In the late 1960’s, Anton Perich arrived in New York City and almost immediately fell into the fast-paced social whirl ofseminal city nightlife. Using his camera as a ticket, he took a series of iconic photographs that captured the rebellion,decadence, and creative freedom of the era. From Andy Warhol's Factory, to the Chelsea Hotel, Studio 54, and Max’sKansas City, Perich captured all of the notoriously wild characters that reveled within. Instrumental in launching thedigital movement, Perich designed and built an electronic painting machine which executed huge canvases line byline. A form of revolutionary technology that predated the inkjet printer and pioneered the genre of electronic art.Perich is also credited as creator of one of the first underground television shows,Anton Perich Presents.Interviewing everyone from the "most glamorous women" to Charles James and Candy Darling. With his daringcaptures, off-kilter means and charismatic style, this Croatia-born photographer shook up America as creativegroundbreaker of its time. Boy Scout talked to Perich about remembrances, ruins and Rimbaud.
Boy Scout: If you arrived in New York City in 2019 filled with great ambition, how might you ascend to your artistic summit?
Anton Perich: I would probably recognize that young man and see myself in him. I would cry of happiness, and offer him the things I didn’t have when I was his age. He would not accept it. I would give him my blessings. I would encourage him to stay on his tremendous journey ahead. May Sisyphus help him.
I would probably be in Williamsburg exploring cafes. I would probably be communicating with millennials in the language of Facebook's “LIKE,” and “KAFEKEKE,” and some Mandarin. I would be not taking lots of pictures because everybody is doing it. They would do it much and better than me. But I would find the secrets that would mesmerize me. Like the sidewalks are more expressive than those in NY. Being in Williamsburg would be like. Being in the future. Everything is Manhattanized. Not via East River but via Shanghai. Everybody is walking around with extinguished cigarettes in their ears. Yes, technology makes us look ridiculous sometimes. I would probably explore their universe until I become them, by some degrees. I noticed something else in Williamsburg: An excess of young, attractive, glamorous women pulling their suitcases all over the place. As if being thrown out a lot.
I am not sure if you ascend or descend to the pinnacle of your work. I talk about it in my Vertical Travels. You travel down and up. Either way you discover God. I explore it in my poetry. I experienced tremendous arrivals and departures. Underground always greeted me with the unnamed flowers.
Boy Scout: In a time of faltering news platforms, transient facts and generations who opt for digital currency over great literature, how will the stories of those that came before us survive?
Anton Perich: If we care, they will survive. Only if we care. Our digital currency is nothing if we don’t have the content. The content is made by everyone on this planet. There is everybody’s footprint there. Everyone has the story to tell. But the digital currency is a Trojan Horse. Paying with digital currency, you are completely exposed. Paying with bills, you are free. At least they don’t know what brand of the toilet paper you buy. Losing your right to pay in dollars or dinars, is like losing the right to vote.
Boy Scout: With the eradication of many of New York City’s cultural landmarks through hyper-gentrification, an act that seems to be eroding the soul of many cultural capitals, will our artistic heritages henceforth be confined to yellowing newsprint and the libraries of the past?
Gentrification goes back to Adam. He lived on the street with an apple orchard. Paid probably a little. The other guy had to move. I wrote poems about the snow libraries. Lasting as long as the snowflakes. Technology is always shedding shells. You cannot access old recordings on the obsolete machines. You cannot play the dated data. Nothing beats paper. Look at the Egyptians. We are still reading their papyrus. Somehow, we have to replace silicon with gold. We have to save everything ever written. We have to take responsibility for the culture to survive. For example, the Dark Ages decimated the European culture. Still smoldering. I am concerned about the digital world. Not much more stable than the analog world. So ephemeral. Fading away in front of our eyes.
Boy Scout: As a seminal figure in New York nightlife history, where do you find your motivating heartbeat? Is there still a living, breathing downtown culture?
Anton Perich: Yes, there is a motivating heartbeat, just a different urgency. Culture has it’s own geography. There is no culture without geography. Perhaps it is Brooklyn now. The smaller real estate is, the culture is purer. As if they cannot coexist. It is Manhattan or Brooklyn, not both. I never went to Brooklyn in the 70s. I go there a lot now. But Manhattan is my creative residence.
There is so much art in Brooklyn. Galleries, Music venues. Poetry. Dance. Photography. Paintings. Sculpture. A true renaissance. Young people are extremely creative. There is so much optimism. Where there is optimism, there is no pessimism. I really admire young people, like to be one of them.Radical cultures need radical locations, need ruins and rats. Need trash and broken bottles. Need areas where everything is bent. By the force’s unseen. I must say that I equally like constructions and ruins. At some miraculous point every building will join the ruinhood. Imagine the Empire State Building as a ruin. Probably farmers would take it over and grow strawberries. I see Manhattan as the biggest farming city in America. My ancient home in Croatia contains ruins. It feeds my inspiration without end. Find yourself a ruin and fall in love. Johnny Thunders did, ruins of the broken hearts.
Boy Scout: The late Harry Dean Stanton believed “Everything is predestined. Nothing is important. Life is an illusion. It’s all a movie. Nobody’s in charge” which is lovingly referred to as his Appreciation of Nothing. Do you have a guiding life philosophy that keeps you on the path?
Anton Perich: Life is not an illusion. Life is an emulsion. Like a coral, it is the thinnest top layer that is alive. Life has a very short window. In the now. What is miraculous is that it knows it. I admire Harry Dean Stanton. But I believe that life is the intelligence of billions of turns at crucial points. Probably left turns. We will never understand that intelligence of life. It will remain mystery forever.
Boy Scout: Max’s Kansas City. Studio 54. Chelsea Hotel. The Factory. What feelings do these places elicit in you?
Anton Perich: Culture needs only a few city blocks to thrive. It needs only a few legendary people to incarnate it. Those places, like those people are gone now. But they didn’t leave the void behind. They left myriads of things and ideas. Their remembrances are still oscillating. The absence of the artist is always mythological. Lou Reed, Mapplethorpe, Charles James. To name the three.
Boy Scout: Was there a moment in your artistic life where you took an out-of-character risk and it transformed you?
Anton Perich: Yes, I suffered transformations several times. Suffered, because it requires an earthly pain and ethereal pain. The Lettrist Art movement in Paris transformed me. Photography transformed me. Television work transformed me. Painting machine transformed me.NIGHT publication transformed me. Making a lot of movies transformed me. I must say that through my work I totally transformed myself. Nobody can transform you. It is self-inflicted.
Boy Scout: The last couple of years has seen a country divided. Has the current political climate inhibited or infused your work?
Anton Perich: Yes, the country is Balkanized. I know something about it, I was born there. We always had mad kings, and we survived them. The Berlin Wall is romanticized. Dear Leader is a wall builder, wants to build one thousand times bigger. Definitely infusing. We have a president who is expanding the english language. At least by a dozen words. My favorites are “goodly” and “kafekeke.” We never had a president like that before.
Boy Scout: You have flown the world for work, what have your recent travels taught you?
Anton Perich: Not traveled enough. There is a romantic aspect to travel. Standing still for days to get to your destination. I love that stillness in the airplane seat. Always looking forward to it. I wrote a short story about that stillness. Traveling on airplanes is like growing crystals, that slow. Other people’s cultures don’t always come to us, we have to go there. Travels are essential.
Boy Scout: Does a world of hyper social media intrude on your ability to be your artistic self?
Anton Perich: No. I dealt with it in the early 70s. I was an early pioneer of Cable TV. I made many movies with Taylor Mead. Several of them impersonating president Nixon. Mead was great at creating fake news and using the current media to his advantage. This was in 1973.
Boy Scout: Has your bravery grown through the ages?
Anton Perich: Very rarely in life does one find himself in a situation that requires bravery. You have to know what you are fighting for. Fortunately, I was never in combat. Never put my bravery to test. It was an esthetic combat. An esthetic bravery. The revolution of 1968 was fought on the barricades and fought by sleeping at L’Odeon. I had the most beautiful dreams then. For the first time the youth had an identified enemy. It was their parents. It was first romantic revolution. I was transfixed, I was indoctrinated. It was revolution of the dreams. It shapes your life beyond recognition.
Boy Scout: In a media mad world, can sincerity still be a virtue?
Anton Perich: Yes, sincerity is the language that we are afraid to use. It is one of languages of God. We are insecure uttering it. Also, clarity and intuition are languages of God. Handshakes have that power too. Even today.
Boy Scout: What is your greatest fear?
Anton Perich: That one beautiful day we would be outfitted with metered oxygen masks. Would have to pay the government for fresh air.
Boy Scout: What is your most marked characteristic?
Anton Perich: Always seeing the humor there where is none.
Boy Scout: What do you most value in friendships?
Anton Perich: The total clarity of the words and action. A friend is there to save you from drowning.
Boy Scout: Who are your real life heroes?
Anton Perich: Only the people who risk their own lives in order to save others. The people who will take the bullet.
Boy Scout: Abraham Lincoln said: “To summon up our better angels.” What are the words you live by?
Anton Perich: Do not hurt anybody. Do not hurt anybody.
Boy Scout: From the outset you have lived hand to heart creating some of the most interesting sights and sounds as a filmmaker, photographer and video artist. You also designed an electric painting machine in 1977, which was an early predecessor of the ink jet printer, and launched NIGHT magazine which showcased the nightlife of Studio 54 alongside your regular photographic contributions to Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. Can you describe the act of creating such powerful imagery?
Anton Perich: My photography was too close to the subject, by any standards. It was inside out. Max’s Back Room was inside out. Flavin’s scarlet cross was inside out. The Forrest Myers laser traveled trough your eyes. Pictures in my camera were negatives. upside down negatives. Music was Lou Reed uninterrupted. Gravity was tamed, so you could ascend if you wanted to. Yes, all correct. As artists, we had paint brushes for millennia. Those brushes are the most primitive and most powerful instruments. Sensual and essential. Gave us icons and broken icons. It was a sacrilege in 1977 to introduce an electric brush. It was a sacrilege to create an electric paint brush. It was a sacrilege to paint with AC power. All of that way before it’s time. These days millennials are painting with Epsons.
Boy Scout: As bus boy at Max’s Kansas City armed with a camera, your intoxicating work captured musical, artistic and theatrical entertainers that transfixed the world. In those early years, did the flame of youth fuel your confidence to photograph the unabashed madness and revolutionary characterizations around you?
Anton Perich: Busboy at Max’s and photographer for Warhol’s Interview Magazine. I had the two most glamorous jobs on NY punk scene. They would kill to be featured in Interview. They would kill to enter Max’s. The Back Room was the Sanctuary of Glamour Rock and Punk. David Johansen sat there every night with Johnny Thunders and Wayne County. They shared ideas and looks. Danny Fields sat mostly with Lou Reed, nightly. I photographed everyone every night. That amounts to pure, rarified madness. I was accused of not having film in my camera. Perhaps I didn’t sometimes But that was not important. What was important was the ritual. The performance. Some of my work disappeared. Never found.
Boy Scout: You arrived in New York in 1970 as a Croatian emigre and avant-garde filmmaker, by way of Paris where you were an activist in the Lettrism group during the 68 revolution. Where in the world can you find rough, raw, and revolutionary today? Please share some of the modern artists who move you.
Anton Perich: Chamberlain. Heizer. Schnabel. Shannon. Myers. Zadikian. Shafrazi. All contemporary. All masters. Of course, the Lettrism founder, great Isidore Isou who made a film of himself walking around Paris for hours. He was crucified at the Cannes film festival in the early Fifties.
Boy Scout: Anthony Bourdain’s wrenching “Parts Unknown” finale takes place in New York’s lower East Side where a good deal of your history resides. In that episode, Lydia Lunch says: “People were beautiful, doing things because they had to do it—not because of any other grand idea. Happiness was not the goal; satisfaction was the goal, as it still is. . . . We had to do something because we were burning; our blood was on fire.” Lunch made very clear that in the present day, she wastes no time pining for that bygone time—but Bourdain seemed a little more wistful. As an early cultural revolutionary, are you ever wistful for an older, grittier New York?
Anton Perich: No. She said it right. You have to know that everything happens once. Not twice. The best moments of your life are not sitting at some dark bar waiting to appear in your life again. I was not in NY in the Eighties and the Nineties. I was gone for 20 years. Lived in the country, not far. Nothing was the same when I came back. Twenty years, long enough time for mythologies and metamorphoses to appear. I was active in NY nightlife in the Seventies. The best season in hell.
Boy Scout: You aimed to be the Rimbaud of photography and achieved incredible heights. Can you describe what the commitment of artistic endurance means to you?
Anton Perich: Sometime my work appears to me in the dreams. It is very hard to extract it from there. Like it takes a shipload of the freshly cut roses. Endurance is in the madness.. At the end endurance is in the shipwreck. Don’t forget Rimbaud was a sailor. That is the time when we recognize the parts of God, but not the amount of it’s parts... Rimbaud’s madness was closest to my photography then any other poet’s. I asked people what is photography, no one knows. What is the negative, what is the positive. You can paint an artwork with your hands, but you cannot extract a photograph from the universe with your bare hands. You need an instrument to do it. Rimbaud is the earliest abstract poet. Rimbaud is the poet of the photographic negative.
Boy Scout: Your artistic urges continued beyond photography. You started one of the first underground public-access TV shows. Shot in black and white with special guests like Grace Jones and Salvador Dali. Are you still hungry to explore the decadent dance sounds of club music and disco?
Anton Perich: Yes, Grace Jones was the biggest star of the Underground Disco music. There is nothing better from that time. There is mystery about her like there is mystery about Nico. They both have similar voice, but different. Yes. I realized in 1973 that cable TV public access had a tremendous power. Susan Blond appeared topless in several episodes. It was true American revolution. Television was never the same again.
Boy Scout: What is your greatest regret?
Anton Perich: Not listening to intuition enough. Closing doors to intuition. Not finding language of God in the intuition.
Boy Scout: How would you like to be remembered?
Anton Perich: As a man who rediscovered things. Discoveries are tasks of God.
Boy Scout: There is no shortage today of hands and mouths in need. How do you give back? Are there other issues near and dear that you support? Are you currently aligned with an organization of charity?
Anton Perich: Not much. Some institutions. People in the streets. I see so much pain in the people in the streets. Lots of homeless young people in NY.
Boy Scout: What other projects are you working on now and what does 2019 hold for you?
Anton Perich: 2019 is good year for new beginnings and to do the unfinished works. Photography of the new inspiration. Cinema of hesitations. Paintings of absolute devotion. Writings of upturned arrivals. When you think that you are there, but you are not there at all. I hope to finish the film about girls diving for electric outlets all over the world. How absurd can you get when your phone is dead. You become an instant nobody.