Transgression from the 80’s: A Festival of Films by Nick Zedd

With films ranging from fuzzy eight-minute clips, to 90 minute-long scratchy features, a festival of New York’s cinema of transgression started Tuesday night at Glasshouse (246 Union Ave.) in Williamsburg.

A tribute to underground filmmaker Nick Zedd, Tuesday night’s opening attracted a large crowd of viewers, where seats ran out and some had to pull their coats tighter while viewing the films from the street under a canopy of cold drizzling rain.

Zedd, who was in attendance along with artist Kembra Pfahler, and film curator Michael Chaiken, is an underground filmmaker who started his work in New York in the early 80’s, and helped start the film movement know as the cinema of transgression. These films were low-budget, and focused more on avant-garde narratives and experimental film techniques.

Pfahler, a musician, performance artists, and fashion designer is based in Manhattan’s “Alphabet city,” a neighborhood that like SoHo and Chelsea, was a haven for artists, twenty, thirty years ago, but because of rising apartment rents, has since seen the rise of commercialization and the fall of the arts. Her punk/glam band, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, combines music, costume, and performance art and was the subject of the first feature shown, Butterfly Witch, directed by Amber Dawn.

After Dawn’s half-hour feature, and Zedd’s eight minute short, War Is Menstrual Envy, the gallery also held a panel discussion with Zedd, and Pfahler. Talks ranged from their work, to how Kembra and Nick were first introduced to each other, the beginnings of Zedd’s directorial career, and the current lack of funding in the city for experimental artists.

“I like performances and films that are completely transformative top to bottom, from floor to ceiling,” Pfahler said.

“When I got to New York [in 1976] I was kind of disappointed I didn’t see the kind of counter culture I was hoping for,” said Zedd. Quiet, and dressed in a long black coat, he said he named it the movement the cinema of transgression in his zine, the Underground Film Bulletin in order “to get the attention of the media,” “If you put out the name of a movement, it kind of gets the media’s attention, he said “

Glasshouse will screen the films of Nick Zedd, along with many other films from the transgressive film movement, including works by Amber Dawn, Nicholas Abrahams, Mary Jordan, Casandra Stark, and many others. Other influential films by experimental filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger will also be screened. The features, which were originally filmed with 8 and 16 mm cameras, are being projected digitally over the five day event.

A newer Williamsburg gallery on Union Street, Glasshouse’s philosophy is that “Art should be experienced in a place that allows staying.” Run by Lital Doten and Eyal Perry, the two artists are from Israel, and have held spaces in San Francisco, and are involved with the noted performance artist Marina Abramovic.

The gallery regularly holds nights with performance art, and art events that are more experimental including tributes for the work of such artists as Ana Mendieta and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

One notable difference about Glasshouse is how it is presented; a gallery attached to an apartment, the space starts at a gallery storefront and winds up and down stairs and into a contemporary New York apartment, giving the viewer an original experience on viewing art.

“Well, as for the reason of bringing the cinema of transgression to Glasshouse, I guess it felt very natural,” said Doten. “We are trying to promote critical and radical culture that is not aiming to be part of a mainstream, but rather behaves as a TAZ (temporary autonomous zone). Coming here only several months ago we try to also invest time in locating some of the relevant movements and personalities of the past and present, honor them and invite them to participate in the Glasshouse operation. We especially hope that these events would be relevant to the younger local artists, and guide them through their own practice and critical thinking, as it influences our own practice.”

Films of the cinema of transgression can at times be surrealistic or even challenging to watch, especially the films Vienna Action artists. To get an idea of what these films are like, all you have to do is go to a quote by Zedd about the spirit of the underground movement: “We propose that all film schools be blown up and all boring films never be made again.”

The qualities of the films reflects the spirit of ultra-low budget filmmaking and are naturally crude; but they also feature a generation’s worth of New York underground film expression that has never achieved widespread release, but non-the less has documented the ideas and attitudes of underground artists and filmmakers from the late 80’s.

“I came because I’m a friend of Nick’s,” said Berd Naber. “It [cinema of transgression] shows that side to show the other side. It’s very humanistic and it shows the vulnerability of life. [Nick] likes to show that other side.”

“The cinema of transgression was a kitschy take on underground cinema and Andy Warhol’s films and because it was so kitschy, it allowed for better expression,” said Miles Pflanx, an experimental filmmaker and part owner of the Bushwick gallery, Fitness Center for Arts and Tactics.

Nevertheless, the movement was an entry point for such actors such as Steve Buscemi. Mainstream directors such as Martin Scorsese, John Waters and David Lynch have also found influence and expressed admiration for works like Kenneth Anger’s.

The screenings at Glasshouse are free and will run every night from the 15th to the 19th starting a 9pm and ending, as they put it, “very late.”