Zedd to Gentrifiers: Drop Dead
In the footsteps of Leon Trotsky, Luis Bunuel and many others since, notorious punk filmmaker and painter Nick Zedd moved to Mexico City in 2011, seeking a redoubt from which to live and make his art away from the late-capitalist scourge ravaging his former home of New York City.
He has lately discovered to his dismay that on his heels was a consumerist fad developed so successfully by such New Yorkers as Andre Balacz and Ian Schrager: the trendy hotel, literally banging on his door with eviction papers. The plague had arrived.
Nick dug in his heels.
Zedd is best known for his definitive classics of punk cinema that began appearing in the late 1970s, including “They Eat Scum,” lauded by the East Village Eye as “best punk film to date;” “Geek Maggot Bingo,” starring Brenda Bergman and Richard Hell; and “War is Menstrual Envy,” with Kembra Pfahler and Annie Sprinkle. Earlier this century he roared back into view with the 37-part TV series “Electra Elf,” starring noted East Village poet and performance artist Reverend Jen. In addition to directing numerous other films and videos, Zedd is known for spearheading the Cinema of Transgression movement – a relentless attack on the hash of pyrotechnics, stupefacients and lullabies that constitute much of contemporary filmmaking – as editor, publisher and chief author of the Underground Film Bulletin.
I sat down with Nick this January at the Hotel Isabel in Mexico City's Centro Historico, a few blocks away from his tenuous residence at the Hotel Virreyes as the fight to keep his family housed reached its denouement.
Nick, this whole ordeal you're going through at the Hotel Virreyes, do you want to give me a quick rundown of that?
I moved into the Hotel Virreyes in 2015 with my son, Zerak, and his mother when we were told it was a home for artists, traditionally. It was a low-rent, kind of Mexico's version of the Chelsea Hotel back in the 60s and it seemed like a good place for networking. I met several artists and shot some music videos while I lived there and then suddenly last November we were presented with a letter telling us all to get out in ten days. They didn't tell us why but the reason was that the Salina hotel chain had rented the building from Carlos Slim, the landlord, and decided to renovate it for upwardly mobile millennials and what they call “digital nomads,” whatever that is. So then they began tearing out the building and we refused to leave. And a few of the other tenants resisted for a couple of weeks. We tried to organize the tenants but they all chickened out and left and for the last seven weeks with no electricity, hot water, gas, and hostile security who would prevent us from leaving the building at times, other times allowing us to leave, but if we did leave we would be prevented from returning. And I did not want to lose my collection of paintings, films, books, writings and everything: my archive. Plus it was not enough time to find another apartment and there is a housing crisis in Mexico City since the three earthquakes last fall. We paid rent on time for two years. But that didn't matter to the Salina hotel chain or Centro Historico or Carlos Slim. They don't seem to respect artists at all.
It's kind of ironic, isn't it? They're getting rid of the artists so they can rent the place to people who basically effect the trappings of the artist without having to bother with being the artist.
Right, ersatz artists maybe. It's all part of the gentrification which is taking place in New York as well. Well, it already did. And all over the world I guess, wiping out the counterculture. Destroying lives, making families homeless and hurting artists like myself who are trying to survive and paying rent on time to these greedy landlords.
But after having resisted for seven weeks we finally were able to negotiate a deal whereby we will be moved to a cheaper apartment belonging to Carlos Slim, five blocks away. So at least we weren't thrown out on the street.
Monica [Casanova] has seen it? Your life partner...
The mother of my son.
So has this changed your view of life in Mexico City?
Yes, I suppose. It's not a good place for artists. Neither was New York. It's a hostile environment and I've never seen so many police in my life in one place as in Centro Historico. I mean I used to see a lot of cops when I'd take my son to kindergarten near the Zocalo. Police and soldiers everywhere. But at this hotel it's like a maximum-security prison. There's no way to get out. I had to use a rope ladder to leave the building and return, for seven weeks. I guess that's part of the militarization of the corporate sector. Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, seems to have control of the police who are supposed to protect and serve ordinary citizens but instead they've been privatized as his private security force. Twenty police prevented one of the tenants from re-entering the building when her girlfriend was inside. This was used as a strategy to intimidate and harass the tenants into giving up and leaving.
During our ordeal in the hotel we tried to get some kind of media attention to our situation and no one had the courage to write about us. No television station would report it. One TV crew came with a camera and shot us on the balcony. But their producer told the crew that they would be fired if they didn't stop submitting such material.
Where did you get that from?
That was told to me by Monica, who was communicating with this crew from Channel One. For weeks they kept trying to find some outlet. I could not believe that there was this total media blackout. But fortunately Page Six in The New York Post reported it, which caused a little bit of pressure which I think resulted in the ultimate negotiations which enabled us to escape from this hellhole of Hotel Virreyes.
On a lighter note, have you found some interesting aspects of Mexico City that have informed your work?
I met some musicians here who hired me to shoot music videos Vete al Diablo, a kind of surf punk band. We shot in Ecatepec where there was a Santa Muerte temple with a three-story-tall statue of Santa Muerte. We got some great footage there. And also a guy I met, an expatriate named Tim from a band called The Greys hired me to shoot two music videos, one of which is up on YouTube called “Viva Libre” and the other video is called “Deathless,” and we were able to use a drone camera belonging to an Argentine filmmaker in the hotel and got some great footage from above the hotel shooting down and moving up and down onto the terrace with the singer dancing on top, and I got some great footage inside the hotel.
What's life like here? How does it compare to New York City in terms of everyday life? The street environment, the art scene such as it is?
There isn't much of an art scene. It's pretty conservative here; there's a lot of timidity and cowardice. But there's an easygoing feeling here; when I first came I was really happy, especially when I lived in Condesa. I felt that I was at home finally. Has this peaceful feeling there. There's lots of trees and parks and it's beautiful. And the architecture is really diverse as a result of the earthquake in the 80s which I guess destroyed half the buildings and there's all the new architecture. It's really nice and the food is good and it's cheap and the weather's nice, and the people are pretty nice and easygoing although there's a lot of mendacity. Mexicans lie a lot. They lie to each other. And they bemoan the fact that they all lie to each other but then they continue to do it. It's difficult to get a commitment from anyone.
You mean they'll say anything they feel like saying?
Yeah. To make you feel good Mexicans'll lie to you, even if you're asking directions they'll give you the wrong directions you know and think that that's going to make you happy. I don't understand it. [laughs] They're all very polite you know and they place a lot of importance on manners I guess although sometimes they don't show any manners. Like when all the tenants left without saying goodbye after having behaved as if they were our closest friends. So there's a lot of insincerity here that I find repellent. But the human race in general is pretty repellent even in New York and everywhere. So I feel like the whole world's becoming a prison planet. I just maintain my own glorious individuality. [laughs]
How do people react to you here?
In Condesa I was treated like anyone else but when I moved to Centro I was stared at a lot and got the kind of reaction you'd get from hillbillies down south in America. It's almost as if they find it unusual to see an American walking around. I don't understand that. I mean they have television, they see movies from America. It's like I'm an alien or something.
Maybe it's the way you dress.
Yeah right. But I got used to that when I lived in Brooklyn anyway. Most of my life has been in New York and I just had these mental blinders you know especially after the gentrification took place in Williamsburg where I felt like I was at a party to which I was not invited, or that's what the neighborhood turned into. And going out to restaurants and bars and being confronted by these pod people everywhere, who are loud and shallow and appear to be manufactured on an assembly line.
Amazing how mobbed parts of Williamsburg have gotten.
Yeah, you know, like why do I want to be someplace where it's supposed to be hip. All humans are pretty much all on the same level to me, they're of very little interest. There's so much sheep-like behavior. I would just as soon live someplace, you know, peaceful. And that's why I liked Condesa but unfortunately the new owner decided to throw out all the tenants after I was there for four years, including tenants that had been there for decades.
I see a pattern here...
Yeah, gentrification, I guess.
Have you been able to do much personal work here?
Yeah. I've done my best paintings here when I lived in Condesa. I had a beautiful apartment and it was cheap. A lot of light coming in and I did some big paintings and a series of paintings that I call the Xenomorphic Entities, circular paintings which I then later even animated in a film last year.
Yeah, I've seen some of those paintings, they're kind of shocking; they look like flayed fetuses. Where did you come up with this imagery?
I spent a lot of time on Google image search looking for strange images and then I thought, “If I combine these creatures who to me are beautiful and hideous at the same time and seem kind of vulnerable and very extreme...” With the clouds behind them they almost look like religious paintings.
How would you describe the beautiful aspect?
Their uniqueness and the texture of the skin and the colors and look in the eyes and the lips. I found that the lips were the most expressive part. I think Francis Bacon as well found the mouth and the teeth to be sometimes the most expressive part. But I don't like making comparisons. I did sell a few of these paintings but it took a long time to find a place that would exhibit them in Mexico. I had better luck exhibiting them in New York at the Microscope Gallery and Todd Pendu's place.
And Brooklyn Fire Proof...
I did a one-night show there. But Brooklyn Fire Proof commissioned me to make two short films in 2016, one of which is called “The Death of Muffinhead” and the other was “The Attack of the Particle Disruptors,” which was the animated three paintings. And that was probably the best experience I've had as a filmmaker.
“The Death of Muffinhead,” that was so interesting; very highly stylized people in an op art fashion. Can you describe this individual who's at the heart of this visual expression?
He calls himself Muffinhead. His real name is Brett Henderson Kreutzer and he comes from Los Angeles he lives in New York and gets paid to appear in nightclubs in these outlandish costumes that he designs himself, which I think are really extraordinary. And he had several that he allowed me to use. And he played most of the characters and a friend of his named Anais played a couple of the other characters.
It kind of reminded me of The Time Machine.
In what way?
When this character bludgeoned Muffinhead to death. Everybody is shocked but after a few seconds they just keep dancing as if nothing happened.
How is that similar to The Time Machine?
Because there was a passage in The Time Machine where one of the Eloi falls into the river and they just watch. They're upset at the beginning and they just kind of go back to what they're doing as if nothing happened. That struck me.
My original concept for that film was pretty loose. I wanted to show him in the different outfits playing different characters and then he suggested that I incorporate a murder into it which never would have occurred to me. But I thought that's great, that he seemed to want to make something violent happen. And then I shot all of the other characters reacting to this bloody corpse lying there. And at first they look concerned and then I thought, oh, tell the girl to like first look concerned and start giggling and laughing and then you know the others will as well suddenly change their attitude and go back to the dance of life or whatever, and I thought in a way it does kind of reflect how humans behave.
Have you seen any work you like here in Mexico?
Well, David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Polyforum [facility]. I love his murals.
Is there any underground art here?
Yeah. I met a couple of underground artists who I started briefly a kind of insurgent movement with, which I called the Extremist Movement, and we published a fanzine called Hatred of Capitalism. One of them was Rodrigo Zeradi. He did this very kind of extreme pornographic cartoons using Disney characters and paintings that are always kind of sexual and tasteless. Then there was this other guy, Chucho, who takes photographs which seem kind of extreme. The manifesto did go viral and had repercussions I suppose, got some attention. Then I did a exhibition at the Chopo Museum in which they also paid for a couple of subsequent issues of Hatred of Capitalism, one of which was a screenplay that I wrote in 2012 based on my life, which I had hoped to film in Berlin. But the money fell through and it never got made. I've never been given a grant in my entire life. I've always been rejected. That's my badge of honor I guess. If you do something too subversive they don't want to help.
Have you picked up on any of the folk art that's around Mexico City?
I like the Santa Muerte statues. I'm impressed by the craftsmanship on those, and the [Jesus] Malverde busts. Even though it's an unrecognized art form. There's a kind of embracing of death that we don't find in United States culture except in Hollywood movies I guess.
One thing I like about Mexico is that you can walk down the street and you see a newsstand and there'll be a magazine there with a color photo of a corpse and somebody got shot in the head lying in the street or somebody's mutilated and then you walk past the stands by the market and they have all these pornographic movies on display you know that any child walking on the sidewalk can see and you know nobody seems to care. It's not considered dangerous or offensive. Children don't care about that stuff anyway. So there's no need to suppress it.
I think that a positive thing about Mexico is the kind of tastelessness here that is kind of more hidden in America. Good taste is the enemy of art, that's what Picasso says. I also find Mexico to be the most sexually repressed place I've ever lived. The women don't flirt at all. And I think Catholicism has induced a kind of sexual oppression that is so prevalent here, it's horrible.
How do people get together? Do they get really drunk or something?
Maybe they go to church. Well, there are lots of hookers. I've seen a lot of hookers.
When did you first get to New York?
That was a nice time to come. In the mid-70s it was quiet and it was very cheap to live. And there was no hype. But I found it very depressing. Then later everything started moving.
I think cheap apartments are an essential element in the creation of a counterculture.
I think so.
And landlordism is an enemy of art. It's an enemy of civilization, really.
The first thing I saw that you did was “They Eat Scum,” which I loved immediately. It was just shown at the Museum of Modern Art.
Yeah. At the Club 57 retrospective.
And you did “Geek Maggot Bingo” [in 1983]. That was with Richard Hell, right? What was it like working with Richard?
It was great. He was a really talented actor. He always knew his lines. Brenda Bergman was also really talented. And Tyler Smith, he designed the monsters and special effects. And Donna Death. [Brenda] also appeared in three episodes of “The Adventures of Electra Elf,” the public access TV series I did with Reverend Jen, from 2004 to 2008. There were 37 episodes.
You did a lot of special effects for that.
Yeah. By the early 2000s there were a lot of cheap mini-DV cameras available, which enabled us to film special effects that would have been very difficult to to with 16mm or super 8. I would say it was a G-rated fetish situation comedy that threatened the status quo by making targets of politicians and religious leaders and authority figures.
What enabled you to keep going for so long on this project?
Because Reverend Jen was my girlfriend at first. And we made a couple of films like “Lord of the Cock Rings” and “I Was a Quality of Life Violation.” Then the relationship started to deteriorate and her borderline personality disorder became much more extreme and difficult to deal with. But I found it to be a challenge, and making this TV series became like a religion to me. It became a cause to complete an episode in spite of the difficulty of working with her. She is very temperamental and mean and hateful and vicious but her public persona was the most charming, you know, America's sweetheart. You know she's like the Mary Tyler Moore of the underground.
I guess it happens that way a lot.
But Reverend Jen is really talented and appealing to most people and she could play multiple characters and write scripts as well. Half the script she wrote; I wrote the other half and I found that it was a competition between her and me to make a better script. So we took turns writing the scripts and I directed all of them. I found it really inspiring and it was a challenge and it gave my life meaning for six years.
Most of the films before that they would be experimental and a one-time thing with the actors, you know. With “Electra Elf” it would be a recurring set of actors playing different characters and I was able to see their versatility. And then also dealing with their mental problems, I found it a challenge. And you know it's like dealing with children.
How did you motivate them?
Well, usually it would be because they so adored Reverend Jen. She was really a cult leader and she had a group of social misfits who would go to her open mike every week. And I think by referring to herself as Saint Reverend Jen she tapped into the subconscious need for authority by these very weak-willed individuals who were basically art cripples, and the same 20 art cripples would come every week to her open mike.
Can do you define that?
I guess people who have been crushed by the circumstances of their upbringing yet have a need to lash out at the world in creative ways, and sometimes they're quite extraordinary in their ability to exaggerate and embody elements of psychosis and characterization.
Savants in a way?
I think that casting is really important. I feel that it's important to sympathize and be very caring and gentle with actors. But I did discover that most of these people were too lazy to memorize the lines so I would be spending all this time writing out idiot cards for them. But most of them were pretty good at hiding the fact that they were reading.
What's your family experience been like?
Seeing a child grow is a really fascinating experience and it's really beautiful, something I never imagined experiencing, so that also gives me a reason to live. I mean in a way it's narcissistic because you have this child who reminds you of yourself but in a more innocent way, and it brings back memories of being a child and enables me to be childlike. So I think it can be really positive. I mean nothing's perfect. You find dishonesty among children too. But he's mostly honest and he's very creative. I mean I'm really impressed with his drawings and paintings and he's really interested in singing and music, and he has good taste in music.
So, what are you looking to do next?
I don't know what's next. I never can predict. Last year I shot 12 music videos. The year before that I acted in a vampire movie. The year before that I was doing all these paintings, so I don't know what's next.
Two years ago I was approached by a photographer from England who wanted me to model for a magazine. She wanted me to wear Balenciaga designs and and they flew me to Paris for one day and I posed in these Balenciaga outfits, some of which, the material was manufactured in the Vatican. It was bizarre. That was in some glossy fashion magazine that looked like a phone book and they paid me a thousand dollars I think. I never would have expected that to happen. So who knows what's next.