The Joys and Sorrows of Evanescent Cinema
A Depression-era summer camp allowed me to stay for the summer rather than the two weeks given other slum kids. This I figure was why I got the lead in Jack And The Beanstalk, a shadowplay presented against a stretched bedsheet: I was there long enough to learn the part. The giant was a camper sitting on the shoulders of a counselor, a towel hung over the boy's head joining his shadow to the counselor's. A storyteller did the voices. Bare as it was on my side of the sheet, the campers watching our shadows laughed and applauded, yelling for Jack to run when the giant awoke. No-one fussed over me afterwards that I recall; it wasn't praise that would move me to a lifetime investigation of shadows. And in fact I myself saw little of the shadowplay from the performers' side, where I was told to not watch the screen. Cops-and-robbers was acting, most play was play-acting, so it wasn't acting that was special. What struck was the divide of the screen itself, the make-do improvising on one side and the exalted impression of it on the other, where it was thought that I had climbed to where a giant's castle rested on a cloud.
The machine phenomena of film would be the thing that grabbed me in later years. It was an enormous move then, before remotes, from moviegoer to where on the inside it was possible to stop and look around between frames. Where you could see what made the movies tick. Making works that displayed mechanism, emphasizing tension between means and appearance was Modernism, and political inasmuch as it shared in the historical move to demystify power's projection of image, aka The Toto (pull-back-the-curtain) Effect. I was studying painting then, on 8th Street, the right place at the right time, after the jolt of Cubism had demolished convincing illusion as a pictorial value. Cinema for me would remain a playing on the margin of illusion and its imminent collapse into evident means, the drama of a tottering pretense, without the anxiety-addiction we celebrate as story (an unconvincing story would be okay, with the audience having to actively make-believe). The last thing I wanted a viewer to be thinking about was what was going to happen next and will Happy Ending arrive on time. No suspense! Only the now, as with paintings, with beginnings and endings far from one's thoughts. From the start there was the allure of the loop.
Now the saturday-matinee kids could follow the perilous trials of Being itself. There would be no fooling my audience. (Houdini was a great modernist, he in effect said, "I'm no magician, no-one is. I do tricks, on a stage." He put fear in the hearts of all those operating house-of-worship scams. But even he never thought of demonstrating to the audience how the trick is done and then doing it.) We would collaborate, audience and I, in fooling the senses, while knowing the laugh was ultimately on ourselves, banished from knowledge of what things were beyond the faulty evidence of the senses. Our laugh would be part good-natured and part shit-eating, in the way that a conscious person resigns to a life-sentence of conscious error and even embraces it. I would show audiences the parts I would be bringing together, for instance with The Nervous System: twin filmprints, stop-motion projectors, a shuttling or revolving shutter, but now look. Irony would remain an enduring attitude whether staging Jack Smith's mock-grandiose gestures or in breaking the good-taste barrier by entering into "gimmicky" 3D. Irony is intimate, inclusive, a wink passed between sender and receiver. Irony says I'm kidding, this work is only-kidding squared and what I aim to create is only-kidding to the highest denominator, some unimaginable penultimate goof one can't begin to imagine but must arrive at artwork by artwork, an existential clowning beyond the beyond.
Which is not the same as trying to be funny or the works intended as jokes. An instance of a no-film/no-video cinema work taken for a joke was a finder, more elaborate than most, built as a one-day installation on the ferry plying between The Battery and Staten Island. It was prompted by the annual New York Avant Garde Festival that Charlotte Moorman (notorious as Nam June Paik's bare-breasted bass fiddle player) would drive into happening despite her own continuing poverty, each year in still other unexpected venues as she ingeniously engaged with the city as a showplace that would good-heartedly make its docks and subways and parks whatever open to the scurrilous avant-garde, and entirely due to her personality it did. You want the Charlotte Moorman story. I was only one of hundreds of artists she'd sweet-talk into extrordinary feats of performance. Flo and I carried, from Ferry Street alongside Brooklyn Bridge to The Battery, a painted (shiny bright red on the outside, dull black inside) plywood stall, like a small outhouse, open to one side and high enough and just wide enough for one person to step into. We fastened it to the ferry facing forwards and then, return trip, it was a zoom shot facing backwards towards Staten Island (the dramatic New York-facing side of the ferry had been taken, but Staten Island worked fine).
Stepping into the dark stall one could steady oneself holding a wooden bar and lean forward to look through a slit towards another cutout, in a second blackened panel a foot away, having the dimensions of a widescreen movie. A second such arrangement of peephole-slit and widescreen-finder was available below for children to look through. The finders transformed the seeing of approach and departure, the side to side jockeying of the ferry into docking position; one now saw a 3D movie. Pictorial events took place within the rectangle at the same time that you could feel with your whole body massive motions connected to what you saw, the picture wagging the ferry, and hear tremendous related surround-sounds especially when the ferry would go crunching against the piles and the picture would settle for awhile in a grand confluence of energies. Kids were more likely to catch the quality of transformation and stay with it. For adults (Flo and I spied, hungrily observing responses) it was more often a shaggy-dog "stunt", as if the whole point was to trick them into a box to see the same thing available to see outside of it.
Attached below are some of the program notes I wrote over the years. Many years, when many works came and went with little notice. They're gone, and that's something one has to live with doing ephemeral things. (It's not so bad, must everything be disembodied reproduction? A reason early talkies have so much flavor other than the churches had yet to succeed in emasculating them was that a new wave of performers had been swept in from life-experience, the ultimate improvisation. Hired by the Warner brothers they hit their marks running, pulling in their backgrounds after them. They were redolent with life. I swear I can smell Joan Blondell's armpits. Their personalities preceded their personas. "Be Yourself", Fanny Brice advised.) What I got to calling paracinema, things like shadowplay, would cross into the divine transiency of theater. Richard Levine disapproved, saying paracinema like paramedic and paralegal indicated a lesser cinema, not the real thing, not an equivalent cinema created by other than filmic means or by using film in other than standard ways; equivalent, or parallel to, is what I had meant to convey. I suspect few people buy that. And that for most people performance is wishy-washy compared to the finality of film. In the can, every frame accounted for, decisions decisions decisions, and no less alive for that. But both abstract-expressionism and jazz improvisation had impressed me deeply. Glenn Gould got flack for moving from concertizing to edited interpretations. I transgressed in the other direction; after the very earliest public screenings projectionists had been tamed and toying with direction and tempo gave way to uninterrupted absorption in subject matter. Film was relegated to straight-ahead fixed-speed carrier ("Tote that star! Deliver that story!"), mechanism was expected to remain humbly invisible and not interrupt the trance. Invisibility would be furthered by developments in synch-sound, wide-screen color and verisimilitudinous 3D as predicted in Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, though falling short of The Feelies. Somewhere there is film, sitting alongside the sunset, both wondering why hardly anyone comes around anymore to see them do their stuff.
I've written about the informal performances I'd put on for friends with my first projector, paid for with mustering-out pay from the Coast Guard, a silent 16mm. Kodak Analyst limited to 400 foot reels. Designed for fast-slow to-and-fro study of golfstick swings and strafings by airplane gunners, for me it meant the thrill of seeing the minutia of the photographed world circle and dance over and over in an elastic time. I looked at every sort of filmic thing, with perhaps the richest payoff coming from repeat viewings of ROSE HOBART, the original spliced strand, lent to me by Joseph Cornell. Joseph Cornell, progenitor of THE DOCTOR'S DREAM. I did not call him Joe. I've spoken caustically of him, unfairly; he was so crazy-making at a time when I was so desperate, so hungry...for food, and he was so obtusely self-centered (young and hungry Brakhage had also been served a few peas stranded on a heavy foot-wide plate). The girlfriend working at MoMA had been the connection, one hoped, to a ludicrous but salaried position putting his drawers of thousands of cutouts in order (paperdolls of little girls and 18th Century divas, what would "order" have meant?) which never worked out despite many "interviews" where only Cornell spoke, at length, of subtle insults and injuries that hadn't got past him however respectful the manner had been. She encouraged me to show him some of STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH but I knew he couldn't give it his attention or would be offended if he did. The one time I brought along Jack Smith the big babies hated each other at first sight. Suffice to say he was generous in his way, freely lending me films from his brilliant collection of disregarded wonders like The Belcher Sisters, meaty stage-tumblers in white gymnast outfits, hilariously appropriate to Kodak Analyst study.
TOM, TOM, THE PIPER'S SON grew -spontaneously- out of those ecstatic "motion-studies" in the same way STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH had come out of the balmy street-theater, or shenanigans, Jack and I amused ourselves with in defiance of the stultifying fascism-in-the-saddle 'Fifties. "God" made me sick but I did share a deep faith in the subconscious, and in the same way that one does not ponder the course of a dream before dreaming it I didn't give much thought to what I would be doing beyond each day's filming, figuring that just as with the dream any underlying necessity to the movie would make itself known in the doing. Which is what happened, not that I think this is the way for everyone to work. Editing SSTD was a matter of watching many moments of wild release in the shooting now leap to join in sequential sense, snapping into place. The rough idea had been enough. I had to have known on some level what I was doing and where I was going.
But it wasn't until Jonas Mekas presented an Expanded Cinema series in 1965 that I first went public with live performance, predictably an elaborate shadowplay, THE BIG BLACKOUT OF '65: THIRTIES MAN (the city had recently undergone a massive, gorgeous, surreal power breakdown). Our friend Noel Sheridan of the cameo profile was a painter with a background in Irish theater and he supplied the shadow for Thirties Man, willowy Flo dancing onstage in the role of His Girl. We rehearsed assiduously in our Ferry Street loft alongside the Brooklyn Bridge. There was no opportunity, however, for a dress rehearsal on-site. Sharing an evening crowded with other events (would you believe it? Joan Miro appeared, tiny and pink, but only stayed for Paik's piece), we quickly hung our paper screen with the audience watching and then, on the run, positioned lights and props and performers behind it. It was now the moment: all the theater lights went off and....we couldn't see a thing. Absolute blackness. Where were my light switches? I was feeling my way around the stagefloor muttering "shit..fuck..goddam..", Noel serenely holding his initial pose. Absolute darkness was something that hadn't come up during rehearsals, we weren't prepared with even a single flashlight. Beloved pot-head assistant Al Valentine flicked on his cigarette-lighter and we began. So many mistakes. I had to repeatedly call Al to pick up on his cues, he'd stand entranced by the action on the screen. Finally, Noel and Flo did their shadow-bows and I immediately pulled down and balled up the paper screen and ran out with it, mortified. And yet when audience members did see me again it was to tell me they loved it. "But you didn't see it in rehearsal...." A year and a half went by before there was another opportunity to perform, when we had to re-learn the whole thing detail by detail, mostly from Noel who somehow retained all his moves and who would later restage a variant of it in Australia. Ah, shadowplay. Time-labor intensive! and then it's done and gone. Like staging a movie in real-time and then no movie.
Seduced by depth. Mike and Joyce Snow give us a 9" b/w fishbowl-shaped tv (it appears in THE WHIRLED). Flo sends me to get an item from the drugstore. At the counter a display, never seen before or since, rows of glitzed-up cardboard spectacles: See TV in 3D $1. I snicker and leave, circle and re-enter. We have very few dollars and Flo says, "More magic beans, Ken?" (Had I but known what the specs would lead to I could've said, "Yes! yes! and this time I get to keep the golden egg!") The tv does not spring open but enough odd moments happen to keep me at it. One day a ticker-tape parade (3 blocks away) is broadcast and I call to Flo, "It works!" In fancying up and complicating the spectacles to look worth a dollar ($10 today) the makers had confused what I'd later learn was the Pulfrich Pendulum Effect (see my movie GLOBE, 1969). Better to've sold an inch square of dark plastic with one line of instructions: Place before eye to side that foreground objects are moving, keep both eyes open. Taking the specs apart and much trial and error revealed what was working. E.L. Gregory's "Eye And Brain" (thanks, Jonas) would explain how. I shared the going contempt for 3D in the wake of BWANA DEVIL. Hans Hofmann had stressed the primacy of the surface, even as depth was to be constantly referenced; seeming contradictions were breaking my head. One day, laughing, he said, "People think Mondrian is flat!" Mondrian was not flat? I would've been ashamed to admit to Hofmann that a cheap trick was luring me from classic concerns of 2D/3D tension to "violating" the picture-plane.
But things were happening with the muscles of my eyes and I was feeling the impact of volumes everywhere. Depth was extending, I mean apprehension of depth, the seeing of it at greater distances (depth contracts with distance, expands up close; there's too little difference between perspectives 2 1/2" apart for most of us to see depth past 25-40 feet, however we might think we do). Spatial anomalies were becoming evident, where the optical effects of motion and color would cause lesions in what I knew were flat surfaces. Yet Hofmann was saying the worst thing a painter could do was "make holes".
Compound or multiple depth readings of surface signs was desirable. Subtly planted signifiers that made for solid/open-area interchange vitalized the picture-plane. Actual illusion-making, like Dali's painted-pairs copied from stereo Kodachromes, was entirely off the grand concourse initiated when Cezanne began to paint the argument of left and right eye perspectives that distended his crockery. I so respected Hofmann and his ideas, as I understood them, that slipping into 3D illusionism felt blasphemous. Even today I sometimes tell audiences my work is too easy on them, too out-there in its effects, depriving them of the opportunity to grapple with a picture-plane that, in its eternal instant, holds all back-and-forth and identity changes simultaneously in the perfect formula making up its surface-display.
Beginning in the early Fifties, without knowing others were doing similar things (when I did learn I stopped), I was creating small-scale Happenings. Not public spectacles but purely for the benefit of their few art-minded participants. Aimless esthetic actions, looking surreal but not really. Concerns being more architectonic, they were dances that didn't look like dances, conditioned by location, incorporating objects on an equal footing with persons. The quotidian with sensibilities turned on. Happenings were in the air, perhaps because much of what was then contemporary painting could support the description Action Painting. The way paint clung to the canvas directed attention to the artist's body movements in placing it there. Had it been dripped or flung? you imagined the artist dripping and flinging. Had a wide brush rippled paint in a wide swath across the canvas? That placed in mind a hand loading the brush with paint from a bucket, an arm swinging, a muscular forearm. The canvas reflected choreographic activity. Paint applications joined to shape the plastic idea at the same time that they related the drama of their arriving there, including -very important- sequence of application: was this patch placed before or after -and does it lay under or over- this or that neighboring patch? The difference could start a revolution....in one's idea of what was what and where in depth. It was like studying the scene of a crime and arriving at more than one plausible idea of what had happened. Developments in painting meant something then; the arts were far less crowded, with far less rings in the circus; an intellectual was more likely to be a Renaissance Man or Woman as it was still possible to follow the smaller spread of developments. The cost of living was cheaper. Landlords had not yet conspired with politicians to tighten the screws, New Deal protections were still in effect and lives needn't be dedicated to paying the rent. TV was unwatchable, meaning there was that much more time available to learn just who was this Dylan Thomas.
I believe the canvas as record of performance led to Happenings. And that Happenings, for me, someone split between painting and cinema, led to STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH as a way of incorporating many such actions in a master-design. I would later fasten onto TOM, TOM, THE PIPER'S SON as a "scene of a crime". Process would step further into receiver territory with the Nervous System film performances. Abstraction (see the word action tucked in there?) of a kind achieved by those artists who along with Hofmann set standards for me, setting the deep-conscious goals determining my choices, would be achieved with the Nervous Magic Lantern.
I saw something happening in painting and made it happen in clock-time. Something suggested, implicit, I made explicit. Am I a 3D vulgarian? Sigh. I guess someone had to do it.
A funny, excrutiatingly embarassing story. A year or so after I stopped taking classes on 8th Street with Hofmann (I would study again with him in Provincetown, and meet Flo) we chance into each other on Bleecker Street. I am broke, seriously hungry, loveless, beat. I would've avoided him had I seen him coming because generally I felt unworthy to speak to him, this man who knew things and worked, while I was a mess. He was big and enormously generous in spirit, and I coudn't take just then what I felt as engulfment and fought back. When he smilingly asked what I was doing I told him I was mostly working on film (sure, when I could afford a roll of raw stock), and then blurted, "I think it's the medium of our times." (See Dostoevsky, Notes From The Underground, for an analysis of this mentality.) Hofmann, who I think missed having kids of his own, as serenely as before said, "That's marvelous. When you're young you can do everything."
In 1969 I came up with a simple way to project shadows in 3D, voluminous color shadows, by which time I was teaching in Binghamton, with space and a big translucent rubber rear-screen and students I could yell at for not showing up for rehearsal on time. Some thought the pure pleasure of 3D shadowplay ("optical-auditory vaudeville") would take me into the bigtime but four close events took the wind out of me: someone carelessly burnt out an ideal presentation space made available to me on Reade Street; I got cheated by a crooked lawyer out of one NY place and cheated by Flo's parents out of another (you don't want the details), and then when Yoko Ono and John Lennon were up for staging a shadow-show in a proper theater the Feds came down on them, determined to deport John. Very bruising, after which he and Yoko went into seclusion to pull themselves together, and -bummed out as I became- that was it for The Apparition Theater of New York. Once in a great while I shake out the old shadows and present an evening, but I can't tell you how often, going through the city, I see a place advertising for a renter and think, "Perfect shadowplay theater." David Schwartz has invited us to perform at AMMI so perhaps the shadows will lift from slumber yet again.
THE BOXER REBELLION began with a 3D slide projection -viewers wearing polaroid spectacles- of antique stereopticon photos of that bloody insurrection and similar soldierboy tableaux. Music of Benjamin Britten, his Serenade For Tenor Solo, Horn and Strings. After stereo projection each picture was again shown as 2D (with one of the two projection lamps turned off) against a board covered with luminescent paint, temporarily preserving the image. A dozen or so such illuminated boards were sent circulating among the audience for close perusal. Followed by a short color-film of a Chinese magician and then a particularly colorful 3D shadowplay to Chinese celebratory percussion music: Flo and Helene Kaplan and seven year old Nisi going through the motions of preparing food, slicing lettuce in 3D close-up and so on, with savory smells preceding their emerging from the shadow realm bearing trays of hot egg-rolls with hot mustard -What hath shadowland wrought?- (but in fact raced over from Chinatown) for the audience to eat, to relish, tangy shadow consumables.
There's a detailed article, "SLOW IS BEAUTY," on RODIN in The NYU Theater Drama Review (Dorothy Pam, Volume 19, Number 1, March 1975). Our kids ate 3D spaghetti in this one, which came with naked ladies and live chickens (had to drop the chicken act because of the smell and because the poor things were manufactured and conditioned to caged indolence). Shadowplay has always had a place for toddlers and for small animals. A great animal moment was in a 2000 shadow revival at CalArts when a King Kong puppy (apparent size being malleable in shadowplay), projected from underneath, pissed a hearty jet on a screaming audience, 3D shadowplay being a wrap-around experience and not something only happening upfront. When the Walker Art Center was able to borrow two spider monkeys, the audience entered and shared the interior of their cage, optically enlarged to fill the entire theater. The naked ladies: one close behind the screen and the other before it on the audience side in a -temporarily and illegally- entirely darkened theater space. They were near-identical in build and, in the soft 3D illumination, viewers wearing Polaroid spectacles watched the silhouetted women, one actual and the other a projection, quietly merge into one multi-limbed and two-headed dreamgirl doing chance-combination art-class poses.
In 1975 I began Nervous System film-performance and that kept me busy for a long time, the last such work being UN PETIT TRAIN DE PLAISIR, 1998. (There's excellent writing in San Francisco Cinematheque's Cinematograph issue #5, SENTIENCE, organized by Peter Herwitz, and a transcript of a grotesque altercation with commissars of the Flaherty Film Seminar following a presentation of XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX in Scott MacDonald's A Critical Cinema 3.) The first Nervous System pieces were further riffs on TOM, TOM utilizing a shuttle between like frames. The figures in XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX looked like 2D cutouts in a 3D setting, interesting in itself but it was Alphonse Schilling's spinning shutter that would introduce rounded voluptuous volumes and much else. Alphonse lived nearby on Broadway (I was commuting to Binghamton) and for a while we seemed to be producing works for the exclusive pleasure of each other. We traded technical discoveries and when toying with the Pulfrich Effect led Alphonse to the exterior shutter, standard design in early projectors, he urged me to apply it to my efforts. I then presented a work, SCHILLING (title declaring my debt to him), and he blew up, saying, "I only meant for you to use it in your studio." He said that he worked like a scientist and I was a showman and predicted, correctly, that it would be my work that would connect in people's minds to his discovery. Alphonse had been giving what he called "demonstrations," exquisite and ingenious mind-blowing illustrated lectures using the shutter with stereo-slides, but -working with filmstrands never intended to produce stereo-phenomena- I was creating symphonies. And wasn't about to stop. Two profound colleagues then went their own ways, Alphonse returning to considerable success in Vienna.
Rigorous and demanding, usually built around sardonic social observations and sometimes downright grueling to absorb, they attracted a limited if devoted audience. (Twice I've had the experience while performing of having an older audience member turn to ask me, full voice, "Why are you doing this?") I would read during the letdown periods, letting my investment in a piece that was being venue-starved subside, sometimes for months, and then---the id never learns-- there'd be a readiness to fashion the next. Yes, it's bad, I'd tell myself, but not like banishment to the gulag. Benign neglect allowed me to work, no small thing, and with film-lab prices becoming impossible I could afford to put found-film through my projectors. My favorite flop was clearing out the Queens Museum except for one fellow sitting in the middle and a young couple in the front row way off to one side, obviously the very worst seats for hearing or seeing stereo. The guy stands and turns to me when it's over and slowly shakes his head side to side. The couple dawdle, then come up the side, the young woman sullenly walking straight out, the young man moving towards me along the rear-row I'd set up in. "Professor Jacobs," he says, "I have an incomplete with you." The worst moment came after a poorly attended performance of THE PHILIPPINES ADVENTURE: MAKING LIGHT OF HISTORY at the Whitney Museum (John Hanhardt, a Nervous supporter, curating) when someone close to me, not an artist, suggested I drop "this self-defeating activity," as if the quest was nothing more than a going out of one's way to fail, a neurotic tic, with nothing to show for it.
A fellow approached me as I stood at my Nervous Magic Lantern projection setup after a very well attended recent show (I was blocking anyone from studying it; yes, the fellow determined to expose mechanism wishes to investigate his present discovery without being crowded for a while). He said he hadn't seen anything that so effectively turned around his idea of what cinema could be since seeing something I did some twenty five years ago, and he reminded me of when I'd strung lengths of 35mm. color film, cut from discarded movies, between trees at heights accessible for close viewing. Attached to the films were cardboard 3D viewers that could be slid from place to place to optically couple frames (seen sideways, a first step into disorientation) two and a half inches apart, forming stereo images (one perspective times another equals infinity) that made no spatial sense. Instead of the orderly and consistent plunge into depth, one sees with adjacent eyes, reporting to the arbitrating mind similarities and differences in their parallel fields of view, this was depth created by movement of the motion picture camera itself between frame-exposures, or/and shifts in position relative to each other of objects filmed, with an intervening period of time substituting for the space between two eyes. It was time seen as depth, with no respect shown for the way things normally stack up one behind the other, viewer to horizon.
The body is so innocent! It's so easy to mislead its trusting mechanisms. We depend on its conditioning to sail us through our days with minimum attention. "Chinatown," we tell it, and in a few minutes we're there; "Breathe. Sleep. Take me up these steps. Brain, deduce a 3D world from these pairs of 2D pictures fed you by this arrangement of bright button eyes. Balls, regenerate the species. Okay, body, home," and the body does it all with you and me perched above like tourists on safari.
The infant must learn that forms continue though our seeing of them may be interrupted by other forms closer to us. We adapt to a surrounding patchwork of interrupted and interrupting forms, inferring completion of each (Baby must learn that there are discrete bodies and get a fundamental grasp of entireties that, as they move, or as Baby moves, change shape; Mom and Dad and the dog and cat, tables and chairs -whoever they are, and constantly reshaping rooms. No wonder that Baby suddenly thrown into the swim of things will stare agog or burst into tears). Time's depth could jumble logical placement so that shards of objects one understood to be background could appear forward of foreground objects, and solids might open to allow other forms to occupy them, depending -in this sideways view of film- on the chance movement up or down of objects recorded frame to frame in relation to other objects that had not shifted position. Looking through a stereo-viewer one saw suspended explosions ("Hold that explosion, please."), but not many did, choosing to think of the display I suppose as some sort of dada festooning of the trees. Those that did look mostly kept it to a glance, and removed themselves smiling, good sports that they were. Few "got it" and stayed with it long enough to take pleasure in the details of a novel rupture of form.
And that's another killer problem with performance: how often do people get a chance to see and attune to the nuance of your innovation? Or you keep innovating, pushing on, lucky to have a few colleagues moving along with you while leaving behind casual or uninitiated viewers utterly flummoxed. I quote: "When I began I was poor and obscure and there were eleven people interested in what I was doing. Now I'm rich and world-famous and there are eleven people interested in what I'm doing." Picasso said this, and he was turning out durable goods.
So it's nice to learn, now and again, that one of these things has landed somewhere with someone other than close family members, colleagues, and friends. And is participating, if only that much, in the communal project that is the further making of mind. As against the corporate project of making us all as stupid as the President of The United States.
Teaching gave me a steady outlet for my performance urge. Alternating with talk were long sessions, up to three hours, of teaching by selection and juxtaposition of sound and picture elements, both complete films and sections, even fragments, together with slides and even live skits of a sort. Co-teaching with poet Milton Kessler a course titled The Joy Of Cinema (Milt had been another blue-collar mug and still looked to be something of an erudite dock-walloper), the lesson one day included Milt standing under a small bulb, heavy shoulders slack, heavy head bent, thick hands positioned to push -but not pushing- a supermarket cart. The idea was to create opportunities for heuristic learning, in opposition to indoctrination, creating cine-constellations within which the live mind could actively relate this to that, that to this, more often than not a no-message tasting of moods, a structuring brought over from STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH. (A really complete screening of SSTD would include those hundreds of manic classes. Reminding me that Jack had agreed, when SSTD was to be shown, that he would pull open and shut the curtains, with 20 minutes provided for each grand stage event. Reminding me that the addition of live radio called for in the instructions for screening BLONDE COBRA was another breaching of film into performance.) Readings included John Dewey's Art As Experience.
A marvelous offshoot was The Didactic Theater Of Gibberish events of former students Jim Hoberman and Bob Schneider, a vaudeville of stop-and-go screenings in which they (slim Jim in his cool leather jacket, unkempt Bob big and raving) exercised their passion for Sam Fuller. The Cinema Department, as much as it valued the metric cinema of Kubelka, the epic romanticism of Brakhage, was more than open to such indefinable mutant works. Including performance that Larry Gottheim and I would have to resourcefully defend as para-cinema when put on the carpet as happened after Peter Kubelka suggested we invite Hermann Nitsch to stage his bloody theater-art on campus. Hermann, passionately anti-fascist (he knew whereof he spoke), believed the move from pagan acting-out to pale Christian symbolism had "taken the heart out of ritual" and that we who are born in blood need, periodically, to be washed in blood -literally in the blood of the lamb- or we resort to violence and to war to satisfy the suppressed need. It was desperate orgiastic raging wrap-around visceral theater, the aim being sense-overload and depth-psyche spasm or abreaction. It became a bloody Binghamton scandal. (Worse for innocent Dr. Nitsch, veterinarian, just down the road from the school and confused with Hermann.) Technically it was the very early 70's, but in effect still the 60's (I was teaching a course called Natural Breasts). Resistance to America's crookedness, racism, its attempt to seize Vietnam was at high pitch; cities were burning. To rust-belt Binghamton, fervidly pro-war and anti-student ("New York kike niggerloving grass-smoking commie fags"), we represented the counter-culture. I was 2 years into a 3-year contract when the to-do prompted President Dearing to rush through my tenure (his son was an artist is the only way I can figure it).
Kubelka enfolded the Nitsch event into his own presentation, having screened his films including UNSERE AFRIKAREISE showing animal-killing for both food and sport and then speaking on the subject of film and food ("Meat must be fresh, the severed leg of lamb still alive to function as food....."). In a firehouse with big black stoves rented for the occasion by the Cinema Department, he cooked a feast that included the animal slaughtered for -not by- Nitsch lasting the entire night, each course of many, many announced by a blast of symphonic music. Stuffed, some of us lay quivering at the sound but Kubelka --don't we know it-- can be very persuasive. 4:30 in the morning, the vegetable cooked in brown butter, right. Gray dawn and we proceeded, Fellini-like, to the Binghamton zoo to marvel at and to pay our respects to our living cousins.
My student-projectionists understood exactly what I wanted when in 1972 we came into Manhattan to put on A GOOD NIGHT FOR THE MOVIES: The Fourth Of July by Charles Ives by Ken Jacobs at the old Bleecker Street Cinema on 8th Street. I spent a grant of $300 renting for $10 each, and then a bunch thrown in, bottom of the double-bill b/w movies mostly of men wearing white suits and pith helmets, pretty much the same movie made over and over with shifts in the placement of the rubberplant, untamed native beauties from different couches, fresh assortments of shoe-shine boys recruited for a day's eye-rolling when ordered to penetrate too deep into the forbidden stock-footage jungle; in some instances, however, the same swarthy and venomous British-educated smooth-talker tribal-leader.
Ersatz tropics issued from four alternating 16mm. projectors, two or three images at a time shown edge to edge with combined soundtracks, a confusion that explained everything. The films proceeded from beginning to end in general but with the projectionists arbitrarily shifting from film to film, rethreading films while others were showing, eventually coming around to each of the many titles for further sections, so that approaching 24 hours of projection-- when we had to wake sleepers strewn on the theater floor so as not to miss it-- many movies contributed in turn to our tepid but extenuated climax. (Only now is it plain this was a sequel to ROSE HOBART.) There had been no viewers other than my students and some invited friends, and when someone thought to put a sign on the door inviting passersby I turned it inside-out lest the occasion be trivialized. In fact it was the work as gesture that was most important to me and originally I attempted to position projectors on various roofs beaming into the open sky, reaching into space partly as a vain and hopeless Hello-out-there, and to return faded movie stars to from whence they'd come.
SPITTING IMAGE also had all of one presentation, at The Collective For Living Cinema. A shuttle alternated two stereo-images, a flipping back and forth between related picture-volumes that tended to cling to each other making a 3D morph moment on the changes...you had to see it. (I can't be the only one working weeks, sometimes months on pieces that get a single outing. It has to be the predicament of poets, composers, dancers, of nearly all high-art performers in a low-brow time, when the things that do get hugely promoted --in the economy of attention-- have to take attention from at the same time as they direct it to. Word of mouth can't compete with high-pressure bs. How then explain the willingness to keep going? The inventing is so interesting! Only recall being rained in and the ecstasy of playing alone with your blocks or dolls. You want to share results but not everyone has it so together to get out there and do the pushing.)
THE GUESTS was a 4-synched slide-projectors installation that never found a venue in NY (I mean to recreate it as video) for which we mounted frames from a 1896 Lumiere wedding movie, the remaining frames from the Nervous System work COUPLING. The wedding guests--dead/alive in that special black/white way of antique movies--troop forward, a lengthy pause between frame changes, up church steps and past the camera, some looking at it but not yet with the sense of being "caught" on-camera, that they will be observed, examined, certainly not a century later. Their artificially produced 3D images intermittently obey, then disobey solid as against open space etiquette. A horse in the background appears in miniature hovering alongside a face in the foreground.
Anyone recall the full-page Muybridge series in motion from FROM MUYBRIDGE TO BROOKLYN BRIDGE, all the phases in motion at once? The strange sculptural changes to Marey's composite figures?
Fragile chicken-boned Jerry Sims coerced with dollars to stand on a shaky chair in a black space amidst the audience while narrow-beamed penlights travel searchingly over and around his head and hands and rumpled oversized clothing. This to a recitation of my poem, "Give Me The Moon Anytime," sour Sims pessimism (printed in AMMI's catalogue of my 1989 retrospective) taken over-the-edge into absurdity.
TOPOGRAPHY OF CHINA: again a black space; light from a suspended bulb barely grazes the surface of a white latex stretchcloth. An airplane motor drones while a nude woman behind the cloth slowly turns and lightly presses and ever so slowly removes parts of herself from contact with the cloth. From their imaginary overflight the audience sees islands and archipelagos rise into bright prominence and then subside, sinking away to be replaced by others, aeons of topographic history condensed into minutes.
CONSTELLATION. The blackest of black spaces, no light-leaks whatsoever. No technology,only spoken words flatly directing attention to bodily pressure-areas, to soles of feet against the floor, butt against seat, a request that one determine shapes of these sensation-islands and their direction and distance from each other putting out of mind one's picture of one's body. No obstruction recognized between sensation-islands. To feel, and place in spatial context, a swallow. One's breath passing through nostrils (while denying the existence of nostrils). Hearing my voice as only another kind of sensation, its volumetric character and location in relation to the growing constellation of awarenesses. I request participants to rise, slowly ever so slowly to a standing position, catching each and every sensation along the way, not in one's body but in space. Slightly twist. Extend an arm...locate and study the ache. Hold it in mind while taking inventory of the other sensations. And so on until finally a tiny island or two of light would be joined to the constellation but not as light, again as nameless sensation. I would go through the room lightly touching each person and gently just barely move them backwards towards imbalance....holding it....then settling them forward again.
Pretty heady stuff. But not as much as dividing a class in two and, back in the dark, have members of one group give members of the other creative headrubs (sensations lighting up the dark inside those heads.)
I'm haunted by a coda to a shadow performance in Belmont, Washington, where the student body consisted of six foot giants on average, men and women. I distributed a couple of hundred pennies and we stood around and within a large campus courtyard ringed with moonlit arches. An unintended acoustics marvel, a Stradivarius of campus courtyards. One or two or a few at a time we sent the pennies rolling and ringing across the wide face of the instrument, and listened, from wherever we were, sensoriums resonating to the web of their long crossings.
Uptown at Columbia I did a program that included taking students, male and female, into the male lavatory for an audio-visual sensation-tour of the mirror reflection and tile arrangements that included hearing toilets flushing in the dark; sensational flushes! a whole long row reverberating off tile walls. God knows audio-visual opportunities like these don't grow on trees. Then again....
Lighthearted but not frivolous, I never did such things as the lavatory-tour without the prospect of an esthetic/experiential pay-off. Learning had to be experiential, not about art so much as meeting with the thing itself, wherever that might be. The street-theater that Jack and I amused ourselves with had been a fastening onto the theatric potential of all the odd places practicality was herding us through, it was defiant consciousness saying to our existential entrapments, "The jokes on you." (The Bus That Caught A Man; I step off the bus, turning back when I hear Jack yelping, "Help! Help! It's got me!" Jack is hanging in the open rear-door, long legs flailing helplessly. But the bus in fact has not caught him; he is clinging by his fingers to a ridge over the door. A little invention in passing. I've written about our shortlived stopped-by-the-cops Human Wreckage Review, a trace of it to be seen in the Death Of P'Town sequence in THE WHIRLED.) Justification for any sort of cine-contrivance, cine-situation was in what it brought to one's exquisitely acute probes of sensibility to feel out, mmm, delicious, ugh, painful, a delectation of circumstance, chance or arranged.
The technique saved me from flipping out when arrested during a war-protest in DC (a black officer tried to get me to chime in with his anti-US statements) when I was made to stand in a bright-lit windowless brick space the dimensions of an upright coffin, for hours, wrists cuffed behind me with chains designed to tighten when yanked and to never slacken. I subdued panic by turning on fascination and observing the narrow space minutely, and made it through, but of course this was only America's little warning to its freedomlovers out of line, not Guantanamo. "Cult of sensibility"? You bet. Feeling, I taught, was a heightened form of thinking. It shared in political resistance in being what was human as against the brutal and brutalizing. The essence of corporate culture is advertising, the aggressive stuffing and clogging of the mind. The enemy wants us blunted, inert, available for shunting to however it wishes to employ us. Art (as experience) is the mind on its own, the ego spreading hyper-sensitive tendrils further out into the where-in-hell-are-we, from where we wave back This way, I see something over here, and trade confidences. We become acquainted with possibility. We become...difficult. That our works resist hyped commodification is a plus, maybe, assuming one has some other source of money that isn't a humiliating sellout.
Not enough is said about darkness. Much of what I do stars darkness. Couldn't do it without a yielding embracing darkness. Talk to Fred Worden about bringing forward the hidden intervals of darkness during projection. Give it a role, as in my Nervous works, as in Fred's, Tony Conrad, Victor Grauer, Peter Kubelka, and entwined with hits of light we see things never seen before.
"Radical innovation is D.O.A., it speaks a private language." The film critic Andrew Sarris believed that. Nick Ray called us masturbators. Well, what is a fellow to do when his art avoids the known paths of communication like poison because he feels they're contaminated at every turn with persuasion technique? And when the need is not only that it say something --when allowed to by the factors at hand-- but that it be something true to its own logic of energies. (There was an abstract-expressionist magazine called IT IS, not IT MEANS or IT'S ABOUT. But because I was working with found-film --blunt historical evidence-- and because I live my days outraged by mendacious power, I was often able to shape an esthetic and a social observation in tandem, not something happening as readily with the Nervous Magic Lantern which is cinema without film or electronics.) Radical innovation is no special effect for zapping up and reinforcing the same old mind-set. More than obliging us to reprogram the mind, it lets us know we're thinking according to a program, arbitrarily, one of any impressed upon us because we are here and not there, now and not then. Refreshing, and socially anarchic, the individualist arts offer the individual opportunities for inter-concept travel, a sort of active centering, this way and that, with each great art another way of being perfectly right, and this I think can make for modesty and sanity in the individual. Yesterday, I saw the Juilliard students' magnificent production of Ravel's L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES, a work I'd thought only possible to stage as shadowplay. It was as stunning as when I first saw ZERO FOR CONDUCT (well, almost) and Medvedkin's HAPPINESS. Alive to its fingertips (there's a better criteria of value?), so much talent and verve and youthful beauty coming together in a super-climax and then I learned for only three performances! Is this nuts? Is this the condition of performance? a form of potlatch ceremony? (An example of my habitual rage: I did think for a moment, Here's this multi-colored gathering of gifted intelligence, here in America, at the same time that America's drones and poverty-captives are destroying Iraq; this must be a bit of what it was like for a practicing artist/intellectual spared by the Hitler regime. The question arises: is art achievement a humanist refutation of such a regime, or validation, when the regime can hang it on itself like a medal?) As for masturbation, I read where Busby Berkeley got his dance-number ideas while soaking in the bathtub. Inspired, he inspired. Who knows but that I owe my life to the propagating charge of "By A Waterfall"?
As a teen among others I couldn't even figure when to speak. Was there a signal to send and another to receive? a subtle "Roger, over" code that popular kids were born knowing? So I didn't speak, or I would blurt, and it would be the wrong thing at the wrong moment, all wrong. Yesterday a crazy lady at the next table at the Thai restaurant hearing me speak asked where I came from. "Brooklyn." She insisted I was lying to her. "Williamsburg. Dyslexic." Lady, I maybe should've said, I was a quiet child, mystified by every damn thing, unable even to formulate my questions and speech came late and unsure. I couldn't hear the difference between soldier and shoulder. My first grade teacher had me come forward to speak; "Say something," she said, then accused me in front of the other kids of having "a lazy tongue." My grandmother had dressed me for school with my grandfather's tie; it hung down to my knees; what did she know from ties? So that was another laugh. You hear right, crazy lady, my speech is artificial, I learned it from books.
Innovating in 3D meant moving to where even the cognoscenti had built up little discernment. Seeing nothing, they figured I was accomplishing nothing, and with limited opportunities to familiarize and build discernment, most of what I did as performance--going back over 40 years- was lost on them As someone succinctly put it in response to OPENING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: 1896, first presented as performance before becoming a film, "Yes, I saw it"- -moving through the cities and bridges and waterways and peoples of the Ninetheenth Century-- "in 3D, but so what?" There was a long period of surviving on one gig per season at the Collective For Living Cinema. My last Chicago invitation was in 1980, a performance of XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX, with Alan Ross alone shouting "Bravo!" afterwards and meaning it, which counts for a lot. A 1986 performance left Bostoners satiated to this day. I could go on in this vein. Vane. The Millennium itself? Maybe 25 years between performances. So when Paul Arthur requested I write about performance for this issue, saying that my work was fundamental to the territory, I had to wonder was the territory out on an asteroid. In fact there've been many appreciative audiences in many places over these many years but...it's been spotty. As I write, I have one sure performance scheduled, in January at MoMA. Flo always valued what I was doing during that bad first decade when it was so obvious I'd lost my promise, as did Mark McElhatten and Fred Worden and Jim Jennings and Lucia Lermond, Phil Solomon, David Schwartz, Robert Attanasio, Paul Arthur, Peter Herwitz and perhaps half a dozen others. Jim Hoberman took a position in the middle distance, his comments always on the mark, but not up for seeing all my darlings as they tumbled forth.
It was a largely desolate period. Flo and I would wonder how could work so astonishing and thrilling to ourselves be so generally dismissed, even as the work was obviously following through on TOM TOM which hadn't been dismissed, and at a time when performance, so we were told, was hot. Then came two major flare-ups of interest: a DAAD invitation to Berlin and a first retrospective there with very game audiences. And another in 1989 at AMMI, also well attended. I think the retrospectives showed how different works were making for different visual events, it wasn't a technique simply brought over to different subject matter, a shtick, this besides the social observation thrust of many pieces becoming apparent. There still wasn't much opportunity to travel and perform but I could figure on decent houses when I did. It could be that another, a third generation of cinema artists were coming around and there was less of the direct resentment felt by the second, some of whom thought the first were hogging attention without noticing there was simply less of it. The third generation seemed to me closer in spirit to the first: hopeless. Expecting nothing, but enraptured by possibility within the art.
The work now enjoyed a serious if local home-team following. This despite the zeitgeist heading off in another direction from relentless rigor, the avant garde having become passe and radical formal innovation, a relic of the 'Sixties. If it was new it was old, and not with-it. Flo and I felt a need to preserve the works but attempts at filming off the screen had been disappointing. Would these discoveries pass with no trace? Would anyone come this way again? The evening before my bypass in 1994, Flo wrote down all the technical moves I could think of for performing the pieces. Then with improvement of video we saw how the videocamera could capture Nervous phenomena effectively and now we aim to record all the pieces we loved, love, and uncomprehendingly miss as if they were kids that, reaching their ripeness, then went off and never think to write home. THE WHOLE SHEBANG and BITEMPORAL VISION: THE SEA and THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL: A FLICKER OF LIFE and ONTIC ANTICS STARRING LAUREL AND HARDY and THE SUBCINEMA: "BETTER TO BE FRIGHTENED THAN TO BE CRUSHED" and XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX and NEW YORK GHETTO FISHMARKET 1903 and TWO WRENCHING DEPARTURES.... Beyond reclaim are works that included episodes of live theater like A MAN'S HOME IS HIS CASTLE FILMS: THE EUROPEAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS and STICK TO YOUR CARPENTRY AND YOU WON'T GET NAILED.
However, the Nervous System as performance is over. The Nervous Magic Lantern is on.
Does everyone understand Flo's contribution" Besides all the lifting and hauling and helping feed and keep my contraptions together during performance, recruited to performing, I rely on her taste, her approval, her finer sensibility. In almost all instances we've traveled and presented work together, relieving me of the bleak loneliness of the distant gig, applause followed by return to pimpled teenage outsider gloom.
I wonder if Brakhage ever saw what I was doing. He was in his middle years when an eye operation corrected a tendency for one eye to shift outwards. Fatigued, he'd be noticeably wall-eyed. Until I'm told differently I figure Stan had to've learned early on to censor messages from that eye, useless to production of 3D; that he may've been a stranger to perceptual depth as against inferential understanding of depth; may not've known what was meant by stereo perception or suspect he was missing a dimension. Seeing a movie in color would've been--as regards depth--the same as seeing the world. He wasn't reminded by a second eye that the image was flat. And very possibly his own art profited by the loss. When Phil invited me to Boulder for a retrospective of Nervous System performances, the few times Stan attended his comments afterwards were so off the wall, so without reference to the uncanny depth events tricked out of my machinery, I took it that he was hearing poems in Swahili and attempting to bluff appreciation for a pal. Even when he did see anomalous spaces--and the Nervous System does make them available even to the one-eyed--they fell on deaf eyes, with no prior context of 3D sureties to be anomalous to. I didn't discuss these suspicions with Stan, which seemed a pointless and impolite thing to do, so, yes, I could be all wrong.
All wrong, all wrong. I named my 1996 MoMA retrospective of Nervous System performances WRONG TURN INTO ADVENTURE.
Brooklyn. Williamsburg. Dyslexic.