Forgetting the Cinema of Transgression by Looking for Its Traces
As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed in May 2018, I came across an intriguing offer: transgression for the price of $20 USD plus postage. The seller was filmmaker Nick Zedd, who offered a “bare bones approach to guerrilla filmmaking” via his private Facebook account, “born on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.” The product—a package of films labeled “Cinema of Transgression”—could be paid via PayPal and would be shipped from Mexico City, as the location icon in the post indicates.
Nick Zedd was the self-proclaimed leader of a group of artists, performers, and filmmakers who collaboratively produced films in New York’s Downtown scenes of the 1980s, which Zedd eventually made known as the Cinema of Transgression and marketed as a new radical underground film movement. In 1985, he published “The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” in which he formulated the supposed movement’s aesthetically and formally transgressive program, and also determined its members. He then compiled videotapes and organized screenings under the same banner. The publications and exhibitions that have emerged since then on the Cinema of Transgression are admittedly modest in number. But through them, the narrative of a heroic, largely male-dominated film movement has been reproduced and consolidated, while the importance of the scene context and the variety of cross-disciplinary practices it produced have become obscured. This is thanks to what Patricia Mellencamp called the “catch-22 of the politics of US avant-garde (and perhaps of the counterculture),” (1990, 5) namely a “privileging of the personal” (xviii) despite an often-declared collective aspiration that “risked placing ‘meaning’ totally within the author” (Mellencamp 1990, 11). The actually resistant character of the films is thus paradoxically contained, which ultimately facilitates their incorporation into the value systems of the author and work-oriented art industries and institutions.
A reexamination of these films, as well as the practices that surround and frame them, requires both a reconsideration of the movement’s myth of origin and an exploration of their contexts of production, exhibition, distribution, and archiving. Zedd’s Facebook post is instructive in this regard. On the one hand, it confirms that the Cinema of Transgression is a label chosen by Nick Zedd for a (sellable) package of films whose appeal derives from the glorifying aura of a bygone era. On the other, the post’s informality, its social media-induced ephemerality, and its coincidental discovery also reveals the curious (digital) afterlife of the Cinema of Transgression beyond (film) archives in the conventional sense of the word. Finally, it invites speculation: Does Zedd, almost three decades after the invention of the concept, want to get rid of what’s left of the Cinema of Transgression cheaply and quickly, even forget it? I would like to continue this speculation here for a moment. Because what would be at stake if the Cinema of Transgression were to be forgotten? And could it even be that the archive contains within itself a mode of forgetting that is essential for a future engagement with the Cinema of Transgression in particular, and perhaps with cinema in general?
When the films associated with the Cinema of Transgression were shot between the late 1970s and early 1990s as low or no-budget productions with a DIY aesthetic and a cast of amateur actors, they were initially shown at screenings and festivals in East Village nightclubs and off-cinemas or as part of performances and concerts. In addition, they circulated through reviews in underground zines or broadcasts on cable television, in artist-produced formats for Manhattan’s public access stations. Some filmmakers transferred their Super 8 and 16mm films to videotape and distributed them through self-organized mail order or small, alternative distributors in the US and Europe. The latter not only led to the films entering the home video market for niche genres, but it also opened up the possibility of uncontrolled reproduction and circulation of these tapes.
Today, some can be viewed online as often unauthorized digital streams on platforms like UbuWeb, YouTube, or Vimeo, visibly bearing traces of an “aesthetics of access” (Hilderbrand 2009, 6) resulting from their duplication and multiple reformatting, or, transferred to VHS and DVD, as equally obsolete and obscure collector’s items on sales portals such as eBay or amazon. Some original Super 8 prints have disappeared or were never reformatted for further circulation, while others are restored and collected by film archives and museums. Related output and paratextual material, such as pamphlets, zines, VHS sleeves, or performance scripts, are shared on Social Media and in “rogue archives” (De Kosnik 2016) like fan-run online archives as well as collected by specialized libraries.
Given this continuous dispersion and the diversity of repositories that enter the picture, the Cinema of Transgression is not so much a self-contained historical phenomenon that aligns with a logic of initial rejection and retrospective recognition. Rather, both the concept and the films it seeks to contain continuously move around “promiscuously, across formats and display contexts,” (Balsom 2017, 102) experiencing multiple, often ambiguous framings as results of different “institutional cues” (Klinger 2006, 19). And it is precisely this situation that makes rethinking a challenge, but also a special incentive, even a matter of necessity.
One of the first steps of this project was to go to where it happened and to see what has remained—and also where, in what form, and with what modes of access. When I traveled to New York City a few months after Nick Zedd published his Facebook sale post, I met with key figures of the 1980s Downtown art, film, music, and performance scene, and visited the very archive dedicated to documenting those scenes, namely the Downtown Collection at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections. Founded in 1994, it has grown to become the largest collection of materials related to the Downtown New York scene, including the personal papers of artists and writers as well as archives of art collectives and galleries, AIDS activism and theater groups, and night clubs from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
If you type “Cinema of Transgression” into the library’s search box, most results will lead to “The Nick Zedd Papers,” to folders or items such as “Cinema of Transgression International Press,” “Cinema of Transgression Event Flyers,” or even “Red T-Shirt with ‘Cinema of Transgression, Volume 1’ Patch.” This is because in 2011, when Nick Zedd left New York for Mexico City, he donated a large volume of materials to Fales, from personal family movies and professional correspondence to artwork, poetry, and film footage, to a corpus of materials detailing his efforts to make the Cinema of Transgression known.
Notably, most other filmmakers from the Cinema of Transgression’s orbit are not represented in this institutional archive. Finding their stories and papers thus means finding them in person. When meeting Anthony Chase, Manuel DeLanda, Bradley Eros, Karen Finley, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, John Kelly, Richard Kern, JG Thirlwell, and Ela Troyano I was not only informed about activities, events, and works that are often overlooked precisely because they don’t easily fit into the narrative of the Cinema of Transgression marketed by Nick Zedd. I was also allowed an unexpected glimpse of their private archives: “Here’s something that might interest you.” In no way processed for viewing by the public, these posters, flyers, newspaper clippings, photographs, zines, and films were kept because they are emotionally valuable, or because they will eventually acquire commercial value, being “worth what someone will pay for them,” as Richard Kern said about his collection of zines, but not necessarily because an institution attaches historical relevance to it.
Against this background, Nick Zedd’s donation to Fales initially seems like an attempt both to interweave his own life story even more strongly with the origin myth of the Cinema of Transgression and to inscribe both in the archival historiography of the Downtown scene. After all, it is the institutional archive that gives its documents and the person or groups they represent “a foundational status of existence” (Mbembe 2002, 20). However, another reading is also possible. For in the release and transfer of his materials there is also a moment of surrender, or dispossession, even loss. And this is not least because of the intimate relationship between archiving and forgetting. In this regard, let’s consider Verne Harris’s deconstructive reading of the link between archive and memory. Instead of assuming a linear development from memory to archive, the point here is rather a process of one folding into the other. Referencing Derrida, Harris writes that:
For deconstruction, … memory and archives are best understood as genres of the trace, subject to what Derrida calls ‘the law of the law of genre,’ namely, ‘a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy.’ … The boundary between memory and archives should be seen as a process and, more specifically, as a process of invagination. (2012, 151–52)
What follows from this is also a complication of the opposition of memory and forgetting: “The logic of the trace is an enabling to forget. Every movement to record memory, to keep it safe, is a movement to forget, whether it is the movement … from consciousness to unconsciousness, from memory to archives” (Harris 2012, 152).
Considering this complication of the archive, memory, and forgetting, the proposal to forget the Cinema of Transgression by looking for its traces takes on another layer of meaning. Between letting it sink into oblivion and rehashing consolidated stories, another path opens: one in which archives are not only used in their function as repositories, but are examined in their modes of operation, politics, and voids. In this way, attention can be drawn to that which resists containment by a consolidated historical account and can be found beyond (or in between) the framework and logic of established practices of archiving and exhibition: contradictory memories, fluid practices, unruly objects, cross-disciplinary constellations, ephemeral aesthetics, and the impossibility of reconstruction. In other words, one could discover not only what remains, but also what moves on—implicitly, incidentally, and accidentally—and invites us to follow its trail.
I thank those who generously shared their memories and time with me, your anecdotes and insights proved incredibly valuable. To the kind and helpful staff at the Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University, I thank you for your patient assistance in navigating the archive.
Balsom, Erika. 2017. After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation. New York: Columbia University Press.
De Kosnik, Abigail. 2016. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Cambridge/London: The MIT Press.
Harris, Verne. 2012. “Genres of the Trace: Memory, Archives and Trouble.” Archives and Manuscripts 40 (3): 147–57.
Hilderbrand, Lucas. 2009. Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright. Durham: Duke University Press.
Klinger, Barbara. 2006. Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mbembe, Achille. 2002. “The Power of the Archive and its Limits.” In Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton et al., 9–26. Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Mellencamp, Patricia. 1990. Indiscretions. Avant-Garde Film, Video & Feminism. Bloomington/ Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Sargeant, Jack. 1995. Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression. London: Creation Books.
Zedd, Nick. 2012. “The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto.” In You Killed Me First: The Cinema of Transgression, edited by Susanne Pfeffer, 10–17. London: Koenig Books.
 Although Nick Zedd wrote and signed the manifesto alone, he aims to speak for other “Underground Invisibles” as well, namely Richard Kern, Tommy Turner, Richard Klemann, Manuel DeLanda, Erotic Psyche (Bradley Eros & Aline Mare), and Direct Art Ltd (Zedd 2012, 17). In the later development of the Cinema of Transgression, however, the associated names diverge from this initial list, while Zedd continues to be considered its leading figure.
 See, for instance, Sargeant 1995 and the group exhibition You Killed Me First: The Cinema of Transgression at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin 2012.
 Interview with Richard Kern, New York City 2018.