Director Steve Onderick spent a year on the road with the last absurdist in American politics.
The first time I saw Vermin Supreme was behind a line of riot police on a muggy day at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Or rather, I saw his rubber boot, the one he wears on his head, rising above the shiny black helmets of the cops and a sweaty mass of Occupy protesters beyond them. The crowd was trying to get closer to Bank of America Stadium, where politicians and Democratic Party delegates were cloistered, past a series of militarised checkpoints. A solid bloc of cops were standing in their way, billy clubs hanging at their sides. It was a surly scene, intensified by a muggy August heat that had sweat dripping down the back of everyone's neck.
In the midst of it all, speaking soothingly into a megaphone about loving your fellow man, was Vermin Love Supreme, shirtless, red cape and his signature Wellington boot on his head. A perennial stunt candidate, Supreme has been running for various elected offices since the late 1980s, including mayor of Baltimore and Detroit, and most famously, president of the United States.
Any reporter or activist who has spent much time around electoral politics have likely run across Supreme at one point or another. Others might have seen a video of him glitter bombing pro-life extremist Randall Terry at a 2011 "lesser-known candidates forum" in New Hampshire. Supreme describes himself as a "friendly fascist." His platform includes compulsory tooth-brushing and giving every American a pony. A benevolent tyrant, then.
Now, after three decades of Supreme's freak campaigns, someone finally decided to get to the bottom of the act. A new documentary, Who is Vermin Supreme? An Outsider Odyssey, directed by Steve Onderick and funded through Kickstarter, held its first non-festival screening in Boston last week. We caught up with Onderick to talk about the film, and find out what it's like to spend a year on the road with one of the most enigmatic performance artists in American politics.
VICE: When did you first discover Vermin Supreme? How did you decide to make this documentary?
Steve Onderick: I first ran into Supreme at the NATO Summit protests in Chicago in 2012. I was there to film the protests, and I just happened to find him on the street. I was familiar with him because of the glitter bomb video. I thought the video was funny, but seeing him at NATO protest, that proved to me that there was something else to what he was doing. It was sort of performance art and comedy in the context of protest.
I don't know whether it was just sloppy police work or what, but the cops started surrounding everybody at the end of the march because they'd gone over the time limit on the demonstration permit. Hundreds of state police had been brought in as reinforcements. Panic was sort of rising, and I think five or six people tried to run through the police line. Vermin came in and started doing a comedy routine, saying stuff to the police like, 'Come out with your hands up and your pants down. We have you surrounded by love.'
How long were you on the trail with him?
Let's see, from May 2012 in Chicago, we went to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the presidential debates in Long Island, the Rainbow Gathering, up through the inauguration in [Washington] DC, where Vermin went and tried to inaugurate himself. I would go back to Boston in between events, and then drive or fly out to meet him. There was a lot of sleeping on couches. Vermin knows a lot of people in a lot of different cities, so he would have places where we'd crash.
The 2012 campaign was a particularly interesting year for him because he did a lot of collaboration with other performance artists. Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is Too Damn High Party was officially his running mate, and Rob Potylo, who's a Boston musician, was out there with him. It was pretty surreal to see them all together, these talented guys who all do different, weird performance art. There are some endearing scenes of Potylo and Vermin singing songs for police.
Vermin Supreme strikes me as kind of the spiritual heir to the Yippies and some of that '60s absurdist politics. What's your take on his project and what he's trying to do?
His project is interesting. He recognised that people will respond a lot more positively to absurdity and humour. A lot of the more conventional tactics, the public and police have seen them so many times that it doesn't affect them much. You can walk in the street with a sign and yell at the cops, people have seen that a hundred times.
So you have the entertainment aspect, but beyond that his form of campaigning –what he calls campaigning – is pretty cool. He's physically pressing the limits of free speech and the First Amendment. There's some people who take it for granted that we have free speech in the US There's another category who see it's not actually working out that way. Vermin takes a third path and goes to these events and tries figure out the limits of where he can go. How close can he get to Barack Obama or the Republican National Convention. What he finds are all these weird and inconsistent stipulations. You know, the police telling you that you can stand on this corner but not that one, or can walk down the street one direction but not the other.
Vermin gets arrested very rarely for the kind of things he does. He has the experience and knows how to deal with the cops. His wife Becky will come along with him. There's one scene where she's talking to a cop and schmoozing him up and explaining what's going on.
You mentioned the Rainbow Gathering. And Vermin Supreme was also associated a lot with the Occupy movement. What are his actual politics beneath the "friendly fascist" act?
He will definitely call himself a social anarchist. He recognises there are limitations to that view, but he definitely hangs out with a lot of oddballs. He's learned a lot at the Rainbow Gathering, because he's been going there for about 20 years.
I've never been to the Rainbow Gathering. What was that like?
The reductive way to describe it is thousands of hippies hanging out in the woods, but the Rainbow Gathering is very different. While they're there they refer to the outside world as Babylon. It's like stepping into a foreign landscape.
The Rainbow Gathering was right at the beginning of the project. Vermin asked me to come down to gathering and meet him. The thing is Vermin doesn't have a cell phone. So there's 15,000 hippies there, and he says, "Oh, just find me." It took a couple days of searching. Maybe he wanted to test me or something.
[He] and his wife have a small house up in the woods [on Massachusetts' North Shore], and he's surrounded the place by all this bizarre art. He's kind of the real deal. He's living the eccentric lifestyle and has devoted most of his life to these political and comedic activities. He makes some extra money painting houses. He's sort of living in the style of the Rainbow Gathering.
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