No Age, New York
d. Nick Abrahams and Ana Cory-Wright / 1993 / UK-USA / 50 mins
Viewed at: Luxonline’s No Wave online exhibition
An idea, a song, a discovery, an invention, may be born anywhere. But if it is to be communicated, if it is to be tested and compared and appreciated, then someone has always to carry it to the city. – Max Ways
Writhing, uncontrollable city! In the years since the city stopped offering garbage collection to Morrisania and Hunts Point, the dogs that roam the streets have been subtly turning into coyotes. – from ‘Debriefing’, Susan Sontag
New York, like London, seems to be a cloacina of all the depravities of human nature. – Thomas Jefferson
New York is art, it is music, it is theatre. New York is fashion as well as anti-fashion. New York is culture as well as counter-culture. This most politically, socially and morally complex city oozes with a particular brand of social culture that breeds misfits and attracts eccentrics. They congregate around central locations, organisations or individuals, creating a cultural milieu that simply couldn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It is, after all, the city that has given us Tin Pan Alley, the Harlem Renaissance, modern dance, Beat Poetry, Abstract Expressionism, the American folk revival, pop art, punk-rock, new-wave, no-wave, hip hop, Zoo York, NYHC: the list goes on. And on.
Thomas Jefferson saw New York as a diseased place, the locus of all that is wrong with ‘modern’ society, a heaving metropolis fed by the detritus that floated up the Hudson and landed on Manhattan island. But it is this detritus – so the story goes – that arrives in New York because only New York will accept them for who they are. Only New York will allow them to flourish in the vibrantly creative surrounds of all the little villages that make up Sontag’s ‘writhing, uncontrollable city’: New York as Gotham, as The Big Apple, as The Empire City, the city that never sleeps and the capital of the world.
Like all the other cultural movements that call New York home, the Cinema of Transgression owes its very existence to that city’s ability to accept the detritus of society into its open, creative arms. In return, it forged yet another extension of the constant self-mythologising tendencies at the heart of the collective consciousness of New York City. Utilising a kind of fanzine aesthetic, Abrahams and Cory-Wright’s documentary – No Age, New York – profiles a handful of the NYC film and video artists who formed the core (and the fringes) of the Cinema of Transgression, a movement that drew upon the No Wave/New Cinema underground filmmaking of the late 1970s and early ’80s and injected it with bodily obsession and brash confrontationalism.
No Age, New York begins with a profile of Richard Kern – a native of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina – whose work is primarily concerned with a transgressive exploration of sex and violence, including a series of films in collaboration with Lydia Lunch. Kern also made Death Valley ’69, an extended music video for Sonic Youth, and later worked on videos for King Missile and Marilyn Manson. In No Age, New York, Kern remarks that he is moving into just ‘sex-based’ works, and much of his work since 1993 (when the documentary was made) has revolved around photographic explorations of Mapplethorpian themes of bondage and sexual fetish, as well as nude ‘glamour’ shots for everything from Hustler to Vice Magazine.
The film also profiles Chris Krauss, a lesser name on the fringes of the movement who was less concerned with more overt acts of transgression, but she also made some of its most interesting work. How to Shoot a Crime (1987) combines found-footage and audio in an exploration of crime scene photography and videography, a work which Krauss describes as having emerged from her discomfort with ‘slickness’ and ‘glibness’ of the ‘pop sado-masochism’ presented by MTV and advertising. The inclusion of dominatrix interviews within How to Shoot a Crime – one of whom remarks that, whilst the victims of murder have had pain inflicted 100%, her job is to inflict pain at 50% – is, as Krauss alludes, a comment about the idea of ‘the city’ and the manner in which its psychological/mental architecture is inflicted upon its inhabitants.
Indeed, just as this movement – and No Wave before it – grew out of a specific kind of urban environment in New York City, so the films explore not just private and personal transgression, but its intersections with a much more public, urbanistic form of transgressive existence.
Beth B‘s confrontational work similarly explores the culture of violence that bubbles away under contemporary life, delving into the psychosis of torture, both that which is self-inflicted and that which is inflicted by church and/or state. In many ways, Beth B herself transgressed the Cinema of Transgression movement, starting out in the early 1970s, helping to set up the Colab artists’ group that fostered the No Wave movement and inspiring many of the artists involved in the Cinema of Transgression.
Alyce Wittenstein – another artist on the fringes of the Cinema of Transgression movement – merges art and entertainment, exploring the conventions of sci-fi cinema via more traditional narrative fictions like No Such Thing As Gravity (1989) and Betaville (1986), a parody of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). There is a subtle form of intertextual nihilsm running through Wittenstein’s work, which – unsurprisingly – was criticised by some as being ‘too slick’ for the No Wave/Cinema of Transgression scene.
The film concludes with Nick Zedd – originally of Takoma Park, Maryland – the fiendish bête noire of the No Wave scene who gave the Cinema of Transgression its name whilst channelling his anger and paranoia into a fervently anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian body of work. Zedd rages against what he perceives to be a police state and made a series of films that were largely motivated by revenge. The interview with Zedd is perhaps the most interesting element here, exploring his paranoias and fears regarding what New York has ‘become’ in the early 1990s.
No Age, New York might not have the comprehensive, cohesive structure of the more-recent Cinema of Transgression documentary Llik Yr Idols (Angélique Bosio, 2007), but it also doesn’t have the odd virtue of having been created in the aftermath of two of the biggest upheavals in New York City over the last quarter-century, Mayor Guiliani’s city-wide clean up/sanitisation project and, more importantly, the events of 11 September 2001.
In a post 9/11 era in which acts of transgression have shifted away from the underground and into a wider public consciousness via the subsequent ‘War on Terror’ and the vile realities of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Llik Yr Idols is able – whether or not it actually acknowledges it – to recontextualise the transgressive obsessions of films made in the 1980s with this more recent, much more public strain of collective transgression.
From another perspective though, No Age, New York benefits from its relative proximity to its subject, asking these artists and filmmakers to reflect on their work at a time when it still hadn’t been properly digested. In the best possible way, No Age, New York presents a confusing and confused view of a movement which didn’t exist to be pigeonholed or categorised, and – emerging, as it did, in 1993 – it exists as a reflexive documentation of the Cinema of Transgression movement during a kind of innocent in-between period of American cultural life – after Iran Contra, Reaganomics and the first Gulf War, but before George W. Bush and the rude awakening that was 9/11.