I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In the mid-’90s, filmmaker Mary Jordan encountered Irving Rosenthal, Beat author, counter-cultural instigator, and founder of the Kaliflower commune, a Bay Area community based on the spiritual and economic principles of England’s Diggers: shared property and labor and the liberation of culture from commercialism. Kaliflower was also a breeding ground for San Francisco’s famous drag performers the Cockettes. Through Rosenthal, Jordan learned of the work of Jack Smith.
Pioneer performance artist, actor, photographer, filmmaker, and Downtown icon, Smith has influenced successive generations ever since his infamous (and widely banned) 1962 filmFlaming Creatures first presented audiences with his vision of spectacular, glittery excess, and sexual combustion. Smith’s successive productions, for film and unofficial stage, combined towering sets and costumes built out of New York City’s debris, with a performance style of obsessively precise improvisation. He incorporated his films and slides into a theater he called Expanded Cinema. Shows could take hours to start, or were seemingly derailed while Smith painstakingly adjusted the drape of a cloth or the focus of a slide projector. The scripts detailed Smith’s inclination toward Hollywood’s fantastic orientalism, peppered with scabrous humor, and radical politics. His aesthetic became known as Camp and Trash, as he recycled discarded film stock and channeled B movie stars—creating glamour from remnants. Smith’s style has proved to be truly inimitable, and since his death in 1989, the vexing question of how to honor his legacy—as well as who his actual heirs are, both legal and artistic—has played out in an ongoing series of squabbles involving some of the most prominent members of New York’s downtown scene.
Jordan stepped into this scene determined to document Smith’s life and work, and the resulting film, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, which opens in April at Film Forum, has itself been caught up in the controversy that has characterized all of Smith’s production.
Nayland Blake So, let’s do the biography stuff first—
Mary Jordan Born and raised, all that?
NB Yeah, the whole deal.
MJ Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia; raised in the Bronx. My mother and father are ethnic, immigrant Albanians. My father is from Montenegro, and my mother was born in Belgrade. My maternal grandfather was quite an artist, a builder, and sculptor. As a child I was always around him. I grew up in theater. I left home at 16 and attended several universities studying architecture and art, and eventually got my degree in cultural anthropology, in subjects based on ritual and rites of passage. Very obsessed with Papua New Guinea and matriarchal societies, as well as various polygamous societies, et cetera.
I started working a lot across North Africa, in anthropology and with a camera. I had worked for American film companies doing everything from props to production, but it was easier to just go out with my camera. I did human rights pieces: refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border; child labor and prostitution in Southeast Asia, Australia, the Pacific Rim. I did a lot of work in Tonga and Samoa.
NB What were these shoots like? It was you and—
MJ And a sound person—shooting the King of Tonga was a crew of three people. You’re trying to be intimate, to document something. A full production scares them off. Then I moved to San Francisco for a change of pace.
NB When was that?
MJ Late ’90s. Eventually I moved into a building where I became very friendly with Irving Rosenthal.
NB How did that happen?
MJ I was looking to rent a little office to do my human rights films out of. I was walking down the street in the Mission and I saw this building that was kind of boarded up and strange looking, like nobody would live there, probably cheap, never been renovated. There was no “for rent” sign, but I rang the buzzer and this old man came down, long white beard, very saintly looking. I asked if there was any space for rent and he said, “There’s no sign.” I said, “I know, but it looks perfect.” We talked and he said, “Why don’t you leave some of your work in the mailbox?” They had a little drop box. I don’t know how many VHS tapes I put in there. A couple days later he called and invited me over for lunch. He said he thought I had a beautiful eye and that he was very impressed with the footage, it was very humanist. Something had obviously touched him. He and I became friends. I had no idea who he was, except that he was brilliant. He had an unbelievable knowledge of art and literature. He became a great teacher, and a hard teacher at that. I learned a lot from him, not only about artwork; he had a fascination with Indian culture and spiritualism, which we shared. I eventually moved into the Kaliflower commune.
NB I think that it’s safe to assume that not too many people know who Irving is, why he’s an important figure. Could you talk about that?
MJ Well, one day, many months after I met him, I looked Irving up online. He was very upset that I had researched him. I said, “You didn’t tell me.” What I learned—I’m saying this for the first time here. Irving was the first to recognize Jack’s talents. He introduced Jack to many, many people, from Jonas Mekas to Allen Ginsberg to Marian Zazeela. They say that Irving’s greatest achievement was publishing chapters from William S. Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch, Edward Dahlberg, and Jack Kerouac, resigning from the Chicago Review when the University suppressed what would have been the 1959 issue, founding Big Table and publishing the texts there instead. He was a major spark that ignited the Beat movement. Sheeper is one of the best books I have ever read. It was the last time he would publish. His work became about self-sufficiency and working outside the system. I got that. The system constrains with rules and limitations that squash artistic freedoms. This is what he fought for, and what Smith did in Flaming Creatures. Irving’s influence is clear.
NB You said he was a hard teacher.
MJYou have to earn what you learn. You sweep the floor 500 times and then maybe he’ll play you a record that will blow your mind. It is in the Indian tradition of teaching. He is the Guru, the Queen. If you bow down to that then you can last, and if you resist him, then the hammer comes down hard. He is a very provocative figure. He wants you to rebel. In a way he creates a rebel in you through your dealings with him.
One day, my fascination with vintage cloth led him to give me a piece of fabric that he just loved. A guy named Jack had given it to him. Eventually he showed me portraits of himself that Jack had taken. They were incredible. So I tried to see Flaming Creatures and couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally I scored an illegal copy. I was totally dazzled and amazed; it was like nothing I had ever seen before, like a ritual or anthropology of another world or a dream, very Blakean. That’s when I said, “I’m going to make a film about him.” I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought it would be easy. If someone had told me that I would live in poverty and go through such strife for five years—
NB Tell me about Irving’s influence on Jack.
MJ Irving was a character in Jack’s last feature, No President. After a break in shooting, Irving showed up one day on set with a beard. Jack wanted him to shave it; he refused. They got into a really big fight. Jack took a two-by-four and beat the shit out of Irving and threw him down a flight of stairs. Irving had to have his jaw wired shut.
Afterward, Irving relocated to San Francisco and met [George Harris, soon to be] Hibiscus around the time of the forming of the Kaliflower commune. They drove across the country together, I think with Peter Orlofsky. Hibiscus started the performance group the Cockettes at Kaliflower. People always talk about the Cockettes originating genderfuck drag, because they’d wear dresses and beards. Hibiscus and the whole West Coast scene did that as a result of the fight between Irving and Jack. Irving influences the art out of you. He encouraged Hibiscus to be bearded instead of doing drag as a way of passing as a woman.
NB That’s, like, ’67 to ’68. So by the time you’re at the commune, in 1999, who was there?
MJ Not many people, ins and outs, a couple of seminal figures with Irving and friends, some great artists. You can’t find a group of people doing more charity work, carrying on the idea that art should be free and not paid for.
NB So you get the piece of cloth.
MJ Yeah, I get to fondle the piece of cloth and see some pictures. While I valued my lessons at Kaliflower, eventually our relationship devolved, like most people’s who become close to Irving, and I left the commune. I started researching and finding people to interview. Irving and I weren’t speaking, because I wanted to make the documentary following my own process, not in affiliation with him and not for the sake of art only; no one might ever have seen it. Also, I could see how polarizing he could be, and I thought: If he has enemies, it would be better to do this on my own. Eventually I moved to New York, because everyone else around Jack is in New York. I picked up the camera and started interviewing anybody I could. People told me that I wouldn’t get funding for it, that no one cares about Jack Smith. The more I learned about him the more addicted I became, the more I wanted to meet absolutely anybody who had met him. I wanted to really know the guy; he is not alive, so all I have are the people who were intimate with him, his family, his enemies, the whole nine yards. No two people knew him the same way. He was a completely unique and original character to each person.
NB There’s an interesting split. Either people aren’t at all aware of Jack Smith or they feel a sense of passionate ownership. That has to have been a minefield, in terms of making a movie. Tell me about that.
MJ Dealing with some of the figures from the ’60s era was not easy. I thought that it would be all love, hippiedom, and offering. These avant-gardists were the most difficult people I have ever interviewed anywhere in the world—paranoid and un-giving. That surprised me. I am just a vehicle, here to get this information to give to people or to hold it for some future. I see Jack Smith as a Van Gogh figure. It’s too early to get Jack.
It was fairly easy to figure out who his friends were. The people who were really into Jack, were totally giving, doing things, finding money—have this, do this, check out this guy, here’s his number. And then there were those who were envious. Why are you doing a film about him and not me? Some people manufactured more of a relationship than they really had. Coming from a human rights documentary background, you know you have to check your information. You don’t want to print something about a human rights atrocity if it’s not true. I crosschecked everybody’s relationship. I interviewed some people four, five, six times. I would read their interview, check things, ask somebody else, and say, “You said you were here, but this person said you were not.” “Oh, no, no, I made a mistake… .” I also wanted to hear about the performances. It was interesting, there were people who said they knew him really well but who I found out had met him twice, and people who casually said, “Yeah, I know him”—and then I’d find out that he was one of Jack’s most trusted individuals.
You interview 100-odd people, collect thousands of pages of transcripts, and after reading many people’s account of the same incident, story, or personality trait, you start to see what seems like a real thread. And then you extract those threads. The truth comes out on its own. And as it does, you’re picking up rocks and seeing worms. Do I tell, or do I put the rock back down and not say anything? It’s a problem all documentary filmmakers face. I decided to let the floodgates open.
NB Where are things with his estate? Is there talk of any sort of DVD release for his films? One of the real services that your film provides is that it gives people access to so much of Jack’s footage.
MJ But very limited access. See, that’s what is interesting. One has to work under strict conditions. The key holders of the archive were never giving under any circumstances. Jack’s gatekeeper imagery really resonated with me. I’ve talked to other people doing documentaries on artists who told me that the archive doors were just flung open. For me it was double lock and key.
NB Jack himself was very controlling about what work would be released when. You used the word paranoia. For years he battled Jonas Mekas about the way Mekas had handled Flaming Creatures, which you cover in your film. In some ways that has become his legacy. I think there may be people that feel that in carrying that behavior forward they are carrying something of Jack forward. The resistance around those things started with him.
MJ To me, those people don’t get it. There is no “work” anymore without Jack. All we have now are these little fragments and segments of his wonderful aesthetic. To actually experience the work, you had to be there while he was running the slide projector or the record player. I’d give anything to be able to go back in time, to see one show of Jack Smith’s. I have heard people’s accounts. They were unpredictable, completely unique: was it rehearsed, was it real? It was edgy and scary. I like that he frightened people and yet they yearned to see him and learn from him. So the people who hold on to the fragments and don’t want to share them, they don’t get it. You can share those, and still explain how they were presented, that the films and the slides are just one element. There was all this other stuff—the music, for instance. Tony Conrad’s accounts are amazing. John Zorn speaks about this unpredictability with the music. I don’t know if that answers your question. Are you talking about possession of the work?
NB Yeah, but also a motif in Jack’s life was this ambivalence toward fame and success, as well as toward other people having ownership, in a sense, of the work. Jack desired success, but on his own terms. In part he became notorious, which meant that all these people knew about him but in a way that was utterly out of his control. He wanted people to work for the privilege of experiencing art, not to have that experience just because they could pay for it. His practice became a kind of refusal.
MJ Refusal of the mainstream, commercialism, and all that jazz?
NB It is an important piece of the picture.
MJ Yes, I think that’s an important piece of the picture too. But Jack is dead, and all we have is his work that teaches us this refusal. Keeping the work under lock and key teaches nothing. In fact, artists and all kinds of occupational people who never knew anything about Jack approached me after seeing the film and said that they were completely inspired. Just watching people being swept by that philosophy—I was swept by that philosophy. Do I think Jack should be on DVD for sale commercially for everyone to see? Abso-fucking-lutely, yes! The world is totally screwed up, and Jack’s theories and philosophies are highly contemporary right now—for instance, his sense of trash and recycling. He was recycling in the 1960s, reusing everything, building huge environments out of trash, finding what he needed on the street for his props and sets, and trying to teach that sentiment. Here we are in an environmental crackdown because we didn’t do those things. If people take money for their art, then their art is going to be deformed by that. Irving said that when you don’t take money for your work, the expression is purer because you are not doing it to get those fun coupons. You are delivering it from your soul or your heart. That I understand. Yet I’m saying that it’s okay to make the refusal commercial. I think Jack wanted to be famous. He wanted the stroking that he deserved for all that hard work. He watched Warhol and others who were influenced by his ideas take them away, and become more popular. You said a minute ago that his art became about refusal. I think it did. His art changed. No President and Normal Love are about that refusal, whereas Flaming Creatures was a pure and a realized vision.
NB A while back you used the word ritual —
MJ That’s why I got more and more into Jack. On one side there was this anarchistic kind of child and on the other, this saintly, ritualistic oracle. Flamethrower man. Magical man. Jack was not obsessed with the beginnings and ends but with process and living where an accident became beautiful, interesting, and unique. Hearing about his performances and how he made the films—the makeup and spending six hours putting costumes on. That’s all ritual, getting people in this mode—dragging it out of real-life existence and celebrating it. Making art is ritual, and he shows you that. Some people will tell you—brutalizing the account—“He made me stand without moving for nine hours with a flower in my hand.” But that’s why they remember everything, because they stood there for nine hours. If you participated in a ritual with him, you never forgot it—he imprinted your life in that way.
So Jack Smith is a ritual. That’s what he did in his art—lighting incense, dimming the lighting, readjusting the costumes, the props—all the time. Reaching toward perfection, but he already knows there isn’t any. His work has this constant movement to it; an accident happens and that’s great too. Jack is like an archaeological dig. There are so many things on the surface, and then you find that it is deeply layered with everything from instruments to music to performance to painting, just layers and layers and layers.
NB So what’s your next project?
MJ Well, I’m working on a few documentary ideas as well as narrative features. I don’t really want to talk about them until they’re green-lighted. One is set and will be shot in Albania. And I’ve been doing a lot of performance art with my female group, Parthenogenesis, in New York.
NB Oh, so talk about that some.
MJ Parthenogenesis means “virgin birth.” It’s a genetic modification where females can birth without the use of the male. This is found in a number of animal species; they are actually gender modifying. We’ve done a number of shows and sometimes we just walk into a place, a five-star restaurant or a gallery screening, and do a one-minute performance and then walk out.
NB What are these shows like?
MJ They are all very different; some are political, some are gender-bending. We all sit together and round-table things in society we feel need to be addressed. We try to better the world through performance.
NB In some way this harkens back to the commune.
MJ Yup, communal. I used to throw a party every year called the Burmese Tea Ceremony. I started it in Asia and Australia and then I brought it to San Francisco. Once a year, special invitation, you have to undergo rites of passage and ritual to enter; you have to be dressed, and you have to bring a performance. It would go on all night. I even invited people who had never performed before, and that gave them an opportunity to get into their inner artist. That continued until I got to New York. With the film, I didn’t have time; the party takes months of planning. So you got performances, writers, dancers, rituals—all kinds of strange things.
NB Has making the Jack film changed how you approach new projects?
MJ I was political to start with, but after doing Jack, I got a lot more political by pushing boundaries where needed. Especially now when everybody is so afraid of even going near a boundary, I tend to go the other way.
NB Like how?
MJ It might be as simple as someone saying, “Look, if you don’t fight with that film critic he’ll make your whole career.” Then me saying, “I don’t really give a shit.” I actually care about this issue more than the backhanded bribery within the system. Josef Von Sternberg, one of Jack’s favorite filmmakers, says, “It’s better to be hated than loved.” I have that quote on my wall. It was very inspirational through this whole process.
I have a question for you. For someone who wasn’t involved or who did not coexist with Jack, your interview in the film was very informative. How did you come to be originally introduced to Jack’s art?
NB Oh, I was an art nerd in middle school. I fell in with a group of friends who were into art and filmmaking; we used to go to Anthology [Film Archives] all the time. I saw Flaming Creatures there. I didn’t have a clear sense of all of the intricacies of the conflict between all the personalities; I was simply a fan of all of it. Flaming Creatures made total sense, and it made sense to me as a queer, although that certainly was not the term in use at that point. That gayness made more sense to me than the Christopher Street culture of the time. In your film you don’t explicitly label Jack as gay. I go back and forth on that. I do actually want to claim Jack quite specifically as a gay filmmaker and thinker, more so because it represents a counter argument to the homogenized gay culture that we are usually presented with, especially these days.
MJ Jack really hated that the gay culture got streamlined into those classifications: the cowboy, the leather man, and so forth. He didn’t find them attractive. He thought that being queer was not only unique but a way of being; it meant expressing yourself and who you are regardless of your sexuality, and if your sexuality came out of it, fantastic, even better. People ask why I didn’t talk about all the queer culture, but in the movie I didn’t want to pigeonhole it. To do that is to limit his work. For me, the work says that it’s queer. I don’t need to say, Hey, look!
NB True, from the outside that designation becomes a limit. But from the inside that designation actually becomes a way of expanding the possibilities. Certainly in figuring out what type of artist I wanted to be, I learned much more from work like Jack’s and Stuart Sherman’s—work that presented a very different way of thinking about sexuality.
MJ Do you think that has to do with declaring someone’s sexuality in order for someone to understand?
NB It has to do with the way sexuality exists in the work. It doesn’t help to say that sexuality is not relevant because it is. In its most liberating sense, Jack’s work in the early ’60s is saying that it’s possible for queers to transform existence, to transform society and not to be accepted within it. And that’s what we continue to struggle to do.
MJ I like that there are transvestites, straights, and gays in Jack’s work. Jack had a love for both men and women. Although he is publicly called queer and gay and homosexual, that is not in my findings. I think he was open. Flaming Creatures is open. I have always been bisexual, so for me Flaming Creatures is my ideal world. It’s everybody’s perfect world. Lots of people don’t want to admit to it, but those are the people most resistant.
NB I always try to think very carefully about someone else’s work and then the use that I put the work to. We do violence to these things in order to make something else of them. That is culture’s dirty secret. Even in the act of honoring there is a flattening and homogenizing. Jack continually put his finger on that and it’s something that we ourselves have to deal with, that there is not a simple honoring of that work. There just can’t be. There is always a level of distortion and reconfiguration that happens in relationship to it. That’s why it’s potentially interesting to think about the ritual dimension of work, because ritual processes make explicit the idea that something comes from some place and that the ceremony carries it forward to something else but is still open to inflection. The museum model of culture is about preservation, fossilizing something, saying that the moment of creation stops here. Say you subscribe to that model; you have a real problem when the spirit of someone’s work is antithetical to that.
MJ What makes one pure? So many people in the interviews use the words pure and genius in relation to Jack. What’s genius? How do we measure this? It seems to be not to give in, not to conform, not to do it for money, to do it your way, purely, affectionately. That’s the only definition I could conjure. How do you measure quality in art?
NB We know a work is great because of the use that others make of it.
That’s how a work survives. Every work is the remains of a person’s thought, and if that thought is inspiring and useful to other people then it calls forth other work in response. By that measure, Jack is an amazing artist because so many people were able to, and continue to, make use of that example. That’s how you know it’s great. Not because it embodies this or that value but because people can use it. Transposition makes a ritual powerful enough to provide possibilities for people century after century.
MJ In the film, you say, “We are often aware of the ripples but not the stone.” In all my transcripts, that was one of the best descriptions of Jack Smith—he influenced so many people.
Nayland Blake is an artist, educator, and writer living in Brooklyn. Since 2002, he has been the Chair of the International Center of Photography/Bard Masters Program in Advanced Photographic Studies.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee