Nick Zedd makes violent, perverted art films from Hell- he’s my kind of director! – John Waters
Nick Zedd is a revolutionary filmmaker, writer, painter, actor, political satirist and First Minister of Protocol for the Cinema of Transgression, a movement he spearheaded in New York 25 years ago and whose reverberations are still being felt. Zedd employs shock value through xenomorphosis, a term he coined to describe what happens when the “domain wall of an alternate universe smashes your reality tunnel and neurological re-engineering occurs.” He currently lives in Mexico.
Monica Casanova is an underground visual artist and fashion designer living and working in New York and Mexico City. For more than twenty years she has been a leading figure in the underground movements in Mexico City and New York, working with rock bands, underground filmmakers, alternative theater and experimental arts. She has collaborated with Patricia Field, Nick Zedd, Kembra Phaler, Juan Jose Gurrola, Katia Tirado, among other figures from the experimental arts. Her work and performance has been presented in Ex Teresa Arte Actual (Mexico City), Deitch Project (New York), Galeria 13 (Mexico City), Arena Mexico (Mexico City) The Art Parade (New York), Howl Festival in the East Village (New York). She has been featured as an iconoclast figure in publications such as Paper Magazine, Nylon Japan, Nylon Mexico, Celeste Magazine, A Rude Magazine and Black Book. And has published her photos in numerous publications.
Kofi Forson: Nick I’ve been a fan for a long time now. Fair to say the aura surrounding the art and underground scene earlier on in the 80’s was shocking. Not sure if circumstantially this was a reaction to Reaganomics. Would you say much of the punk and art movement in New York at that time was politically motivated? When and why did you start making films? What did you hope to accomplish?
Nick Zedd: I started making films when I was 12. I hoped to accomplish the making of movies. We weren’t politically motivated but might be called a hermetic insurgency of new outsiders who discovered how consensus reality is a fraud accepted by millions of unwitting dupes. I was outside of society. Back then, the extent of one’s political awareness could be measured by the number of times one encountered police brutality or dealt with the curse of landlordism, the most direct form of class warfare being waged against most of us. Political engagement, aside from squatting in empty buildings, was largely seen as a waste of time since no organized resistance was in place outside of the nuclear freeze movement and the birth of Act Up. After 1980, big Media became a joke with discredited talking heads delighting in “trickle-down economics” and crazy TV evangelists dominating the airwaves. A new dark age had begun, so we turned it off and made our own counterculture with cheap materials. Thanks to the timidity and institutional complacency of the art world and corporate media, we were forced to create our own media like the Underground Film Bulletin, the NY Film Festival Downtown and the Invisible Cinema, a weekly forum for experimental movies in the basement of a bar on First Avenue.
Forson: You coined the term "Cinema of Transgression" which included films like "Thrust in Me" which you made with Richard Kern. How did you come about the term "Cinema of Transgression"?
Zedd: I was looking for a word to describe the kind of movies I made, so I went through a dictionary and transgression popped up. After I published the manifesto the word became a meme with a continuing afterlife, affecting the consciousness of multitudes, which is what happens when you have a good idea.
Forson: Films in this cinematic world of transgression were abnormally ultra violent and decadently sexual. Where did this sense of angst come from? The 60’s would suggest the civil rights movement. The 70’s gave off a sense of revolutionary tactics. What was it about the late 70’s into early 80’s that brought about this decadence?
Zedd: Society was turned upside down by reactionaries gaining the levers of power. There was a clamp-down extending to all levels of society; a general assumption that risks would no longer be taken to support forms of communication that threatened the status quo. An adversarial position was imposed upon us by those with illegitimate power. We were told that down is up and right is wrong by dominant culture for so long that we rejected it, listening to our libidos, becoming hedonists and sexual anarchists. As far as we were concerned, the ruling class were the decadent ones, on a coke fueled binge deregulating everything , creating a parallel nation of homeless people, cutting funds for housing, education and art while exporting murder abroad. Our movies were a means of asserting our autonomy while the masses were being immersed in an alien Zeitgeist.
Forson: Cinematically what inspired these films? What movies were you watching? What books were you reading? I sense the horror of 50’s Beats. How Burroughs polluted our minds with literary references to sex and drugs. How did 50’s subculture influence your future as a conscientious artist and filmmaker, if at all?
Zedd: I was reading Bukowski, Burroughs, Bataille , Selby, DeSade, Neitzsche and LaVey. Kern was reading Phillip K. Dick and lent me a book called Anarchaos. When my book Totem of the Depraved came out, alot of smart people read it. We weren’t watching movies as much as making them. The ones we watched were from every era. We were mostly watching films that each of us made; influencing each other.
Forson: Your collaboration with Richard Kern is legendary. How and when did you meet? What did you think of him? Was he mentor or was your working relationship more paralleled?
Zedd: We met in 1984 when Beth B introduced Kern to me. He was inquisitive and determined to start making super-8 films like I had, before him. We worked together on Thrust In Me as equals, then made our own movies separately. There was a lot of collaboration going on back then with people appearing in each other’s films, sharing equipment, drugs and criminal activities.
Forson: In the late 70’s into 80’s pornography took on another realm in cable television where pornographers other than adult magazine publishers like Larry Flint and Hugh Hefner were breaking ground. Cable television can then be said was the origin of what we have now on the internet along with reality television where unknowns were able to expand their sense of creativity.What is your reaction to the labeling of the "Cinema of Transgression" as pornography? Do you take credit for setting a trend in what we see now on line as far as fetish behavior and the orgiastic sense of sexuality?
Zedd: It was never pornography. It was eroticism. Sometimes it was experimental, deconstructing pornographic elements and turning them into something else. Labels are limiting but I can take credit for setting the trend you refer to. Before what we were doing, fetishism and eroticism were of no interest to artists, who had a kind of debilitating politically correct mind-set which was a symptom of a lingering malaise; a kind of latent puritanism that served the interests of state power. Sexual repression is one of the means by which authoritarian power maintains control.
We destroyed that with the Cinema of Transgression.
Forson: There are political undertones in your films. Are you out-rightly political or is it more or less a chance to bash into the heads of people in society what your views are on societal issues?
Zedd: I just identify common enemies and show ways to subvert the science of mind control. Truth seekers appreciate this.
Forson: Where then does it become entertainment and not a deepthroating of information because your films can be clever and funny. At times even poetically beautiful like "Go To Hell".
Zedd: When your eyes see it, Kofi. That’s when and where it happens.
Forson: You currently live in Mexico with your wife Monica Casanova. You recently became a father. Congratulations on that.
Zedd: Absolutely! I filmed Zerak’s birth.
Forson: Tell me about making the transformation from New York to Mexico. Do you think you wore out your welcome in New York? We are all possessed by the city. Did it get to a point in time when you had to make that escape? I think quietly most New Yorkers who live there for more than ten years or so want to make that escape. They just want to leave. They just have to run for their lives.
Zedd: I could have stayed in New York, but after awhile it became a self-imposed purgatory, going to court, fighting frivolous evictions and continually winning against a psychotic landlord, accepting the ugliness of gentrification and becoming more isolated as the city became a party to which I wasn’t invited. New people to collaborate with kept me there for decades; but they got fewer and farther between. Every scene disintegrated into petty backstabbing or was short-circuited by landlord harassment. A new crop of faux bohemians arrived as part of a sad, fucked-up Simulation. There were so many normal people around I became agoraphobic. They took over my building, paying exhorbitant rents, complaining about the sound of my feet. Living in NY, your mind gets clouded by the struggle to survive with pointless tension; then you convince yourself you’ve accomplished something special by having one hour of peace a week that anywhere else would be a daily occurence. We put up with it for so long because we know that everywhere else in the country is even more boring. A false sense of self- righteousness infects New Yorkers after years of accepting miserable conditions, bad service and aesthetic ugliness in order to be part of a myth. The City is a good place for roaches and bedbugs but for humans it’s living death. What kind of a city would let the Mars Bar close?!
Forson: Monica congratulations on being a mother.
Monica Casanova: Thank you. It’s great to be a mother for the second time and I feel good having kids as pieces of art. It’s up to parents what information to put inside of their brains and expose them to the art of life. That’s a huge favor that you do for them and the best gift that they can get and later on they can always choose what they want in life, keeping in the back of their heads that to be an artist is a good way to escape from the mainstream world, being a species of planet earth.
Forson: As a Mexican artist involved in the marketing and commercialization of art, whether it’s your involvement with Nick on merchandizing tee shirts, and your clothing line, do you find it necessary to politically document your role as an artist from Mexico?
Monica Casanova: We’re not interested at the moment to merchandise the line of clothes. All are one-of -a-kind pieces and some are part of the Zedd Archives in the Fales Library at NYU for people interested in photographing them or to show in museums. The silkscreens are there to show the process of developing the idea; the intervention between fashion and film. People were briefly given the option to buy pieces in small shops from the underground in NYC to enjoy them and keep them for themselves to wear.
Forson: What is the underground in Mexico? Does it exist?
Monica Casanova: It exists as movies that were made over the decades, from kitsch Mexican wrestling ones with bombshells (kind of trashy pinups) to most of Jodorowsky’s films, Mexican directors like Juan Lopez Moctezuma (The Mansion of Madness and Alucarda) to a few Bunuel films. This is talking about films but there’s different subcultures from the underground that exist from art to music to writing and other situations; exposing a Mexican viewpoint explored over the decades. Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch here.
Forson: What is New York Underground? How has it changed over the years?
Monica Casanova: It changed because of the development of technology, and because New York in general is not interested in keeping artistic things from the past alive. They like to make a new NewYork all the time. The life of an artist is not the priority.For New Yorkers the priority is for the rich and there is no foundation for artists to have access to a life equal to a Wall Street person. The true artist can be starving and
the Wall Street person will never starve and that is a huge mistake because all artists should have the same rights in NY. Most of the real underground people in NY and true artists had to locate themselves to different cities and countries where their art is more appreciated, giving them the opportunity to have homes without living a life in hell with crazy roommates and crazy landlords interfering with your inner peace. NYC came to be so expensive that people have to get two jobs to pay rent, making it difficult to create and invest money in their own pieces.
So many people who were creative had to change their lives from being underground to being a corporate robot for a system designed to crush them and couldn’t continue to be themselves without selling out.
Forson: You’ve got some film projects in the works. What are you currently working on with Nick?
Monica Casanova: We’re just, in reality, still landing in Mexico City. Art is an everyday process in our life from minute to minute. We’re collaborating in a collection of photos that he’s taken of me with different concepts. We’re still deciding what kind of feature we’ll do in the future…We do film things that are more experimental like a live journal. I work also getting to Nick the best people as curators in Mexico City to handle his art who have the most open minds to understand his masterpieces. I try to show him as much as I can of Mexico visually and conceptually, putting him in different situations that might be useful for inspiration for his art, to experience a Mexican life as many artists do here.
Forson: Nick, you’ve kicked the dirt about New York for so log. How does it feel to be a married man and father living in Mexico? Do you miss New York? Do you feel in your heart of hearts you are done with New York?
Zedd: Only time will tell. I’ve always challenged myself by taking unexpected turns. Raising a family is something I never did before. It brings me back to childhood and reminds me of my parents who no longer exist. In order to find something new you have to become innocent, which is why I’ve moved to a place where I can’t speak the language that’s completely unfamiliar. While raising a child from infancy, I’m being reborn and discovering life through his eyes. Seeing him laugh has given me a reason to live. It’s forced me to step outside of myself. In Mexico I’m meeting creatures with different priorities from the ones humans accept in New York. Many New Yorkers have self-imposed blinders that stunt their growth. (People in every country have that, but differently.) I’m on a new path whose destination is a complete mystery. I’ve never felt at home anywhere that I’ve lived. I hope that now I’ve found the home I stopped looking for. Reinventing myself is a way of dying as well. In my final years in New York I felt like I was ready to die. If I die in Mexico that’s OK too.
Forson: I feel you have achieved the great escape necessary for any artist living in New York. The city bites. But you have to bite back. If you don’t you get swallowed. Somehow I feel the third act is better elsewhere other than New York, if not a place outside of America. Congratulations to you both on your son. What’s his name?
Forson: Does he already have it in him? Is he throwing bottles? I see you got him wearing that AC/DC like tee-shirt with the AB/CD.
Casanova: He is the most mellow creature in the world. While Nick is reading, he keeps himself not needy, but a good little man companion. He is not a throwing bottles baby. He maintains his movements very controlled, exploring objects in his hands and observing his surroundings.
Forson: You seem like a true modern art family. We get bombarded with these Hollywood couples having kids. Happy to say I admire you both.
Monica Casanova: Thanks.
Forson: All the best!
Zedd: Mucho gusto.
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Kofi Forson is a writer, photographer and director living in NYC.
His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.