Many celebrated BDSM novels such as The Story of O or Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series revolve around a castle-like place, within which the laws of society are replaced by those of Dominance and Submission. It was with this context in mind that I was so excited to acquire the San Francisco Armory in 2006. In the back of my mind, I wanted to create that fantasy ‘never-never-land’ which forms the core of the fantasy so often written about.
The Upper Floor project seeks to take the traditional Edwardian Great House structure shown in the TV series such as ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, or ‘Downton Abbey’ and create a sexual fantasy version of it. In the eyes of the guests visiting in person or watching live over the internet, ‘Masters and Mistresses of the House’ perform the roles of the aristocracy, while ‘House Slaves’ perform the roles of traditional house staff.
The Upper Floor has been fabricated with entertainment in mind – a fabulous lounge and dining area, complete with a commercial kitchen. House slaves facilitate events by preparing the space, welcoming and serving guests, and by performing scenes. The guests are members of the local community, invited to attend and be an integral part of the fantasy as ‘extras’.
“Authenticity” is a word in the kink.com mission statement, so, to back when this project was first conceived, the goal was to make this as real as possible, complete with participants taking on actual House roles and responsibilities, and in some cases actually living in the Armory for contracted periods of time. This raised considerable questions for myself, along with kink’s HR and legal staff. As much as possible, the social events were to be real – subtle lighting, a tolerance for background music, and good food and drink were all ways we made the space feel less like a commercial shoot and as genuinely enjoyable as possible. The ultimate aim was to create a self-sustaining project with revenues from 24×7 webcams as well as recorded content funding the maintenance and development of the ‘Household’.
The first phase started in 2009 and revolved around 4 key participants: myself as the “Master of the House”, James Mogul as the ‘Head Trainer’ and two ‘Slaves’ paid as full time daily employees to do a hybrid of House tasks and performances.
I had a bedroom in the Armory at the time, and 24×7 cams were put in several of the rooms on the floor. If you were remotely interested you could have seen me taking my morning shower. The two slaves worked 10-6 and were expected to perform actual household duties such as cleaning, cooking and serving, alongside production tasks such as editing, and sexual performance on camera.
We found that there are only so many hours that customers can spend watching a person mop a floor before it gets old. Much to my disappointment, nobody wanted to see me take a shower either. It was the events streamed live over the Internet and later edited which formed the core attraction of the website. The original parties back in those early days were quite wild – lots of extras were invited in to participate in the fantasy, and many played on camera. We had to be careful to manage and monitor any interactions between paid models and the unpaid extras, whereas unpaid extras were free to play among themselves subject to house rules.
As time passed, what started out as a fun idea slowly lost its momentum. The burden of having to keep up the pretense of being ‘in character’ each and every day was taking its toll. The enthusiasm from the core participants waned, extras stopped wanting to attend the events, and it became hard work to keep the idea going.
In 2010, about a year into the project, the two original House Slaves had left and there were various changes in management at kink.com – a new Production Manager and a new Director of The Upper Floor, JP. With a new take on the project and a new enthusiasm, there followed a phase of the project which involved core House Slaves living in the Armory and sleeping in a model dorm room over a contracted period of time.
Prior to the Upper Floor project, I had kept relatively good boundaries between work and private life. I never performed on camera, and had a separate set of friends outside of work. By this stage of the Upper Floor project, however, these boundaries gradually eroded, and from my perspective life gradually lost authenticity. I lost the separation between my business and personal life, together with a sense of distinction between my public and private persona. When I interacted with guests who came to The Upper Floor, I played the ‘King of the Castle’ role on camera, but this was also the core of my social life. I ceased to know the basis of these relationship – were these people my actual friends or not? I also performed sexually on camera with the paid models and/or with guests. I would hang out with employees, guests and models after shoots were done. I rarely hung out with people from the outside world. I certainly struggled to date, which, I now realize, may have had something to do with the fact that there was a camera in my bathroom.
I began to question my motives for having created this space. Why was there a giant portrait of me wearing a tuxedo in a gold frame? Was I building a fantasy from a book or was this a quest for fame and was my ego the primary driving force? The more public my life was, the more alone I became. I had once in the past hosted weekly parties where hoards of people would come and enjoy free drinks I paid for. Were my motivations back then similar? These experience was starting to make me question who I was and how I had got there.
Having now long since moved out, these reflections caused me to want to reach out to the models who participated, especially the nine who at some point were resident. I have gotten feedback from four so far. One person said her experiences were some of her most highly treasured memories. Two others said the experience was overall positive and an interesting experience to have gone through. There was feedback that the days were long which made it hard work, and that it was sometimes cold to be expected to be semi-clad for so long. The fourth person I have heard back from – like me – was probably more immersed and had an overall feeling that the public environment we created was unhealthy in some respects, and that it felt like being part of the documentary We Live in Public.
We Live in Public is a documentary about an early internet pioneer who conducted an experiment involving himself living with his girlfriend under 24×7 surveillance throughout his house, including his bedroom and toilet. He and his girlfriend spend their time living their lives with the public who watch them over live video and interact with them in chatrooms. Some of the feelings he expresses are that of ‘having the energy sucked out of him’, and that ‘intimate interactions become about egos rather than feelings’. He eventually ends up mentally unstable and leaves to start an apple farm.
While the Upper Floor was never as intense of an experiment as We Live In Public (there were never cameras in restrooms or safe ‘backstage’ areas, and models worked fixed daytime hours without cameras on them at night), there was a draining effect of having cameras on so much of the time. The constant influx of people coming in and out as extras added an additional public feel to the space, almost as if one was living in a nightclub. I think many of these guests were unaware of the behind-the-scenes challenges – they would come for the inside of an evening, have fun, and leave.
So, ultimately, the early phases were very much a learning process. Everyone, including myself, moved out in early 2011, and there are no plans to resurrect the idea of a ‘resident’ performer. JP continued to direct in my absence for a while, and James Mogul moved back in 2012 to take the project back. Models are now contracted for fixed periods of time to do defined performance activities for the camera. They know when to switch their on-camera personas on and off. Everyone involved knows what is expected of them and are able to keep healthy boundaries between their work and personal lives. At the end of a day’s work, everyone steps out of the fantasy and goes home. Modelling, administrative and production roles are deliberately kept separate.
In a situation like the Upper Floor, we have learned that it is better, more effective, and healthier to put on a show for the customers and extras who come into our world as opposed to striving for authenticity all of the time. There is magic in theater and authenticity in the joy of being in a fantasy. We are all capable and eager to let our imaginations run free — much as happens when one reads a book.
I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank-you! to everyone who has chosen to be part of The Upper Floor project with us — most especially the models, and also the extras. I would be interested in hearing more of your experiences, especially those models who were resident and I didn’t hear back from. Please write, call or post your thoughts here!