Kofi Forson in Conversation with Ethan Minsker: Punk as Art Impresario
On a given night you can find Ethan Minsker, a polished, handsomely bald, physically domineering figure, working behind the bar of Niagra. As an artist, writer, director and producer he founded The Antagonist Movement, a consortium of artists, writers and musicians based in the East Village of New York City. Its purpose is to create a venue for underground artists to reach a wider audience. Recent group shows have included This is Berlin, Not New York, Berlin, Germany, October 2007 and Behold the Antagonist Movement, Providence, Rhode Island, May-June 2008. Ethan Minsker is also Director of the Royal Fest, 1997-1999, a festival of films, bands and zines centered in the heart of the Lower East Side of New York. He’s currently working on two memoirs, one based in Washington, D.C. and the other in New York.
Kofi Forson: I’d like to start by talking about your novel, Rich Boy Cries for Momma. You portray the life of a young boy who has a problem with dyslexia. How do you think the life of a young person be it in turmoil or at a disadvantage helps nurture him or her as an artist?
Ethan Minsker: Well as an artist everything you do later in life definitely is influenced by your younger childhood. Just about any artist or any person, no matter if you’re an artist or not, your childhood has an effect on the rest of your life.
Forson: Does it become a struggle between power and vulnerability?
Minsker: I’m doing a series of three books which are basically broken up into different time periods of my life. Rich Boy Cries for Momma is about growing up in the District of Columbia during the 70’s and 80’s. For me being dyslexic and coming from the high end of middle class… both my parents were lawyers… I could afford to go to private school.
And then being rejected from the peer group, all the sons of senators and politicians prominent in the District of Columbia forced me to seek out a new peer group, the rebel rockers of the D.C. scene. With any young person your friendships are the most important thing.
For me at that time in the 80’s Washington, D.C. was an extremely violent atmosphere to grow up in. The friends I made became like my surrogate family. The violence that happened to my extended family then reflected inward on my character.
Ethan Minsker: rooftop shoot, New York
Forson: How does that manifest in you as an artist?
Minsker: I had about nine or ten friends who were murdered from drug related violence or violence in general. I had friends who committed suicide, friends who died of A.I.D.S., overdoses. It spread the gamut of the different ways you could possibly die, sort of like a Jim Carroll type of thing I guess.
I understand the reality of how fragile life is. Therefore I’m not afraid to take a risk. If I do something like street art I don’t care if somebody gets offended or if I’m arrested. I feel obligated to push what I can further. I don’t have the fear of what could happen if I don’t because everyone dies. We all die.
Forson: What was the cause for violence in the punk and art movement? Was it boys being boys or was there a greater social cause be it poverty or unemployment?
Minsker: In D.C. there’s a whole variety of reasons why it was the murder rate capital of the world. It was more dangerous living there than Beirut, Lebanon or Belfast. Part of it was the infiltration of crack but the District of Columbia itself used to have a lot of major gangs. There was no structure in the criminal element.
Forson: Do you think violence and aggression was crucial to the politicizing of art back then? What are some of the different ways among this current generation to rally against the establishment?
Minsker: I think in the art world now rebellion, uprising and violence would be related more so to street art. Gallery art may portray some violence but the real adventure in the art world now is focusing on street art. The low brow is the new high brow. And of course some of what you do on the street will affect everything else.
Forson: What were your impressions of the punk and art movement in places like London, L.A., New York and even D.C.? What separated them from each other and how were they similar?
Minsker: Punk rock in all the major cities around the world has something similar. There’s rebellion, striving for something different but at the same time though they are all linked by the music. Each city does have a separate style. New York City and CBGB’s the birth place of punk rock world wide most people would have to credit to bands like The Ramones.
Those bands had more of a street-city-vibe. The city being New York reflects into punk rock. London was more about fashion. The fashion element of punk rock really became strong there. When you think of the Sex Pistols you always remember how cool they look. New York was more about the music.
New York Hardcore band Absolution
Forson: Names like Joe Strummer, Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra have been crucial in merging art, politics and punk music. Was punk music in a sense a celebration of music and fashion or was there something more political?
Minsker: The fashion element was more Vivian Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren. That’s more of the London thing I was talking about. The integrity of punk rock is definitely within the mindset and theories behind it and the pure rebellion of it, as well as the structure of the music and the lyrics.
Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra from The Dead Kennedys and all those guys… they definitely focused on the political element, not always political as government but also the liberal aspect. Punk rock can be plainly just as fun to listen to.
Forson: I guess what I like about your role with the Antagonist Movement is how active you keep art within its underbelly. How does the Antagonist Movement become a tool for promoting young talent and making you an impresario?
Minsker: The structure of the Antagonist Movement basically is getting people to create art at all cost. The first step in doing that is we create venues around the city. All of these venues bring in artists that we then work with and meet and out of those thousands of artists, three thousand artists over ten years, we select artists that fit our mindset. Some of these venues include trips around the world like Berlin, Lisbon and Portugal.
Forson: The bar and performance space Niagra is your home base. Can you tell me the history of Niagra and who are some of the performers who have passed through?
Minsker: There has been a bar on the corner of Avenue A and East 7 Street for more than 30 years. Niagara used to be called "The WaWa Hut", "Wallies" and "A7". When it was "A7", they had a small stage at the back of the bar where the "Bad Brains" and "The Minor Threats" had their first New York shows. Singer of "Murphy's Law", Jimmy G used to DJ when he was 14 years old.
Since December 1997, the bar has been called Niagara. I've been working there since then. Two of the owners use to play in punk rock bands. Jesse Malin was in the "Heart Attacks" and "D Generation". Johnny T. was the drummer for "The Clowns for Progress". Ever since it's opening, the bar has been a hangout for rock royalty, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, The New York Dolls among many others.
Since 2000, The Antagonist Movement has been doing art shows in the space. Artists, such as Yoshitomo Nara and Kenny Sharf's artwork currently graces the walls of Niagara.