Extremist Art: A Talk with Nick Zedd


 

"Nick Zedd's films are legendary — he is a truly seminal figure in the New York underground." –Jim Jarmusch

With Jim Jarmusch and John Waters as fans, Nick Zedd's place in the history of underground cinema is certain.  Anyone who appreciates what Jarmusch calls "the rough underside of our overly-processed culture" already knows the legend.  In 1985 he christened and helped inspire the further elaboration of what we now call the Cinema of Transgression.  Black humor, shock, jagged imagery and editing, clashing bright colors and deepening darkness, disordered faces, the fractured expressions and urgent madness of what Guy Debord, a kindred spirit, called The Spectacle, our alienated lives of consumption and masks.

In 1979 his film They Eat Scum was a key moment in punk cinema.  As for 1983?s The Wild World of Lydia Lunch how can you not love a film that IMDB summarizes as "a filmmaker follows his girlfriend around London with a camera featuring narration from a cassette tape she made for him to break-up the relationship."  Riot grrrl before riot grrrl?  Police State (1987) was 15 years ahead of its time, grappling with issues the Bush junta made vivid for everyone after 9-11.  Nick's sense of humor is evident in films like I Was a Quality of Life Violation (2004) and the video short sexual spoof Lord of the Cockrings (2002).

The son of a post office censor whose job was deciding what mail was obscene enough to warrant legal action by the post office, Zedd's talent for controversy is not limited to film.  Zedd authored the Cinema of Transgression Manifesto publishing it under his pseudonym Orion Jeriko.  Like Aleister Crowley's Equinox, most of the writing in Nick's Underground Film Bulletin was his own under various aliases.  His writing has been published by a collection of publishers any writer would drool over: NYU Press, Hanuman, and Grove.  Not only did he tour with Lisa Crystal Carver's Suckdog Circus in the 90s, his films were a crucial part of the multimedia experience.  You can see him in the documentaries Kill Your Idols and Blank City.

In March 2013, Zedd penned The Extremist Manifesto.  If you're an outsider artist, musician or filmmaker never have the words of Dickens rang more true: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Digital technology allows us to access resources we never could have before, and alternative channels of distribution are sprouting up everywhere.  Yet music, film, and art seem to be in, at best, a holding pattern.  Read about a first time documentarian presented by Sundance and you'll find a background in feature films.  Scratch the surface of new artists and musicians and you'll find an old school contact usually running the show or at least opening gates.  That's why I find Nick Zedd's Extremist Manifesto refreshing.  Nick is writing about the art world but what he says is just as true of film and music.

I caught up with Zedd recently to get his thoughts on the state of art and our cultural state today:

You've been painting. What inspires you to paint? Are your themes derived from your unconscious or from events in your life and the world?

Boredom. I don't know where it comes from. I know that once I've painted something I like to look at it.

In Totem of the Depraved you describe how as a teenager a bad acid trip, bullying and alienation inspired you to start "painting a lot of surreal canvases of deformed naked people flying in the air." Has painting been a constant theme in your life, or have you returned to it and if so why?

No. I stopped painting when I was 18 and didn't go back to it until 2009. A friend in Brooklyn commissioned me to do two paintings for $100 each on canvas he supplied. He let me use paints he had lying around. We were so impressed with the results that I decided to do more. It was good therapy after shooting a TV series with lots of neurotic comedians. Now that I live in Mexico and have to deal with so many unreliable people, it's nice to know I can make paintings by myself and not be held up by the indecisiveness of collaborators.

My work on surreal assemblages and paintings comes from a very different place than my music, is that true for you when it comes to painting and film, or do you find that they are similar for you?

Painting comes from a completely different place for me than films and writing. Working in a new medium is a process of discovery. I'm reinventing myself, being born again. Doing something new that I never expected to be doing.  I can't compare it to anything from my past. 

I felt the same way when I tried being a vocalist in a noise unit called Zyklon B. We performed live and recorded a single. Each time it's something new like when I acted in a play. Doing that TV series was like doing time; being in boot camp for 5 years but I loved the enforced discipline and lessons in diplomacy and challenges from assholes I faced every week. Painting is the exact opposite. I have to force myself to do it with no idea if anyone will ever see what I'm making.

Having a channel that reached millions with the TV series gave me a different motivation. With the paintings there are no compromises. I make them entirely for myself. I am a success on my own terms, with no audience and no money from it, though I did sell a couple of paintings and I showed them in some galleries in NY and Virginia a few years ago.

I'm blown away by the fact that the outside world has shown so little interest in these paintings. Everyone who sees them seems to be shocked and astonished by them but no gallery or museum will show them. That indicates a deep level of corruption and cluelessness among the curator and collector class.

Xenomorphosis, your term for when "an alternate universe smashes your reality tunnel and neurological re-engineering occurs," seems to be a natural for the internet where so many worlds collide, and yet, except perhaps on certain porn aggregator sites we find ourselves in the world of Facebook where everybody's fifteen minutes of fame drips out in updates about visits to the dentist, cute cat photos and relationship status changes. Why do you think that is, and is there a way to bring xenomorphosis through the net?

That's because FB and the Net are SOMA. Huxley predicted it in Brave New World. We are enslaved by distractions and easy pleasures that cater to our narcissism and prejudice. The Internet has become the perfect tool of mind control, much more effective than television. The global elite has mentally enslaved an entire generation with laptops, IPads and other electronic shit. Now humans actually think they are freer when they're really less free. This spectacle is part of the devolution of the human species.  Xenomorphosis can NOT be accomplished through the world wide web.

Xenomorphosis requires DANGER. Neuro-pathways are domesticated and tranquilized through the net. Xenomorphosis happens away from laptops and the Internet when you experience something directly and opposing forces unite, creating cognitive dissonance. This can occur when you make love to someone, are in a physical fight, or are watching certain of my films in a darkened theater or viewing my paintings in person. Likewise experiencing a musical noise unit in person can accomplish this objective. I'm sure there are many other ways to experience xenomorphosis in your life. It's up to you to make it happen.

After five decades of corporations repackaging revolutionary art as fashion and entertainment we find ourselves in a world where music is boring, film is redundant, and art has more to do with investment than consciousness. Where do you think we're headed next?

We are headed towards the ExtrEmist ArRT ReV0Luti0n. The New Extremist Manifesto points the way. It is an occupy movement of the mind, replacing the commerce and commodity based paradigm that has enslaved intellectual growth for decades. The massive compulsion to conform that constitutes the current malaise of contemporary art is the direct result of turning ready-made appropriationism into the same religion that Duchamp was trying to eliminate when he introduced it to the world 100 years ago.

Devoid of imagination and conviction, today's successful business artist sees the art world as a new Wall Street game. It is a giant hoax that dupes millions, just like the 9/11 inside job, a mass deception that enabled naked imperialism to cloak itself in a mantle of self-righteousness while committing mass murder around the world. A new era of critical thought is coming as millions are plunged into austerity by puppet governments with genocidal agendas. The entertainment industry won't be able to stop what's coming when our prison planet explodes.

In the past when we've had hard economic times artists have turned it to their advantage. Abandoned buildings became clubs and galleries. Kids banded together to create scenes and spread the word. Why do you think that is not happening now?

Because everyone is being brainwashed by the Internet and rents are too high. Humans are like sheep – pathetic. The occupy movement was the best thing happening in the last few years and it's not over yet.

Earlier this year Glasshouse in Brooklyn presented Nick Zedd and the Cinema of Transgression, a five-day event you curated featuring your films and films by and about The Cinema of Transgression movement. What was it like for you to present this retrospective in a city where you once flourished as an artist, that has since become moribund, gentrified and so hostile to underground art that ultimate booster of NYC Patti Smith not too long ago warned artists and musicians to stay away?

It was fun but sanitized. The students and pod people showed up and had to leave early so they could go home and get up the next day and go to work. The walls were too white and the lights were too bright. I tried to fix that by covering the walls with old posters and paintings and asking that the lights be dimmed. Everything was too clean but people were free to make it dirty. The storefront door was kept locked to prevent "undesirables" from entering unless the door-person approved, which I didn't understand. People were walking down the sidewalk and didn't look in, unless they already planned to go in. The death of curiosity exhibited by today's Normals can make you agoraphobic. But the people inside were curious, especially during the panel discussion.

What really struck me as weird was a painting class being held in a storefront 7 blocks away, where a room full of people were all copying the same painting. They all paid money to be taught how to copy art. They all accepted that this is what you do to be an artist. You copy.

You live in Mexico now with Monica Casanova and your son ZERAK. How has Mexico influenced you creatively? Do you think you'll be doing any work with a Día de Muertos theme?

The only influence has been a couple of video diaries I shot here. Everything else I've made since I moved here could have been made any place on earth. What I create comes from within me, not from the place I'm living. I don't plan to do art that follows a cliché imposed by the culture I'm in. I don't copy. Or when I do copy, it's from more obscure sources. Although I like the Day of the Dead stuff, I just don't think I could improve on it. Mexicans do it best.

Current creatives seem to have a sense that everything has already been done. Impotent irony rules the day. How do we cure artistic apathy in artists and their audience?

By making extremist art.

Anger has become discredited in art. As a riot grrrl band leader in the 90?s I felt then and I still feel now that there's plenty to be angry about and all sorts of stupidity and injustice to rage against with black humor and word scalpels, but the modern audience shrinks away. Why do you think anger has been blacklisted?

Cowardice. You just have to ignore all the shit that's out there and do your own thing. The world has always been ruled by conformists. It's just more obvious now. If you don't like what you see, do something better.

In The Extremist Manifesto you wrote: "The fact that breakthroughs in history are the exclusive domain of the AMATEUR (a lone individual who invents and innovates) is beyond the double-think reality tunnel of the insulated curator." When the Internet was born many pundits thought we were at the beginning of a golden age for independent and amateur art, instead we have huge junkyards of unfiltered content ignored by an audience that still wants "official" art on a corporate silver platter. Sure, the gatekeepers are to blame, as are lazy consumers, but is there some way in which amateurs have failed to take advantage of the opportunities the net allegedly provides?

Forget about the net. It's a dead end. There are a lot of talentless amateurs now getting their 15 minutes. It's better to be outside of all that, start over again, meet people in the real world who agree with you and form alliances, organize and do something new. There will be massive resistance and indifference, just like when there was resistance and indifference in the past when things were better. One has to be obsessed in order to create. That comes from within.

Movements only exist in the real world outside of the Internet, which is a crutch. (Even though the term "real world" has been perverted into meaning something fake, there still exists a world of people who aren't glued to computer screens, though they are harder and harder to find.

What do you think of movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Intentional Community Movement that seek to drop out of consensus consumer society by creating alternative cultures within it?

They are the most positive social and political development to happen in the last 40 years.

I think the title of your film War is Menstrual Envy is one of the most brilliant observations I've encountered, right up there with Adam Parfrey's neckties are castrated penises. What's your take on gender relations in the early 21st century?

Women, like always, have more power than they realize which is why the Republican Party has waged a war against them. Men and women give each other strength when they work together. I owe a lot to the women in my life and they owe a lot to me too.

THE EXTREMIST MANIFESTO?

by Nick Zedd

Now that contemporary art, a system that stands for privilege, nepotism and political connections is finally dying, get out of the fucking way. We who have been locked out of your galleries, museums and art holes… ignored, reviled and cast aside for having convictions (and belonging to the wrong class) are the voice of the future. We spit on the fashionable insignificance of today's culture. We puke on moderation, a generation's fashionable irony and deliberately boring contemporary art. We shit on your chronic timidity and your tamed and domesticated notion of what art can be.

The time has come for a rupture, a break, and an honest method of digging our way out of the manure of contemporary art. Your system is spineless and must be replaced.  Those who are proud of being imperceptible are lost.

Today's gatekeepers remind us that painting is dead and if that's the case, then so must be photography, movies, music, writing, sculpture, performance and all human creativity. The logical implication of curatorial culture's hierarchical dominance is the negation and replacement of the individual with a neutered clone. Academia's curatorial class, we are told, are god-like. They determine history. Their choices are showered upon us from above. The fact that breakthroughs in history are the exclusive domain of the AMATEUR (a lone individual who invents and innovates) is beyond the doublethink reality tunnel of the insulated curator.

Today's curatorial elite has determined that passion, anger and conviction are replaced with ironic indifference, a stance of self-removal, an evasion, a retreat into the herd. With sheep-like acquiescence, a generation of followers has emerged with no point of view, afraid to stand for anything, yet pretending to be fearless while hiding behind an ironic indifference that amounts to a compulsion to conform. The follower artist's philosophy is one of capitulation.  Through capitulation the follower is conditioned to anticipate and grovel for the expectation of inclusion into the world of high culture and it's attendant material rewards.

What the followers, apologists and their gate keeping masters fail to understand is the essential non-differentiation between high and low art. Today's smut is tomorrow's fine art. The profane, with the passage of time, becomes sacred.

Having suffered under a reactionary ontological hermeneutics for the last fifty years, the extremist movement constitutes emergent phenomena, which is more than the sum of the processes from which it has emerged.

Interpretation theory rewarded by dominant culture would have us believe that history is objective when in fact its subjective nature is based on hierarchical systems of exploitation benefiting a global elite.

Extremist art is non-metaphysical, based on the senses.  It establishes the human body as the ultimate arbiter, the component that allocates wisdom.  In an empirical sense, extremist art is a unified confirmation of one's resistance to and transcendence of status quo thinking. 

The Simulation imposed upon us by shadow governments and hidden elites must be exposed and destroyed. That includes a cancerous art establishment based on commerce and the malignant dictums of predatory capitalism that negates individual breakthroughs based on lived experience. Non-referential, non-simulated breakthroughs are accomplished by plunging into life and grabbing it by the balls. This means taking chances, offending people, causing alarms to go off and generally disturbing the equilibrium in a strategic manner.

We are the new extremists, armed with a vision to see through the charade imposed upon us by the gatekeepers of consensus reality, who manage a mass hallucination we choose to reject.  Ours is the art of bad taste, which blots out and destroys your system of lies and self-delusion. For too long the sheep among us have been rewarded for their subservience to a bankrupt system of lies.

WE SHIT ON GOD. BECAUSE THERE ARE NO GODS AND THERE NEVER HAVE BEEN.  ALL SYSTEMS OF TOTALITARIAN CONTROL MUST BE SUBVERTED AND DESTROYED. HUMAN FREEDOM DEMANDS VIGILANCE AND RESISTANCE TO HIERARCHIES, WHETHER IMPOSED BY REVOLUTIONARIES OR COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARIES. WE ARE FOR ACCELERATED EVOLUTION THAT SUPERCEDES REVOLUTION. WE ARE EXTREMISTS UTILIZING PROVOCATION, ENLIGHTENMENT, HATE AND LOVE.  WE WILL UNITE OPPOSITES.  c. Nick Zedd 3/6/2013

This article originally appeared in Newtopia Magazine.