‘You Killed Me First: The Cinema of Transgression’ at the Kunst-Werke in Berlin, is a first-time museum presentation devoted to a group of New York underground filmmakers of the 1980s. To this end the institution has painstakingly converted its exhibition spaces into a kind of über-gritty dungeon, vying, it seems, to deliver as authentic a backdrop as curatorially feasible to present 18 films for a strictly 18+ audience. The theme park-like recreation of the once sketchy, run-down Lower East Side featured touching details like professionally executed out-of-control smudges of black paint covering all windows, minutely stopped short from spilling over to the walls.
Given the intent to evoke not only the milieu’s stylistic sensibilities but also the rundown urban habitat it operated from, it was slightly startling to see the exhibition’s actual subject matter – the films – being projected as video transfers , as most of them were originally shot on Super-8 and presumably shown as such. The archival and pragmatic reasons for this decision were comprehensible, nevertheless all the more inconsistent with the overzealous detailing put into everything else, from the zine-like rough cut-and-paste brochure and catalogue to the freshly spray-painted graffiti in lieu of conventional wall labels, to the black light neon and strobes, to the ratty piles of cushions conceived as seating.
Some of the works in the Kunst-Werke exhibition are available online at UbuWeb (and on youtube) and re-watching the films, a lot of them feel and look older than they actually are. This is due to a particular approach to filmmaking defining the movement and its artistic and socio-cultural affinities, spelled out in the ‘Cinema of Transgression Manifesto’ penned by one of the group’s key figures, actor and filmmaker Nick Zedd. He writes:
‘[…] We refuse to take their easy approach to cinematic creativity; an approach which ruined the underground of the sixties when the scourge of the film school took over.’
This invoked ruined ‘underground’ cinematic legacy, ruined by ‘[…] the laziness known as structuralism […]’ i.e. structural film already evolving in the 1960s, isn’t further expounded by Zedd but one can safely assume he was referring to seminal works of New York underground film like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and less safely to the work of Kenneth Anger, who really had his artistically most defining period during the 1960s with films such as Scorpio Rising (1964) and Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), as well as for example Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), Flesh (1968) and Trash (1969) (the latter two directed by Paul Morrissey but produced by Warhol).
There is a parallel between the Cinema of Transgression (C.o.T.) and Anger not least in regard to the generous use of music of the respective time. The crucial difference is that Anger laid highly popular, sweet Rock’ n Roll tracks of the nascent American youth culture ironically over his mise-en-scène of subcultural or rather vernacular groups, like the high-on-methamphetamine, working-class bikers hanging out in Coney Island he tailed, celebrated yet also exposed and manipulated for Scorpio Rising. When he did turn to subcultural groups proper, like the colorful ensemble of idiosyncratic protagonists framed by drifters and hanger-ons – the fluid body clusters of Haight-Ashbury hippie youth in Invocation – this nevertheless still played out a process qua the camera-performer-event dynamic within which he alternated between initiating magus and cold documentarian. The films of the C.o.T. on the other hand almost all feature an often very dominant soundtrack that however came more directly out of their very own, much less popularized milieu of New York’s No Wave and Post-Punk music scene. As such the rough, aggressive and piercing music by Wiseblood, Lydia Lunch, the Swans etc. smoothly mirrors the mostly equally abrasive, confrontational and explicit imagery, hence lacking the pop irony of Anger’s treatment of sound and image. (Invocation actually is more in line with the C.o.T. in this regard through its mesmerizing, grating Moog synthesizer theme – which was however played by no other than Mick Jagger).
Warhol’s output of the 1960s poses yet another problematic point of historical affiliation for the C.o.T. While the films featured the NYC demimonde of Warhol’s day, including drug addicts, drag queens, hustlers and so forth – their performances or mere presence imbuing the films with something akin to social commentary – Warhol, together with Morrissey, more significantly acted as the original talent scout, surrounding himself with his ‘superstars’ who simultaneously formed the social fabric of the factory and acted out – worked! – his particular vision of a Gesamtkunstwerk. The members of the C.o.T. on the other hand come across more as an actually democratic smaller circle of like-minded individuals who collaborated on their films, taking turns as performers, musicians, directors, editors etc… As a rather familial film co-op really, regardless of any ‘transgressive’ content of the films.
Also, considering the outright refusal of the C.o.T. to: ‘[…] bore audiences to death […]’, Warhol seems even more a problematic figure of cinematic identification for the group, given that to some historians of avant-garde film, boredom is the very premise of Warhol’s Empire, the 1964 over eight-hour long continuous shot of the iconic Empire State Building. By comparison, the longest film included in the C.o.T. showcase is the 31min10sec long Where Evil Dwells (1985) by David Wojnarowicz and Tommy Turner which has a pulsating industrial soundtrack by J.G. Thirlwell & Wiseblood, as well as a section with part of a track by AC/DC. Some of the film’s end scenes move in the direction of snuff, interestingly also initially structuring the plot of David Cronenberg’s contemporaneous film Videodrome (1983), whose work shares with the C.o.T. a predilection for both violent, scary and silly bodily mutations and mutilations (and gouging eye balls). In Videodrome though precisely the latter is contrasted with the then high-tech, seemingly non-corporeal medium and non-places of clinical TV studios that is in dialogue with very contemporary concerns of current artistic practices seeking to confront the supposedly immaterial, barrier-free, liberating and illuminating properties of high-definition video and global virtual communication of social media and online commerce with dystopian and very much corporally raw, atavistic scenarios.
It’s interesting to note that the piece of the C.o.T. attaining the most long-lasting cultural impact is also the formally most complex one, David Wojnarowicz’s A fire in my belly (1986/87).
Having been decried as ‘hate speech’ by a group of Catholic cultural conservatives (a notion immediately seized upon by Republican political strategizing) it was removed from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. in 2010, only to be subsequently acquired by MoMA where it has since been on view to the public. A dizzying montage, it also conjures up and reimagines much older avant-garde imagery that could have come straight off the pages of Georges Bataille’s not easily classifiable journal Documents (1929-30), as well as featuring iconoclastic-turned-iconographic vignettes and editing reminiscent of Luis Buñuel or Sergei Eisenstein. Wojnarowicz is also the only member of the group to spill over into the larger contemporary art context of the time, participating for example in the 1985 Whitney Biennial (tellingly, then frequently referred to as the ‘Graffiti Biennial’, as in a contemporaneous New York Times review).
The reemerging relevance of his work as a kind of artists’ artist for a certain faction in contemporary art, mostly in relation to LGBT-informed art (activism) and (queer) identity politics, now sitting squarely within the monetary-social nexus of art fairs and biennials, becomes more logical in another piece, Fear of Disclosure: Psycho-Social Implications of HIV revelation (made with Phil Zwickler in 1989, the only piece in the show originally shot on video).
As opposed to the frantically fragmented, really more traditionally cinematic Fire in my belly, the piece consists of a matter-of-fact account of an HIV-infected man unsuccessfully trying to hook up with someone over the phone, presented as a voice-over to footage of two male go-go-dancers and a simple House track by the artists. A similar approach is at work in Tessa Hughes-Freelands Baby Doll (1982), following two showgirls of sorts around the East Village, in this case dissecting the course of female self-determination curiously from the angle of the city’s ever expanding strip clubs, intercut with samples of 1970s disco music, already in decline back then.
It is this coolly analytical approach, smoothly delivering the personal and the political channeled via the pull of the milieu’s hipness, that provides a now more than ever viable model for current artistic practice: then by way of its sophisticated knowledge of and affiliations with respective subcultures’ music, fashions etc.; now more essentially by way of concretizing its own, thereof informed discourse and inter-referentiality into select market value.
In an interview concurrent with the Kunst-Werke show, Zedd divulges the C.o.T’s reasoning behind their trademark use of violence, pornography and overall audio-visual crudeness as a calculated if desperate ‘fuck you’ to the ‘art establishment of the time’ and the ‘media’, both of which ‘ignored and omitted us [the artists of the C.o.T.]’ thereby enacting a sort of ‘censorship’ through cultural exclusion and indifference. This initially somewhat trivial sounding impulse (Zedd: ‘We were trying to put our brand into the world’) actually opens up an art-historically and culturally more interesting and legitimate correlation than the by comparison grandiose institutional claim, in the exhibition leaflet, for the movement to be ‘on a collision course with the conventions of American society’, not shying away here from setting the C.o.T. up against the ‘Reagan administration’, i.e. almost an entire decade, in a David vs. Goliath showdown, a curatorial vogue of late again for which the New Museum’s very own creation of the ‘Ungovernables’ (its second Triennial of young contemporary art) serves as a case in point.
That ‘art establishment of the time’ not further disclosed here may be identified somewhere between the journal October and SoHo, an epochal dynamic in New York for which Hal Foster’s anthology from 1983, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, remains arguably the defining publication. In his introduction Foster asks: ‘How can we […] transgress the ideology of the transgressive (avant-gardism)?’ – the latter’s promise; and a problem, since its formerly critical expectancy had now been diagnosed to be fully subsumed by what Foster called the ‘official culture’ both high and low, ‘in the university, in the museum, in the street.’ The notion of an anti-aesthetic as conceived here then, could have only been diametrically opposed to romantically inflected rebellion carried out through the distribution of so-called transgressive acts and signs, ‘a modern nihilism – which so often transgressed the law only to confirm it’. (All quotes by Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic, Seattle: Bay Press, 1983, p. ix, xv)
The law in this instance would have had to be twofold at minimum, bearing on both the historical legacy of an avant-garde, whether consciously or not, serving as propaganda for ultimately regressive political power (i.e. the Russian avant-garde, or more cogently Futurism’s direct endorsement of Italian Fascism) and the law of capitalism’s happily all-accommodating circulation of intentionally polarizing entities into profitable ones. The career path of an artist such as Richard Kern, another key player of the C.o.T, illustrates this quite neatly, having successfully carried his (anti-)aesthetics over into the realm of music and fashion (a music video for Marylin Manson, editorial work for Vice, Purple, Playboy etc.) in this sense indeed fulfilling the quest to ‘dissolve[s] the line between critical and creative forms’ (Foster), never mind that his trajectory – or rather migration – isn’t likely epitomizing what Foster had in mind for a ‘practice of resistance’. And for what it’s worth that historically recused sentinel critical likely didn’t concern Kern much either.
The C.o.T was willy-nilly actually too close to both: classical modernism and contemporary culture – a movement estranged from a city’s cultural climate that was abuzz – from university seminars to editorial meetings to gallery press releases – with the postmodern. It was too close ideologically to old-school modernism, which Fredric Jameson in the aforementioned volume defined as historically born out of early 20th century anti-bourgeois sentiment: ‘ugly, dissonant, bohemian, sexually shocking’. And it was too close formally to the contemporary, now including ‘the most offensive forms […] – punk rock, say, or what is called sexually explicit material”, “[…] all taken in stride by society, […] commercially successful.’ (Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Anti-Aesthetic, p.124)
The chemistry – the timing – all wrong, it simply could and would have never worked out… The C.o.T. in fact may have even passed for one of those vaunted – albeit in this case clearly waived – ‘vernaculars’, the authors of the Anti-Aesthetic so emphatically sought to unearth for their project. (It is this near hit/miss scenario that would eventually set the tone for the East coast/West coast bifurcated negotiation of an unmistakably ‘American’ vernacular, the baggage of modernism and the legacies of the old European avant-garde, imprinting the writings and positions of people like John Miller or Mike Kelley.
Whether transgressive or not – a notion quite out of fashion in contemporary art at least ever since Dash Snow & Co. last claimed the Bowery – the films of the C.o.T. encroach an artistic period and art-historical canonization of New York (and beyond) commonly associated with said notions of the anti-aesthetic and more generally the postmodern. Yet the ‘postmodern’, however ambiguous a term, would soon be very much chronologically in tune with the rise of contemporary art’s pervasive blue-chip culture, while the idea of an ‘anti-aesthetic’ heralded a heavily academic slant in art for the decade that lay ahead.
‘You Killed Me First: The Cinema of Transgression’ is on show at KW institute of contemporary art, Berlin, until Monday, 9 April 2012. The exhibition will be open during the Easter Holidays including Good Friday and Easter Monday from 12 to 7 pm.
For an in-depth overview and contextualization of the movement and the individual works there exist, in addition to the Kunst-Werke catalogue, Jack Sergeant’s Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression, London: Creation Books, 1995. Also of interest is Nick Zedd’s official website which includes the original ‘Manifesto of the Cinema of Transgression’ (1985) along with his more recent writing on American politics and culture and his own line of neo-punk streetwear.