Photos: Johanna Lenski
Best known for his now-legendary “transgressive” films such as They Eat Scum and Geek Maggot Bingo, that offer a vision at once terrifying and comically absurd, Nick Zedd, has also published many books, comics, and magazines, including the autobiography Totem of the Depraved. He is also an equally talented painter, creating works, that like his films, grasp at capturing the horror and beauty of our existence. With names like “SHIVA” and “Beelzebub”, each round canvas in his recent show mounted by Microscope Gallery depicts a figure that is neither fetal nor alien, but some in between life form, floating in fields of cosmic color.
I spoke to Nick, who was visiting from Mexico City, at Brooklyn Fire Proof in Bushwick where the show was held, and found him to be soft spoken, articulate, sincere, and gracious.
CS: What draws you to painting as opposed to filmmaking?
NZ: I like doing paintings because they are non-collaborative, unlike films where I have to rely on actors. Although with documentary films I just shoot what’s out there. The paintings are more personal. Both of them are not entirely under my control, but the paintings become meditative, where they become a kind of therapy where I explore colors and textures.
CS: Do you want to talk about their subject matter?
NZ: I call them xenomorphic entities because they represent a union of opposites, beauty and ugliness, or it could be ecstasy or anguish. It depends on how one would interpret them. But I think the paintings are difficult to analyze and interpret accurately because they are not a verbal medium; they are not a linear narrative. To try to put into words what a painting is, limits what it is.
CS: Do you see a difference in motivation in artists now than when you were starting out? It seems that artists used to be more interested in just making art for their friends, and now it seems everyone is concerned with getting press and commercial success.
NZ: I’ve always been kind of outside the art world and when I was younger I considered myself more of a revolutionary, and also at the same time an entertainer, and I didn’t really have much interest in the art world. I was more interested in the counterculture that punk represented as a threat to the dominant culture. And then I put out a magazine, The Underground Film Bulletin that was trying to spread the agenda of transgression. But when I was younger I didn’t see as much emphasis on business in the art world, which I think has taken over completely since that time. Back then it was called postmodernism. Now the new label is contemporary art, which seems to represent the most meaningless kind of conceptual art, that is big and bland and pointless and makes lots of money. It’s basically a giant scam designed to rip off investors and make huge sums of money for talentless artists. We are living in a post-skills era. Skills are considered a detriment by the art establishment. But I’m as usual, operating on a hermetic path in direct opposition to that, and what I’m doing is far more lasting in significance, which will be discovered in the future.
CS: What place do you think art has in a corrupt society in a world on the brink of environmental destruction? Can it affect change, or do you believe as Nietzsche wrote that “we have art so that we may not perish by the truth”?
NZ: Art which is human creativity represents dreams and dreams are where changes occur, so I think that revolutionary change usually occurs first in the minds of artists. They are at the vanguard of subversion and revolutionary thought. Society tries to negate that by focusing on the business artists and the accommodationists who are part of this contemporary art system which is completely reactionary and should be wiped out. But at the same time, there are visionaries that operate on a hermetic path and from there all original ideas originate. That’s when amateurs make breakthroughs and come up with new insights, so I think usually the most significant work is that which is not identified as art. It is considered trash. So if you look in the realm of trash, you will find a blueprint for the future, amongst certain individuals who are autonomous and more individualistic like myself.
CS: So do you think that artists and filmmakers that are working as part of the establishment are part of the scam?
NZ: Yes, and they are in it for the money. Sometimes you can see amusing work by more successful artists who are making a lot of money, but usually that is pretty rare. It’s always possible. I wouldn’t look towards anything in any galleries or any museums if you are interested in what’s a breakthrough or a step forward in human development. I think also that politics is everything. It affects everyone. Human interaction is politics, so to not be politically engaged and recognize that we are living in a simulation that is controlled by global elites and designed as a science of mind control. It’s essential to be aware of the false constructs which are designed to turn our brains off. Terms like conspiracy have been demonized by the dominant culture to try to turn peoples’ minds off, but in reality there are multiple conspiracies at work designed to further the agenda of the global elite, and the bloodline of certain families that control the banking systems and the governments which have the puppet leaders that we are supposed to think make the decisions, but don’t.
CS: So do you think that artists have a responsibility to be political, or do you think being an artist in and of itself is a political act?
NZ: Well, it depends on each artist and what they are interested in. I feel like an artist is someone that is outside of society, which means therefore, that I have no social responsibility whatsoever.
CS: Does that mean political responsibility as well?
NZ: Right, I think politics in general are a kind of fashion that is a distraction from what is essential or things that matter, like human feelings–love, compassion, understanding. One can be an artist and have a social commitment in terms of trying to expose the hypocrisy of the dominant culture and the injustices that occur as a result of policies designed to destroy us. In some of my work, I’ve addressed these concerns, like police brutality and the 9/11 inside job, and the behavior of corrupt religious leaders and politicians, but I do it in a satirical way, that also makes people laugh. I think laughter and humor are important ways to liberate oneself mentally. For me, it’s important to be entertaining, to try not to be boring.
CS: How important to you is it to find an audience for your work?
NZ: I consider an audience a collaborator in the process of creation, and audience members through their own perception and analysis of what I’ve done complete the work. It is a collaboration between myself and those that have seen what I’ve done.
CS: Are there any filmmakers or artists working today that you admire or whose work you find transgressive?
NZ: Who was the director that did that film Idiocracy? Was that Mike Judge?
CS: I think so.
NZ: Yeah, I like that one. And I like some of Lars von Trier’s films. I could list dozens of filmmakers from the past… I like Eisenstein’s films. Kenneth Anger, I really love. King Vidor, some of his films, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Lina Wertmüller.
CS: You are living now in Mexico City. Why did you decide to leave New York and the Lower East Side?
NZ: I spent most of my life here and I felt it was time to immerse myself in an alien environment to break the chains of association that might limit my perception of reality. I think it is important to change the things you are doing and the places you live to expose yourself to new ideas, along with new customs. It just expanded my understanding and appreciation of humanity. I think I became agoraphobic living here and living in small apartments and paying high rents and being harassed by landlords and at the same time feeling like I was living in a party to which I was not invited. I lived in New York City for so many years and I encountered over the years an influx of new people every few years that sometimes turned into a creative community that was beneficial as collaborators. The last time I experienced that was with the open mic scene which then sort of disintegrated, and I felt like I wanted to start my life over again. I did that in a way by falling in love with someone and having a son who is now almost three years old. Experiencing life through his eyes has given me new hope and made me more positive and more of a humanist.
CS: Do you enjoy living in Mexico City, and married life with a child? Do you find it conducive to your work?
NZ: Yes, it’s a beautiful place and it’s magical. I never thought I would be in a place like that after spending so many years in New York being disappointed. I mean New York has very positive qualities too, but there were things that I stopped caring about like trees and nature and parks and playgrounds. All the things I cared about as a child. I was a different person when I was in New York. I was more neurotic and stressed out and angry. I feel less that way now, I guess.
CS: What upcoming projects or shows are you working on?
NZ: I’m putting together a three-issue fanzine called Hatred of Capitalism which is being published in Mexico City and will be exhibited at the Chopo Museum as part of an exhibition called Fanzinoteca. And they are digitizing my magazines, comics, and other periodicals that I’ve saved since my childhood. I’m also in an exhibit at this Carlos Slim museum, of sneakers that Converse provided to 100 artists to paint as a way to benefit poor Mexicans. The sale of the sneakers will finance art schools for these Mexican kids. I wrote a screenplay for a feature film I would like to shoot if I can raise the money, based on my life. I’m going to continue doing paintings, and if I get any money, make more movies. I also have a book coming out, supposedly–the reprint of my autobiography Totem of the Depraved, which Tricia Warden plans to publish from her new company in New Jersey.