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He eats scum: an interview with Nick Zedd

Downtown low-budget shock king Nick Zedd on why his movies aren’t pretty. Showing at the KW Institute through Apr 9 as part of You Killed Me First, the Cinema of Transgression.

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Thrust In Me

Downtown low-budget shock king Nick Zedd on why his movies aren’t pretty.

One of the most identifiable figureheads of the Cinema of Transgression movement in New York City in the 1980s, Nick Zedd is known for his abrasive low-budget films full of sex, suicide, drugs and weird creatures. Films like Geek Maggot Bingo and They Eat Scum – as well as his memorable part in Richard Kern’s short film The Manhattan Love Suicides – have been mesmerising unhinged art students and deadbeats for decades. After moving to Mexico from NYC last year, he visits Berlin as part of the KW Institute’s You Killed Me First exhibition, alongside Cinema of Transgression alumni Kern and Lydia Lunch.

You’re so identified with New York City – why move to Mexico?

I’d lived most of my life in New York… there’s a lot of stress and tension there, and it became less of a place where one could create in peace because the expenses are so high. 

You don’t strike me as someone who needs peace to work.

Actually, that’s true… I found that staying in New York and continuing to produce became like a sacred mission of some kind.  I think that people who live in New York delude themselves into thinking that this struggle they go through on a daily basis is somehow warranted or justified by the few moments of happiness they experience in this miasma of misery.

Cinema of Transgression contemporaries Lydia Lunch and Richard Kern both went on to significant semi-mainstream success and are making a bit of money now. Why not you?

I preferred the autonomy and I found that it’s unnecessary to have large sums of money. If you’re really obsessed with doing something, then you just do it. You do it yourself. I have friends who claim to be filmmakers, who spend years trying to raise the money to get a camera or to find the financing to make films and in the meantime would create nothing, where I would get a cheap digital camera and shoot an entire TV series. If you really believe in what you’re doing then you do it – you don’t talk about it.

When I find the people that inspire me to collaborate, then I just start filming with what I have… I would borrow a camera and I’d find somebody who had a laptop with Final Cut [Pro] and we’d just edit it in the person’s apartment.

And you’re still making the same kind of art…

One time I showed [2004’s I Was a Quality of Life Violation] at this place in New York called Millennium and Richard Hell came – Richard was also in one of my earlier films and had been a roommate in the 1980s. When he saw that particular film he said to me, “You don’t have any attractive people in your movies.” He said that besides [early 2000s collaborator] Reverend Jen, and maybe you, everybody is completely ugly and grotesque and he seemed to think that that was a bad thing.  I thought, “What are the values you’re applying to the work?” it just seemed like, well, I’m not doing Hollywood films.

So you’re a fan of more immediate art. What do you think of the Youtube revolution?

Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of stuff on Youtube but I haven’t seen any underground films that I’m impressed with. It’s made it so that anyone can do it; I mean that’s fine I guess. I think there’s something about making underground films and showing them in places where people have to come and see them is better because that’s a more physical commitment to an insurgent resistance to mainstream entertainment. I think the fact that everyone’s sitting in front of laptops and computers looking at these screens – it’s isolated people. At the same time it has exposed them to work they wouldn’t be able to see in their geographical region. I know that people have put my films on torrent sites, so then I guess my films get seen more now because of the internet but I think that you cannot compare that to the experience of actually seeing movies projected in a place and seeing it live with an audience. That is really how it should be seen.

Can you talk about your recent work?

From 2001 to 2008 I was producing and directing this TV series – The Adventures of Electra Elf – which was this super hero comedy series starring Reverend Jen who at the time was my girlfriend. We broke up during the middle of the making of the TV series and [at the same time] the open mic scene which was so inspiring to both of us fell apart.

You were involved with the open mic scene in NY?

Jen had a following of about 20 people and some of them were complete social rejects and there was a snobbery attached, even among the nerds that were part of the scene, and they seemed to resent me because I was ‘too cool’ or more ‘well-known’, but I still was able to work with the more talented ones. That open mic scene sort of like disintegrated into back-stabbing and petty jealousies.  Reverend Jen had a borderline personality disorder and was very temperamental and on a giant ego trip thinking she was like queen of the world, when really she just had about 15 people who followed her activities within the radius of 4 blocks.

I got fed up with that whole scene.

You’ll be seeing some of the alumni from the Cinema of Transgression at You Killed Me First.

I don’t talk to Lydia [Lunch] anymore. We haven’t talked in years. But Richard [Kern] I talked to on the phone before I left NY in 2011 and, erm, we talk through email and sometimes we’d run into each other on the street.

And actually I hadn’t talked to Tommy Turner in 20 years and then my cat died when I was in NY.  This cat was my closest friend so I thought when the cat died that I’d like to have him taxidermied. Since Tommy had done this back in the 1980s – he’d stuffed dead cats – I thought he could do it. I sort of put [the cat] on ice and he came over and said he was going to preserve it and said he’d do it in a week. But then that dragged out into eight months. He proved to be completely incompetent and unable to do a decent taxidermied cat. He unfroze it and put all these chemicals on it and removed the internal organs but he didn’t do a decent job cause it ended up looking like road kill.

Are you looking forward to seeing any of them?

Oh yeah sure. I always look forward to seeing Richard Kern. He usually has helpful tips on how to make money sometimes.

YOU KILLED ME FIRST: THE CINEMA OF TRANSGRESSION Through Apr 9 | KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Auguststr. 69, Mitte, S-Bhf Hackescher Markt., Tue-Sun 12-19,Thu 12-21

14.03.2012 - 12:00 Uhr