Based in Philadelphia, the artist and filmmaker Tiona Nekkia McClodden often formulates her work in response to lesser-known creative predecessors, pulling up the deeper roots of black American art, literature, and identity. The ten-part VHS video The Brad Johnson Tape, 2017, is her latest project and pays homage to the poems, essays, and correspondence of the late writer, who died of AIDS-related complications in 2011. One segment of the work, On Subjugation, and another recent video, Essex + Audre, 2015, are on view in the group exhibition “Speech/Acts” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia through December 23, 2017.
EARLY LAST YEAR, I went to this magazine shop called Avril 50 in Philadelphia. I typically go there every month to get my art magazines because it has the best selection in the city. I bought an issue of the journal Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, and when I was flipping through it on the train, I came across a poem by Brad Johnson, called “On Subjugation.” It just knocked me over. I had this physical reaction that was almost lustful—I felt so hot! It was like someone was cruising me or speaking directly to me.
I couldn’t stop reading it. I scanned it and printed it out and kept it in my pocket to look at from time to time. I have it memorized—I’ve read it almost every day for a year. But when I googled Johnson’s name, I couldn’t find anything. Then I did a deeper search and found an interview with Steven G. Fullwood, the founder of the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive at the Schomburg Center for Research at the New York Public Library, who said the center had just acquired Johnson’s work. I was like, It has to be him.
I visited Johnson’s archive in New York on Valentine’s Day this year. Once I saw it, I committed to creating a body of work for this man. I learned that he wrote “On Subjugation” while serving in the navy in the early ’80s, right after he got out of Yale. This was long before “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Imagining the mind-set that must come from being in the military—and attending an Ivy League school—as an out gay black man made the text a lot clearer to me.
After a while, I came to understand how Johnson saw himself, which was heartbreaking. He was hard on himself. He dealt with a lot of rage and sadness, based on the ways that he felt he should succeed—and, very frankly, he should have been able to. But his writing goes between this romantic, lush language and hard-core, aggressive, sexually driven passages. I’m in the BDSM community, so I was like, Okay, this is a daddy. The way that he talks about leather in some of his poems is fantastic.
I had to work up the courage to make The Brad Johnson Tape for almost a year. For the project, I put myself through ten exercises, or—to use the language of a BDSM player—ten scenes, while reading one of Johnson’s texts out loud. Each scene also incorporates a device or situation that’s related to SM physical play. For one of them, I beat myself with a latex rope while reading an essay of his, because the entire feeling of the text is of him annihilating himself. For another, I read “On Subjugation” while being suspended by my feet from a suspension rig that I built in my studio. I recorded all ten scenes using an old VHS camcorder, on one single tape.
Part of my research into Johnson involves this physical thing I want to feel. I want to put myself through these situations to experience the same feeling I got from reading him—to feel the thing I feared and desired the most in an attempt to invoke a pure jouissance. There are moments in these exercises in which I cry, and I have to read between tears, or in which I am in such ecstasy that my eyes are pulsing. That’s something I can’t exactly convey to an audience, but it’s something I needed to feel. I’d say that the text is master. Or I’d say, truly, that Johnson is my dom. And the way to keep him in this dominant role is to put my hand on his text and read.