Zora Burden: What prompted your move to Mexico and how does it compare to the U.S.?
Nick Zedd: I was fed up with the sameness of NYC, it had become a kind of purgatory! I’d lived there most of my life and always liked the energy and the chance to collaborate with new people, but the landlordism got out of control with outrageous rents, that had me stuck in the same apartment for 17 years. I’d been very productive from 2001 to 2011 directing a stock company of comedians and actors in a series of short comedies and a public access TV series that became like a personal religion. That gave my life meaning, but my main collaborator had serious mental problems and we had a falling out. I felt very isolated and focused on a new medium: painting, which didn’t require collaborating with mentally unbalanced assholes and freed me to express myself without any kind of restraints. After welcoming the restraints imposed by doing a 28-minute action/adventure/satirical superhero series (Electra Elf) for nine years, I found a different kind of release in the mixing of colors on canvas, something I’d never imagined doing. I was kind of depressed and unfulfilled in my personal life and was celibate for a few years. Then I met a lady, Monica, from Mexico who suggested I move there with her. We fell in love and decided to have a child born in Mexico City. Having never gone through that kind of experience, I thought, “Yeah, this would be something completely different.” So I filmed the birth of my son in a hospital in Roma.
We were lucky and found a cheap apartment in the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived…Condesa. It was like living in paradise for the next four years. I felt at home for the first time in my life, even though I couldn’t speak Spanish. I never expected to have a family and see my own son grow, it’s been the most extraordinary experience. It’s radically changed who I am. The downside to this seeming miracle occurred last year when the owner of the building decided to “renovate” it and proceeded to throw all of the tenants out or pay them to leave. We stubbornly refused to leave, even after families who had been in the building for decades got fed up and left. The landlord and his goons turned off our running water and electricity and stole the gas tank so we couldn’t use the oven or stove. We carried our own water in bottles up three flights of stairs, siphoned off electricity from a hotel next door using extension cords and got a hot plate to cook on. The workers ruined the building, pounding on the walls, demolishing the beautiful architecture around us for the next ten months while we visited government offices and went on rent strike. Nobody could help us. It was a surreal journey into hell, but being with my son and his mother made it worth it. I continued to paint and make short films while plaster fell from the ceiling and holes were punched into the walls surrounding us. The landlord changed the lock to the front door and installed a security team to let us in and out. He put a TV camera in the hall facing our door and had goons with guns lurking around, even following Monica. Finally we got a lawyer to negotiate with the landlord, forcing him to pay us to leave. Now we live in a crowded hotel room in Centro, a dirty and dangerous neighborhood with too many people around. I feel like I’m back in a foreign version of the kinds of slums I lived in years ago in NYC. The one positive thing is being with my son Zerak who I love so much and learn from every day. I had to make a change in my life and I did. Being an artist means living on the edge.
ZB: How are the arts communities in Mexico different from those in the U.S.?
NZ: In the U.S. there seems to be no art communities left, thanks to gentrification and landlordism. However, in NYC I was able to show paintings sooner than in Mexico. It only took a year to find some spaces that were interested, and I’ve sold a few paintings through a gallery in Bushwick. Unfortunately, most galleries are run by fucking idiots and criminals, so it takes forever to show new stuff. Mexico is very conservative and lacks any sense of community in terms of a counter-culture. I feel isolated here. But my priorities changed after 2009. Having a family means more to me than being part of a “creative community”! If I were more alone, the way I’d been in NYC for many years, I’d probably be more interested in finding a lot of people to work with. I’ve become a recluse of sorts. I’ve given up on the human race. But I’ve continued to look for places to show my work. It took far longer than I expected to find a gallery or museum to show my stuff here in Mexico, it took three years to find a museum that would show my “Xenomorphic Entities” paintings and even then, they only allowed the public to go into the room on opening night. For the remaining month, a barrier was placed in front of the door to the space in the Belles Artes Museum in San Miguel de Allende, keeping people out. I was told by the curators that this was because the museum refused to pay a security guard to be there to protect the stuff.
I did my first one-man show here last year, five years after I’d arrived. It was in a gallery that didn’t attract many people. I did a weekly series of underground film screenings in the gallery during the month that the show was up. The biggest audience that I got was ten people! At one screening, nobody came. I blame this on the curator who insisted that the screenings take place on weekday afternoons when most people were either in school or at work. It seemed a no-brainer to me, but the curator was quite stubborn. However, I showed a retrospective of movies in 2011 at the Macabro Festival where several hundred people showed up at one screening, so I know I have a following if it’s done right. I was not invited back, though. A gallery in Condesa specializing in gay-themed art promised to do a show of my more sexual stuff. Then the owner appointed an asshole curator who refused to include my Extremist Manifesto and rejected a big painting I did for the place of three erect penises ejaculating. That kind of chicken shit cowardice was something I thought I’d left behind, but people are just as full of shit as ever. Erect cocks on big canvases still scare people, I guess! The owner lied to me and refused to sign a contract, so I withdrew my paintings. This showed me that there is no “arts community” in Mexico City, just a bunch of backward pussies and upper-class snobs pushing contemporary art that offends no one and bores everyone… just like everywhere!
ZB: How has your work changed since working as a filmmaker? How do you see your work progressing over the last few decades?
NZ: My work has become stronger and more crystallized like diamonds! The paintings are extremist and sensual, invoking feelings of anguish and/or ecstasy, maybe. They’re exotic. And funny. People find them shocking. The videos I’ve made are more personal, like diary observations. Back when I had two mini-dv cameras that worked, I documented some of the more extreme and unusual sights in Mexico City, Tequisquiapan and other places. I got backstage at an Alejandra Guzman concert and shot her with her parents Sylvia Pinal and Enrique Guzman, in a movie that also showed the cockfights preceding her performance in a remote circular arena filled with working-class families. (The cockfights were illegal—but compelling for their barbarism.) The Guzman family are entertainment royalty in Mexico. In spite of this, it took me two years to find a place to show the movie—and nobody seemed interested in watching it when it was projected! Such is the nature of Mexicans. Or humans in general. They make no sense to me. I also produced a three-issue fanzine called Hatred of Capitalism which I convinced the Chopo Museum to print and distribute for free in a show I did presenting comic books and zines from my collection going back to childhood. We built a big black pyramid that held the zines for a month. I DJ’ed at the opening. That got me the most press coverage in Mexico. And a bigger audience.
Once I was asked to be a judge in an outdoor film festival in Xolchimilco [network of ancient canals where fabulous, colorful naive art barges congregate--ed.]where we built a tiny outdoor theater to show my movies and a film school provided a wall-sized canvas that I made a painting on in one hour with big brushes. This was my first mural. It came out great but was only seen for ten hours! Later that night I got a ride back to Condesa. The organizers promised to let me have the mural, then never wrote back to me. (I discovered that a lot of people lie in Mexico.)
My work is always changing. I've made comedies, features, shorts, a TV series, and documentaries. I've written books, acted in films, had a band called Zyklon B in NYC and put out a record. I used to edit and publish a magazine called The Underground Film Bulletin. I drew a comic book in the 90's which got published in Germany and twenty years later in Mexico. There's usually an undercurrent of humor or derision in my work, often directed at myself. I seem to get on people's nerves attacking sacred cows, exposing the ugly fucking truth that everyone pretends to not care about… stuff like the 9/11 inside job, the insanity of organized religion, political hypocrites, police brutality. All fodder for my entertainment scalpel, making ordeals for subversive minds. Lately I've been sculpting deformed babies and making miniature two-inch paintings of naked women being crucified. No one has had the good taste to buy any of these masterworks. I like to add blood and cum to my paintings—it's a personal touch that no one seems to appreciate. Maybe if I add shit somebody will buy one!
Zora Burden: Has having a family changed your creative outlook or process in any way?
NZ: It's made me less of a misanthrope and more of a humanist. It's forced a clarity into me, in what I make, since I don't have as much time to create things. Most of my time is taken up being a servant to the family. Or maybe it has enabled me to step back and lose my ego. Some paintings have taken months to complete. Others take hours. On second thought, having a family hasn't changed anything at all about what I make! A family is just other human beings, like the world outside. Probably living with a woman who has a bad temper and has broken several of my paintings has forced me to learn how to repair canvas and restore oil paintings. As with most of the mentally-disturbed people I've lived with, it's forced me to be more clever in my use of diplomacy, which involves a lot of patience and self-control.
So-called "loved ones" are the biggest threat to my art and life. In one instance, my four-year-old son painted on top of a finished piece without my knowledge and improved the picture! Fortunately, it was one of my lesser works. His brushstrokes were abstract but lively. It added something unexpected, which was positive!
ZB: How did you meet your wife? Is she an artist as well? What collaborations have you worked on with her or that she has inspired?
NZ: Through emails. She doesn't create art. She sometimes helps motivate me to make it. I've done a few paintings of her. and one of them she destroyed with a pair of scissors. I've done some drawings of her and included her in bigger paintings. She is very photogenic and has posed in some photos taken by myself, and other photographers. She has good taste and can sometimes help people in the selection process when it comes to showing stuff. She helped me decorate the window of a clothing store that was showing my paintings and prints in a basement in the Lower East Side in 2008. That year we designed some clothes together using images from my movies. She's made collages of images from my films to decorate public toilets in Mexico City. She's not a bad interior decorator and turned our hovel into a dungeon of horrors. [laughs] I borrowed some of her bones of dead animals and weird toys when I did an installation at the V & S Gallery last year entitled "Altar of Transcendent Crimes."
ZB: Will you talk about what you're working on artistically now?
NZ: A baby doll of a xenomorphic entity made from plastic, oil paint and plasticine. I'm also transcribing my memoirs covering my life from 1996 to 2009.
ZB: Due to technology creating an artistic culture where there is no real effort involved in the creative process, do you think this has killed the validity of artistic expression?
NZ: Not for everyone. There are other extremists like me making very radical stuff under the radar. I included them in the first issue of Hatred of Capitalism back in 2013. It takes our stupid little world longer than it ever did to catch up to this stuff.
ZB: What is your opinion of technology and art?
NZ: Technology is a tool that can enable us to make revolutionary art. Or it can be a crutch for art cripples! Tools change, and advances in technology can help with new ideas. One should be open to change and try to keep up with it.
ZB: Do you know of anyone still using analogue or DIY methods in their art that you'd like to mention? How can we keep this spirit of DIY culture alive, and motivate younger generations to know the pleasure of a tactile, more physical approach?
NZ: I know other people besides me doing it, they are all ingrates with ego problems so I won't mention their names! I initially encouraged them and tried to support their work. They just don't give a shit.
ZB: What is your opinion of the art world today, as compared to the height of creative expression in the 1980s? Will you talk about the atmosphere and motivating factors of the work you created back then?
NZ: The art world has always sucked. It is dominated by opportunists, business people and sell-outs. It was no better in the eighties. There was more real estate available back then so there were more galleries to show stuff in. Landlords and their greed, along with unregulated capitalism, wiped out most of the small galleries in the succeeding decades. Today, the so-called art world is a wasteland of corporate shit. Big, bland and meaningless. It has nothing to do with human creativity and is a giant monument to insignificance. The only people who like it are insiders who invest in the garbage, and the phony bullshitters who make a living as "artists." I hate everything they stand for.
Back in the eighties (which to me was not the height of creative expression as an era) there were a lot more underground places where people took chances and broke rules. That was because money was not the determining factor in what was being made. The Mayor of New York and a lot of landlords decided to kill that. and shut down as many places as they could while gentrifying everything—which made it impossible to survive in NYC if you were part of the underground. I stayed for another twenty years fighting tooth-and-nail to make my own kind of underground stuff while a lot of assholes sold out and made more money… or gave up.
In the eighties there was an atmosphere of anything goes. Motivating factors were hatred of capitalism, a desire to say fuck you to the ruling class and global elite pulling the strings of politicians, corporate media, dullards controlling real estate, and so-called "alternative" or independent institutions getting government funding.
At the time I felt isolated by poverty, but it didn't matter as much then. I knew there were other people like me with similar lifestyles—even more debauched—trying to say something with the cheapest tools available. I was able to corral some of these people into a sort of underground movement and thus the "cinema of transgression" happened. We fucked together, shared drugs together and made movies and music together. It didn't last long and soon everyone went their separate ways—except for a few "insiders" who adopted the typical snobby routine of exclusionary elitism based on their upper-class origins (which always reveals itself in the end).
Class is a very dominant force in capitalist societies. People with more money never want to associate too closely with others outside of their class. I moved in and out of the circumscribed creative ghettos that existed in parallel paths during that era. There were whole scenes happening in different neighborhoods that included people who never ventured outside of their ten-block radius. In a way, it was better than now, where everything seems homogenized or sanitized by "good taste" and conformity. At least then you could discover something happening that you wouldn't expect. Every time a scene would disintegrate I'd withdraw and be even more isolated, focus on writing for a while. Then I'd meet some new people, usually recent arrivals to NYC who shared a myth of what the place could be, based on their status as outsiders… and a new scene would happen. This process repeated itself every five years.
I think curiosity is essential. It is the antidote to boredom. People must be open to change. Free thinkers are an endangered species on this planet. I sometimes wish I could visit NYC more often to see if anything is happening again. So far it doesn't look like it. And Mexico is equally dead. I try to not need other people in order to keep making stuff. The internet has helped me stay in contact with other humans… I wish I was able to meet more of them in person.
ZB: What would you like to see happening in art today? What about with the younger generations?
NZ: More extremist art threatening the status quo. It is up to the younger generation to make something new.
ZB: What is your opinion of art training and schools as compared to those who are autodidactic and who learn from experience? Do you believe art can be taught?
NZ: Schools kill creativity. Well, they are sometimes good for making expensive equipment available! In order to make art you need to be obsessed. Being in an institution is just another challenge: to circumvent whatever control is being placed on you. I'm for individuality. That means breaking the rules. Obedience is death. Art can't be taught. It can be discovered. It's a process of discovery. I can't explain or define it. It means anything you want it to mean.
Zora Burden: Have you been teaching at all? What is your opinion of academia and the art world?
Nick Zedd: I briefly "taught" a couple of film classes in Mexico City a few years ago. One was a "History of Transgression in Film" where I showed movies from my collection. The other was a filmmaking class where nobody spoke English and I couldn't speak Spanish (it didn't matter since we had a translator). The students made some movies, so it was a good experience. I was kind of terrified to be in a small room with a bunch of people who couldn't speak English,the idea of doing something like that seemed both presumptuous and ludicrous, much scarier than making a movie, or going on tour and showing stuff to audiences!
But I've always felt that it's good to try things you're afraid to do, it's empowering, and the fact that I got paid in cash made it worth it! I was sorry when it ended.
For some reason schools never want to hire me. I tried for years to get a job at NYU's film school, it was like hitting a brick wall. I was a substitute teacher a couple of times at NYU, they had a complete collection of my films and Underground Film Bulletins there. But the administration refused to hire me. Same thing with The New School. They had a lot of mediocre filmmakers teaching there, but they would never hire me. I still don't understand why.
Many film students in Mexico City have demanded that their administrators hire me, they've even signed petitions asking for it. But it never happens. I guess it's all politics. So my opinion of academia is that it's SHIT.
ZB: How do you think capitalism and commercialism has devalued art and affected the art we see today?
NZ: Through commodification. The monetary value is more important than the content nowadays.
ZB: Do you feel your work is as appreciated as it should be in academia or otherwise?
ZB: Why do you feel you're not acknowledged or appreciated, when your work clearly has had a major impact on film and culture?
NZ: I have no idea. It's a complete mystery to me.
ZB: What's the real story behind the creation of the term Cinema of Transgression?
NZ: I thought it up in 1979 before any of the other filmmakers [of transgression] started making movies. Then I used the term in 1984, in my magazine, in an editorial I wrote using a pseudonym, Orion Jericho, to get attention for all of us.
ZB: I've always wanted to ask if you think the guerrilla filmmaker in John Water's Cecil B DeMented was inspired by you...
NZ: It was, but John Waters won't admit it! He introduced me to the lead actor once when I was projecting movies in a nightclub.
ZB: Will you talk about the creation of your first film, They Eat Scum? How did it affect your future film work?
NZ: It was my first feature, shot in Super-8mm. I wrote a treatment, then a full-length screenplay in 1978. It affected my future work by teaching me the mechanics of screenwriting, learning to work with available materials (and limited funds) on my own schedule… working with unpaid non-actors (and a few real actors who I got through casting calls).
I used anyone who was available to get this movie done—including my parents! I persuaded them to drive up to NYC after giving my brother's pet poodle a crazy haircut and a green dye job. They appear in the film as unconscious extras [!]. My father did some stunt work in a chase scene, too. I met punk rockers in bars, clothing or record stores and got some to be in the movie. We shot a couple of scenes in a barn in Connecticut (or maybe it was Pennsylvania).
I already had experience directing my father in a scene in an 8mm film I made as a teenager in Maryland eight years earlier—I was making short movies when I was twelve years old! When I was fourteen, I wrote screenplays and directed non-actors in Adelphi, Maryland before moving to New York in 1976.
They Eat Scum was my first feature which played to paying audiences. In 1979, after premiering it at OP Screen and Max's Kansas City, I was flown out to San Francisco where I showed it at Target Video and at another punk club. It was a lot easier to find places to show underground movies back then.
ZB: I like that your family were included in your work. How did they feel about the content of your films? Had they ever seen any of them?
NZ: I never showed them my movies. My films attacked and ridiculed their values and beliefs (which I had rejected). I had enough problems getting along with them—they didn't deserve added discomfort! And I didn't care what they thought, anyway.
In the end, we had a kind of truce. It's only since my parents died, and I've assumed the role of parent, that I began to understand them—in ways that I didn't expect.
ZB: What literature inspired you as a youth—or even now? What literature and films do you feel are most transgressive or extreme, according to your own definitions?
NZ: When I was a kid, there was Mad Magazine, E.C. comics, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, H.G. Wells, and underground comics. Will Eisner, Steve Ditko, Al Williamson, Neal Adams, Jack Kirby and Möbius were favorite comic artists. Later I read Nietzsche, Marx, the Marquis De Sade, Wilhelm Reich, Charles Bukowski, Baudelaire, William S. Burroughs, Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Henry Miller, Gore Vidal, Robert Anton Wilson, Anton Szandor LaVey, Aleister Crowley, Guy Debord, Oscar Wilde, Howard Zinn, Webster Griffin Tarpley, Major General Smedley Butler and Ian F. Svenonius; all transgressive outsiders in their own ways.
ZB: Is your work more social and political criticism, or meant to act as a form of cultural warfare?
NZ: My work is an antioxidant virus triggering cognitive dissonance and transcendent thinking, while initiating a higher state of consciousness known as xenomorphosis. It's subversive, insurgent, hermetic and an antidote to the Simulacrusphere enveloping us. Call it edutainment.
ZB: Will you mention the films which were inspired by your work that you didn't get credit for?
NZ: Natural Born Killers, Bad Lieutenant, Pulp Fiction, Cecil B. Demented, etc.
ZB: For many people who know your work, you're considered an iconoclastic antihero in that you've stayed true to your artistic vision, unorthodox beliefs and convictions and really sacrificed for them. Looking back, would you do anything different?
NZ: No; I had to be true to myself. That means: no compromise.
ZB: Would you rather be despised for your work, or admired?
NZ: It depends upon who we're talking about as far as spectators go. I can't analyze or begin to know the individual minds of audience members. What I make, I do for myself. It's a process of discovery shared with the public. The spectator can react however he or she chooses.
ZB: What was the most unusual anecdote while working on a film in regards to actors, props or set design?
NZ: I shot a video in 2006 of my penis being sucked by Rev Jen, using an old VHS camera with a feature allowing me to distort the image into two mirrors reversed. I hand-held the camera and filmed my cock being sucked along with shots of Rev masturbating. I was able to get very weird mutations of our naked bodies fucking with that camera. I later integrated this into the three-screen movie Whoregasm and Smiling Faces Tell Lies, shot in 16mm.
I also shot a sequence in 2003 in the same bed, holding the camera while Rev Jen's pet Chihuahua (Rev Jen Jr) licked my erect penis. That was the final shot in I Was a Quality of Life Violation. A lot of people seemed to be shocked and outraged by that movie, which is rarely screened.
ZB: What was the ideal reaction from an audience you would have wanted?
NZ: A riot, maybe!
ZB: How did you fund your films over time?
NZ: Sweeping floors in a woodshop, driving a cab, stealing film from a counter in an airport once. Showing movies in nightclubs and other odd jobs. The Bogus Man was commissioned by a guy named Rafik who owned a theater and wanted to include a movie by me in a show he was doing in 1980.
The only time I ever got a grant was in 1999 from The Chicago Underground Film Festival to complete Ecstasy In Entropy. I've been rejected for grant funding by NYSCA and cultural foundations run by governments in Germany and Austria. I've never received a penny from any government agency for a film. They prefer mundane shit by pedestrian filmmakers who always get the money. I tried KickStarter once and it didn't work (I didn't know enough rich people).
ZB: Do you feel there's more artistic freedom and inspiration when working with smaller budgets? What was the biggest budget you've worked with, and did it make a difference?
NZ: It forces you to put your body and soul into it. Nobody interferes with what you do when you don't owe money to someone. The biggest budget I worked with didn't make any difference. It was still a struggle, but I did it my way.
ZB: Did you desire commercial or mainstream recognition for your films?
NZ: At first I did, but it never happened. The only exception is when I've seen my ideas stolen by Hollywood filmmakers. But they never acknowledge the ideas they take from me, so it doesn't really count as recognition.
ZB: Will you quote or choose an excerpt from your "Extremist Manifesto"? How does it differ from the "Transgression Manifesto"? Have your thoughts changed on this?
NZ: My thoughts regarding both of them haven't changed. There's also the "Theory of Xenomorphosis." You can choose!
ZB: Okay; I chose these as my favorite highlights from your Extremist Manifesto: