AN INTERVIEW WITH ETHAN MINSKER, ANTAGONIST ART MOVEMENT FOUNDER
By Melanie Oliva
If you’re an artist who hasn’t been accepted by the art world, you’re not alone.
Artist/filmmaker Ethan Minsker has been on the fringe since the late eighties and started a social art movement to counter the establishment. Having catapulted over 3,000 creators including actor Jonah Hill, Minsker and his Antagonist cohorts know how to turn art world cons into pros. Read on to find out about his methods, which are anything but mainstream.
What led you to create Psycho Moto Zine in 1988 and the Antagonist Art Movement in 2000?
I grew up in Washington D.C. during a time when crack cocaine made the city a deadly place. I’m also dyslexic, so I gravitated toward the punk scene where no one cared how well you did in school and people embraced your differences. When I went to Smash Records on M Street not far from my house, I found fanzines that had misspellings and didn’t seem to follow the rules. I felt confident that if I screwed up making my own zine, no one would care (and in fact, they seemed to prefer it over something clean and polished). When I started the fanzine, it was mostly about the punk scenes of D.C. and NYC.
At the end of 1988, I moved to New York for art school. I realized the fanzine was better as a venue for artists and writers, so I renamed it Psycho Moto Zine. To me, it means life is a crazy machine; the only way to step out of the cycle is by creating. Over the years, it became clear that the best part of the zine was the community behind it. The zine became centered around art and anyone could submit. I still had just as much trouble getting shows as anyone else.
Galleries have to pay high rents to keep the doors open and pay their staff, so if you can’t make sales, there’s no reason they should show you. So, the art market is filled with people from the upper class. They run and own the galleries, they are the dealers and it’s a closed system. Working as an art handler in Chelsea, I saw plenty of this on a daily basis. But I realized there was an army of people in NYC as desperate as myself who wanted to show but needed venues. I also worked as a bartender in the East Village bars and through the fanzine I knew some of the coffee shops.
In 2000, I started the Antagonist Art Movement with Anders Olson (a fantastic photo-realistic painter) and Sergio Vega (musician from Deftones and Quicksand). It sounds like a joke: “A filmmaker, a painter and a musician walk into a bar…”. But the bars and coffee shops were happy to have us. Our number one rule was, “If you have a wall, we can fill it with art – from street to gallery”. We brought lots of people to the events who, in turn, bought drinks. More places wanted us to do shows. We then developed a writer’s night that still happens on the first Sunday of the month at Black and White bar in NYC, a live music night, performance arts events and a public access show that still runs. We started making a clothing line and publishing other writers’ chapbooks. Our reputation grew. We started getting invited overseas to create shows and art happenings. We did that for 17 years until we dissolved the group.
Can you briefly describe the Movement for those who aren’t familiar?
Over the years we came up with a manifesto, but here are the basics.
We separated the person from their art. Meaning, we didn’t care about your social standing, your education and so on. We cared about the quality and content of your work. It was a social art movement.
It’s easy for artists to feel isolated, so we created a place for them to meet and exchange new ideas. By bringing artists together, you would find out about more opportunities because everyone was out there looking. We were not interested in the commercialization of art – your work had to be for the love of art. We didn’t push sales, but we did take 30% if something was sold. The money went back into funding creative projects.
We emphasized the process and not the end product. As in, you should think of your work as something that is birthed by you. It has a life of its own and a date of death. So once the work has left you, it is dead to you; it’s time to move on and make something new.
If you were at the events, you would notice artists meeting musicians and writers. We would do our best to get people from different backgrounds to try new things and work together. We wanted it to be a lab for new concepts. In the literary sense, the Antagonist is the one who pushes the Protagonist into action. There is no story without the Antagonist. It is not about being the enemy, though I do like its opposition to the forces of the art market. We wouldn’t let a law keep us from creating — we did a fair amount of illegal street art.
What opportunities did the Movement provide to artists, writers, and musicians? Did it open any doors for you?
Actor Jonah Hill was one of our writers at our writers’ night. He was a kid we pulled off the street and after a few weeks we moved him up to headliner. He was discovered by Dustin Hoffman’s kids who caught the end of his act one night.
During the Movement’s 17 years we worked with over 3,000 creators. Most have moved on and up through the ranks of galleries and beyond. Sumner Dilworth, who did a cover for one issue of the zine, moved from being a bouncer at the bars we worked at to becoming a full-time photographer. I loved the cover and took it to a friend at Condé Nast publishing. She was the editor for a rock ‘n’ roll magazine and before that job she worked on my zine. I showed her his cover and she hired him. After that, all of their other magazines wanted him.
For myself, the Antagonists helped me put out my last two books and produce four feature films. It’s gotten me into shows and to this day, I’m making new connections because of the work we did.
What did you learn from the Movement? Were there any unintended consequences of its creation?
I think anyone who deals with a lot of artists will tell you there are some who make you hate doing the work. They tend not to read all the information you send them, then complain when they weren’t ready for a show. Some are ungrateful for the time you sacrifice. But for every negative there are so many positives — you just learn to stay away from the bad ones.
Our older artists would mentor the younger ones. Arturo Vega (artistic director for the Ramones) was one of our members. He was the mixing spoon – always trying to get us to try new things. He would tell the younger artists, “Be professional. You want to be an artist and make this your job? Then don’t show up drunk at your own opening. You are the only one who can advocate for your work. No one else will do it for you.” When we did shows at other galleries I would remind them, “Be polite all the time. Even if the gallery sucks, even if they are assholes. Once we are gone we can talk about it, but during the event you represent more than just you. We need people to rely on the fact that we are easy to deal with so that we can be invited to new places.”
After September 11th, we had undercover cops and agents sniffing around the events because our logo is a Ninja and our name is the Antagonist Movement. They were easy to spot though, with crew cuts, and didn’t look anything like the artists we were used to. They would ask when the meetings were and if they could come. I always told them the same thing, “We are not political and we don’t have meetings.” Once a TSA officer made one of our members take a sticker off his laptop. When members were arrested doing street art they were asked if they were part of a gang. But incidents like these died down after a while.
Who else was involved in the Movement? Is the Movement still active?
Legs McNeil (author of Please Kill Me) read at a few of our events.
Nick Zedd (filmmaker) has shown art with us.
Richard Hambleton (artist) who hadn’t shown since the 80’s showed with us in the basement of a bar.
HR (musician from the Bad Brains) played our music night.
Tommy Stinson (musician from The Replacements) played the music night.
Jack Walls (artist, writer) curated shows, showed art and read at many of our writers nights.
We’ve had other writers like Ryan Adams, Richard Allen, Zeke Terwilliger, Jason Boog, Lenny Kaye, Mike Diaz, Johnny Valiant and artists such as Raul Ayala, Colin Burns, Shepard Fairey, Jay Ivcevich, Gavin Kenyon, Un Lee, Fabrizio Moretti, Sylvia Ortiz, Ted Riederer, James Rubio, Philipp Schrader and Crispy T.
There are so many, I can’t list them all.
We retired the Antagonist Art Movement in 2017. Several years before, we had started a non-profit called Citizens For the Arts. We stopped doing the street art and no longer break laws to create. CFA focuses on building creative communities by teaching workshops to disadvantaged youth in cities around the world. At least that’s the plan – we’ve only done about a dozen workshops so far. We want to show kids how to create something using found materials. I teach a zine workshop and others have done pinhole cameras, printmaking and so on. We reach out to artists we’ve worked with and provide the elements the kids need. They take everything home after.
How has the world changed for creatives since starting the Antagonist Movement, both inside and outside of the establishment?
In some ways, it’s easier. The internet has made it easy to connect and share information. You can learn anything you want from a “how-to” video. While you can collaborate with people all over the world, I feel that face-to-face connections have been lost. Today, I write a zine and put it out into the void, never knowing if it affects people. I used to have kids from all over the world writing to me, letting me know what they thought. Today it’s hard to get a reaction since you’re competing with everything else in the world.
For the establishment? I keep running into this wall of “How many followers do you have?” Publishers, distributors and sometimes galleries don’t want to hear from you unless you already have a big social presence. It’s sad.
That said, follow me on Instagram!
What do you least like about the establishment art world?
The galleries here show the same type of work – work that sells and is safe and boring. If you want to be up-to-date on the NY art market, you have to go to the art openings. Every Thursday and Friday, I hit as many art openings as I can. Chelsea on Thursday night, Lower East Side Friday night. I make about 10 to 20. You can see the posts in the Instagram page we set up for CFA under the stories. If you want to understand the trends and fads of the art world, if you want to find shows in the galleries, you have to be at the galleries. Talk to people and feel out the spaces.
My least favorite galleries are those that try to make you feel like dirt because you clearly are not rich. Those are the galleries that are appointment-only or where their staff won’t give you the time of day. I understand they need to make money to stay open, but it’s their need to make money that makes me hate them. As far as the mainstream, they are cowards, afraid to take a risk, so they keep pumping out the same crap we’ve seen a million times before. It’s the same songs, the same movies; we all know the endings when the opening title starts.
But there is so much good stuff out there; I just wish it was easier to reach an audience. I’m driven to make stuff I like and am always searching for like-minded individuals.
Do you think artists have a responsibility to society? If so, do galleries, curators, music venues and publications share that responsibility?
No, they don’t. Artists have a responsibility to create and be true to their voice. That is it. They don’t even have to share it. Not all of my work is political in nature. I don’t think you should pigeonhole yourself to do one kind of art.
The works I have done (“Ghost Guns,” for example) are based on an issue because I felt compelled to do it. That project stemmed from my own experiences with friends who lost their lives to gun violence. In total, there were 372 mass shootings in the United States in 2015, killing 475 and wounding 1,870. The “Ghost Guns” installation is comprised of 372 guns that dangle freely from unseen fishing line. These guns move with a slight breeze and point in all directions, reflecting the randomness of being targeted and killed.
It’s purely the responsibility of galleries, curators, music venues and publications to take risks and show us something new. What’s the point of me showing the same old predictable crap? And in that new, open space there will be plenty of room for art that is also activism.
How can galleries and other venues help artists who are using their work to challenge the status quo?
They can show the work. Even if a gallery can’t show the work because it doesn’t fit their style, they can push it out there through social media. They can connect artists to the people and places that the work is appropriate for. They can help spread the word. They can host a one-night pop-up.
That was how we did most of our shows. One night only, and the artists had to be present to promote their work. The art was up on the walls from 6pm to 2am. Many places where we didn’t show were kind enough to let me leave free copies of the fanzines. There are lots of ways to reach people even if the venue isn’t a right fit for a project. And always record the work on video. Even if there are only a few people at the show, the video can reach unlimited numbers, beyond any location and time.
What’s your strategy when approaching and working with galleries or venues?
This is a question I ask every artist I do an interview with in my zine and it’s something artists should ask each other as they meet new artists. Here is my answer.
First you really have to know what they show and like. If your work is nothing like anything you’ve seen at the gallery before, then there’s a good chance they won’t be in to it. Most galleries I work with have known me for years. I know the owners, the director, even the art handlers. As a former art handler, I can tell you they are a great source of contacts for galleries. They know how and who to talk to and most times will even help you out. I’m also not afraid to cold call the galleries; email them, message them on Instagram. It hasn’t worked yet, but they can just keep saying “No” until one says “Yes”. Also, don’t be afraid to submit. You can find stuff on submittable.com and nyfa.org. But odds are it’s someone you already know who’s going to connect you. That’s why it’s important to get out of your house and mix it up in the real world.
Have you seen grassroots gallery activism benefit the galleries themselves? In what ways?
Yes, visit www.howlarts.org.
Howl Happening is a gallery I work with. They’re the best example I know for gallery activism. It was started by Jane Friedman, who helped Patti Smith form her group (read Just Kids, the section about the St. Marks church and you’ll see what I mean). Since the rising rents in Manhattan have pushed many of the older artists out of the city, Howl gives them a place to show. They’ve built a community and because of that, the space has received lots of press. For a gallery, it’s a great way to connect with a neighborhood. It’s run as a not-for-profit and is open to all types of creative projects. They use the gallery for more than just art shows; they have book releases, play readings and classes to teach artists about their rights, housing and health. They really try to serve the artists.
Have you achieved financial success with your art? Other types of success?
Financial success? I wish. I still have a day job as most NYC artists do. But the art and films have paid for themselves, for the most part. I’ve done shows around the world and the more I create, the easier it gets. My new film, Man In Camo, is all about this – what does success mean?
What advice do you have for artists who feel like their work doesn’t “fit in” with the mainstream art world — those who may have trouble finding venues to show it?
I think you’re in good company. The art market follows trends. You shouldn’t try to make art you think they will like because you will always be wrong. Make work you love because it makes you happy. Otherwise, it’s a job and then you’re making work for tourists, or someone’s bathroom. Don’t make bathroom art!
You mentioned earlier that you are dyslexic. Has that affected or influenced your work? What advice do you have for other creative people who have dyslexia?
I wrote a whole book on that subject called Rich Boy Cries For Momma. If you have dyslexia, you should figure out a system that will help you overcome the disability. For instance, I wrote my answers here in the body of an email on Gmail and used the speak function to hear it read back to me. Then I used Google to search and correct the spelling. After that, I sent it to my kick-ass editor. Dyslexics see the world visually. You will find, because our brains are wired differently, that there are lots of creative types who have it. For me, that made writing difficult. But I found ways around that and people who were cool with editing my work.
Part of the reason I do a zine and write books is because I was told I couldn’t. Never let someone else define your limits. And don’t just try things you might succeed at – run headlong into failure too. Failure makes you better. Learning to pick yourself up and trying over again is a great ability if you can master it. I fail all the time. I can’t say I love it, but I don’t let it stop me. Hell, it doesn’t even slow me down.
Tell us about the projects you’re currently working on.
Here comes the pitch! Are you a publisher? I have a book ready to go about the now-dead Antagonist Movement (a true story)! A group of depraved and desperate artists band together to create at all costs. We follow them from making street art to gallery shows. The last American art movement.It’s fucking great! Titled, Antagonist.
New Project! I’m submitting my new film Man In Camoto film festivals! It was the official selection of the Victoria Texas Independent Film Fest, Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival, an Honorable Mention at LA Underground Film Forum, and an official selection of Vidlings & Tapeheads, Gorst Underground Film Festival and Aphrodite Film Awards.
Man in Camo. Created by and starring Ethan Minsker. What a sick fuck! Who makes a movie about themself? I do. Find the trailer on Vimeo.
Man in Camo takes a close look at the life of visual artist, writer and filmmaker Ethan Minsker and his drive to create and crusade the making of art. Through the lens of old photographs and films, Minsker leads viewers on a journey through the hurdles that once held him back – from dyslexia to the violence of 1980s Washington D.C. It was these hurdles that forged his love of film and art, and his work now spans across three decades. Man in Camo brings forth not just the love of art, but the reasons for making it in the first place.
And I’m working on a new art project, “Fight or Flight.” A series of paintings and videos. Hoping to find a gallery for that one.
Tell us about any shows you have coming up.
You can catch me and my film Man In Camo at these upcoming film festivals. I will be present and doing a Q&A, as well as giving away zines and posters.
- Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival, Saturday, September 29th @ 6:30pm at Delta College Planetarium in Bay City, Michigan
- Gorst Underground Film Festival. Saturday, October 6. @ Blue Collar Artwork in Bremerton, Washington
And hopefully at a film festival or art gallery near you!
How can readers follow your work or get in touch with you?
I’m on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ethanminsker/
See a bunch of videos here: https://vimeo.com/ethanminsker
Find my books here: https://www.amazon.com/Ethan-H.-Minsker/e/B006U4F5A0
Citizens for the Arts: http://www.citizensforthearts.com/
About the Antagonist Movement: http://antagovision.com
You can find me on Facebook but send me a message so I know how you found me and that you are not a robot.