No Apologies: An Interview with Zak Smith
I’m instantly suspicious of any book with “memoir” on its cover. You can hardly blame me. Everyone knows that memoirs are all too often pity parties, schmaltz festivals, excuse-offs, or some miserable combination of the three: You Should Feel Guilty That My Father _____; How Jesus Taught Me to Stop ____ing and Discover My Inner ____; Ruining My Life and the Lives of Those Around Me was Actually Healthy for All of Us Because _____. Yeah, yeah. Zak Smith’s We Did Porn: Memoir and Drawings, however, is a breed apart. For starters, he’s not in recovery. Moreover, his book offers nothing in the way of comfort or apology. How could it? He (1) is writing about a discomposing subject, and (2) is not sorry for anything.
Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow was in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and was later published by Tin House books (publisher as well of the present volume). In 2006, he began performing in alt-porn under the name Zak Sabbath. Smith/Sabbath is an exceptionally intelligent and perceptive individual who has excelled, without much apparent effort, in two—now, with this book, three—creative mediums. His prose spirals smart and sharp as concertina wire, his judgments are merciless, and he’s got enviable comic timing.
“Here, bent over a salad, is Auspicia Clay, who looks like an assistant veterinarian and for whom the words adult industry are not just a euphemism for porno but rather a useful term to describe a long and irrational resume tied together only by the fact that nothing on it should be done to children. She might try to persuade another self-described female-friendly production company to fund a movie where girls fuck boys who fuck other boys in places all over New York City, or she might try to find a fetish-friendly production company to help Ella Revenge shoot a movie where she’s fucked with a loaded gun—or she might just relax into steadier and better paychecks, writing reviews of dildos and kicking businessmen in small hotel rooms.”
The book is as much about life in the ’00s—and the schizophrenic, often abusive relationship most Americans have with their elected officials as well as with their own sex lives—as it is about Smith’s own particular experience in and of the alt-porn sub-sub-culture. We Did Porn is an exuberant, fearless, and badly-needed rejoinder to the mawkish dewey-eyed bullshit that plagues the latter-day memoir. The art’s not half-bad either.
For more Zak Smith, check out his daily-updated online sketchbook, his personal site, and his porn site, (one of those three links is more or less SFW, the other two are emphatically not; I’ll let you guess which are which). Also, don’t miss this short scene he directed, starring Mandy Morbid and a Cthulhu-like puppet, quite possibly the world’s first live-action tentacle porn, available free at her website. This interview was conducted via email.
I know you’ve done a few books before this one, but those were art books, whereas this is a written book (though it happens to also contain an art book’s worth of art within its covers). Do you think of this, then, as a kind of “debut?”
Yeah. It’s weird too, ’cause if you’re totally unknown and you write a book, then people might go “Why’d they publish this book by this total unknown? Maybe it’s because he’s really good.”—so they might check the book out. But if you’re well-known already—well, pretty much anybody well-known in any field can get a book published, so in a way if you’ve got another job (or two) nobody expects the book to actually be good. They just figure it got published because you’re famous.
Had you thought about and/or attempted to write a book before? Do you think you’ll continue to write? If so, what?
I’ve written about two novels’ worth of bad fiction (thankfully never published) and articles here and there. But, yeah, unfortunately I kind of like writing so I think I’m stuck doing that, too. My next book will probably be fiction.
When did you first consider writing (or decide to write) a book about your experience in alt-porn?
I started writing things down long before I realized it was a book. When I did that first movie I just thought “every time something strange happens I’ll write it down”. Pretty soon I realized I had 300 pages.
Memoirs often serve as a kind of monument to the life-experiences they describe. Certainly, the “Did” in We Did Porn can be read to indicate that this book looks back on a part of your life that’s over now. Will you continue to work in the industry?
I was always a once-in-a-while porn actor. I will probably continue with roughly the same very low level of dedication and ambition for the foreseeable future. I keep telling everybody to stop doing fucked-up things so I won’t have to write any more about it, though. So far they’re not listening.
In the book, the alt-porn world and the art world seem to be pretty far removed from one another—physically, if not always psychically. Does the prospect of attempting to merge them intrigue you at all?
I’m sure everybody would like to one day see a totally artistically satisfying movie that also happens to have fucking in it, but I am not really eager to sign up for the pain-in-the-ass job of making that happen. So many contemporary artists are clearly just frustrated filmmakers that those few of us who actually prefer to be making the art that we actually make for a living should probably keep doing it.
Well, since you’ve already had some success bringing porn to art, I guess I’m asking specifically about moving in the other direction. Assuming stuff like funding and coordination were absolutely no object, would you want to do set-design for a porn, or write/direct one?
I take on projects if and only if I’ve got the materials and resources to get that project done exactly right. This may be why I generally only take on projects that require a piece of paper and a few jars of liquitex.
Here’s a jarring segue. Other than Pynchon, who are some writers and/or books you admire or enjoy?
Martin Amis, M John Harrison, Dorothy Parker, Julia Cortazar, Borges, Byron, HP Lovecraft, David Foster Wallace, Nabokov, Anais Nin. There’s some.
What about writers/books everybody else loves that you just fucking hate?
I can’t stand most indie comics. People expect me to like them in the same way I guess people expect Japanese people to like Godzilla, but most of them are neither as snazzy and well-drawn as the best superhero comics, nor as absorbing and complex as a good novel or short story. I think they’re mostly for emotionally-stunted dweebs who can’t bring themselves to think about any adult issue unless it’s in comic-book form.
And the same question(s) again re art and artists.
I like Medieval European, Indian, Japanese, African, South American, Inuit and Chinese sculpture. I hate Ancient Egyptian, Roman, Greek, and Byzantine sculpture. Everything else you can probably google.
What are you reading right now?
The Sluts by Dennis Cooper and Tales of The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. They’re actually pretty good together. When the imitation-message-board-post writing style in The Sluts gets exhausting then you can switch to the rich, decadent poetry in Jack Vance, and when the Jack Vance characters get to seem too abstract and unreal, you can switch back to The Sluts. Chocolate and peanut butter.
In WDP, you write at one point, “The ambitions of the artist and the ambitions of the pervert are identical. They are not at war.” It’s a fascinating thought, and I’ve got some of my own ideas about why it might or might not be the case, but I wonder if you’d care to expand on it a little.
When I wrote that in the book, I meant that ONLY in the case of the porn director Kimberly Kane. What I was trying to explain is why her movies usually come out the way she wants to—which is rare in porn. The reason it’s rare is because most directors want to:
(as an “artist”) Make a certain kind of movie
(as a pervert) Fuck certain people on the set of that movie.
This creates conflicts during production which can sometimes make the movie hard to get finished. KK’s movie’s don’t have these problems because her ambitions are to:
(as an “artist”) Make a certain kind of movie
(as a pervert) Masturbate to that movie.
These ambitions are in no way contradictory. So her movies usually get made the way she wants them made.
Two of my favorite chapters in the book are “Of Braindead Fucks” and “Why I Am That Fucker,” not because the politics are in line with my own (though they are) or because threesomes are great (though they are) but because of your unapologetic contempt for idiocy, especially that of televised politics. I’d prefer to think of this contempt as an a-political position, though of course all the evidence proves that it’s not. Are we at a place in our country where simply being intelligent—and bringing that intelligence to bear on the world around you—makes one a kind of de facto resister/protester? Or is that a totally elitist bullshit arm-chair pseudo-radical thing to even think, much less say out loud? Is it possible it’s both?
It’s not possible that it’s both. That would be soft-headed-post-modern-refusing-to-have-the-courage-of-your-convictions-and-just-decide-what-the-thing-to-do-is-lest-it-might-be-mistaken-for-uncool-earnestness hipsterosity. I think being intelligent is a step. The next step is doing something that changes something or that could reasonably lead to something one day changing. Just being intelligent is like being in any other minority—you get to see what other people don’t. But it’s not what you’ve seen that matters, it’s what you’ve done.
The internet told me that you donate a lot of the proceeds from your porn work and some of your art sales to Food Not Bombs and the “West Memphis 3.” FNB is a great group, but I have to admit that I’d never heard of the latter cause before.
The West Memphis 3 were these kids in the South who basically got accused of murder for being metal heads and ended up on death row. It’s a long story, but basically the documentary Paradise Lost is about them and they obviously didn’t do it and got totally fucked over by the faith-based hick jury and pretty much everybody I know watched that documentary and said “I worship Satan and like Metallica, that so could’ve been me.” So yeah. See the film or the sequel for more information.
What does anarchism mean to you? Put another way—what does it mean to be an anarchist who has to live in and extract a sustainable existence from a decidedly non-anarchist culture/country/world?
Anarchism is about:
A) Reminding people that laws, traditions and customs and the assumptions these kinds of rules create about stuff like, say, property rights, are largely the product of various plutocratic dickheads and should not necessarily be taken seriously,
B) Finding ways to lessen the damage these laws do to human beings, and
C) Thinking of new ways to organize people and their interactions other than the standard “If you’re in X place, you follow Y law” while still managing to keep people alive and keep things interesting.
Basically, the way the world works now, we (when we’re being watched) have to follow a set of rules based on where we, geographically, are. For example, if you’re in Idaho, it’s illegal to fish while sitting on the back of any animal. There are probably better ways to organize things than that.
The ancients tried democracy but they did it all screwy and so decided it didn’t work. Then, many centuries later, the US tried it again and proved them wrong. In the 20th century, some people tried communism, only they did it all screwy, and so they decided it didn’t work. This event led directly to a detestable slowdown in new and innovative thought about ways in which people could productively organize themselves and so pretty much everybody smart’s just decided we’re going to have to live with capitalism forever in much the same way smart people 250 years ago assumed we were just going to have to live with monarchies forever. They got over it, so can we.
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