"Shock art" director Ira Isaacs is about to go on trial for obscenity
Next month, Ira Isaacs, a 57-year-old Los Angeles–based video director will sit center stage at what may be the most extreme obscenity trial in U.S. history. Last July, the Department of Justice's Obscenity Prosecution Task Force handed down an eight-count federal obscenity indictment charging Isaacs with four counts of using an interactive computer service to sell and distribute obscene videos, two counts of using a common carrier to distribute obscene videos, and two counts of failing to properly label sexually explicit films with information proving its performers were of legal age when the videos were made. (The last two counts have since been dropped.)
There's no question the titles are extreme: Laurie's Toilet Show, Mako's First Time Scat, Gang Bang Horse (Pony Sex Game), and Hollywood Scat Amateurs No. 7—the last of which Isaacs directed himself—feature coprophagy and bestiality. The question is if they are obscene. Isaacs, who grew up poor in the South Bronx and now lives with his girlfriend in the Hollywood Hills, talked to Radar about why his work is really art, what happens when the Feds come for you, and how his story is like Kafka.
RADAR: How did you get started making these movies?
IRA ISAACS: When the Internet was happening, I wanted to enter it in some way, and I wanted to do something different. In the past, you needed a lot of money and people to make a movie. Until video cameras were invented. Then the Internet was a big breakthrough for distribution. So, I started making a lot of money with these fetish shock videos. I was distributing shock art films from Europe.
What do you mean by "shock art films"?
You talk about art? What is art? Art is what artists do. If it shocks you, it's art. One of the things art should do is make you think and question things. Shock art has always been something that has been a very popular thing through the 20th century and the 21st century. People used feces as shock art. There was a guy who shit in a can and sold it for the price of gold. [In 1961, Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni canned his feces in 90 tins and sold them for the price of their weight in gold.] So, the Internet allowed me to be an artist, to reach a lot of people. It allowed me to be on the edge, to do what I would never do as a fine artist. If you're going to paint, you've got to compete with Picasso. If you want to write a great classical music piece, you're competing with Mozart. I would never write anything like Kafka's The Trial. If I was going to make a mark, I was going to do it in some extreme shock way.
What kind of videos were they exactly?
Scat videos. I don't want to say this is porn because I don't think it is. But it had a niche market that made me money. I don't see myself as part of the adult industry. I don't think the people watch my stuff to watch sex. They can watch porn for that. That doesn't mean they don't masturbate to [my videos]. People masturbate to everything.
Then you started directing these videos yourself.
I was one of the first to do this. Getting actresses to participate in this art venture is not the easiest thing in the world. Picasso had problems as well. And [Marcel] Duchamp with the toilet [Urinal, a signed urinal exhibited in an art gallery]. [James Joyce's] Ulysses was up for obscenity. I felt like I'm never going to be a great musician, I'm never going to be a great oil painter. Here, I had a chance to shock a lot of people. My movies that I make, there's a lot contrast, there's a lot of social commentary. How people deal with taboos. How people see something so mundane. The contrast between feces and a beautiful girl. Good and evil. I always wanted to put some Bach behind some of this [as a soundtrack]. I always thought that would be a great idea. But these ideas don't always manifest themselves. Basically, I would either run an ad in the L.A. Weekly, or I knew girls in the adult industry who would do it to make money. And they tell their friends.
Why would the women do it?
Money has something to do with it. I don't know. Money was probably a big motivator. Some like being involved in extreme stuff. No one would do it for free.
Who watches it?
Until I saw "2 Girls 1 Cup," I wouldn't have thought so many regular people would want to watch this stuff. There are millions of people watching it. For now, it's probably most people like the shock value of it. This is art that asks questions about what's ugly, acceptable, taboo. It takes something mundane, like going to the bathroom, and puts it in a new light. It inspires people. Just because it has sex in it and deals with a subject matter that isn't typically in art doesn't mean it isn't art. People have done stuff with feces before. And crazier stuff than this. Like cutting up animals. I never shot bestiality videos. I had girls who wanted to do it. But I'm an animal lover. That's illegal. I decided not to do it.
Were you worried about getting busted?
January 17 , I'm going to my office in Koreatown, and there's 20 to 25 FBI agents. They're in my office. They're in my hallway. There's these two big guys. "Are you Mr. Isaacs?" they say. "Come with me." They walk me down the hallway, into my office. There's FBI all over the place. But I'll tell you, they were very, very pleasant people. They were really nice. Those guys would rather be fighting terrorism than being the sex police. The FBI guy was as curious as you are. He asked me, "Off the record," he asked me, "How do you convince girls to do this kind of stuff?" I said, "I do it very well."
They offered to cut you a deal.
Then they offer me a plea deal. I met with them at the beginning of March . They say, "Take a year and half." I said no. Then they call me up, and they say four months in prison and four months house arrest. And I turned that down. I'm going to tell you why I turned it down. I've always been a real strong person. I felt if I took this, I don't know if I could live with myself. I could live with going to prison. I thought, Martha Stewart went to prison. But I don't believe this stuff is obscene. I think we have a right to see it, to sell it, and I can't look at this stuff and say, "I sold out."
So you were indicted.
In July , they indict me. This has all been very surreal. I'm a big Kafka fan. I always dreamed to be Josef K. [the central character of Kafka's The Trial, who wakes up one morning to find he is being prosecuted for an unknown crime]. And now I am. I'm rereading the book, and I see the similarities. In fact, the director's credit I use in all my films is Josef K. I am Josef K., the character. Now I get to play Josef K. I get to go to court and do all these things. This whole thing is art. Now I get my 15 minutes of fame.
Is that what you wanted?
That's not what I wanted. It's a stressful situation. Like the Kafka character, we tend to delude ourselves. Maybe I'm in the middle of a performance piece.
Your trial starts next month.
Part of me, I'm scared. It's a trial. I'm excited, actually. I'm going to take the stand and defend [these videos] as well. I'm not denying I sold [the videos]. I'm going talk about shock art. This kind of stuff I produce and sell, it has serious artistic value.
Do you think you'll be found guilty?
I think I'm either gonna get a not guilty or a mistrial or a hung jury. It's hard to find 12 unreasonable people in L.A. And the videos, they're not obscene. The way the law is, you have to prove three things. It will appeal to the prurient interest. That it will offend. That it has no serious, literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. I think the jury is going to realize there's scientific value. It's like Viagra. It's good for you to get turned on. It's an aid to turn you on. Obscenity is based on sex. Why should sex be exempt from the First Amendment? It's because of uptight people. The Klan is more offensive than what I do.
Have you ever appeared in your own movies?
My penis occasionally makes an appearance in these videos.
Are you turned on by your own work?
It doesn't do anything for me.
Are you in a relationship?
I have a girlfriend. She's Japanese.
Obscenity is based on sex. Why should sex be exempt from the First Amendment? What does she think of what you do?
She doesn't care. She was shocked this [the indictment] could even happen. I go to Amsterdam quite a bit. Dutch people are great. No matter how bad they think America is, the First Amendment is one thing they like. I tell them [about the indictment], and they say, "I thought you had freedom of speech?" Yeah, if you're a Nazi, but not if it's about sex. This fetish, this kind of stuff is more popular than you might think. I hear from doctors and lawyers. You think it's the child molesters in the back alley. I would say the more educated you are, the more open you are to different things. Creative things.
Some feminists would like to have your head, I'd imagine.
I'm probably exploiting women less than if they worked at Burger King. Have you ever worked at a fast food place? You get exploited a lot on earth. Everyone consents to do things. Everyone in [these videos] consents. To see it, to be in it.
Do you care what people think of you?
I really don't care what people think. I can't worry about that. As an artist, I can't worry about what you're going to think, what they're going to think, and hopefully, this has some substance.
Some people would say you're a monster.
So maybe I'm a monster.
Do you have any regrets now that you're looking at doing time?
The only thing I regret is not putting Bach in the background.