There Is No Such Thing As...
A Curator’s Note
By Peter Conheim
Reading time 5 Minutes
“There is no such thing as ‘New Wave’,” declared the late scribe and musician Claude Bessy, aka Kickboy Face, of Los Angeles’s Slash Magazine, in Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization (1980). “It is a polite thing to say because you don’t want to say ‘punk’ so you don’t get kicked out the fucking party and they won’t give you coke anymore.” This spot-on chunklet of wisdom has rolled around in my head since first seeing that original Decline film at the impressionable age of 12 or 13 upon its original release, and I’ve since come to realize that Bessy was on to something deeper. Because, actually, punk doesn’t mean shit, either. Or rather, it already encompassed so much by the time he said it decades ago at the dawn of the “hardcore” punk music era that one word simply couldn’t hold it all.
What Bessy and probably everyone could have agreed upon at that moment was that “punk” in music, if anything, meant “anti-commercialism” and “anti-authority” stances, shot through with an aggressive edge. Highly simplistic, of course. But by that measure, then, of course, in terms of the arts, France’s Situationists had definitely already been punk. Buñuel and Dali were certainly punk. And Kroger Babb, whose Walk the Walk (1970) leads off our volume, oh yes – though he crassly commercialized it. Bringing it back to music, Edgar Varése, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage? All punks. Sun Ra? Albert Ayler? Punks. And then other notable cultural signposts… William Burroughs… hell, I’m going with Samuel Beckett, too. Pure punk.
When looking at independent cinema from the approximate breakthrough of the punk rock creative explosion in the mid-1970s onwards, there is a deep well to extract from. And when I set about to consider an overview of materials that spewed forth during this period, I kept coming back to one of the finest films from that early era that few have ever seen, Richard Gaikowski’s Deaf/Punk (1979). This one-of-a-kind snapshot of a brief moment in San Francisco became the springboard for the entire volume of films, which run the gamut: in Emerald Cities (1983), we see ultra-low-budget specialist Rick Schmidt nervously looking towards the coming nuclear apocalypse through the impossibly upbeat and downbeat musics of The Mutants and Flipper, respectively; heroin, religion and the hippie L.A. subculture collide in the aforementioned Walk the Walk; and a veritable treasure chest of restored short films, including Deaf/Punk (and Gaikowski’s equally rare Moody Teenager), showcase the desire for bands such as The Residents and DEVO to prove themselves visual artists as much as performing musicians, virtually creating the “music video” in the process. Not to mention the astonishing Debt Begins at 20 (1980) directed by Stephanie Beroes, which captures young Pittsburgh punk outcasts in a faux docu-drama, unique to the time.
I’ve long held deep admiration for many of the artists featured in this volume, and in the spirit of full disclosure, am actually a relatively recent addition to the lineup of The Mutants, myself – something which I still pinch myself over (their bass player, Paul Fleming, moved on after 35-odd years). To have had the ability to restore the films of The Residents from their original camera negatives, for instance, is a privilege I never thought I would have as an archivist (and with their director, Graeme Whifler supervising their reconstruction, no less). So, this volume of byNWR is a true labor of love, and an act of “giving back” – an offering to honor the creators of these works by preserving the best possible versions of them, in exchange for the years of deep inspiration they have provided to me, and to a public hungry for the freaky things. It’s all punk to me. You can call it whatever you like.
Peter Conheim is the lead Restorationist and Archivist at byNWR.com, and the founder of Cinema Preservation Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of endangered films of all stripes, in partnership with archives, private collectors and laboratories. As a performer from the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the co-founder of Wet Gate: The All-Projectionist Ensemble and Mono Pause, and a long-time member of culture jammers Negativland. He also performs with Malcolm Mooney (from CAN) and the Mutants. His music remastering and restoration projects have included works by DEVO, MX-80 Sound, Tuxedomoon, Noh Mercy, Factrix, Yoshi Wada, John Bender, the Screamers and many others.