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Ethan
Minsker

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an Interview with Hannah Hightman October 24,2022

A true multi-hyphenate, Ethan Minsker’s work speaks to the inner child within all of us. From paper mache cityscapes to films peppered with experimental animation, Minsker’s work combines playful elements with darker themes. When we meet in a coffee shop, he’s open about the self-absorption that comes with the title of artist. He asserts that his efforts to uplift less-established artists were for personal gain as much as for the benefit of the community. 

 

But Minsker has never made any effort to hide his flaws. His 2018 documentary Man in Camo, which focuses on his life and art, spends as much time talking about his weaknesses as it does his triumphs. It doesn’t feel self-flagellating though; it’s an honest depiction free of delusions of grandeur. And the whimsical animations prevent the film from being too lugubrious or slow. Minsker’s work isn’t always ventured on himself though. His newest project is a documentary about Scooter LaForge which has been five years in the making. 

 

He recently showed his series “Negative Space Portraits” at Spring Break. The series uses the negative space of cut out portraits by filling them with bits of nature. For Minsker, it’s a statement on the resilience of humanity. But it could also be interpreted as commentary on our inability to conceal are less civilized tendencies, making it an apt metaphor for Minsker’s body of work in general. 

"Russian Warship Go Fuck Yourself!", 2022, Gouache acrylic, papier-mâché, collage, wood

22.5 x 26 x 8.5 inches Image Courtesy of the Artist

Hannah Hightman: You’re involved in so many different mediums– you’re an artist, a filmmaker, and a zine maker. How do they all relate and how did you come to be involved in so many different fields?
 

Ethan Minsker: Regardless of what I do creatively, it’s all one thematic style. And that is exploring the child version of myself. I work with paper mache a lot. I do a lot of films where there is handcrafted animation. The stuff I write in the books and zines it’s always from the perspective of the young adult struggling with adulthood and transformation. I started making art and animated movies when I was a kid. I’m also dyslexic. I was tested for dyslexia and went to schools for dyslexia. Writing was something I was always told I couldn’t do, so I wanted to figure out a way that I could do it. But [my writing] is still the same thing. They all tell this story that bounces between comedy and tragedy. I’m always trying to have those peaks and valleys, because if you have comedy in between tragedy, both feel more powerful. 

HH: You recently had an exhibit at Spring Break. What was that experience like and how did you interpret the theme of Naked Lunch?
 

EM: I read Naked Lunch and thought of the Burroughs book and the metamorphosis happening there and in the film adaptation. That idea felt connected to what I was doing. The project I showed at Spring Break was called Negative Space Portraits. Before, there was another project I was doing where I would print out photos and cut out the faces and put them on paper mache water towers. I was looking at the negative of the face cut out and then the rest of the body when I was at the residency at Governor’s Island with 4heads last year. I started taking those photos and placing it on nature, and I really liked the effect. So I would photograph that, and print those out, and paint on top of that. Whoever we are, the tragedies [we’ve experienced] are negative spaces in our lifetime, and we find ways to fill those voids in order to cope. Humanity adapts no matter what. When you look at the images I think it relates to Naked Lunch because you see this kind of metamorphosis happening. But I was doing that for a year before the theme came up.

 

But then when you read the other part of it, it’s about this renaissance thing, which I didn’t initially make the connection to. I’ve seen other artworks where people’s faces are replaced with nature. I look at the visual arts like a montage– you have the image on the inside, and then the frame tells the second part of the story. That’s why I made these elaborate city scapes so that the frames represent the environment that the individual is within. 

 

HH: Can you talk about your upcoming film about Scooter LaForge?
 

EM: Scooter LaForge is an artist who is centered in downtown New York. There’s always these darlings of the art world, and Scooter has been very popular in the downtown art scene for over ten years. He shows with a gallery called Howl Happening, and I’ve shown films with that same gallery. I kept running into Scooter, and other artists kept telling me I needed to meet him. And I had a real resistance to that. But then when I met him, his artwork is very much in line with what I do. Stylistically it’s much more loose, but that childlike wonder is absolutely present in his work. He references a lot of historical paintings, but this cartoon, animated thing is present throughout his work. 

 

I approached him and said I’d like to do a video on him. He’s in a lot of things, been covered by Forbes and every major newspaper. When I started filming, he was very apprehensive about opening up. But I whittled my way into his heart and we became really good friends. I’ve been filming him for five years. The other film I did, Man in Camo, was basically a self portrait, an artist statement I made about myself. In that film I explored all the things I wanted to push stylistically when I make films. Even if you expected what the outcome of the story would be, the visuals would always keep you entertained. The Scooter film is in-line with that film. 

 

It’s really a group of three films. There’s Man in Camo, which was the template, Scooter LaForge: A Life in Art, which I just finished and am currently submitting to festivals, and then a third one I’m currently working on about Film Threat magazine called Film Threat Sucks. It’s about a punk rock film magazine, like a fan zine, in the 80s and 90s that Larry Flynt publications put out for a time. They were the first to highlight Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh– all of these people that became huge independent film directors.

 

HH: With Man in Camo, was it difficult to make a film about yourself?
 

EM: Yeah I mean the concept of letting your ego run unchecked is very dangerous. If you decide to make a film about yourself, that’s completely acceptable in the New York downtown art scene. But outside of those circles, you’re seen as a self-absorbed egomaniac. Saying an artist is self-absorbed is redundant, because if you’re an artist, you’re self-absorbed already. But if you make a film about yourself, you have to be willing to put forth a lot of your negative attributes. The more you’re willing to show your bad side, the better it is for the film itself. In Man in Camo, I talk about struggling with depression and suicide, and growing up in a very violent environment in Washington DC and having friends succumb to violence and murder. And how to overcome that. So if you make a film like this, you have to expose those parts of yourself. When someone says the expression “make a deal with the devil,” it means that if you want to find success you have to be willing to carve parts out of your own heart and offer that up to the viewer. I wouldn’t recommend it and I wouldn’t do it again probably. 

 

When I was making the film, I went to people I knew in the art community [for feedback] like Carlo McCormick. I had him watch a rough cut of that, and then he started avoiding me. So I decided to confront him. I asked him about it and if he wanted to be in it, and he said no. I asked why. He said “I don’t think you should put this film out because it’s very masochistic.” Any documentary is going to promote the artist, but I think you have to have the negative in it for an audience to watch it. But Carlo thought it would be damaging to my career. 

 

HH: Do you find the subjects you’re most interested in exploring in your films are similar to you?
 

EM: I like them to be similar. The films were intended to inspire, educate on another level, and entertain. I think you’re asking the viewer a lot to spend an hour and a half with a subject. So you need to make it very entertaining. The film itself needs to be an art project. I don’t really make films the way other people make films, where it’s like “Here’s an interview, here’s a cutaway.” I spend a lot of time working on stylizing the transition from one scene to another so that it feels more fast-paced. I’m going to hand craft that animation to the point where I might spend three months making a 15 second animation. It’s important to me that when you’re watching one of my films you think “Oh, it’s an Ethan Minsker film.” It’s really connected to everything else. 

 

My background is firmly centered in the DC punk rock music scene. I like the feeling of this subculture, this punk rock attitude, this struggle. If you watched Man in Camo, the Scooter film, and the Film Threat one, you would see that all these subjects are very similar, like different variations on the same character. There’s me, where I grew up and was confronted with being bullied. I personally went and hunted down all those people when I was older and brought it back to them. Scooter, on the other hand, was also bullied but instead of using anger as a fuel, he used love as a fuel, which is where our two characters diverged. Those are the things he teaches me when we collaborate. I learn a lot from him, and I don’t think he learns anything from me. The Film Threat one is about Chris Gore, and his attitude is to succeed no matter what. He’s a little bit of a scam artist in the film, but charming. But yeah, all of the subjects are centered on a personal story, and they’re all connected to me. 

Tank Versus Village, 2022, Gouache acrylic, papier-mâché, collage, wood, 32 x 18 x 7 inches

Image Courtesy of the Artist

HH: Can you explain what the Antagonist Movement is?

 

EM: A lot of people move to New York with the hopes of chasing what they do creatively. But what happens is that you move here and realize it’s very expensive, so you have to get a job to survive, and then you end up in this cycle of just working the job and not having the time to do what you want to do creatively. At the time I founded the movement, I was working in bars. We had nights that were slow. A whole group of us bartenders and bar owners that managed the downtown bars got together and thought, “There’s all these people that want to create, but they don’t have venues. So let’s start making venues where we don’t charge the artist.” Because even if you show in a gallery, the gallery takes 50%. The gallery has to pay its employees and its extremely high rent, so it’s fair for them to say “I’m only going to show art that sells and makes enough money to pay the bills.” But that leaves out the majority of artists that come to the city because they don’t have the chance to test their abilities and experiment. 

 

We started showing art in bars every Thursday night. Some shows we did in other parts of the bars, where it would be two months at a time based on a theme. Then we expanded that to music nights on Mondays, Sundays we started running a writer’s night. We did performance art. We started doing street actions. We really developed this crew of artists that were helping each other and pushing each other. Historically most artists are self-centered and only focus on what they’re doing as an individual. But if you can find a group that’s willing to work together, you have a better chance.

We did the Antagonist movement for 11 - 17 years or so, somewhere in there. We were the first people to give a show to Richard Hamilton after his long absence from the art scene. Arturo Vega was one of our members. A lot of artists found their starts through this. In 2011 we stopped doing the art shows at any of the venues. And in 2017 we fully closed down everything for the antagonist movement. We started a nonprofit. Next summer we’re doing something similar which is the art pawn. It’s a fictional pawn shop. And then we’ll do another one in Wichita in the Fall. My success in overcoming dyslexia is that I excel in analyzing situations and understanding complex theories. I’ve been thinking about what is the deficit in the art world, what is it that all the artists lack. And that’s the ability to create other opportunities. Creating more curators creates more opportunities. Historically the Antagonist Movement was one of the first to say that you could be an artist and a curator. With the art pawn, I’m going to show my art, along with a bunch of other artists. But we’re going to have it sectioned off and have different curators come in each week and curate other artists. And when people come in off the street, we’re going to allow them to sort of have a show. The plan is to break the formality of curation, because there’s one section that’s set curated, there’s one that’s weekly curated, and then there’s one that just organically grows. The fundamental backbone of the Antagonist movement was to create your own opportunities, and then opportunities will be created for you. 

 

When people hear “Antagonist movement,” they’re like “Oh you’re villains.” But in the literary sense you have protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the hero, but there’s no story and no journey without the antagonist. The antagonist prods the protagonist into action. It’s purely the starting point. You have to become the hero of your own story. 

 

HH: Can you talk about your experience with zine making?

EM: I did a fanzine from 1988 to when the pandemic hit. I was working in broadcasting for a large company, and they had a lot of unsupervised copy machines. When the pandemic hit I no longer had access to those copy machines and that’s what ended it. In the 80s, I would go to the punk rock record stores and saw the fanzines there. They were a mess. They weren’t worried about grammar or spelling or any of that. Punk rock says that whatever rules you’re making don’t apply. Everything can be a mess. As long as it’s out there, you’ve accomplished something. I liked punk rock when it was people wearing trash bags and being wild, not when it got conformist and everyone had the leather jackets and the same hair. The general theory and practice of punk rock is about disrupting the structure. Those fanzines being so informal really opened a lot of doors for me. 

 

In DC, I knew a lot of bands in the music scene. I was already in that element, so I started photographing the bands and writing reviews. As my involvement in the punk rock scene in DC and New York became more violent, I started pushing away and focusing more on the creative side. The zine transitioned from one that was called East Coast Exchange, which was hardcore punk, to Psychomotozine. Psychomotozine is about how life is this crazy machine, and creativity is how you leap out of that cycle. It’s this opportunity for all types of creatives to express themselves. I have friends that work at Kinkos and architecture firms, so they would print the zine for free for me, and I would put them out in galleries and record shops. Before the internet, before blogs, before social media, you could put a zine in some random place, someone would pick it up, and then they’re involved in your circle. You as a creator, you have your friends, their friends, if you have access to a website then you have the visitors to that site, but how do you reach random people? Zines in random places really get your message out there. I put out maybe 40 thousand copies of an issue or more. The funny thing is I never knew if anyone ever read them, but then I’d hear “Oh yeah, I know that zine!” I would send the zine out to Factsheet Five and Maximum Rocknroll and all of these big places. I also [wrote] if you’re in prison, I’ll send you a copy for free. When you send a zine to prison, it would be there for years getting passed around. So I would get letters from people in prison, on death row. I got letters from John Wayne Gacy, letters from prisoners in Europe, everywhere. I also got letters from regular fans, but as soon as the internet picked up, I got no letters. So it’s very frustrating.

 

The zine I see as a moving gallery. Each zine has cover art by the artist who is featured in the zine, and I do an interview with them. Then I have reviews. I no longer have negative reviews. I only review the things I like because I don’t want to take up the space to tear somebody down who is doing their best to create something. My email address is Bob Ashtray and that used to be my pen name when I wrote reviews in the 80s. I was brutal. One band I reviewed I wrote that listening to their cassette was like putting my genitals in a jar of razor blades and jogging around the block. So this guy in this band has tattoos all over his face, he was part of a local gang, he was scary. I was much younger, and I was dropping off zines at Kim’s Video when I saw him. He was like “Is that your zine?” and I said “Oh yeah I work on it.” He asked if I wrote the review. I was like “Oh no that’s this other guy Bob Ashtray.” And he really threatened to kill Bob Ashtray and I said “Oh yeah I’ll tell ‘em. He’s a total asshole. He writes the reviews, I’m so sorry.” He went from being totally threatening towards me to wanting to kill Bob Ashtray. After that he was really nice to me. He was like, “Do you mind if I send you another cassette, and you review it? Don’t let that Bob Ashtray get to it.” So Bob Ashtray was my nom de plume to save me from getting my ass kicked. But I realized that guy put a lot of effort and love and money into making these tapes. I could see being totally pissed off about that review, and really who does it help? Why publish a negative review when I could highlight the stuff I like that deserves more attention? It was a learning moment too. But yeah I used to get a lot of death threats and stuff. The name Bob Ashtray is after this guy in the punk rock scene who had cigarette burns on his back. The story was that his father used to put cigarettes out on his back.

HH: How do you think your work will change in the future?

EM: With curating and collecting art, I don’t think you have to look at an artist and love what they do. But you have to look at an artist and see that there’s something in what they’ve created that you want to develop. It’s not like the Antagonist Movement would take anybody that made art. We had to see something in it even if it was raw. And then they would blossom and it would become something amazing. That kind of laboratory benefits the ecosystem of the art world at large. You need to have the ability to test out theories and become better, otherwise nothing progresses. In the future, my hope is to continuously drive forward. I want it to keep progressing stylistically, and I want it to affirm what I do as an artist, so people know immediately that it was made by me. I want it to get further away from something another artist has done. I also keep in mind how I might be represented in the future and how I can’t control that. The last couple of years I’ve had a lot of older artist friends who have died, and their collection was just thrown out into the street. And when I die my stuff might be thrown out too. I’m thinking about how I can archive my work. That’s as much as I can do to have a firm foothold in art history. I will do my best to make my voice as clear and unique as possible. 

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