my work now is more about just trying to understand mixed ecologies and constitutions and things being much more blurry, in that way.
In the book that we published about the project, it was a very conscious decision to invite Catherine Lord and Isla Weaver-Yap to contribute—Catherine being a lesbian feminist in her fifties or sixties who has written extensively on the history of queer art, and Isla being a younger, queer writer whose essay incorporates questions around race. I think at this point people need to be producing counter-narratives to this kind of legacy. And to me it’s more valuable to do that from a position of intimacy than to have this strictly critical position. It was really important that I could spend plenty of time with the guys at the Foundation. I have a lot of love and care and respect for what they’ve done. But I don’t think that it’s really good enough for a gallery to mount a show of Tom of Finland’s work and not be producing counter-narratives and generating criticality. But I think you can still have reverence for it.