My brief tenure in Cub Scouts – long enough to buy the uniform, not long enough to actually wear the uniform to a meeting – left me with only two lasting memories.
I remember being asked to squat down on the floor and howl at a plastic wolf’s head, which I enjoyed immensely and am convinced helped make me the superstitious pagan that I am today, and I recall, vividly, a game called “jump or smack”, wherein the Cub leader made us all stand in a circle while he stood in the centre and swung a nasty strap at our legs. If you jumped, you were “learning valuable wilderness survival skills”. If you didn’t jump fast enough, you were clearly another one of life’s pain-stricken losers. You can guess which team I was on.
If the Cub Scouts pack I joined was even half as much naughty fun as the one depicted in Toronto printmaker Daryl Vocat’s new folio, A Boy’s Will, the bruised thighs would have been worth it, and I’d be a better man today. Or at least a kinkier one.
Vocat’s obsession with paramilitary boy cultures, such as the Scouts, street gangs, and cadets, and the sexual and power dynamics that fuel them, has influenced his work for years, but his new folio (a loose term for a suite of prints meant to be viewed in a single folder, like an art book) brings all that latent libidinous energy and passive/dominant role playing into sharp, provocative focus.
The boys in Vocat’s imaginary scout troop, who look like angelic young heroes lifted from a Horatio Alger novel, except for their tattoos, pass the time massaging each other, playing homo-erotic capture games, giving each other new tattoos, and, of course, tying up their willing leaders. One former Scout I consulted, a happily married father of two, told me cheerfully, “we did all that stuff, and worse.” Now they tell me.
“I was involved in the scouting movement for 12 years, way longer than most people seem to stick,” Vocat admits.
“I started when I was 5 years old and joined the Beavers, then went on to Cubs, Scouts and Ventures. So, I keep coming back to the Boy Scout illustrations and ideals because they played such a huge role in my life when I was growing up. At the time Scouts just seemed like something fun to do more than anything - it wasn't until later, and when I had left that environment, that I could look back at it critically and rethink what was going on.”
Is, then, A Boy’s Will a critique of the movement? The goings-on in the prints certainly subvert the wholesome Scout image.
“I use the Scout imagery because I'm very familiar with it, but also because there is a built in nostalgia to it, a sort of universality that people recognize. A great deal can be projected onto the characters and scenarios that take place within the pages of Boy Scout handbooks. But, overall, the basic message of Scouts is that we should be kind to each other and help each other out. In the work I kind of pervert these ideas, but I don't intend to completely discredit the philosophy. I admire the goals as much as I make fun of them.”