We Did Porn

Blending memoir with Smith's own drawings and paintings, We Did Porn will do for alt porn what Hunter S. Thompson did for motorcycle gangs and Tom Wolfe for psychedelica.

Punk artist and icon Zak Smith made a name for himself by visually interpreting Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and drawing pictures of girls in the "naked girl business." His artistic pedigree and acute observation landed him in high-profile shows from the Whitney to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Somewhere along the line, Smith went from the observer to the observed, from the guy in the corner with a sketchpad to the guy on-screen doing the unnamable for anyone eighteen or older to see. We Did Porn follows Zak Smith (or Zak Sabbath) from the New York art scene to Los Angeles's seedy, yet colorful, underbelly—the world of alt porn. Smith narrates his own foray into pornography and gives his readers a new understanding of the industry, its players, and its audience.

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  • Page Count: 488
  • Direct Price: $20.00/$40.00
  • List Price: $24.95/$49.95
  • 5 1/2 x 8
  • Trade Paper/Trade Cloth
  • July 2009
  • 978-0-9820539-2-8
Format Price

Price as Configured $0.00

Zak Smith's two previous books are Zak Smith: Pictures Of Girls and Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow (Tin House Books). He is a frequent contributor to several independent comics and zines, including Paping and See How Pretty, See How Smart. His work has appeared in numerous publications worldwide and in many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. He lives in Los Angeles, where he works as an artist and performs in adult films.

"Intelligent, frank and often hilarious meditation on the author's dual career...The pleasure in this book comes not from living through the author's atypical experience, but in being taken deeper into areas of thought commonly perceived as taboo—a wild, entirely worthwhile ride."
Kirkus Reviews


"Smith’s take on the industry is vivid and insightful, including observations on people, politics and American culture—the push-and-pull between the Right and those who want the right to screw."
Kirkus Reviews, Nonfiction Supplement

 

"Will appeal to those who like things a little kinky."
Publishers Weekly


"Alongside 'fine artist' and 'porn star' on Zak Smith's unique resume, you can now add the phrase 'entertaining and resourceful writer'...[We Did Porn] is exhaustive, perceptive, empathic, and very funny."
—John Bolster, Penthouse


"Artist Zak Smith injects some life into the moribund genre of the memoir with this thoughtful and hilarious look into the alt-porn industry."
—Drew Toal, Time Out New York


"A fascinating synthesis of words and art..."
—LibraryJournal.com

 

"An intelligent, funny, and self-aware reminder that intelligent, funny, and self-aware people do in fact choose to work in the porn industry...It is all incredibly interesting and entertaining."
—Alison Hallett, The Portland Mercury


"The subject matter — combined with his clever imagery — couldn’t help but keep it fascinating...It reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s hilarious, equally dense essay “Big Red Son”...Smith and Wallace have similarly breathless, heady writing styles and We Did Porn could easily serve as a porn insider’s compliment to Wallace’s journalistic-outsider perspective."
—Alex Peterson, Willamette Week Online

 

"Wildly entertaining."
—Fleshbot

 

"...a page-turner...a genuinely enjoyable read..."
—Audacia Ray, author of Naked on the Internet


"The stuff dreams are made of...a must-read."
—PopMatters

 

"One of those books that once you open you don’t stop thinking about wanting to read until it’s over...Quite quite engrossing, and in one of those voices that sounds fresh enough to not sound like anyone else while still maintaining the maximum fun and punk sass."
—HTMLGIANT

 

"...reads not unlike a George Plimpton-style adventure in immersive investigation, as the artist chronicles his adventures in front of the camera as eager rookie Zak Sabbath, with words, pictures, self-awareness, and dark humor."
—Shana Nys Dambrot, Flavorpill

 

"...Smith is an outrageously talented observer, which makes his writing almost as arresting as his images, which are superb. Smith's detailed descriptions of 'life in the zeros' both on and off the set make We Did Porn a fascinating x-rates documents of a cynical age."
—Jim Ruland, Girls Gone Wild Magazine


"...a page-turner...a genuinely enjoyable read..."
—Audacia Ray, author of Naked on the Internet


"...combines words and images, mixing memoir with gorgeous paintings...Smith's art is exquisite, intensely drawn with splashes of electric colors, sharp lines and energy throbbing in every complex detail...We Did Porn is an excellent book and Zak Smith is an incredibly interesting artist and writer."
—Alyssa Bianca-Pavley, Fanzine.com

 

"The many crosscurrents in Smith's works are fun, but more compelling is the fact that Smith does not seem so much involved in critique as something else from literary post-modernism—he's leapt into his own work as a character...Smith seems headed towards the historiographic, creatively narrating an alternative history, in this case, of a very recent past moment, from what might be perceived as the center of our authentic cultural life."
—Joe Fyfe, Artnet.com

 

"Smith's artwork is impeccable. There is tenderness, daring, heat in his pieces. With a Nan Goldin compassion, he captures an intimacy that is often lacking in the movies he and his comrades make."
The San Francisco Bay Guardian


"This book is beautiful and complicated and riveting... I think there's no doubt that Zak Smith has genius, or that thing that we think of as genius that is really just the urge to get up every morning and spend long hours struggling with art."
—Stephen Elliott, The Rumpus



At first, the only noise is coming from trucks washing over a nearby road, and this sounds like it does at night—like enormous things going on underwater. I feel small. I’m in a car parked on a nowhere corner where no one lives and what light there is, from the gas station, wedges itself in around the air pockets where the tinting hasn’t stuck to the windows, making shapes. My knuckles are cold. All of this is normal for people on Valentine’s Day. This is years ago—before I had done porn, or ever thought I  would.

 

At eight o’clock on every Valentine’s Day there are people who wait, and who don’t know what’s going to happen. In Europe there’s a time difference, so it’s already happening, whatever it is. In Japan, it’s called a “chocolate obligation” and they are now sleeping off, or waking up next to, whatever it’s done for them. I hope it does something for them—you hear things can be hard, romantically speaking, for the Japanese. In Brooklyn, people are still waiting in the backseats of cars.

 

Some are tired, scared, or bored. Some think they’re going to ruin everything—some are right. Some have flowers or headaches or both, some are going to cry, some are taking pills or rehearsing what they’ll say, some have skin problems that have just gotten started, some don’t care but are doing it anyway and don’t think much about it, some are doing it but don’t think it’ll work, some will never do it again but don’t know that yet, some will go home on a train and swear into the reflection on the other side of the train-car that they will spend every night from now on alone in front of a TV flipping to any show where anyone is talking about anything as long as it isn’t them or maybe just watching static. And they’ll eat whatever they want from a bowl and drink tea even after it gets cold and not care forever until everyone forgets that they ever lived. Some want to call ahead and ask the Japanese how it’d gone.

 

I’m in the backseat of a car. Punks are not supposed to have to do this kind of thing, and, maybe because I never have before, now that I’m here I feel hyperaware of all the other lone people who must also be waiting in the dark all over the rest of the hemisphere. “I never realized,” I say to them in my head, at the beginning of my date. “The conditions here are awful. You all should unionize or something—collectively bargain, like.”

 

The hired driver of the hired car had stopped and gotten out without saying why. Is this what happens when you pay people to drive you around? Thinking how things sometimes are over faster if you don’t ask questions, I didn’t ask questions. For a while, there is just the noise of traffic and dead air from a road I can’t see and the usual blinking in the black and in the distance, like we’re in the electronics deparment after hours—but at some point something in the car begins breathing.

 

When you’re strangely dressed and worrying it feels like anything anything might be a big cold night-snake ready to ambush and fuck you. So what’s this breathing? Is it just a sound made by this kind of car? Did he go to get it fixed? Isn’t the Rumblers’ garage just over . . . No, it’s breathing. Someone’s mouth is valving gas around this car for sure. This isn’t a limo, there isn’t room for some secret person. Is a person in the trunk? Why did the driver leave me alone on Valentine’s Day with a person in the trunk? That isn’t normal. Will I have to solve this? Fuck this Day.

 

The driver comes back, opens a bag of chips, gives them to a totally unexpected Puerto Rican boy in the passenger seat in front of me, gets back behind his wheel, and pulls back onto the road. The driver says, “Thank you.” I say, “No problem.” Then no one says anything.

 

Brooklyn spins around us, windows reflecting intersections and storefronts and forty-year-old abandoned cars. We almost kill someone on a bicycle.

 

My instructions are, basically, to act stupid. My porno date wants to be taken someplace where she might see Puff Daddy. This is our first date, so I have to try to act like someone who someone who would want to go somewhere where she might see Puffy would want to be at that place with—until I figure out how she really is and can act some other way. I’m scared. I’m also happy and lucky. I breathe and hear my own breathing and am glad to hear it still sounds like me Trying not to overprepare, I watch the Brooklyn usual go by to the tune of Godflesh songs I’m playing in my head: an ad for gum; capsized strollers; the grease-smeared hotbox of a shallow- fronted take-out place full of fizzing Chinese; tiny kids in coats alone outside delis; bikes chained with every kind of lock and missing every conceivable combination of parts like a forensic display on methods of bicycle decomposition; the tags of world-famous street-art geniuses and of people who never tagged again; the stoic, eaten globe of a broken subwaystop pole casually decapitated for the thousandth time; JMZ trestles casting piano-key shadows; Fat Albert’s Warehouse; whole blocks that haven’t heard English in decades; a restaurant that used to be a hat shop; a church that used to be a furniture store; a nothing that used to be a theater; dogs tied to anything vertical; stained busses like rotten fridges shoving themselves up the lane from red light to red light; a pile of televisions and fans half covered in plastic—expecting rain; and pizza places painted the colors—red, yellow, green—of the pizza-version of the Italian flag. These things feel good and familiar. Tonight, nothing else will be both. I’m starting to think the kid in the front seat might somehow work against me on my date, so I’m relieved when we get to the girl’s place—on a warehousily empty street—and she says—through the speaker—to let the car go while she finishes getting ready.

 

So none of that mattered. Breathe some more. Move smart in your embarrassing black Valentine’s getup. Good-bye, car and kid. You were okay. You got me this far.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

The first sign is good—Tina DiVine is more nervous than you’d think a porn girl about to go on a date with some painter would be. The dark dots in her eyes roll all over their twin whites, pushing her nose and mouth around, as if she’s just gotten her beautiful face and is trying to discreetly test it out. She is a little person with a vanilla-and-butter complexion. She has a big loft whose nonoffice end has almost nothing in it except a titanic television that turns on with a sound like a sucking rupture in space-time and a chair shaped like a big, sexy shoe. She asks me to sit in the sexy shoe while she goes off to a corner that’s leaking pink plastic and accessories into the main room and gets dressed. I try to look casual in the shoe and try to use the remote casually. Shiites won the Iraqi elections; we have a new attorney general; and Arthur Miller is dead. In a window behind the TV, the city now seems frozen and quiet.

 

She comes out in something black that looks like it tried as hard as it could to crawl over her but gave up halfway across her chest, and she says how exciting it is to get to wear it somewhere other than a strip club. It is exciting. There are swollen and then falling and then swelling-again curves and spaces between them that the dress has clearly and promisingly been totally unable to negotiate. I call us a cab.

 

 

* * * * * * *

 

The place we go, in Manhattan, is—well just know for now none of this is my fault, I mean: the thing had been multiple choice and the options hadn’t been . . . Okay, more later, anyway

 

The place is glowing and foam-colored, with everybody crisply looking— or trying very hard to look —as if they always drank in a piece of cheap rendering software’s idea of a room.

 

It is like one of those pitiful goal-less games where you have an account and are represented by a gliding, hard-haired homunculus and click and chat as your hours devour themselves. They click and chat. It’s not my fault.

 

We have to spend some time at the bar before we get to eat. One of the bars. The bars have names. One is called “The Amuse Bar.” No one there explains it, it’s just that way. Tina asks me about wine and I don’t know.

 

She says, “A red? Okay, a red,” and begins to runway-walk, on stripper heels, away toward the bar. I watch. But then she slows and shrivels and shrinks and swivels and puzzling and trouble creep onto her face.

 

“You saw someone you fucked,” I say.

 

She nods as if she’s just suddenly realized that she only has one nerve left, and that it’s been stretched out like gum or pizza-mozzarella, and that when it snaps she’ll just bolt away and leave you looking at a screenful of static. (She looks that way a lot. She doesn’t when she smiles, or makes porn, or talks about making porn, but often otherwise she does. Not like she’s not all there—just like she’s extremely ready to leave.)

 

Then this Someone walks over and so probably things I never see or know anything about start happening on my face, because I know him.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Artists’ reputations are based on lines half read in doctors’ offices by bored people, written on deadlines by distracted freelancers, and commissioned by editors who don’t necessarily care.

 

All artists have detractors—mine like to send letters. A lot of them are older artists who make paintings that are different than mine. One appears to be French, one does a comic book about being sad, one is a very persistent and angry stopmotion animator. There usually doesn’t seem to be any point in writing back to them or reading their mail closely, but now that I am here at the Amuse Bar I begin to wish I’d paid more attention.

 

Here’s why: The only thing the French or sad-comic-book or other letter writers have in common is that, because they’ve read, while waiting for their aunt’s blood test or bypass, about how I once went to an expensive school, and they are, I guess, themselves too wealthy to have heard that, despite everything, this country still keeps routinely loaning its citizens money for that kind of thing, and because they also know they don’t like what I do, they deduce fictional pasts for me. They’re usually made of movies where people overdose or episodes of detective shows where it turns out the artist did it and the perp had an upper-middle-class childhood, sunny with suburbs, and bullies, and proms, and white people smiling and waving from parade floats (all of which bears, unsurprisingly, not a lot of resemblance to life growing up next door to a Salvadoran street gang hangout in Langley Park and otherwise in and around Washington DC, the murder capital of the U.S. during the era of Fugazi, “Da Butt,” and crack-addict mayor Marion Barry) who encourage and somehow shape him into a casually druggy, bratty, clearly troubled, Amuse-Bar-frequenting young painter.

 

This photoshopped picture is exhibit A in the early paragraphs of elaborate letters—often physical letters, written with pens—where they explain to me how I am bad at my job. They are all bitter lunatics, but they seem to have influence here tonight. The night’s programmers might have used them as a focus group when putting together their platonic, vector-drawn, restaurant/club/trap.

 

“So what do you think this rival should look like?” “Tall, with black tattoos, and maybe a little linked chain around his neck.” And then they put him there, with his walnutlike head and pebbly eyes.

 

Shouldery and guyish like all 3D-rendered men—and with the same tiltless back-and-forth head movements and skintight, crewneck, plain black T-shirt and tastefully tribal ink—he starts smiling and talking. I keep thinking there should be some way to restart the date without him. Or that he should give me an excuse to punch him until he’s unconscious.

 

But no, that would look crazy.

 

I had a girlfriend once who kept taking me to a bar on Avenue B that was a kind of filing cabinet or support group for everyone she’d ever slept with. He was one of them, down at the far end, next to the peanut machine. He is the manager here. Maybe also a medical student, he is widely disliked in and out of New York City and he will eventually go to Europe and take up Eastern religion. My date is completely infatuated with him, but no one else knows this now, and she likes to say disgusting, true things about him when he isn’t there.

 

He wants to give us shots. I don’t want him to, but I don’t say that, and we have them.

 

He seems very excited about the shots. Although this is clearly a reason to punch him, and I will know later that the prudent thing to do would have been to hurt him as much as possible very quickly, since he hasn’t actually done anything but give us free liquor so far, I’m having a difficult time imagining a situation where I punch him and then still have sex with Tina DiVine.

 

He asks us how we found the place, and although he pretends— with that CG smile that unhinges the bottom of the face—he doesn’t care and is just making conversation, he does want to know. The walnut-head is wondering if there is a reason why the girl whose underwear he fed to a dog last week is suddenly here where he works along with someone who looks like he would very much like to punch him until he is unconscious.

 

“My dealer,” I say—so there is no reason. There is no reason, barring the demigodlike-computer-programmers-in-Valentine’s- league-with-heckler-focus-group hypothesis, that this has to be happening. It’s coincidence.

 

Anyway, he thinks this about a “dealer” is very funny.

 

“No,” (people sometimes make this mistake) “I mean the guy who sells my paintings.”

 

This can’t ruffle a man with a new favorite thing. “This guy’s dealer,” he says, pointing me out to anybody, friendlylike, “recommended us.” LOL.

 

Talking, electronic beats, and ice. The awful walnut-head keeps saying things about Dwight Eisenhower, and also about how he has a lot of money. It is stupid in here and he is the biggest fuck ever. I repeat something about vodka I read in a book. Everyone agrees.

 

After a lot of despising and pretending, our bed is ready— you eat on beds here, simple, white block beds that make things seem that much more virtual. The waiters start bringing dinner courses, each with wine, and it’s hard to say what they are.

 

In your memoir, We Did Porn, you critique the art world and the alt-porn world. What’s your take on the publishing world?

I still don’t know much about it. I do feel like the standard “canon” of which books are good is more accurate than the “canon” of what artworks are good. Probably because in literature, authors opinions count for more than critics’ opinions, whereas in art it’s the other way around. I mean, people are going to trust a John Updike blurb on that back of your book way more than the opinion of some guy at Kirkus Review. Another factor might be that it takes a long time to read a book—it’s hard to tell yourself you liked Ulysses if you put in something like twenty hours of sitting quietly and reading and weren’t actually having fun—so if you say to yourself you like it, it means you probably actually did like it. On the other hand, in order to tell yourself you like some stupid Franz Hals or Andy Warhol painting you only have to look at it for like three seconds. There it is, you saw it. So it’s easier for art people to just be posers who just say they like shit for some non-actual-enjoyment-related-reason.

How did this book come about? Which came first, the drawings or the words? At what point did you realize you were writing a book?

The pictures came first. I usually just draw whatever’s going on around me anyway. I started writing things down long before I realized it was a book. When I did that first movie I just thought, “Every time something strange happens I’ll write it down and write down what I was thinking.” Pretty soon I realized I had three hundred pages.

Are there any memoirs or other books that influenced your writing of We Did Porn?

I mean, obviously I like Pynchon. I really like Martin Amis. But there were two people I was looking at specifically with We Did Porn: the first one I was looking at was this surrealist or science fiction writer. His name is Michael John Harrison. He wrote a book called Viriconium, in the seventies. It’s just full of this amazing language, and I realized when I was reading it that he refers offhand to the elements of his science fiction world in such a way that it feels lived in. He doesn’t explain them, he doesn’t go, “This is why there’s a man with three heads.” It’s just there, just happens to be off to the side, and that seems to me a really effective way to talk about porn. Because I don’t know that much about the business compared to people who have been in it for years, and I don’t have more information than, say, Jenna Jamison does—and she already wrote a book. But I can communicate what it’s like to be in that atmosphere. Like it’s all real, all that stuff that happens here is true, but at the same time there’s all these details which are surreal, which are sort of just in the margins, they just establish that the porn world’s rules aren’t like the rules in everyday life. 

The other book I was looking at was Hunter Thompson’s Generation of Swine, which is just his columns he wrote for some newspaper during the eighties. So every week he would have to find something to write about. And you could tell that mostly what he did is he sat and he watched TV. And he’s trying to write these articles based on nothing. Nothing would happen and he would write a great, unbelievably readable wonderful prose thing for one, two, three pages about nothing. That’s kind of what I do a lot in the book, try to find ways to write about nothing. Nothing’s really going on, and so trying to find a language that . . . where that means something. It was really interesting to get in there technically and say, “How do you write about nothing and still make it seem like it’s something?”

There are many points in the book in which you reflect upon the absurdity of a situation you found yourself in. Did those moments seem humorous to you at the time, or was it only in retrospect, writing about them, that you were able to see the humor or the irony? 

I think the sense of the strangeness of the situation is always there. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m able to get through a lot of the more depressing moments. I have a sense that, yeah, this is fucked up, but at least it’s also funny. Like when we go to Vegas for the AVN awards, Mandy just hates it, because it’s all so stupid, and I feel the same way, but on top of that I know it’s something I can write down later and that makes it ok, somehow.

How does your family feel about your doing porn?

Opinions are decidedly mixed.

Throughout the book you describe interactions, people, and situations that were completely outside of your previous experience. Do you feel that writing We Did Porn allowed you to overcome any outsider status and fully enter the world you describe or did it deepen your position as an observer and witness?

With nearly everyone I know in porn there’s some backstory or niche or role that they play that isn’t quite what anybody else does—like she’s the girl who runs this company, he’s the guy who does this fetish, she’s the girl who also models for so-and-so. I’m a guy who paints painting and wrote a book.

Do you think that alt porn will continue to exist outside of mainstream porn or is there an inevitability that it will eventually become absorbed by it?

There’s always overlap. Performers in “alt porn” almost always do mainstream porn too. I think the more interesting question is just whether the really ambitious “alt”y directors will ever get the money together to make totally new and different movies or whether they’ll always just sort of be in a catch-as-catch-can situation and you have to sort of make a compromise with a big studio to get anything major made.

What was the greatest challenge to writing this book?

Figuring out what was and wasn’t strange. Example: There was this thing that happened to an actor I know—he was between scenes on a movie, on a couch. He was stroking his dick to try to keep it hard for the next scene—then this girl walks in—total stranger, working on some other scene—she sits on his cock, takes one stroke. Like: one. Down, up. Then gets up and walks away, doesn’t say a word. That’s totally bizarre, but he didn’t say a word—he doesn’t go, “Uh, hey—who are you?”—because he’s working in porn and so he’s got a serious case of novelty fatigue and doesn’t know when something’s weird or not anymore. I mean, you spend ten minutes on the Internet and you’ll find things a thousand times more bizarre than anything in my book, so it was difficult to decide which things I saw were worth telling non-porn people about and which things they’d heard a million times on Howard Stern. In the end I figured if I just wrote whatever I could as thoroughly as I could then I was doing my job.

It’s also hard to gauge the kinkiness of the audience—a huge chunk of the people reading probably can’t imagine a woman ever wanting to be DP’ed, another chunk are women who desperately want to be DP’ed and blog about it all day and don’t need the desire to be DP’ed explained to them, and another chunk doesn’t know what DP stands for. So when double penetration comes up in the book, do you bother to explain that, yes, this is a practice that some women actually fantasize about? Or is that pointlessly quaint and a waste of the reader’s time?

What was the easiest thing about writing this book?

Finding material.

What are you working on now?

Fiction. And, as usual, making paintings.