BY CHRISTOPHER ZEISCHEGG AKA DANNY WYLDE
I first met Luka Fisher on the set of the porn film, The Walking Dead: A Hardcore Parody. It was 2012, and I was still working as a porn star. I’d been cast as a lead in the production. Luka was hired on as a zombie extra on account of their friend, the makeup artist.
“The shoot was ungodly cold,” said Luka, recalling the experience beside the window of their Skid Row-adjacent studio. “It was a sixteen hour day. We were all on a rooftop, and in an incredibly bad mood.”
I remembered the night well. Porn stars sat about, in various cliques, and held their conversations between sex scenes. Luka was the only extra (i.e. person we didn’t know) to walk around and try to talk with the cast and crew. They were like this obnoxious new person who kept asking too many questions.
“I started talking with you,” said Luka. “Probably within the first six questions, I asked, ‘What do you do outside of porn?’ I was met with a very defensive response, like, ‘What do you mean?’ You were clearly offended. I had to be, like, ‘Well, you know, people eat. They sleep. They read books. I could imagine that you would do something with the rest of your hours, other than this.’”
They were right. When Luka first opened their mouth, I thought they sounded like an asshole. Their questions came off like so many I’d heard before; the kind that implied I should do something else with my life. I was at the height of my career, and atop a leftist, pro-porn soapbox. Anyone who questioned my motives deserved a sneer of condescension.
But Luka was persistent and carried no hint of a savior complex. They were like a child, testing the boundaries of a world yet explored.
“I’ve always had a curiosity about the people around me,” said Luka. “I remember taking some test… Whatever that pre-SAT test is. I was asking the other person in the room an impossible number of questions, such that their mom was like, ‘What do you want to be? A journalist, or something?’”
Luka had a way of pressing past social convention in order to open people up. They’d done something like it with me. Or maybe they’d just allowed me a chance to stroke my ego.
Whatever the case, there was work I’d done outside of porn that I was more-or-less proud of. I played guitar in an industrial metal band called Chiildren, and had been eager to share our first music video. So I handed Luka my phone and directed them to watch the final cut. They nodded with a smile and asked on about my band. It was enough to keep me talking.
At some point, I moved towards reciprocation and asked Luka what they were into. They responded by sharing some of their art with me — a variety of paintings, drawings, and collages that they’d posted on a Tumblr page. A few of the pieces looked like cut-outs from old porn mags, painted over and distressed. The art reminded me of early Mapplethorpe works, but messier.
I assumed the porn-related art was why they’d agreed to be an extra. Because the job paid next-to-nothing and had little other perks, beside the chance to glimpse some fornication.
Typical, I thought, before we went our separate ways. Luka hadn’t yet come out as genderqueer, and appeared to me as male. Guys like porn, and Luka’s just another one of them. I exchanged social media handles with them and thought that we’d never see each other again.
But a week passed, and I stood on stage with my band at a dirty metal bar in downtown Los Angeles. I looked out across the crowd of black-shirted hessians. Luka was there, dressed in their bright red jacket, paint-covered pants, and sunglasses, like a millenial Andy Warhol.
They appeared, again, at the next show, and at the one after, often with a friend in tow; a musician or artist whom they thought that I should meet.
“At the third or fourth show,” said Luka, “you were like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ You were very perplexed by me.”
It was true. I didn’t know what to make of them.
As time went on, and Luka became one of my closest friends, they remained the person in my life most difficult to define.
“What I like about art is that, if it’s good and if it’s powerful, I can touch you,” said Luka. “I can spend the night with you. I can live with you and have this very close bond. But if I were to try that in reality — outside the bounds of art — maybe we couldn’t relate. Maybe our genders or our orientations wouldn’t overlap. Maybe by the time you received the message, I’d be dead. I like the idea of art as communication. I can touch more people and impact more people, and be with them.”
Luka and I sat together in their apartment, beside a table piled with paint tubes, cake frosting, and boxes of art prints and supplies. The floor was strewn with a kind of creative garbage. Books and paintings lay about in stacks and piles, as if they’d been discarded. The walls appeared like some breed of high art and vandalism; framed prints and graffiti; a décor to match the style once referred to as crust-punk chic.
Luka wore a pair of black sunglasses and a blue dress with a teal floral print. From afar, they seemed like a personification of spectacle and confusion. It wasn’t hard to imagine a world in which we’d have never crossed our paths.
But I was there for a reason: to discuss Luka and their work. I’d been touched by their art, and wanted to document their practice and how it shaped the lives around them. Because I’d been caught in their net, and come out injured and saved. And I knew so many others who might have said the same.
There was an issue I often had in discussing Luka with other people. It was my inability to lock down ‘who they were.’ I usually described my friends by the title of their preferred form of expression (i.e. Maggie is a photographer or Royce is a chef). Though, in the several years that I’d known them, Luka had taken on the role of painter, photographer, performance artist, musician, curator, film producer, and one-person-indie-record-label-A&R-department.
“I basically work on projects,” said Luka. “At any given time, I’m producing a movie, or a zine, or an art show, or something like that. But I think that, as a creative, if I only do the huge, high-concept project that takes two-to-five years to produce, I’ll just lose hope and give up. So while that’s going on, I produce two dimensional work, mostly in the form of drawings, paintings, and collages. Or I produce soundscape, ambient music. And I do that every day.”
Around the time that we spoke for this essay, their two-dimensional work had taken on a photographic bent. The polaroid had become essential to their mixed media designs. They’d photograph their subjects — often friends or fellow artists, whose bodies would be made up in a style that mimicked how they’d put down paint on paper. Their features would be abstracted, eyes turned to smudges and torsos defined by broad strokes, as if to highlight a chest or pelvis.
“I switch back and forth between the polaroid-as-a-painting and the painting-as-a-polaroid,” said Luka, describing the process. “The photograph becomes a documentation of an installation painting.”
They explained how they’d further blurred the lines between photography and painting with a piece that involved our mutual friend, the artist, Daniel Crook. “I took a painting of mine and turned him into that painting. Then I photographed him. I took the materials that I used in the painting,” which included spray paint and tissue paper, “and put those on to the physical polaroid, such that it’s an adaptation of a painting that becomes a photograph, that then becomes a formal painting because it’s reintegrated into a painting.”
The Daniel Crook piece was a minor example of what had become typical in Luka’s work. They would start with a traditional medium or concept, and transform it several times over. “I try to endlessly extend the experience,” said Luka. “It plays with your sense of what is achievable, or what is even reasonable.”
While they often used their two-dimensional works as formal explorations of media, they also employed them as subversive artifacts, meant to play with censorship in online space. “On Instagram or Facebook, you’re allowed to have paintings that depict nudity or sexual acts, but you’re not allowed to have photographs of the same subject matter,” said Luka. “I’m trying to see how much of a painting I have to integrate into a photograph before I can get away with putting it on [social media].”
Luka’s personal output bordered on excessive in the first years of our relationship. They produced small-scale paintings with a kind of industrial speed, evidenced by the multiple images they’d share online — often in a single day.
But there was something that set them apart outside of their visual art and work ethic. It was the scale of their collaborations, and the sense that a community had begun to grow around them.
When I thought of the artists I’d met and the bands that I’d been introduced to, most had ties to Luka. At least, if they were working in Los Angeles.
Luka volunteered for the boutique label, Records Ad Nauseam, so that they could put out albums by critically lauded, but under-financed, acts such as Cellars, Terminal A, Crook, Peter Kalisch, and MRK. They gathered submissions for zines, like Bored to Death, BETEP, and The Holy Automatic. They put on punk shows and helped to turn warehouses into pop-up art galleries. They solicited press for their friends. And they were always looking to help out when someone who needed to produce a short film or music video.
“I think that, to the extent that I’ve brought a lot of people together, it’s just that when I walk into a room, I’m curious to know who people are, and more importantly, who they might become,” said Luka. “I think that if that person has an attitude — they’re open, they have a perspective, they’re upset by the things around them, they want to do something, and they’re a nice person — then usually interesting things will happen if I just connect them with other kinds of people.”
I’d met my share of Los Angeles parasites: those who’d attach themselves to any willing body with a whiff of pseudo-celebrity. But I’d witnessed few true champions of the underground art scene or of those who might have existed beneath it. Luka was perhaps the only person I knew of who continually supported the artists who’d barely made their mark.
“I’ve had a moderately privileged life,” said Luka. “[Growing up], my next door neighbor was the head of the Democratic National Party. Now he’s a governor. I sort of intuitively understand how publicity works, or how all these kinds of things that are not art work; the things that are just bullshit. I feel like, because I kind of understand that and because I studied political science and international affairs, I have a responsibility to use that on others’ behalf; to cause mayhem or to give them that nudge that they need but may not know that they need.”
More than just a facilitator, producer, and DIY publicist, Luka was a fan of those he worked with.
“If I’m bored with the world around me,” said Luka, “and I don’t think that there are enough good books, or enough good movies, or enough good music, but I understand what is good, based on my definition of good, I understand how to push that. I can break it down into elements that are produceable. So why not just make the world I want to see, even if I’m not the star or the center of attention? At the end of the day, there are more entertaining things. There are more fun things. There are less of the things I hate… It’s like being an art collector, but of experiences, or of people’s careers, or whatever. Rather than just buying a painting, or commissioning a sculpture, I’m commissioning intangibles.”
I asked them to talk about some of the projects they were working on with local artists.
“I’m really excited about the work I’ve been doing with Kayla Tange,” said Luka, speaking of the Korean-born exotic dancer who’d recently performed at several galleries. “She’s a performance artist and conceptual stripper, which means that she takes concept art and applies it to stripping… We’ve been developing various performance pieces. The first thing we did in that realm was a piece she calls, ‘A Bare Witness.’ We have her perform in various venues as a nun stripper, which is kind of a trope of cabaret or stripping. But we have people write their secrets, confessions, and vulnerabilities on dollar bills. And they throw them at her. She takes her clothing off. At the end, she reads to the audience what they have written. She may be naked, but she’s not actually bearing all that much. These people around her are bearing their real or imagined identities. I think that is interesting.”
Another of their collaborations involved their roommate, Tristene Roman — an insult poet and performance artist. “She has, by her sense of things, very bad skin,” said Luka. “From years of being a junky, and perhaps genetics.
“When Tristene’s a waitress, or going about her life, people will single out her skin as a way of attacking her. It’s a kind of body shaming. So I’ve commissioned her to write an essay, or a one act play, about her body. We’re then going to photograph her flesh with a macro lens. We’re going to turn it into wall paper, and she’s going to perform in this room we build called ‘The Skin I Live In.’ We’re possibly going to create clothing using photographic reproductions as textiles, to where people can buy her skin.”
There was an ephemeral nature to both projects. Kayla’s dollar bills had been borderline-illegal printouts, and worthless as traditional currency. Even Tristene’s merchandise was beside the point in terms of monetization.
The products were elusive, like confrontations or experiences. Perhaps, for Luka, they extended indefinitely throughout their relationships and work.
I might have described our own time together as performance in flight; art turned to physicality, concept, violence, and more.
The early collaborations between Luka and I were almost a matter of convenience. They’d put together a zine, and I’d give them a story that had little other chance for publication. I’d have an idea for a short film, and they’d fill in the gaps with their actor friends and accessible locations; produce the videos by means of connecting people with the work they loved to do.
It wasn’t until late 2015 that we moved our process towards something more personal and dangerous.
I’d sold an essay, titled, On the Moral Imperative to Commodify Our Sexual Suffering, to a London-based production company. The piece dealt with the collapse of the contemporary porn industry and the economic decline of sex work. I chronicled my own forced retirement from porn — a result of erectile-dysfunction-pharmaceutical addiction and the toll it had taken on my body. The essay ended with a fictionalized horror scenario in which I entered into a contract with a black magick occultist, so that I might star in my own, high-end snuff films, and be resurrected back to life. It was a pessimistic fantasy about the ways that I would exploit my body when porn and sex work had completely lost their value.
At my suggestion, the production company hired Luka to create a visual art piece to accompany my essay. They scoured the internet and my Instagram feed for images that they could collage together as a horrific vision of my face.
Luka made a digital scan of their collage and turned it into a large-scale silk screen. As a nod to the essay’s violent content, they proposed to infuse the ink with a small amount my blood (extracted via a syringe).
I found the blood addition fun, and perhaps a way to sell some prints. There had been a history of my fans purchasing personal items, like underwear and shoes. I could only hope that someone might want an art print that contained my DNA. Besides, I’d had my blood drawn, on a regular basis, for years (to test for STIs in the adult industry). Another vial of the stuff seemed like no big deal.
But Luka wasn’t satisfied with the project’s end. They felt that we weren’t going far enough, and dreamed of steps beyond ink and blood put down on paper.
I received a call one night, around 11:30pm. Luka was on the other line. They asked how I felt about appearing in a video commercial for their art print — the one that they’d based on my essay.
“The practical, non-artistic consideration that went into that,” said Luka, “was that both of us were at an impasse in our lives. You’d already been a year and a half out of porn. Your financials were in the gutter. You were super depressed, and you’d just had a horrible breakup. Something had to change. My life was in the gutter, in a lot of ways. I was struggling with alcohol. I couldn’t find a normal job. I knew that something had to be done.”
Luka said that they wanted to film a sort of performance or ritual. They asked if they could cut my chest with a scalpel, use a large portion of my blood to make a silk screen print, and then attach the print to my torso with a staple gun. There would be no makeup or effects. The whole thing had to be real.
“As I read the essay,” said Luka, “I had this vision that if we could just reframe you, or we could kill you, we could create a new reality for us. The idea for this commercial — outside of parodying everything — was that we were going to make a bold statement, showing what we were willing to do. In doing that, and killing this past, and recontextualizing it, we were going to create a path forward that I believed, while risky, would give us a better future.”
I didn’t quite know what to make of their idea. But I’d lost most of what had been important to me over the past decade: my career, my romantic relationships, and parts of my identity. The subsequent pain had manifested in ways that reminded me of my adolescence. I’d been prone to self-harm as a pseudo-depressed teenager, and had been into certain subculture, like aggressive music, that often blurred the lines between theatricality and violence. Luka’s filmed performance seemed like a way to combine catharsis and aesthetics at a time when I was open to hurting myself.
Also, there was an empathy I felt in the way that Luka expressed their life to me. In basic terms, I trusted them. If anyone were to hurt me, they were surely my first choice.
So, with little thought of consequence, I agreed to do the commercial.
Luka procured the talents of a director, named Matthew Kaundart, who they’d met while enrolled in a creative residency program for the 72andSunny advertising agency. They convinced T.S.O.L.’s Greg Kuehn to write the score. And they brought on legendary performance artist, Sheree Rose, as a consultant to ensure that they didn’t cause irreparable damage as they sliced into my chest.
The shoot lasted twelve hours, most of which was spent on lead up. Footage designed to appear as if I was preparing for a porn shoot.
I approached the cutting scene with a mix of dissociation and anxiety. The night grew late, and I wanted to go home. But as Luka dug into me, I felt a sort of relief. A warmth trickled from my chest and towards my stomach. The act meant nothing in the moment, but there was a sense of accomplishment in knowing what we’d done.
Luka and I said little as we waited for the crew to prepare for the final sequence. It was as if we’d gone into a trance. They stood next to me as the blood dried on my skin.
Then the camera rolled again, and the director said, “Action.”
Luka held the art print against my torso and pressed the staple gun to where my shoulder met my chest. They shot me with one staple. Then they moved to the opposite side to shoot another. We’d agreed on two staples, and so I thought that the scene was done. But Luka gave me a glance, and pressed the gun, once more, to where they’d hurt me.
Later, they said, “I thought that the first staple hadn’t taken hold,” as an explanation for why they’d shot me a third time. It was hardly a surprise. Luka practiced what I knew of them; took one more stride to ensure that the piece would turn out right.
The commercial was released as an art film, and under the title, Danny Wylde — a reference to my retired, porn star persona.
“It was very strange, and surreal, and uncomfortable for me to do that project,” said Luka. “I still can’t believe it’s me [in the video]. But in doing it, I think it’s made people view me as more menacing, and view what I do as more dangerous, or insidious on some level. That’s a strange thing to deal with. In doing my art, in which I’m trying to help people and shift reality, I’ve become — on some level — a villain.”
Danny Wylde appeared in a number of film festivals and even received a mention in Variety magazine. The adult-oriented blog, Fleshbot, wrote that the film was “perhaps the most powerful portrait of sex work that [they had] ever seen.” Though, at home, among Luka’s friends and colleagues, it was met with less positive feedback.
A man who worked at a grocery store, where Luka had taken up brief employment, saw the film and stopped speaking to them. A friend from college refused to watch it on premise alone. “She basically said that if I made Danny Wylde, she would have no respect for me,” said Luka. “Because I wasn’t doing anything that was socially conscious.
“My response to her about Danny Wylde, and about things more broadly, was that I don’t have the naivete, or whatever it is. I’m not optimistic enough to believe that I can change the world. That’s not what I’m aiming to do. I’m trying to change the world for a few people.
“I felt within my heart that Danny Wylde would, on balance, be a positive thing. And that it would change the way people saw you.” Luka paused for a time, and then set their eyes back to me. “The thing about it, that’s been weird, is that it has.”
My life hadn’t changed overnight. But in a way, Luka was right. A transformation had begun. My work with Luka had symbolically nailed the coffin on my porn career and opened me up to new possibilities.
An indie press published a novel that I’d written, and allowed me to build an audience beyond my fans in porn. Together, with Luka’s press strategies, I was labeled — somehow — an artist.
It wasn’t as though our collaboration had been my only driving force. I only felt that we could do more, together, than what I’d imagined on my own.
After all, I’d become the star of a commercial-turned-art-film because I’d agreed to let my friend hurt me.
Shortly after the release of Danny Wylde, I started work on a new manuscript. I wanted it to be a book, but more than just that. The synergy of literature, art, and video that I’d experienced with my essay, and with Luka’s contributions, inspired me. I thought that we might expand the process to an even larger scale.
The text could be a novel, but a fine art photography book too. We could stage photo tableaus to correspond to various chapters, as if the images were selected from a movie.
I pitched the idea to Luka. Within a week, they’d scheduled for me to meet with a local photographer named Gina Canavan. She was young and ambitious. Her photos had a sense of style and tonal sophistication. I found an excitement in her; a drive towards experimentation. All in all, it was enough to win me over.
We agreed to work together. I would be the writer and sort-of-director. Gina would be the photographer. And Luka would be the producer — a role less typical for a book.
Of course, Luka immediately suggested that we expand the concept to include video. So they brought on Matthew Kaundart (the director of Danny Wylde) to create an art film alongside us.
We spent nearly a year working on the book/photo/video project, and had yet to reach its completion. But we neared a performance that I felt essential to the production; something I’d dreamed up in its origins.
I reminded Luka of a talk we’d had on the nature of the book’s violence. I’d been in the grips of depression and blamed many of my woes on a man named Phil (a pseudonym). He’d been my ex-girlfriend’s drug dealer and sugar daddy, and the only person I’d known who’d threatened to kill me.
I’d been fresh off the high of Danny Wylde, and admired its place beyond theatricality. I thought of what I could do, in terms of art, that might produce a similar kind of energy.
The book’s narrative dealt, in part, with the supernatural (a thematic sequel to my essay). So I pitched Luka the idea of researching some black magick rituals, in hopes to murder Phil. The ritual would be a part of the book. At least, a part of the photo and video documentation.
“This is where we partially differ,” said Luka. “You, I think, are athiestic towards occult things or towards magick. You think it’s all just an 80’s horror movie. I am much more inclined to believe that it may be possible, or that it even is possible.”
I knew that Luka had done some work with the artist, Steven Leyba, and his Coyotel Church — a ‘Satanic’ cult with ties to other esoteric organizations. They’d staged a performance art piece that doubled as a death curse against the corporations Nestle and Monsanto.
“I believe that art is directed communication, aimed to achieve a result,” said Luka. “That’s what magick is. So whether it’s a supernatural thing or a reality thing, I think there is power to something like a death curse, or planned violence against someone.
“In magick, there is the idea that there are costs. It’s also a real world idea. If you do something and you succeed, you will pay a price. In general, I’m very hesitant to put curses on people. Because I think there are unanticipated consequences that you will have to bear.
“In this case, I think they’re mostly your consequences. I can advise for or against that, based on the fact that you have to pay that price. In involving myself, there is likely a price as well.
“That’s all an indirect way of saying that I’ve thought about this. I think we could set in motion a chain of events that could lead to this person’s demise. And I don’t care. Because the person is a drug-dealing, raping, piece of shit. If we kill him through our art, awesome. If we don’t kill him, but it gives you a better life, or it gives Gina a better life, or any of the other people involved, then we’ve won. So I don’t have an issue with it.”
My personal qualms increased with the time I spent away from my antagonist. I’d considered myself a pacifist for most of my life. The desire to kill Phil was reactionary, and felt less important — even wrong — in his growing absence.
But part of the attraction I had to large-scale works was the follow-through with an initial concept. The idea for a movie might have spawned from a specific emotional state; sadness or anger, or something less troubling. Though, most any project would fail if the artist(s) involved sustained such a crippling affect. Motions had to be made, technical and otherwise. In my opinion, they remained true by thoughtful mimicry of what had been proposed or outlined.
I had planned to kill Phil, or explore a process that might end him. Whether or not I believed that it would work, I felt that I at least had to try.
I stood in a small, makeshift venue. Luka was there, before me, strapped to a table by saran wrap. Sheree Rose, the performance artist who’d become their friend and mentor, hovered over them. She pierced their genitals and tortured them, and fed them liquid that resembled piss and blood.
Their bodies were lit by neon lights and visual projections that reflected off the wall. Live musicians produced a distorted, ambient noise. Smart phones flashed as the audience took their pictures. It was a spectacle beyond what I expected of any DIY show.
“The intention with that piece was to fully kill myself — everything that I had been before,” said Luka, after the performance. “I think that a lot of ritual, and documentation of ritual, is a way of transforming ones’ self.”
I thought of how it felt to watch Luka go through their ordeal; how I received it in phantom pains and lesions. And I wondered what devils they’d seen within; the personas they’d meant to kill.
I’d heard them speak about the death of their mother, and the loneliness they experienced as a teenager and young adult — often a result of their uneasy relationship towards gender and orientation, and a lack of partners who would accept their sort of non-binary fluidity.
Were these the types of issues they’d meant to work through? I asked myself. And was violence, or masochism, inherent to the process?
“People more into magick might say that the blood is the essence, or the device that makes it happen,” said Luka. “I see it more as a manifestation of seriousness. Like, I’m willing to have someone pierce my genitals, which is not a pleasant experience and not something I would normally sign up for, to demonstrate my will to achieve something.”
I didn’t know exactly what Luka wanted to achieve. But their performance made me think of Danny Wylde, and the sense of calm that I’d felt shortly after its production. I hadn’t approached the project with any sort of goal, and yet there were results that I’d experienced, both concrete and less defined.
It seemed enough to watch Luka and know only some of what they’d been after, and to trust that their self-directed suffering brought them closer to that end.
I still hadn’t decided on our book’s magick ritual, or whether it would be designed to kill Phil. The result seemed almost irrelevant. Perhaps I just needed to put something behind me, and with an act of violence that felt real.
“My goal is to step outside of my comfort zone and show people what they can achieve with the things that are just around them,” said Luka. “Because I think that so many people are born into lives that they didn’t choose. They don’t see that they can step outside of the outline that’s been written for them.
“Not everyone can or should be an artist. And art doesn’t mean anything, per se. But everyone can and should test reality for themselves, and pursue the things that bring them joy.”
I looked around Luka’s apartment at the signs of struggle and poverty, and of immense creative wealth. A postcard had fallen from a shelf and landed somewhere near my feet. The picture on the front was Luka’s. It showed our friend, Daniel Crook, and I, painted and mid-embrace.
There were mementos like it everywhere, on the walls and tables, and scattered across the floor. I spied a package of gauze, and imagined it the same as from our Danny Wylde shoot — from when Luka had bandaged me and sent me home.
“More than anything, that’s the goal or concept of what I want to do,” said Luka. “Live my life as art designed to encourage people to take steps to make their life more fun, and fantastic, and meaningful for them.”