Naked Boys Reading
The event Naked Boys Reading has gone from strength to strength. Michael Langan talks to its founders about how it mixes body and mind, and how a naked reading can change the meaning of a work in unexpected ways.
Photograph by Zbigniew Tomasz Kotkiewicz (Click images to enlarge)
A couple of years ago, Alex Karotsch (also known as DJ, Duchess of Pork) and Justin Hunt (Dr. Sharon Husbands) were working at uber-cool nightclub Vogue Fabrics in Dalston, London, trying to think of a new night to host there. Having worked with the neo-burlesque scene in New York and the Chicago-born Naked Girls Reading, Justin came up with Naked Boys Reading. They tried it, people liked it, and it’s gone from strength to strength, with the bi-monthly event often selling out within hours.
The idea was to offer something a bit more than just a club night, for it to be artistically orientated, with just the right mixture of cheekiness and intellect. It was always going to be popular from the start (it’s all in the name) but Vogue Fabrics has allowed them the space and time to experiment with the format, and Alex and Justin have begun taking it to new venues in London as well as further afield. I spoke to them after their recent Weekender, in London and Brighton, which coincided with Brighton Pride.
How did the Weekender go?
J: It was a great success – two delicious sets of audiences and nine spectacular readings! The weather in London even encouraged some of our audience to get in on the nakedness.
A: Our two curators chose brilliant texts on gay men’s relationships with drugs and vanity respectively. DJ-ing the Brighton gig at the Marlborough Pub was also a bit of a change as the audience was mainly lesbian. It was fun to see what music got them going.
J: Our Brighton boys were so hot we blew the air-con by the third reading. A dripping success in both cases!
You also have a sell-out reading in Manchester later this month. What do you have planned for that?
J: The event’s curator, Bren O’Callaghan, has selected some beautiful and hilarious readings under the heading ‘True North.’ Bren has worked within notions of northward travel and orientation, but also the spiritual and sexual relations we have to things that point ‘northward.’ We’ll be taking one of our beloved London readers, James Fry, with us and four local boys will join him. I’m very excited that it’s sold out so quickly and looking forward to heading up for the pre-Pride events in Manchester.
A: We’ll also have an extended after-party at the venue until 3am where I’ll be joined behind the decks by Thom Docking of Drunk at Vogue. I’ve not been to Manchester in a very long time so I’m intrigued to see how audiences will respond to both the performance part of the night as well as the party side of things.
The readings are curated, which perhaps puts them into a performance art context, would you agree?
A: There is definitely a performance art element to the event, but I think the combination of literature, music, and of course a drag queen hosting, puts it into a genre of its own. Just don’t ask me what that genre is!
Photographs by Vanek London
J: I like to think of Naked Boys Reading as something that [film-director and performance art pioneer] Jack Smith might have hosted at his flat in New York; a salon with an erotic twist. The excitement of the naked male body, which is still taboo in Western cultures, is titillating at first but wears off as the audience falls into their voices and is guided by the readings into a different relationship between body and text.
A: Equally important is the social aspect of the night where we allow the audience to interact with each other, be it to talk about the text being read, the boys reading them or just to get to know each other in the breaks between readings. It’s great to put on event that doesn’t solely revolve around getting drunk. Having said that, as anyone who has ever been to an NBR, we do actively encourage people to have a few drinks…
Do you give your curators any direction, or just let them have a free hand?
J: We have a discussion with the curators about what they want and I meet with them about their choices, mostly in terms of my experience with public speaking as we choose boys who are interested in reading. Mostly, we urge them to have a lot of fun with the theme.
The fact that the readings are themed as they are also seems to lend the evenings a theoretical or academic bent.
J: We decided we’d get some help in for the boys, so they wouldn’t always have to choose work on their own. [Novelist and academic] Jonathan Kemp was our first curator and it was a such a wonderful experience we started getting curators in more frequently. The themes themselves are a broad jumping-off point.
A: Yes, for me, having a different theme at each event makes it more interesting to see what our curators or readers choose to present. It’s not a particularly tight framework but it’s always interesting to see how the theme is interpreted. This also leads to Naked Boys Reading having a life outside of the actual performance as the audience goes off and explores certain authors or texts once the event is over. One of the stand-out events for me last year was our collaboration with Little Joe magazine in November. The event was themed around Derek Jarman and combined Jarman short films and literature as well as music for which Derek Jarman had directed videos.
J: My work in academia lends itself towards the theoretical and my own curated night, with readings from Freud, saw the boys taking up the work of the father of psychoanalysis in relation to the notion of monogamy and desire. The readings themselves can range from recipes, to poems, to children’s literature, to canonical texts and local authors. I also bring my own brand of queer theory to the mix as the host, because that’s what I know how to do!
Photographs by Vanek London
So how would you describe your own brand of queer theory?
J: Well, I have a PhD in Performance and Queer studies, and my research is on nightlife and the ways in which performance operates in the nightlife, more specifically how we deal with the after-effects of performance in these spaces.
And how do you weave that into your hosting of the events?
J: I nod to a specific theoretical text at some point throughout the evening in relation to the theme. During the Weekender these were Jose Munoz’s Cruising Utopia and David Halperin’s Saint Foucault. With these texts I responded to the curators’ vision in my own weird way. I’m a teacher full time and that finds its own way into my hosting.
What do you think the nakedness adds to the idea of a literary salon or reading?
A: It’s always interesting to see how the nakedness, which many people think would overshadow the literature, actually takes a step back as soon as the readers start reading and the audience gets involved in the text rather than the body reading it.
J: It brings something different out of the texts themselves. It may show us just how bawdy some very seemingly stuffy literature is, or it may put pressure on something that isn’t sexual at all to remind us about the ways in which our bodies respond to each other.
A: Having someone read a text while they’re naked does reveal layers of the text that weren’t necessarily obvious before. It’s always enjoyable to see and hear the audience react to this.
J: Hearing Ashley Ryder [porn producer/director/actor] read The Hungry Caterpillar certainly changed the children’s book for many in the room back at our second event! And hearing a recipe involving ginger read aloud by a naked man re-formed the ways in which people interact with something as simple as an instruction. And of course, watching a naked man read is horny, it’s erotic. It’s a private moment made public. And that’s hot.
You’ve done a Naked Girls Reading event before. Do you have any plans to do another?
J: Our Naked Girls Reading event was a huge success. We’re interested in combining, mixing and clashing genders, and will be doing that in our third year. The wonderful folks at the original Naked Girls Reading [a group formed out of Chicago with nights in New York and London] have more London events planned. We’ll be sticking with boys, predominately, as we seem to have found our niche.
The issue of Transgender rights and visibility is quite present at the moment. Would you consider doing a Transgender Reading Night?
A: We have had transgender readers and curators already and look forward to working with more. It’s very important to present a breadth of bodies, genders and sexualities and working on an event with trans folk would fit in perfectly with that idea. We’ll be pushing back on the recent word policing of “TRANNY” at an event in 2015, playing on gender with our readers and texts.
What do you have planned for your second birthday and the forthcoming year?
J: Our second birthday will be held at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch on 4th September. The Duchess and I will be on hand along with our resident Lady DJ, Casio Jo. The theme is Bedtime Stories, and it’s boys’ choice, so no curator. We’ll have eight readers instead of the normal five and we’ll be giving out some gifts throughout the night. It’s going to be fabulous! We also have some exciting plans for Halloween and Christmas that are being confirmed as we speak and our regular bi-monthly programme with exciting guest curators. And we’re always looking for readers – so if any boys out there fancy reading at an event they should email us at: email@example.com
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