Darian Zam – artist, designer, illustrator, social historian, writer
Darian Zam is an artist and designer who has exhibited and published his work for over 20 years in Australia and New Zealand. He has been commissioned by the Powerhouse Museum to design the merchandise for ‘The 80s are back’ exhibition.
What were you doing in the 1980s?
I was the best, most fun thing you could be if you lived in the 80s – a teenager!
I was living in New Zealand at that time so it was isolated and fairly limited, and still more tied to the UK culturally than the U.S. Any music that wasn’t at the very top of the charts had to be ordered as import vinyl from the record store and would take weeks or months if you could get it at all. We also eagerly anticipated our order of music mags like ‘No1′ (Britain) so we could find out what was happening in London, or ‘Smash Hits’ (Australia) for what was going on there. Literally the only way to find out about music releases and fashions was from ads and photos of pop stars in these publications. If it wasn’t on the Saturday night top 20 or on the radio’s Sunday top 40 then forget it. If you wanted cool shoes you had to wait for someone to go overseas and get them for you. I was stuck in West Auckland so I was surrounded by boring suburbanites or hippies. It wasn’t my idea of glamour.
What are your strongest impressions of the 1980s?
Music and fashion. It was an exciting time with a lot of experimentation for us teenagers. A lot of it was kind of do-it-yourself, as I mentioned, it was hard to get stuff down the bottom of the world and it was pretty dull for choice – we couldn’t Google anything or check websites or even buy online. It was pitiful when you think back! Computers and CDs, let alone MP3s weren’t part of our lives. It seems quite isolated now, and a whole planet away even though it’s only 20 years or so.
So there was a lot of fabric painting and refashioning vintage clothes, which were just becoming an idea in the mid 80s. It was considered shocking to wear ‘old clothes’; it was such an upwardly mobile environment where everything was shiny and new – it was all about convenience. A lot of safety pins, badges and jewellery to customise the look. Forget the accounts of how outré the decade was. It was so conservative really – people would just gawk at you if you so much as blonded your hair, like you’d just arrived from outer space. To me the decade is clearly gradated from one end where it was daggy, clunky, and hideous (‘Footloose’ still makes me shudder) to the end where it was actually quite cool, glamorous and exciting. Perhaps that had to do with my age as well.
What historical event of the 1980s has most resonance for you? Why?
I remember there being a huge amount of excitement over every detail of the wedding of Charles and Diana. Everyone was obsessed with that big meringue of a dress! How many smaller countries of the British Empire were bankrupted over that thing? It was disgustingly decadent, not in a good way, when you look back at it.
I also remember the shock of the Rainbow Warrior bombing as it happened right in my city only 20 minutes drive from where we lived – people were just sick with disbelief and outrage.
Also there was a lot of development as huge areas of the city were razed ‘in the name of progress’, (ie corporate greed), and subsequent protests over the demolition of historic buildings. I went to the His Majesty’s Theatre protest to demonstrate, for one. People were up in arms – but they pulled it down anyway.
I remember being roused in the early hours of the morning to see Halley’s Comet which was all blurry because I was half asleep and entirely grumpy. I was a teenager so I really didn’t give a toss about current events or politics, but I really cared about my hair!
One event I think that really changed everything for me was a student exchange program at school. We got this kid from Los Angeles, a punk. He had an overcoat and studs and an American drawl and brought all his records with him. He was bad ass, and we got on like a guitar on fire. We were desperate for anything American then, believe it or not – anything different.
What was an event/party/pub session/nightclub of the 80s that stands out?
There were a lot. We would see just about any live act we could get a ticket for because it was so limited. Imagine how many overseas acts came to that little country then. Nobody! Mostly we were just fantasising about it! I remember seeing ‘The Jesus and Mary Chain’ and getting on the front page of the paper because it qualified as ‘news’ of interest. One club I remember was called The Fingerpop Club and everyone would get there before it opened on Saturday nights and parade around in the courtyard in front of everyone showing off their new look. It was a lot of fun creating your clothes and hair for that night and seeing how much you could shock or outdo everyone. Such poseurs!
Any memories (fond or foul) of what you were wearing in the 1980s?
Where do you start? You could write an essay on it. It was punk, it was romantic, it was Goth, it was retro Americana, it was a combination of a bunch of things. Lots of accessories, bandanas, hats and little suitcases, doctor’s bags or children’s lunch boxes. Back then you could get amazing stuff from op shops without trying too hard. I had just about every colour and style of hair. I was always in trouble at school for what I was wearing or my fringe and almost got expelled a couple of times for my dress sense. The headmaster despised me and thought I was the end of civilization. I found it so frustrating being stuck in that town in that little country when there was all this excitement going on in New York and London and Sydney. If you ask any of my friends about the 80s, they have story after story of some ridiculous hairdo I had, or some obscenely over-the- top outfit I wore. There were some basics that were a must-have though, like Doc Martens boots, army surplus, especially overcoats, and a vintage cardigan. The rest you could mix and match. I never went anywhere without a can of hairspray and am personally responsible for part of the hole in the Ozone Layer. That said, for all the unconventional looks people remember, there was just as much disgusting dagginess and humdrum junk – that hasn’t changed.
What music/movies/TV engaged you in the 1980s, and now?
Just anything on New York, London or Sydney and the clubs. The ones that stood out for me were movies about anyone who was ‘different’ like ‘Pretty in Pink’, Molly Ringwald wearing vintage clothes which as almost unheard of. Ally Sheedy as the introverted artist and all the other misfits in ‘Breakfast Club’. I was completely taken with the style of Melanie Griffith’s character in ‘Something Wild’ and Madonna in ‘Desperately seeking Susan’. All those bangles and necklaces, and the hatbox with all the grafitti and decoupage! I also remember being really excited about ‘Mondo New York’, which was about the downtown Manhattan scene, featuring The B52s, Joey Arias, John Sex, Lydia Lunch and Karen Finley. It was SO exciting. I just wanted to jump on a plane and move there to do performance art.
What were you listening to – and was it on a Walkman?
I had a turntable as well as a Walkman, of course. Mostly I was interested in more alternative music, or electronic music like The Cure and Depeche Mode – neither of which are considered outrageous now, in fact almost the opposite. But then it was very different and shocking, and people thought it was just noise, crap. I would be heaped with abuse!
What did you do for entertainment/leisure then and now? (Did it include computer games or the Rubik’s Cube?)
I remember those little hand-held games like Donkey Kong. Definitely a lot of Space Invaders. Roller-skating was big. Going to the movies to see ‘Fright Night’ or ‘Poltergeist’. Mostly it was sitting at friends’ houses listening to the latest 12 inch mix of a single that had just come in, if we were lucky to get our hands on something. There was a lot of hair teasing and cigarette smoking and sneaking drinks from parents’ cocktail bars. As the 80s progressed, we were more sophisticated: Japanese cuisine was new and extremely glamorous, or a café, then maybe a nightclub. No, we certainly didn’t sit around playing with Rubik’s Cubes! Are you mad?
What are some of the major changes for you from then to now?
In the 80s I was obsessed with Andy Warhol and all I wanted to do was go to New York, and befriend him and become a famous artist. Then in 1987 he died and I was devastated. I would never get to meet him and become one of his superstars! I also remember Black Monday the same year being the cap of a rather a glum period, especially for people who were business entrepreneurs like my father, but as a kid you couldn’t really understand. All I could see was Haring, Basquiat and Kostabi becoming feted and rich in Manhattan, and so being creative seemed like a very feasible and glamorous career. It’s simply the difference between being a teen and being nearly forty! Now experience has just ground me down and I have a horrifyingly definite reality of how the business works… if only we could stay that naïve forever!
What was a prized object you owned then (and do you still have it)?
I have a handmade badge I painted that I wore for years that said ‘CULTURE HERO’. I thought it was the coolest thing. I still have some beautiful, handmade vintage waistcoats I had then. The little old ladies at Vinnies would see me coming, and say, ‘Something came in this week we saved for you dear…’ I mean, nobody else wanted it. I still have them but of course now I can’t fit into them…
What event (personal or public) in the 1980s would you either revisit or undo if you could?
If anything I wish I had been far more outrageous and cared less what people said and even less what they thought of me. In youth you can get away with just about anything but of course then, you don’t know that everything eventually sags, expands, and falls apart. You just don’t have the experience or power to stand up for yourself or what you believe in when you’re young a lot of the time. There’s a few teachers I would tell to go screw themselves if I could travel back in time.
Anything else you’d like to share with us about your 1980s?
I think that people look back and package the 80s up as this very superficial decade of excess, where we all just pranced around with enormous hair and ra-ra skirts drinking chardonnay at French bistros. They look back at a decade where they think all the political work of the 60s and 70s was undone by ‘greed is good’. This is not necessarily true. I remember a lot of political action. Look what was going on with Thatcher and Regan. It was rather grim really, not to mention the AIDS crisis which dear Ronald deliberately ignored. It was quite conservative and dull unless you were prepared to seek out things that were exciting. It wasn’t all fruity cocktails, chromed highrise bars and celebrities. But it was all there to be had if you really wanted it, with mile high hair moussed on end.
What do you think are the main differences between the 80s and how the world and/or your life is today?
Obviously the main difference is the Internet. It very much determines how we shape our lives, and how we are in turn approached. In the 80s, as I’ve outlined, we had no freedom in comparison to now – there just weren’t the avenues. Because there is so much to explore and discover without even leaving the house – I think that big corporations and organisations don’t have a stranglehold on limited information highways with product or beliefs. It’s great for creative people like bands because they can promote themselves, build up a fanbase and sell records without a big company behind them. On the down side, people are a lot lazier physically and probably mentally because so much is delivered to them on a platter. People are a bit more environmentally conscious, but how much are they actually doing about it? The jury is out on that one, but still, I shudder to think what we were doing back then that we didn’t have a high awareness of the ramifications. Chernobyl, anyone?
Something amusing is that teenagers today are wearing exactly what we were wearing 20 years ago, thinking they’ve invented the wheel. The flat canvas shoes, saggy cardies, stovepipes and oversize tees, quirky hats. They smirk but they don’t know we invented it. Been there, done that, kids. There’s a lot of noise about teens today being the new conservatives. What a hideous idea. Live it up while you can I say.