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PeepShow & Tell: Sex in Archives - Blog Post #4 - Steven Frost – Artist and Avid Archive Researcher

19 Apr 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

The ACA McGill University Student Chapter invites you to join us for an immersive series of blog posts titled PeepShow and Tell: Sex in Archives. Through interviews with researchers and professionals working firsthand with explicit materials, we hope to illuminate the intrinsic value of sex and sexuality within the field of archiving and why these materials deserve to be preserved. 

Ezell Carter, co-editor for this piece, is a graduate student with the School of Information Studies at McGill University and the Co-Coordinator of the ACA McGill University Student Chapter.

For this post in our PeepShow & Tell Series, we got the chance to work with Steven Frost, a prominent mixed media artist and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the College of Media Communication + Information, University of Colorado Boulder.  In our discussion, we dive into how Steven’s research with sexually explicit archives influences their work and how preserving and providing access to these materials gives researchers an intimate glance into the lives of others.  

What are some of the unique opportunities researching sexually explicit content provides you with? How does the material, specifically historical, archived pieces, affect your work? 

Sexually explicit archives are fascinating because in my experience you get to see people’s private fantasies in a way that is uncommon in popular culture. Historically, as well as today, people often hide their fetishes from the public out of fear that they may lose their home, job, or damage their reputation. Sexual archives become a place where the ephemera of people’s private lives are collected with the intention of being discovered by other like-minded people. 

At the Leather Archives and Museum (LA&M) in Chicago, I was particularly drawn to clothing, DIY sex toys, hand-drawn pornographic comics, and personal correspondence between play partners. The archived correspondence gave context to a lot of the unusual toys I was finding and allowed me to experience the stories of queer spaces that have long since been replaced by mixed-use high rises and micro-breweries. 

As a queer person who came of age in a period of increased cultural acceptance, I often compared my own experiences to an inaccurate image of older queer people living quietly in the shadows, but the archive gave me an opportunity to understand queer joy as it was experienced before queer rights were nationalized and queer culture was consumed as pop. Objects, letters, and images in an archive can give voice to the lives and desires of a generation of people that we will never have the chance to know. 

Digging through archives inspired me to create what I call "ghost collaborations." My "ghost collaborators" are people I would have loved to have known and worked with as an artist but because of their passing, only artifacts of their lives and desires remain. I try to get a sense of these folx through the materials in their archives and create “ghost collaborations” inspired by them. This way of manifesting people in my practice started when looking at the Jim Kane collection in the LA&M but has since transformed into collaborations inspired by the archives of long-departed family members like my Great-Aunt Helen and sometimes celebrities like Liberace. (Figure 1) 

Figure 1. Jim Kane Papers PERS 0003, Jim Kane Collection, Box 5 of 9, Leather Archives & Museum (LA&M), Chicago, Illinois, United States (Photograph provided by Steven Frost) 

What is your favourite part of working with these sorts of materials?  

Jim Kane’s personal correspondence provided me with a picture of an individual who was not just a practitioner of BDSM but part of a larger international queer culture when many were localized by geographical limitations. Among his archive are thank you letters from Étienne/Stephen (Dom), Robert Mapplethorpe, and Tom of Finland. One such undated letter recalls Jim’s first of many encounters with artist Tom of Finland. 

Dear Jim, 
Many thanks for the dinner party which you gave me when I was in San Francisco. It was a pleasure meeting you and exciting to see your special room downstairs, which gave me lots of ideas for future drawings. 
 You looked great in your leathers, high boots and breeches are to be the best I know and so I repeat them also in my drawings again and again. As you see in the enclosed prints. Thanks for the inspiration and my best regards. 

Tom [of Finland] 

Kane’s “Special room” was his dungeon, which was the topic of much of his correspondence.From Finland’s letter, it seems he presented it to invited guests, not unlike a suburban homeowner showing off their romper-room. There are no pictures of his dungeon but there are many fictional and non-fictional accounts of the activities that took place there. Kane outfitted the space himself with pulleys, tables, cages, and various other stages for his practice.  

Kane was constantly reconfiguring the room and outfitting it with new or improved equipment after feedback from friends and sexual partners. An anonymous letter from one of Kane’s guests asked that he put more padding on a table so that he could keep his “mind in the act” and not on the pain in his shins. 

The “special room” was for Kane's extra-domestic space not unlike the proverbial “workshop” which was popular in the years following World War II. In that time the workshop was reintroduced to domestic spaces. Some historians site the shift in labor from the home/farm to the workplace/office as the impetus for its rise in popularity. Hobbyist culture sprung up not because of the need for homemade coffee tables but because of a desire to introduce the handmade back into the home. Kane’s dungeons and others like it created a space that was surrounded by a new self-determined sense of place. A dungeon was not a bedroom where heterosexuals made children. It was also unlike the backroom of a bar or a cruising spot in a public park where gay men metfor anonymous sex. Kane’s private dungeon was a space one had to be invited into. It functioned as a domestic and public setting where all participants were consenting and taking pleasure in the sexual acts. (Figure 2) 


Figure 2. Artist – Steven Frost, Headmaster No. 2 

What inspired you to look to archives for your research? 

I have always been interested in the power and history of personal items like clothing and small collections. It was because of this that I was asked by the editors of Headmaster magazine in 2011 to create a sculpture based on something in the archives at the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. Queer history was already part of my studio practice, but this assignment gave me an opportunity to formalize my experience. I have since visited the One Archives in LA, corresponded with archivists at the Smithsonian, designed a graduate course around oral history archives, and made library funding/advocacy a focus of my personal time. 

What is uniquely interesting to you about this research and these materials?  

Eleven Pink Alley in San Francisco was the home of Jim Kane until 2004 when he passed away at age 75. It was the private center of the San Francisco leather scene for much of the nineteen-seventies and eighties. He was friends with Tom of Finland, Chuck Renslow, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Sam Steward (aka Phil Andros whom I have a portrait of on my right thigh). Although Kane passed away years ago, I got to know him through his archive. A collection of his writings, letters, leather devices, and artwork are stored in the LA&M.There is also a collection of his letters at the University of Michigan. Kane’s collection has fascinated me and found its way into my studio practice. The act of digging through the six boxes was not unlike the act of sorting through boxes of family portraits in my basement. He in many ways is a lost relative in a broader queer lineage. 

Figure 3. Artist – Steven Frost, Headmaster No. 2 

The first box I looked through in Kane’s Archive was his straps and belts.(Figure 3).  There were two large file boxes full of these. Through my preliminary research, I knew only that Jim was a pillar of the San Francisco leather community. I had no idea how much of a leather celebrity he was. The director of the LA&M gave me a pair of white gloves. I had sorted through archives before and thought these were to protect the objects from the oils on my hands. The gloves in this case were for my protection. The buckles in the collection had become patinated. They looked forgotten. I laid them out on the pristine table in the LA&M’s reading room. There was a collection of belts, crops, cat-of-nine-tails, and dog collars both homemade and manufactured. These were all the trappings of a leather practitioner. Among these objects were two belts with carpet tacks laid in two planter’s rows along with them. The tacks, now rusted, were encrusted with a dark gloss I assumed was dried blood. I couldn’t imagine how a practitioner wore these objects on their body. In a separate box, I found a folded note. 

Joseph = JK used the belt blanks to make when he called “tack straps.” He would measure the distance between nipples first – then punch holes, then add tacks. He made one and used it on me in 1973. All these tack straps are used and bloody. He typically gave them to those on whom they were used. 

Why is archived material, specifically that of a sexual nature, so important in your opinion? Do you feel it actively influences culture, politics, and community identity? 

Sites like the Leather Archive and Museum present a truly queer history. Individual stories, experiences, and expressions are valued over grand narratives. In their mission, the Leather Archives and Museum states: 

The compilation, preservation, and maintenance of leather lifestyle and related lifestyles [including but not limited to the Gay and Lesbian communities], history, archives, and memorabilia for historical, educational, and research purposes. 

Outside of the LA&M’s association with the gay and lesbian communities, it distinguishes itself as a place of queer context. It creates a space for individuals who may not have biological offspring to pass on narratives that are not part of a heteronormative model. These narratives are often related to sexual practices, but they tell a larger story of people creating communities based on the sharing of knowledge and the creation of safe spaces for their practice. 


You can find more information about artist Steven Frost and their work here: 

Images courtesy of Steven Frost 

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