NO COMPROMISES: AN INTERVIEW WITH JACK SERGEANT
"But extremity isn't the only thing that matters, one can be transgressive and contemplative, transgression isn't merely about louder! faster! but also can be an intellectual process."
Richard Marshall interviews Jack Sergeant
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3AM: You write about extreme cinema, cinema with death and weird sexuality as its subject, an avant garde cinema etc. What's the appeal?
JS: I was always drawn to extremes of behaviour, extreme ideas, EXTREME AESTHETICS, and extreme images. To this day I can't really explain why, although I think it is largely because for me the sanitised/homogenous/`clean' world is so dull, and that which is culturally repressed or excluded is an endless source of fascination to me. I like the fact that we all shit and bleed and so forth, but that most people don't think about these things, or rather don't articulate their thoughts about them. I am interested in the way that culturally we tend to deal with our corporality through metaphor or culturally sanctioned rituals of exclusion and cleaning.
And I am interested in the way societies evolve to construct the `correct' way in which things should be done (for example you talk of "weird sexuality" -- but weird to whom, and why? Surely the deployment of weird as a concept is fairly dubious, normalising certain practices and stigmatising others...). It also possibly comes from reading too much de Sade, Bataille, and Foucault.
3AM: I guess part of the first question is part of the second -- is it the subject matter of the films that attracts you, or is it film itself that you'd call your main focus of interest?
JS: Both. I mean, I don't just go and see films by Kurt Kren and Otto Muel, I'm as willing to watch trash as anybody else... I like some mainstream films, although my favourites are possibly those which deal with areas I'm drawn to, films such as Blue Velvet for example.
3AM: One of your books is about the cinema of transgression ( Deathtripping ). Are you interested in the limits of transgression in film -- how far do you think it is possible to go and are we living in a time where perhaps it is difficult to transgress as boundaries of the mainstream culture appropriates the transgressive ground?
JS: Ok, firstly transgression is an endless process, there are always limits that define a culture and that attacking, or addressing, those seems a pertinent response to me.
Secondly, The Cinema of Transgression was a culturally fixed `movement' which specifically addressed the moral boundaries of Reaganism and so on... I mean, the arguments about the family as repressive and abusive that are presented in a film like Kern's You Killed Me First are very specific, and certainly many people ma now understand them, but the attitude towards sexuality and freedom and repression presented in a film like Fingered is still too much for many audiences. I just programmed many of these films for the ICA and some people were concerned -- even today -- about the extremity of some of these films.
But extremity isn't the only thing that matters, one can be transgressive and contemplative, transgression isn't merely about louder! faster! but also can be an intellectual process.
3AM: This also links with the previous question -- Suture -- you're editing people working at the fringes of cultural activity -- where are these fringes these days -- I'm wondering whether its possible to talk about fringes when there seems to be no agreed centre anymore. Is this a problem you recognise?
JS: But clearly there is still a fairly fixed centre -- we live in the west, in a fake-liberal-democracy, but most people don't really explore the edges. Sure people can engage in extreme-ish ideas, but there are still many many areas that are verbotten. Also, even if our aesthetic culture is centreless -- or de-centred -- there is still, in art, a recognized limit, again if you deal with certain areas you will not be acknowledged, or you will be marginalized as low culture or dangerous or whatever, that's why -- despite shows like Sensation or Apocalypse -- there haven't been large funded shows of, for instance, outsider art, carney art works, art by criminals, comic book art, fetish artists and so on... many areas are still too 'other'.
3AM: So who are the people you think are doing interesting things challenging our perceptions in a way that interests you and do you subscribe to the view that its only possible to remain interesting so long as you remain out of the mainstream?
JS: Well, the people I like and write about are all challenging perceptions in various ways. Regarding the mainstream, artists such as Harmony Korine, or the Chapman brothers continue to produce exciting work. I also love films by David Fincher. So clearly some mainstream art is good and important. Likewise some underground artists have no interest for me.
3AM: Your book Deathtripping: the Cinema of... rooted in the New York punk rock/art scene does for that scene what Naked Lens does for the Beat scene. Do you think there's a natural affinity between off-centre music scenes in particular and off-centre film?
JS: I'd like to think that artists and musicians influenced each other, I think it would be sad if people all sat in their own boxes, surely the most exciting work comes from the interfaces between art/film/music/science/whatever... the point is to create something new, not to limit something.
3AM: Is there a kind of punk ethos driving you, using whatever is at hand to make something happen?
JS: Uh.... I grew up in the eighties and was a bit too young for punk, I really respected people such as Crass for their willingness to do things and disseminate information, likewise Black Flag's work ethic impressed me greatly. But I also liked the whole idea of just pursuing your own interests and ignoring everything else, and in the end I saw punk as too fixated on a scene and so on, so I was more drawn towards the kind of unclassifiable elements such as Throbbing Gristle, the Birthday Party and so on... people who had no allegiance to a `movement'. If I learned anything from that period it was the belief that one should not compromise.
3AM: Your book on road movies LOST HIGHWAYS: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF... again takes us to films that seem to want to challenge the status quo and again you seem to want to make connections which are new and suggestive. Have you always wanted to broaden our ways of looking at things in this way?
JS: Yes, I have. I think it is important to see that book is also as much a product of Stephanie Watson with whom I collaborated, and the various contributors ideas also.
3AM: You're an intellectual writer but work outside of the academies.
JS: Well, I lecture at various colleges and universities, and have programmed film festivals and events across the world, so on some level I am in the academy. However I find that operating where and how I do allows me to disseminate ideas to a wider audience. I have recently been giving lectures in an underground space in Sydney, Australia, and here I've delivered fairly academic lectures on topics such as Freaks, Gynaecology, and Bestiality... and these are areas that most colleges wouldn't really want... although that said I have gotten some fairly radical ideas into the academy.
3AM: Your latest book is about Death Cults: Murder, Mayhem and Mind.... Working on this book, did you find that you were changing your understanding of what these cults were about - were preconceptions confirmed or not?
JS: The main thing that struck me was the way in which our society demonises cults, clearly some cults are dangerous, but perhaps not the cults people think... reading books and doing research on cults I was amazed at how many fundamentalist Christians still believe in the absurd conspiracies around satanic/ritual abuse, which, although exposed as fantasies, are still seen by some Christian groups as having a basis in 'fact'. Meanwhile, of course, the Catholic Church appears to have a number of abusive priests in its ranks...
3AM: And generally, do you find as you work on your subjects that you discover a new take on the subject matter, or do you work through an agenda pre-set?
JS: I never have a specific preset agenda, I never say "I must say this about this topic", I just follow my interests and ideas and try and remain open to everything. That said I have a personal agenda which is to follow these ideas and explore the way in which the world functions, or more often, fails to function. My own agenda is to explore my interests and write about my perceptions, to make ideas available, and to produce a body of work that explores limits and areas not normally engaged with in such a fashion... but that's all.
3AM: Linked with the current Bin Laden situation, how far do you feel there's a proper understanding of went on September 11th in terms of motivation etc.
JS: Well, clearly a lot of people are fed their info from the TV and maybe that's a little worrying, but then you look in bookstores and people are reading all manner of books on the topic. I found Chomsky's September 11th book in Newark Airport, which is one of the major airports for NYC... so clearly people are reading around the topic. I don't want to say people have all learned their history, politics, religion and so on, but clearly people are becoming engaged with the issues.
I was in NYC for the three month anniversary, and there were hundreds and hundreds of posters up for people looking for missing relatives, friends and so on, kids' paintings on the front of fire stations saying "thank you for saving my dad" and so on. I'm not entirely sure that people outside of NYC can imagine the psychological devastation the event caused. I mean, people should understand the history of globalisation, the conspiracies around American domination of oil and so on, but they should also be aware of the massive scale of the destruction on ordinary people. Likewise people should also be aware of the ideas behind Bin Laden and so on. I recommend Chomsky's book and also Extreme Islam , edited by Adam Parfrey, which presents a collection of documents by the fundamentalists which is terrifying.
But also there is no single reason for the events of 9-11, I mean, the situation is so convoluted and complex, and the shock was so great that in the west I think people will find it very hard to come to terms with the new scenario... I also think that both Bush and Bin Laden are very, very dangerous men, both have a religious conviction they are right, and both are beholden to power and money. Obviously I deplore fundamentalism.
3AM: Looking at the current state of cultural activity, do you think this is a good time for the sorts of activity you like?
JS: My mood fluctuates, there are interesting people working out there, but the process of dissemination is harder - there are fewer galleries, fewer spaces and so on...
3AM: In your essay 'True Stories about true Gore' you make an interesting observation that Mondo films were happy to show mutilation and killing but didn't like showing genitalia. What do you think is going on there? Is it because watching death is a bigger taboo these days than watching sex?
JS: I think I address that in the essay. Mondo Films showed sex until the mid sixties, but with the birth of nudie films and sex films, and eventually hardcore porn, it became less important and less shocking, thus the death footage became more important. Although clearly sex and death are related in our culture and this is often reflected in mondo films.
I'm not sure death is a bigger taboo than sex, or visa versa, it depends on everything from context/use/verisimilitude etc.
3AM: What is the need for transgressive art? How can it compete with, say, September 11th?
JS: Wasn't September 11th really about conservativism?
3AM: How do you deal with the question of censorship?
JS: Obviously I do not believe in censorship - it is clearly absurd that some images are deemed dangerous. I am aware that some feminists are offended by some films, but there are many types of feminism (and many philosophical views in general) so to generalise about feminism is a little redundant. Regarding humanists, well, my argument would be the same... exactly what notions of the human do they embrace? How do they construct the human or humanity? What meanings do they ascribe to the human, do they believe in human rights and human dignity - and if so exactly where do these concepts come from, is it more debasing and anti-humanist to show a corpse in a mondo movie or to tell a room full of adults they can't see a film of this corpse? There are huge, and very serious, arguments around representation, and to reduce it to censorship questions seems to miss the point - clearly what is needed is for people to be more aware of the world and the way it is represented rather than just being outraged or shocked or upset or hurt.
3AM: Can you say something about current and future projects?
JS: I have numerous book projects on the way. Both books I am editing and writing. I also have essays in Mikita Brottman's book Car Crash Culture , and, I believe, in a book edited by Xavier Mendick called Underground USA . I am also in a book on car culture published later this year by ReAktion books.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Jack Sargeant is a writer, curator and lecturer. An expert in underground film and subculture, his previous publications include Lost Highways: An Illustrated History of Road Movies , Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression . Sargeant is a regular contributor to numerous journals and magazines and is film editor of Sleazenation magazine. As a curator he has programmed screenings for such venues as the ICA, London; the MOMA, New York; and has been a guest-curator at the Brisbane International Film Festival, Australia and the Chicago and New York Underground Film Festivals. Sargeant lectures at the London Institute, has just completed a true crime book for Virgin, and lives in Brighton, England. Jack's essay on road rage appears in Autopia: Cars & Culture, ed Peter Wollen & Joe Kerr, published by Reaktion Books, November 2002, alongside essays by Al Rees, Michael Bracewell, Roland Barthes, and others.