Eye Oh! Productions
Transgressive Potency in Underground Art
By Iona Miller, 2004
Press Release: Coming Soon: A new website and artshow on the new American Underground, Outsiders, UnInc . Curated by Miami-based digital fine art pioneer and filmmaker, Laurence Gartel with able assistance from transgressive filmmaker and animator, Bobbee Precious. Direct inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
The Real 'Outsider Art'
Genius does what it must. Talent does what it can . -Bulwer Lytton
The genre 'outsider art' is generally reserved for those who don't know that they are artists, the untutored, or naïve artist, who may span the spectrum from functional to visionary folk art. The term is often misused, however, which we would like to do here. The real outsiders don't even care if they are 'artists.' Their internal drive is so strong they cannot help what they do. It must be expressed.
The very term 'outsider' sets up a false dichotomy that there is somewhere in the artworld to be an 'insider', in a university, museum, or commerical gallery setting. In this sense, all the outsider is outside of is the clique of the artworld and its corporate sponsors. But the pronouncements of the artworld of its own self-importance may just be selling so much snake-oil. A lot of uncommendable work passes through the artworld. Plenty of commendable work does not, but this makes it no less relevant.
The real outsiders aren't necessarily these unlauded folk artists, but the true outsiders of the societal mainstream - mavericks who inhabit the dark worlds of various subcultures. They are those who intentionally place themselves beyond the pale, or are 'out' because they never made it 'in.'
Their art has a transgressive power, whether expressed in film, performance art, music, or visual media. It gives the ordinary person a glimpse into a mysterious, dangerous, or forbidden world. The viewer may be drawn further in or completely repulsed.
Outsiders pursue art as a means of self-expression for themselves and their disenfranchised community, generally not commercial ends. Outsider art, in this sense, is analogous to 'disorganized crime,' executed in an idiosyncratic or haphazard manner by the rugged independent, rather than through institutionalized hierarchies.
This radical art inflames the desires that originally led to the lifestyle choice. Specialized taste and artistic style bind the community together. Artists are always interested in communicating the 'signs of the times.' This art draws on life for inspiration. It is very 'street.'
Each of these worlds has its own aesthetic, its own dress code, its raison d'ete. They each produce their own 'outsider art' based on the proclivities of those who indulge in the lifestyle. Often the audience is an intimate part of whatever artistic process emerges. This art serves an ecological purpose in the community, reducing fragmentation, making meaning or fostering insights.
The artist speaks for the mute crowd and articulates their spirit, their zeitgeist. This raises him or her (or the diverse genders in between) to iconic status among his peers, for he can clearly express what others just dream. For this reason, subcultures often revolve around the artists who exemplify them.
Conversely, artists have always formed a solid subculture of their own, preferring one another's company, mutual inspiration and understanding. Some scenes are merely faddish and deteriorate while others endure.
Subcultures are as diverse as the worlds of body art, fetish, ged0ay, punk, occult, Goth, cyber-, club kids, raveculture, hip hop, pagan, political, psychedelic, radical feminism, New Age, bodybuilding, motorcycles, filmaking, or any number of other underground "scenes."
Mostly they are so far out on the cutting edge, they don't want to be 'in.' They are 'into' what they do and how they do it, and generally loath the idea of corporate interference. They don't create art for an audience, but for psychophysical survival. The art that emerges from these subcultures is often considered pop or low-brow, divorced by mutual consent from intellectual or high art circles.
High art and low brow art as well as media art can mingle in a lively juxtaposition of cultural activity, according to media guru Donald Theall. All forms of cultural production are relevant, have validity and the potential to contribute significantly to social life and transformation.
Beyond personal expression, there is a social function to cultural and subcultural production. Subcultures often have overt or tacit political agendas. Sometimes the outsider artist, like a missionary, seeks to pusuade his audience to come into his world, to embrace its values, its freedoms, even its pain. Other times, he may attack the audience, even while seducing.
Photo © Aurellio Valle
Shock value and confrontation is often a big part of setting oneself apart from the conventional, the hum-drum. This outsider art is anything but conventional or "safe" art, at least for the innovators. Copyists may faddishly follow later in their footsteps.
Both Eros and Pathos are fundamental to subcultural immersion. One's chosen path is the Beloved and totally identified with; personality becomes structured around it. This art may be very gritty, counter-poetic, satiric, confrontive, dissonant, primal and sensual, even erotic. It is the dark shadow of snobbery and elitism. It is reverse-elitism. It tears at the subconscious, the weak underbelly of society.
This is where the main hotblooded current of today's 'outsider art' lives, and throbs through the veins of the heartland. Many of these artists never see the light of day beyond their own subcultural context; many of them never see the light of day at all! It is all about the subcultural experience. 'Have you ever been experienced?' For the rest of us, it is like a short trip to another planet, far far away.
Underground superstars rarely become household names even if they join the pantheon of their own subculture. They are 'not ready for prime time', in fact, they are likely to object strongly to commercialization. But collectively they say something historically important about the culture at large, much like an 'indicator species' does for an ecological system.
Most of them wouldn't have a clue about the history of art, or their potential place in it. Mostly, they spend their days 'preaching to the choir.' But they still act as chaotic "Strange Attractors," culturally engineering the whole fabric of society by perturbing and unravelling it ever so slightly from the fringes.
Their mediums range from their own bodies, to performance art, musical and spoken word poetics, ritual, digital- and multimedia, hypertextuality, and more traditional graphic forms. But the content of the work is always in the vernacular of their subculture with its prefered palette, symbolism, and feeling tone. Their audience has been conditioned toward certain expectations, a certain aesthetic, even certain politics.
The post postmodern Underground traces back to the counterculture of the '60s, but it can arguably be traced back to certain art movements in Europe (fin de siecle, impressionists, dada, surrealism, expressionist, etc.). In those days the artists' community and the cultural intelligentsia were one. But even these now well-established schools had to fight academic art to carve each niche.
The same struggle goes on today in the world of new media. Over the last 25 years, digital fine art has had to struggle for ligitimacy with other print media. Now the same arc is repeated for electronic media: media art, animation, webpresentations, and interactive multimedia installations. Hypermedia gives us the sense of art as virtuality, an ephemera.
Techno art has carried a stigma that perhaps the results are haphazard appearing as artifact of seeing what the equipment will do, rather than the more traditional approach of conceiving the piece in the mind's eye, then executing that vision. This is likely a 'bum rap.'
Artists have always made use of 'happy accidents' in their work. Further, the exploratory path has always been a viable process in art. If we don't follow the circuitous path of the Muse, how can our art be authentic at all? Outsider art invites us to let go of all preconceived categories and expectations entering a realm of existential immediacy where the art may not be separate from the participants.
To curate a show from ' the American Underground' we have to look first to the 'Ground Zero' of the genre - New York City. Scenes also arose in London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (Hollywood). Lately, Miami has become a cosmopolitan hotbed for diverse lifestyles.
For decades, artist Andy Warhol was at the heart of and orchestrated the NYC underground scene. His Factory spawned the prototypical punk band, years ahead of its time, the Velvet Underground, featuring alternative icon Lou Reed. They opened the way for acts such as Iggy Pop, Plasmatics' Wendy O. Williams, and Brian Eno.
The modern era of outsider lifestyles took hold with east and westcoast Beat generation poets which gave way to the counterculture, then the punk, cyber- and techno- subcultures. But counterculture sought to reform the mainstream with its values; relativistic subcultures could often care less about bourgeois or conventional judgments.
The shamanic beat poets of San Francisco's North Beach rubbed elbows with gay theatrical pioneers, such as the Cockettes and their NYC counteraprts, Black Lips art troupe. After fomenting the psychedelic revolution, Tim Leary went on to become the godfather of Cyberpunk. Only the drug of choice changed to protect the innocent.
The punkrock genesis saw groups like Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols), the Ramones, Patti Smith, the Pretenders, Blondie, and Talking Heads crawling out of the underground like cockroaches scurrying from the kitchen. Rock music had gotten stupefyingly banal at the time, demanding a return to fundamentals. These soulful artists sought permission from no one, performing whether they could actually 'play', or not. Soon, the world beat a path to the Bowery door of CBGBs, Max's Kansas City, and the Roxy.
But all shamelessly took their turns in the commercial markets, becoming brand names. They played to the masses while William Burroughs and his successors such as Brion Gison, Lydia Lunch and Hakim Bey continued ranting with outrage in the style of Ginsburg's Howl . Their audience doesn't want them selling out to corporate sponsorship. For some it is a point of pride, of artistic authenticity.
The rave movement spawned such 'industrial strength' hybrids as pangendered Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Thee Majesty) and his bastard offspring like Marilyn Manson and his bandmates Twiggy and Gidget Gein. Genesis, now Breyer P-Orridge, traces his arc back to S.F. troupe, the Cockettes' influence in his youth, as well as the Occult.
If It Feels Good, Do It...Virtually
Subcultures offer self-indulgent permission for virtually mythical living. Lack of talent or inability to play is no disqualifier; particpants are nominated and elected by themselves only. If they suck, the audience lets them know. One can create a unique persona that is, indeed, larger than life, and act it out. In cyberculture, such an incarnation is referred to as one's virtual or "chip body."
We may give wildly different names to these subcultural alters than our normal personalities. And, they may behave differently. They are hybrids spawned in the underground hothouse. They only come out at night. They constitute a form of performance art themselves, on or offline. The more outrageous, the better.
Recently, the kaleidoscopic world of fetish has also become an established feature of urban life, allowing the workingclass to walk the razor's edge. For many, it is more of a fashion-inspired artform than a psychological compulsion - more good clean fun than pathology.
Weekend warriors and suburban housewives now flock to exotic-erotic balls or dungeons for titillation as they once flocked to drive ins or rock concerts. American voyeurism, fostered in all forms of commercial media, has found its roots again. Our novelty-seeking culture keeps pushing its boundaries of acceptability outward. And the people-watching keeps getting better and better.
Sexual boundaries have been obliterated by multimedia artists such as Annie Sprinkle, with her boob imprints, wild film and TV performances, and serious sexual research work. The boundary-breaking underground film scene has produced intentionally confrontive classics of the Warhol-influenced Cinema of Transgression, like the Cremaster series with Kembra Phaler (C2) by Matthew Barney, the films of Nick Zedd ( War is Menstrual Envy ), Richard Kern ( You Killed Me First ).
Then there is the legacy of new transgressions, independent works such as those by Bob Judd and digital pioneer Laurence Gartel, including his artful documentary, The Art of Fetish .
The Digital Underground
Though always a trained artist from youth, Gartel came up in the mid 70's from his native Bronx, mingling with both mainstream art and underground personalities. His pioneering work in digital fine art is rooted in his apprenticeship with mentor videographer, Nam June Paik. For years Gartel struggled, knocking on many doors in the artworld to find acceptance and validation for his new medium, with mixed responses.
In the beginning of his arc there was still no PC computer, and he had to invent procedures that quickly drew the attention of established artists. Thus, the young Gartel, now the godfather of digital fine art, wound up teaching American master Warhol how to create digital secrets on the old Amiga computers before there was software for effects.
He has also worked with musicians since the beginning of his career including Sid Vicious, Debbie Harry, Kiss, and Wendy O. Williams from NYC, as well as commisions for Marilyn Manson and Red Hot Chili Peppers in Flordia, and pop stars such as Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.
He has constantly expanded his repertoire of skills keeping pace with the digital revolution and has now returned to his roots with digital movies that are also an acoustic experience. The new medium plays in home computers, DVD players, or stereos. His stimulating visual imagery is combined with musical mixes by DJ's from around the world, such as DJ Laboratory from New York and DJ Alura from Chicago.
As a photographer, he sees subcultures offering a unique opportunity for the visual artist, whether a chance to historically document the rapidly changing culture of fetish, the music scene, the South Beach club scene, and even motorcycle rallies. His work has often been semi autobiographical, emerging from his experiences.
For Gartel, these images and the explorations he has while he captures them are all grist for the mill. His unique understanding of the history of art informs and infuses his work with an eye trained for impact and meaning. It has punch, capturing each unique moment at the climax of a tale. Every picture tells a story, as the saying goes.
The New American Underground
Now Gartel wants to take another 'walk on the wild side', revisiting his underground roots, curating a showcase that brings these phenomenal performers and artists to an audience who may never have heard of their innovative work.
Working with artist-in-residence of Icehouse Gallery, Phoenix, 'Bobbie Precious' (Bob Judd), Gartel is creating a venue for underground talent in the art mainstream. The show will include definitive essays from underground icons, such as Lou Reed and Lydia Lunch, digital films, multimedia installations and animation, music and spoken word performances by Genesis P-Orridge and (hopefully) Hakim Bey, hypertext media by Iona Miller, and much, much more.
Precious (http://subcutaneous.org and http://onenationundergods.com) brings his encyclopedic knowledge of underground artists and personal associations with performers such as Ron Athey (ronathey.com), David Therrien (http://xe.ro) and Scott Ewalt. He brings decades of contact with punk and outsider musical performers to the project. He has written interviews, reviews, and articles for underground zines, Flipside and Night Doings .
Precious has worked in both the corporate and maverick art arenas. He was a lip-synch animator for the smash comedy show and movie, 'southpark' during its first two years. Disenchanted with the Hollywood factory environment, he returned to his own vision, creating award-winning films (one judged by Coppola).
Cinema of Transgression as an invisible movement, pioneered by Richard Kern and Nick Zedd, came out of NYC with roots in the 60s, including the film work of Warhol. Its risk-taking extreme thematics, aesthetic of shock and humour, Dionysian sexual and political alignment, confrontational nihilism, psychodrama, and liberatory strategy warranted this new category.
Its therapeutically subversive influences included Warhol, with roots in Dadaism and Nietsche, combining it with Punk. It represented a clear break with 70s avante garde film schools. This expanded cinema, including its use as a backdrop for performers, offered transformation through transgression: quasi-existential anarchism.
Judd's contributions to this contemporary underground cinema include: ' Down ' (1995), ' Bovine Vendetta ' (1999) (shown on SciFi Channel), and the ironic ' Jesse Helms is Cleaning Up America. ' His work is covered in the Bible of underground cinema, Deathtripping: the Cinema of Transgression , by Jack Sargeant (1999, Creation Books).
" There are some filmmakers who have produced work which, whilst having no relationship to the Cinema of Transgression, nevertheless explores and negates contemporary taboos, moreover they do so in their own style, and by mobilizing their own iconography. The following are merely a soupcon of underground filmmakers currently producing works that may be regarded as transgressive due to its engagement wih cultural, social, and psychological taboos."
"These filmmakers include Bob Judd who has directed two award- winning experimental shorts using digitized video and computer animation, Bovine Vendetta (1998) and Jesse Helms is Cleaning Up America (1999). Inspired by a dream, Bovine Vendetta features footage of a house-fly intercut with a cow's head. ("a 4-H competitor and winning heifer at the Arizona State Fair, 1996," states Judd) on which a human mouth is superimposed. These images are intercut with effected stills and dissolves of people in preparation for elective surgery. A voice is frantically discussing the absolute state of the now. The voice, the audience are informed in the closing credits is that of pop icon Charles Manson. The film - Judd suggests - is a "satire on the people's infatuation with Manson."
"'Judd's second video Jesse Helms Is Cleaning Up America (a frame shown above) (1999), is a satirical look at 'Helms' war on the arts'. Like its predecesor the film was dream-inspired, although Judd acknowledges the film was also motivated by his own desire to attack the Senator. This film once again focuses on dislocated body parts; legs, lips, and penises mix with morphing images of Helms' head and squirming maggots. The soundtrack was to have been supplied by Hustler founder Larry Flynt, but unfortunately this was not possible, and Judd utilized Don Bolle's audio-archive as a soundtrack source. Like the Cinema of Transgression filmmakers, Judd's work confronts America with the matrices of death and sex that lay confined within the darkest recesses of the media psyche."
Judd's latest shows were web-based (www.onenationundergods.com) interactive computer installations using Proxima projectors co-created with multimedia phenom and digital diva, Iona Miller, in Gartel's Miami Cyberotica show (Dec, '03). He reprised the show, ' Forbidden Fruits & Technoshamanism ' in downtown Phoenix (Febuary '04) at Icehouse Gallery with a screening of his films.
Judd is currently composing a website for gay icons, The Cockettes, collaborating with founding members Kreemah Ritz and Sweet Pam. He sees himself, and his alter persona 'Precious', as the spiritual heir to the legacy of 'Angel of Light', Hibiscus, who shared his deep love of free-spirited Isadora Duncan, a cultural harbinger of what became the 'underground' spirit. He considers himself an 'Isadorable.'
The new show promises to be a fun-filled, Felliniesque extravaganza of highly interactive 'people-watching,' in typical Gartel style. The entire production will be archived and curated online by webmaster Precious and Gartel at gartelmuseum.com as 'Outsiders UnInc.'
FORWARD TO: EDGE ARTISTS AS 'STRANGE ATTRACTORS'