Von Steps Into the Ring

Von Steps Into the Ring

Story by Lily Goldberg / Photography by Joey Whitely
Nov 14, 2023

If your idea of a queer fight club is limited to the movie Bottoms, then boy, do I have news for you: hot girls punch the shit out of each other and make out in real life, too. And if you’re tapped into New York’s kink scene and ready to stomach some blood, you can watch. “

I’m not going to pretend like it’s not a lot,” says Von, the producer, pop performer and lapsed Catholic behind Bloody Mary, an ongoing underground performance art series. As Stefon from SNL would say, Bloody Mary has everything: queer strippers, live boxing bouts, Byzantine funeral masses, motion capture performance, and – at recent shows where live blood play has been involved – performers pulling needles out of their skin. It's as sinful as it is sensual.

“I was so sick of hearing ‘New York underground is dead,’” says Von. “Everyone who told me that just didn't know what was up or wasn't getting invited."

Tired of going to so-called “underground events” that were “just a bunch of dudes playing guitar in a basement,” Von started Bloody Mary in 2021 as an alternative nightlife space that platforms sex workers and embraces collaborations with local queer organizations. Fighters from OutBox, a trans-owned boxing gym in Williamsburg, have appeared at Bloody Mary; so have artists like Pussy Riot and Doss. The knockouts are real and the make-outs are steamy, but Bloody Mary doesn’t sacrifice safety for a sense of subversion.

Latex gloves, skirt and socks: Versace, Heels: Victoria Beckham

“I know a lot of people that are really gritty and nasty and dirty and intense, who can party hard and do crazy shit on stage, and still in a mutually respectful space,” says Von. “It's still wildly artistic. It's still super communal. I felt like that was happening in a lot of places and just not getting enough visibility.”

Released November 10, Von’s debut EP Against My Will… And For What? features seven sultry songs that will sound familiar to veterans of Bloody Mary – the dirty, danceable tracks come from material that Von and her electric crew frequently perform at the party. While the NYU Clive Davis Institute graduate has been releasing singles like the razor-sharp “Tiny Boy” since 2019, Against My Will… And For What? is Von’s first full-length project to hit streaming services. Dripping with domme-pop energy (“Tell your mommy/ cut my check/ got your balls around my neck,” Von sings on one track), the EP is a testament to the power of harnessing one’s sexuality, emotionally as well as technically – did I mention Von makes her beats from her own orgasm wave patterns?

On release day, Von joined PAPER for a chat about crafting beats from contractions, chugging the blood of Christ and bringing her mom to a Bushwick rave basement.

Latex gloves, skirt and socks: Versace, Heels: Victoria Beckham

Are the beats on this EP also done with sex tech waveforms?

Yeah. Everything that I make has orgasm wave patterns in it.

I have so many questions. So you upload…?

The Lioness records data like a Fitbit – so there's an internal sensor that records contractions over time, which alludes to an orgasm if you're having one. What I do is change the parameters to amplitude over time, which is what turns those orgasm wave patterns into sound. From there, it's just using basic sound design to craft the quality of the sound. But I can use those waveforms as the source.

That's amazing.

It's super fun. It's also a very fun party trick to talk about at Thanksgiving.

Dress: Yves Saint Laurent

Against My Will… And For What? starts out with a sample of this eerie choral music – what is that?

My YouTube algorithm is so fucked [laughs] — the way that we make the show audio, I kind of call it "sonic collaging." So I'll go through a bunch of weird, weird YouTube videos and find stuff to piecemeal together. Byzantine funerals are a big thing for me. They have really strange, dissonant choral structures. I do a lot of Catholic church services on YouTube, a lot of conservative podcasts – they have like such great little one-liners here and there. So that’s just a church choral sample I found messing around in my weird algorithm. If you went on my YouTube algorithm, it's a liability. It looks concerning.

That's so funny. I know you do a lot of production work — do you consider yourself a tech person?

Yeah. My background was always in music production – I started out as a producer before I was making any of my own stuff. I was always a sound nerd at heart. In college, I became really intrigued by this concept of "sex tech." It was still a very new, unexplored industry. I'm from a super small town in Pennsylvania and we didn't really have a lot of sex ed. There were very few if any sex positive dialogues or queer dialogues happening in my spheres. So I just became really intrigued by these spaces. Through that, and also being a sound nerd, I stumbled across this tech company, Lioness. They make this Bluetooth vibrator, and I asked them if I could have their tech and make music with it. They were like, "Yeah, if you can figure it out, we're totally game." So that became my shit – I would make all my music with my own orgasm wave patterns. That was always the way I bridged the gap between being really intrigued by the technical process and also having these bigger conceptual ideas. Now it's a part of how I make all my music. It's just considered another instrument now.

What are the ideal listening conditions for this EP?

[These songs] have found a home in live spaces and sweaty rooms and that's definitely been such a fun place to see them come to life. But most of them have been written alone in my apartment when I've been pretty sad, pretty low and in need of feeling anything. I think the dichotomy of that is what has made them very special for me. I've definitely cried on the train listening to the demos. But also, my favorite thing in the world is to play them to a room full of sweaty misfits in a Brooklyn warehouse. So I hope people can find whatever part of that spectrum they feel.

That's beautiful. I was curious how your religious upbringing and "Catholic guilt" made its way into your work – have you been inspired by Madonna or any other artists who use religious aesthetics?

Definitely, I come from a very traditional Catholic town, and my family is very Catholic. So it was always ingrained in my perspective without me even really realizing it. My red flag as an adult is if you ask someone why something is the way that it is, and the response is "just because" – red flag. Immediate red flag. But that was my entire experience with Catholicism growing up. I just had so many questions. The response was always like, "Well, that's just that's the way it is."

A lot of these concepts – being fluid or queer or kink-friendly or anything else – were things I was really scared of growing up, mostly because of Catholic messaging. But at the end of the day, congregation, higher power, community – I never held that in church. I felt wildly isolated and misunderstood and not seen. When I'm in these rooms full of what a lot of people would deem "satanic behavior," it's like the most part of a congregation I've ever felt. There's a common misconception that I'm trying to be blasphemous about religion. I don't actually think that is the case. I have an academic background in these concepts and a lot of respect for these stories – so many of the stories taught in Catholicism are really beautiful. My issue is that I feel they've been co-opted to promote things they actually never intended to. My goal is to create a space where we can question, "Why is this not okay if everyone here feels the way that we're told we're supposed to feel?" I don't claim to have any of the answers, but I want to make space for those questions.

On that point, we have to talk about the blood in your performances. Is that related to the sacrament? I went to the September performance of Bloody Mary at H0L0 with live blood-play, and it was crazy.

Yeah, [multimedia artist Finn Darrell] killed that. I think there is such a fascination around "sacred blood" and "dirty blood" for me. I am the only daughter in my family, and I had so much shame around my period. It was something I felt like I really had to hide all the time, and I always thought it was so fascinating that we were so obsessed with this guy's blood at church. We drink it and have all these pictures of it everywhere. So why is something so natural to my body so shameful when we're literally chugging the blood of this guy? [laughs] This doesn't make much sense to me.

I heard people fainted at your last show.

Yeah, we had a few faintings. It's definitely not child's play. That's my favorite thing about it. It's not a gimmick. My mom was actually at the last show – she has a severe needle phobia, so when I heard that people passed out, I was like, "Holy shit, it was my fucking mother. I guarantee you it's my mother." But she actually caught the girl who passed out. If you told 15-year-old me that my mom was in a Bushwick rave basement, catching someone in her arms because a bunch of needles made this girl pass out, I would have been like, "There's literally no way."

Are your parents supportive of your music career?

I think they’re in a little bit of blissful ignorance. They definitely knew that I threw events and made music, but they did not know the extent of it until they came to that last show. I really respect that they have discomfort. I just don't want it projected onto me. I give them all the opportunity to be as involved or uninvolved as they want. But this is really important to me, and it's something that I'm not going to stop doing. So I can't really have a "Why don't you work in marketing?" thing.

Dress: Versace

Have you found that the underground performance space is a supportive place for sex workers?

I think yes and no. Anyone that is against the grain or like "fringe" – those are always the people whose aesthetics are most capitalized upon. But oftentimes, they are very rarely the people who are actually the beneficiaries of those aesthetics being used. I think that the most prevalent thing I've seen was sex workers. The aesthetic of having kink events or parties with poles has become more popularized and less taboo. But a lot of times people aren't hiring actual sex workers or including sex workers in the narrative. My goal with Bloody Mary was always to make sure that we are promoting people who do this work, who have these lived experiences, and giving visibility to them.

What's up next for you?

We have a lot of things in the works. I think my goal for the next six months is to keep making weird shit with people I care about. I think what has actually given me the most opportunities and fulfillment is just diving into creating without expectation with this group of people that has really made me feel like family.

That's awesome. I feel like there's a large community of people who are grateful that you are making this space.

That really means the world to me. Thank you.

Photography: Joey Whitely
Styling: Joao Pedro
Hair: Sol Rodriguez
Makeup: Jason Case
Set design: Vivian Swift and Lane Vineyard
Creative direction & production: Vivian Swift