Make Something!: 'Beautiful Losers' Celebrates A Subculture

Aaron Rose's Beautiful Losers, a profile of a community of scruffy DIY (do-it-yourself) artists in 1990s New York City, recalls both Stacy Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys, as a look back on a bracing period of zeitgeist-defining creativity from the perspective of one of the participants, and Morgan Neville's The Cool School, which documents the development of the Los Angeles art scene in the 1950s and '60s. The participants in Beautiful Losers-Shepard Fairey, Mike Mills, Barry McGee and Harmony Korine among them-have for the most part fashioned successful careers out of their outsider beginnings, but the unfettered creative impulse that informed this subculture a decade and a half ago still persists. Rose, whose Alleged Gallery helped to catalyze the scene, went on to produce promos for MTV Networks, and later moved to Los Angeles, where he curates exhibitions, publishes books under his Alleged Press label, and co-edits the Artist Network Program (ANP) Quarterly. In conjunction with the film, Rose is co-curating a large-scale exhibit entitled Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art & Street Culture, which is currently touring the world.

Beautiful Losers opened last month through Sidetrack Films and screens this month in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland. IDA caught up with Rose via e-mail following the New York City opening.

IDA: What inspired you to make this film over a decade and a half after this DIY movement was born?

Aaron Rose: I don't know if there was ever a moment when I realized that the way I grew up, and the cultures I was a part of, would become the base material with which I built my career. Everything I've done in my life has happened pretty much by accident. There was no great scheme and most definitely never any thought that any of this would ever lead anywhere.

In regard to the choice to make this documentary, it also happened pretty organically. I just wake up every morning and kind of take the next logical step. It's just trying to do cool things, do a good job at my work and maybe inspire people in the process. The film came about as the result of that attitude, for sure. I didn't have any aspirations as a filmmaker other than to tell a story that I found inspiring and make something in the process that was kind of cool to look at.

IDA: Did other documentaries such as Hype, Scratch, Infamy or Dogtown and Z-boys play a part in the aesthetic of this film?

AR: I saw Dogtown when it came out, but I've never seen any of those other films. When I draw inspiration from things, they are very rarely from the same medium that I am working in. The aesthetic for Beautiful Losers was as inspired by magazine layouts or old photographs I had seen, or even more so, the work of the artists in the movie, than any particular film reference.

There were a few things that I watched that had nice vibes; I'm a big fan of William Klein's documentaries, so maybe some of that made it into Losers, but to be completely honest, my reference files rarely have images or ideas from other films in them.

The work of Shepard Fairey, one of the artists featured in Aaron Rose's Beautiful Losers (Co-dir.: Joshua Leonard; Prods.: Rich Lim, Jon Barlow). Courtesy of Sidetrack Films.

IDA: How much did your work at MTV Networks producing on-air promos play a role in bringing the underground art scene to cinematic life?

AR: MTV served as a kind of film school for me. Working for them, creating little 30-second spots taught me the basics of shooting and editing in a really simple way. It certainly provided a foundation for me. However, I learned pretty quickly that making a feature film is a whole different story.

IDA: You've moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, from one scene to the next. What have you retained from the early days? What lessons did you take that helped you grow both personally and professionally?

AR: As I attempted to say in the film, the mistakes I've made have ultimately led to the greatest gifts I've ever received. The experiences of my life (and of making this film) have taught me that nothing is that important-and I don't say that as a cop-out. It's just that I truly believe that there is a grand plan for us, and sometimes negative things can happen in your life that are actually a pathway to a new existence.

If there's one lesson I've learned is that you have to work. Working makes everything happen. And when I say work, I don't just mean your profession. I'm speaking of your personal relationships too...and your relationship with yourself.

Margaret Kilgallen, one of the artists featured in Aaron Rose's Beautiful Losers (Co-dir.: Joshua Leonard; Prods.: Rich Lim, Jon Barlow). Courtesy of Sidetrack Films.

IDA: Nike Sportswear has helped to fund the theatrical release of the film. Talk about the workshops that you've developed with Nike in conjunction with the rollout. How much of the Beautiful Losers /Alleged Gallery sense of community play into the growth of these workshops?

AR: The Make Something!! Workshops are the result of an idea that's been floating around in my head for sometime now. Working on the film forced me to reflect on my relationships and what it all means going forward, like, "Now that Beautiful Losers is gonna be out there, it's kind of over!" So I was looking for what could possibly be the next step. I realized through this process that I knew so many incredible creative minds, that if we could open a school it would be the most incredible art school in the world! After doing some research I realized that opening a school isn't as easy as I thought, so the idea to start small came about.

When we were developing ideas for Nike Sportswear to be involved in the film's release, the workshop idea came up. They loved it and agreed to help us put them together. We are running the workshops in three cities right now-New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, 30 classes total, and they are being taught by artists in the film and other creatives from the surrounding communities. We start each class with the students helping to define, using examples from their lives, what it means to be DIY. Once we've talked about this as a group, we start the workshop. The whole project is about empowering young people, the way we empowered ourselves, and helping them to understand that they can really do anything in this life if they just figure out a way to do it themselves.

IDA: How has your film and the Beautiful Losers exhibit been welcomed around the world?

AR: It has been terrific. The exhibition is still on tour in Europe, and over 200,000 people have seen it. The movie just helps things along too. For the most part, audiences have really loved the film. We've heard from three people who have quit their jobs after walking out of the movie! That's crazy! It amazes me to think that a documentary can have that kind of power for someone. I hope it works out for them. With all this stuff we do and make, all we are ever trying to do is make something fun, touching and beautiful to look at. It's pretty simple, really. I hope people can take that away with them and bring it into their own lives.

Amina Zegahr is former executive administrative assistant at the IDA.