Sunday 2nd July

| BY 10 Magazine

From The Issue: Sex Machinist By Max Blagg


Serge Becker arrived in New York City in 1982, a fresh-faced kid from Zurich, armed only with 50kg of vinyl. The lad quickly set about carving out a reputation as bon vivant, DJ and, in short order, co-founder, owner and operator of legendary hot spots such as Area, Fez, Time Café, Bowery Bar, Café Select and Miss Lily’s.

Becker’s latest venture is the reinvention of New York’s own Museum of Sex, where he was recently appointed creative director. He spoke with Ten Men’s roving NYC correspondent in his new office on lower Fifth Avenue, surrounded by art and pornography of all kinds, at the beginning of a creative makeover that he hopes will deliver a stimulating fusion of decadence, debauchery and just plain dirt.

MAX BLAGG: “Our paths crossed many times in the good old bad old days. When did you arrive here in New York?”
SERGE BECKER: “It was 1982, in the middle of a recession. The city was broke, rundown, whole neighbourhoods empty and burnt out, a lot of crime and physical danger. In other words, totally amazing.”

MB: “Odd how some of us are drawn to that seediness, like moths to a flame.”
SB: “I was coming from Switzerland, which is so orderly and clean, and so somewhat stifling, and being young and coming here, losing all the privileges and comfort that I had, but gaining this tremendous sense of freedom – that was a great trade-off for me. Total liberation. Instead of every day being the same, suddenly every day became an adventure. You know, taking the subway was an adventure, going home after going out was dangerous. The most mundane tasks are much more interesting and challenging.”

MB: “Your survival instinct gets a real tune-up. What do you recall of the sex scene back in that time?”
SB: “Aids had maybe just begun to appear, but it wasn’t really in our consciousness yet. I probably had about two years until we completely freaked out. So for about two years I still got a glimpse of a very wild side of New York – going to the Anvil, going to Mineshaft. The Hell re Club. Naked people suspended from slings. I checked in at the Chelsea Hotel, because everybody has to go stay at the Chelsea Hotel.”

MB: “Culturally marvellous, but not very luxe.”
SB: “I think the room was, like, 125 bucks a night or so. They wouldn’t even really give you a good weekly rate. The room was just disgusting. It was so horrible, with polyester sheets and a shitty RCA TV. Not the kind of minimalist Brauns we had in Switzerland!”

MB: “Did they work? The TVs in the Chelsea? Did they actually work?”
SB: “Yeah, they worked. My English was really bad, so I learned a lot of English from watching Crazy Eddie commercials, late- night movies, old sitcoms. The room had a kitchenette and every spoon was burnt and bent – total Sid and Nancy moment. And on my rst day, I was looking out the window, which faced out the back, and there’s a guy with his phone number written on his window in block gures and he’s jerking off, looking at me. I was like, ‘OK, I’m in New York. It’s a different scene here.’ It was great, just amazing. You would walk down the street and the payphone would ring as you passed the phone booth and you pick it up and it’s somebody going, ‘Hey, do you want a blow job?’ It was just everywhere, crazy. It was funny.”

MB: “So, you jumped straight into the club scene?”
SB: “In Zurich I was kind of a DJ at night, art student during the day, and I threw parties there. When I came here I brought some vinyl with me and started DJ-ing in clubs. Then Eric Goode offered me a job as an art director at this place he was opening called Area. So I transitioned into creating, helping to build those installations. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

MB: “Area was a huge success. You went on to collaborate with Eric on many projects after that.”
SB: “We worked together from ’83 until ’97. We did MK. We did Fez, Time Café, Bowery Bar. We directed music videos together. That was a great collaboration and it’s still a great friendship.”

MB: “Let’s fast-forward to a more recent project, The Box, which kind of connects with your new job promoting sex at the Museum of Sex.”
SB: “The Box was indirectly inspired by an underground cabaret called the Blue Angel, which was in Tribeca in the early ’90s. It was in a basement on White Street at first. Giuliani closed it down eventually.”

MB: “That guy never did one good thing for New York. The club was run by that long-legged German woman, Ulla. Or was it Uta? I remember her from the neighbourhood, riding around on her bicycle in her Maud Frizons. Very tasty.”
SB: “Yeah, Uta Hanna. She was an ex- stripper and feminist and she ran this burlesque club. It was just weird comedians and nude re-eaters and ‘postmodern’ burlesque. Then you could get lap dances from them in a little side room. It was kind of a cool, druggy, strange dream space.”

MB: “Where did those performers actually live?”
SB: “They were kind of this alt-porn, alt- sex underground that came out of San Francisco and Brooklyn. I lived in Tribeca at the time, so I was there. It was one of my regular hangouts and I really liked it. I really thought it was… Also because I was running the chic, big-name, big-celebrity kind of place at the time. I had Bowery Bar and it was all celebrities and models and blah blah blah. This was down and dirty and much more interesting to me.”

MB: “More grit than grosserie.”
SB: “Yeah. It was really, for me, the antidote to what I was doing at work. It’s not like the other thing wasn’t fun, but this was real underground and I was happy that it existed and that Uta put it together. I lived very close to it, so I would just drop in on my way home. It was like a sexed-up version of Cheers, almost. Very friendly. And often, when the place would close, some people would end up at my house. It was always fun and games.”

MB: “Yeah, I heard about the fun and games. I don’t know why I was never invited. I lived around the corner, too!”
SB: “I lived at Church and Chambers. Mario Sorrenti was in my building. Peter Halley. It was just a handful of us. A bunch of artists in this fairly small building.”

MB: “So you reimagined the Blue Angel when you did The Box?”
SB: “When Simon Hammerstein and Richard Kimmel asked me to help them figure out what to put in The Box, I thought it would be really great to have a place like the Blue Angel, where anything goes, and we should try to recreate that sense of debauchery and sexual freedom, and also reference the freedom that existed brie y in 1930s Germany. And then we put together a contemporary version of that.”

MB: “But catering to a different audience?”
SB: “Yeah. It was also 2007. So it was really decadent and crazy in terms of money, because it was before the crash [of 2008] and people were just throwing money around. It was gross, actually. I really didn’t like it. But money was just part of it. The whole city was engulfed in it and it was a little bit fucked up, to be honest. Then the crash kind of cleaned house – it was really necessary to shut down that ‘money money money’ madness.”

MB: “And The Box plays on, right?”
SB: “Yes, it’s an evergreen. You and I wouldn’t go there, obviously, because we don’t go out any more, but it’s very successful. The one here is great, and now there are branches in London and even Dubai. There’s talk about doing one in Berlin. That could be good, because I think in Berlin you can get really, really dark.”

MB: “They will need to be freaky to shock les Allemands.”
SB: “Yes, because they’re really already so far out.”

MB: “Fisting the night away. So, what’s your take on modern sex today? Is sex still sexy?”
SB: “To me, it’s the most interesting topic, almost, of our lives. It was for sure the animating force of much of my life, of what I was doing work-wise, personally, everything. Not so much now, but as a topic it’s just so endlessly fascinating. Almost all roads lead to it eventually.”

MB: “But there is not much mystery left – the ash of stocking top, the twang of the garter belt… ”
SB: “The lack of mystery is sad. The loss of the forbidden, of the hidden. All of those things, even now when I look at all this work that we’re planning to show – a lot of it, even the Karlheinz Weinberger picture that my friend just brought me. This is a man who lived a very conservative, hidden life as a homosexual and had to conceal who he was, but at the same time express it through his work, and I think the tension that comes out of that, the tenderness in his images and everything, it’s just remarkable. It’s so beautiful. Now, with everything out in the open, it’s really taken a lot of the excitement out of it, for sure. One is almost numb to it.”

MB: “There is still a lot left to explore. What’s beneath the burqa, for example. Women’s ankles of Iran.”
SB: “Absolutely! Always more to be revealed! It never gets boring.”

Text Max Blagg
Illustration Charles Jeffrey

Taken from Issue 45 of 10 Men, on newsstands now…