Archive for April, 2011
Installation of “Echo” by Jaume Plensa at Madison Square Park:
Reminds me of:
“Over the past month I have been both horrified and saddened by the natural disasters and nuclear situation ongoing in Northeast Japan (Tohoku). In an effort to do something personal and collective in response, I am inviting you to participate in a collaborative drawing effort dedicated to the affected communities,” said Anne Eastman in the open invitation, posted on Facebook, to join in Kagayake: Drawing for Japan.
And so last Saturday, hundreds of generous artists descended upon CANADA gallery, despite that day’s rainy, fussy weather. “At least it isn’t a devastating earthquake,” is how I roused myself.
On 60 expansive feet of coated Tyvek, participants were “free to add as much or as little as they choose to this collaborative drawing effort.” It would be like an indie F-111 jam session. The pace for most seemed to be: arrive, converse with familiars, draw a bit, take a break to chat with new arrivals, draw a bit more.
“What did you draw?” was a common starting point, though most participants realized that commenting on individual entries didn’t get one very far, compared to studying the complete form and the parallel trends that it contained (cats, rainbows, flowers). “Did you try those?” also bounced from conversation to conversation, in reference to the desserts donated by Russ & Daughters, so good that my stomach flutters just thinking of them. Honey roasted pecans. Is Sugar Toxic? No! Artists need fuel!
Incoming donations helped produce the banner, and outgoing donations helped preserve Tohoku. Artists and the people that love them were able to donate money through the benefit’s PayPal account, and every dollar spent at the afterparty, held at The Wooly, would go toward the benefit fund. No pics here from the afterparty, however: after intense drawing, pigging out on candied pecans, and getting drenched by the April showers, I needed my own benefit.
As you read this, Anne is on a flight to Japan to deliver the banner – all 60 feet of it – where she will partner with relief organizations in Miyagi Prefecture and Tokyo to find the best site(s) to house it.
Thirty years ago was Aluminum Nights, a two-night performance series celebrating the tenth anniversary of The Kitchen. Fast forward: to celebrate the fortieth anniversary season, The Kitchen has reincarnated the event as Aluminum Music, featuring a selection of the Aluminum Nights roster. On Friday, the first of two nights, avant-kabbalah percussionist Z’EV performed with the post-punk Bush Tetras.
“The master artists on the program were being invited back to The Kitchen to school the children, and the children needed to learn to buy their tickets in advance.” Jocular event curator Nick Hallett was commenting on the healthy turnout of gray-haired (or bottle colored) followers, and the according absence of curious kids born well after Aluminum Nights.
“The old guard is well represented in the audience,” Nick continued, intending an optimistic embrace of wisdom and acquired prudence, yet stirring some jovial heckling. He conceded, “I am not responsible for the forward motion of clocks.”
Said motion will bear lightly on the imminently immortal Z’EV, who, clad in black with shaved head, with earrings, with bracelets, looked shamanic as he settled in among a cordon of suspended, shining discs. Each of these percussive surfaces, found objects, had traveled with him in his journeys, inner space and terra firma.
Z’EV found the clattering stainless steel box in a trash barge on the Thames in 1989 and the largest hanging stainless steel flat disc, in the center, in a Los Angeles scrapyard in 2004. Two of the smaller discs are Thali trays, one found in in a NYC Indian deli/restaurant supply store, the other in a London Salvation Army in 2005. The wandering instruments were now united and suspended in a wreath of tethered portals to the aural ocean.
Like an alchemist, Z’EV conjured ominous rumbles and eerie glissandos and converted them to booming sine waves and pitchshifted shrieks, the sounds of the sinking Titanic, of J.G. Ballard daydreams, of Richard Serra vortices in hurricanes.
With felt mallets, Z’EV drummed out thundering beats and with rubber mallets, dragged over the drum surface, he unfurled soaring sound warps. How does a musician find notation for dragging a rubber mallet across the bass drum head? Z’EV works from themes from which he improvises, customizing his drumming to the space and the audience. I wonder what cues he took from the crowd. Most were like me, silent and in awe. Some were rocking back and forth. Experimental noise Revival! Occasionally pausing to puff a cigarette that seemed to burn forever, he shook homemade rattles, clashed the Thali trays, and generated jittery soundscapes by holding a pocket-sized shard of metal to the vibrating, clattering steel box he pounded on the inside, like the faceless industrial shell of a reanimated dead puppet.
All I can tell you is what I watched. I can’t tell you what it was about because Z’EV is on some “next-level” numerology, pagan, kabbalah inspiration. So if it looked like a prayer, it probably was.
After a few minutes for us to come back to earth, Nick Hallett introduced the Bush Tetras. They opened with Cowboys in Africa, then urged the audience to “unhinge” from their seats and start a punky reggae party. Scratchy caribbean rhythms and Pat Place’s shredded wheeze got the kids dancing, and the not-so-kids.
“Thirty years is like five minutes!” shouted a blonde woman who danced from the first thump to the last shard. “We’re glad to be alive” said Cynthia Sley.
Is that all? Just alive? They were more than alive.
Tetras founder Pat Place made her guitar shriek in the climbs to chorus, chirp through the twitchy verses, and holler at the climax. She leaned into it till the whammy bar itself unhinged and clattered to the floor. For Punch Drunk and the encore Voodoo, she whipped out a bottleneck slide and stroked the neck with enough fervor to make me cross my legs and blush. Cynthia Sley (Womersley), magically gaunt (and a near twin of Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes) and ready to hop, thrust, and shake, rapped out a dual gear vocal style combining rhythmic muttering and adrenaline howling. Her sound seems suited to any survivor who was there, man – and any punishment-happy thrillseeker who would have wanted to be “there” in the first place.
“This song is about living in the East Village; we didn’t like when people came into our neighborhood,” said Cynthia Sley, chatting before “Stare You Down.”
“And they didn’t like us coming in to theirs,” was the dry rejoinder from drummer Dee Pop. A rush of mystified incredulity curling his face, he added, “What were we doing there, anyway?”
Blank City premiered last week at the IFC to such success that the theater already has extended the film’s run. The documentary focuses on the filmmakers of the East Village epoch, a period that has continued to demand the attention of artists, especially those living and working in New York. Is the East Village era second only to “the 60s” in the art world’s hierarchy of heritage? At least for recent history? In the last five years, the East Village has surfaced in exhibitions such as East Village USA at the New Museum (2005) and The Downtown Show at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery (2006). Of the artists featured in Blank City, John Lurie had his first museum exhibition at P.S.1 (2006), and galleries regularly show new work by East Village pioneers John Waters, Richard Kern, Kim Gordon, and James Nares.
According to its producers, “Blank City weaves together an oral history of the “No Wave Cinema” and “Cinema of Transgression” movements through compelling interviews with the luminaries who began it all. Made on shoestring budgets in collaboration with the pioneering musicians, visual artists, performers, and derelicts that ruled Downtown, the films surveyed in Blank City are fitting documents of an exhilarating and unique cultural moment. This same legendary-but-fleeting period likewise birthed punk rock, hip-hop and Madonna, and brought New York City to the forefront of the international art world. Unlike those noted luminaries, this era’s underground film movement has never before been chronicled.”
Blank City reports on events that its director, Céline Danhier, is too young to have experienced. Is this a liability, that she relies on subjective oral history recounted from minds that may still be recovering from the cheap drugs of that era? Or is it a guarantee of impartiality, that she works free of an agenda, with no reward for misrepresentation? To address these questions and more, I got in touch with Blank City’s director, Mademoiselle Danhier, and producer/editor Vanessa Roworth (C&V).
MB: Blank City, produced and directed by young filmmakers, features many young filmmakers. Does Blank City explore whether East Village auteurs consulted mentors or other elders? Did they have gurus? Or was “Kill Your Idols” already their established m.o.?
C&V: We don’t believe anything comes out of nothing. History and especially the history of cultural expression are always present even in the process of rejection. And there was certainly an attitude of rejection during this period – rejection of the status quo, rejection of a political nature, and also rejection of prior art and film movements; but in that, we think you can see there is also a very conscious awareness of the inspiration culled from those who came before. For example, James Nares in Blank City says “The attitude was quite similar to the Warhol films…but we purposely alienated ourselves from the avant-garde cinema, we wanted to make narrative films instead of art films because it seemed like you could reach more people…”.
We think it is actually a very important idea because breaking down what came before opens you up to new forms of creative expression.
On another note, although we can’t speak for the filmmakers as to who their personal mentors were, there were some obvious mentors in the neighborhood at that time such as the filmmaker Jack Smith or Robert Frank or even William S. Burroughs who was very present on the Bowery during that period. And of course Warhol was ever-present in the New York art scene, as his legacy still is today. You can see a lot of obvious reference and inspiration from Warhol in these works but it is also important to note that there was a strong reaction to the over-indulgence and celebrity that the Warhol and Factory machine had become by the late 70s/early 80s. As Ann Magnuson notes in Blank City, people in the Downtown art world were dying left and right from AIDS and getting lost to drug addiction, but here was Andy Warhol sitting up at Studio 54, drinking Dom Perignon and being photographed with celebrities. There was an obvious contradiction there yet you have a lot of great film, and art and expression that on some level came out of a rejection to that.
MB: That leads to my next question. Did the artists you feature share a relationship to Andy Warhol and the Factory? Or were they divided?
C&V: We don’t think anyone can deny the importance of Warhol to any New York art movement that came afterwards. Part of what we love about Andy Warhol was that he did create such an omnipotent presence in all aspects and truly embraced that idea of “art as life.” So yes, everyone making art or film during this period in New York had to have some relationship to Warhol, especially as he and his Factory were all the more present at that time.
We can’t speak for each filmmaker’s personal opinion of the Warhol Factory but we do know there was definitely also a sense of division amongst a lot of the Downtown filmmakers. Some people drew a lot of inspiration from Warhol’s art and particularly his process of filmmaking in shooting spontaneously, with your friends and the people around you and also in rejecting a lot of notions of cinematic form. There were a lot of filmmakers who did very much look up to Warhol and drew inspiration from his ideas. But, as mentioned above, there was also a certain anti-Warhol sentiment or at least distaste for what the Factory had become. For some filmmakers there was a real rejection to the over-blown, sometimes vapid social scene Warhol had surrounded himself with by the late 70s/early 80s. For some filmmakers, such as Manuel Delanda, it was important to reject that culture and return to a form closer to German Expressionism in film. And for others it was maybe a desire to bring back some sense of narrative or politics or emotion to their work as a rejection to that Warhol Factory machine.
MB: Though Blank City concentrates on underground filmmakers and artists, most of those featured are now well-established and well-financed. Briefly, what were some of the events or conditions that brought these artists into the mainstream?
C&V: This is a complex question to answer because there are a lot of factors here. Firstly, we don’t think it is the case that most of the filmmakers featured in Blank City are now well-established or well-financed. A lot of people have moved on to other professions, teaching for example. Then you have people like Nick Zedd who are still very much making low-budget films on their own terms. And as for “well-financed” that is also relative. Even when we interviewed Steve Buscemi, who of course is Internationally well known and established, he stressed that it is still quite difficult even for him to raise the financing to make the films that he wants to make. For Jim Jarmusch we think it is the same. And we really love Jim’s attitude because he mentioned when we interviewed him that no matter what kind of budget, however big or small he has to work with he will still always find a way to make his films. Because at the end of the day, even when you have the success of Jim Jarmusch, in this period we are in now you just aren’t going to easily find funding to make your films unless you are doing a Harry Potter sequel or Transformers. Its just the way it is.
But briefly, some of the factors that propelled some of these filmmakers and artists to become well established were perhaps first through some of the bands. People started to take notice of the Downtown scene when some of the early bands like The Ramones and Blondie got record deals and started touring internationally. Then very quickly people started to latch on to the tremendous flurry of creativity Downtown and it coincided with the economic boom in the early 80s. You suddenly had a bunch of stock brokers getting very rich and wanting to “buy” a little piece of that “Downtown” lifestyle – whether it was a painting for their house in the suburbs or financing a film to put their name on it. But also, of course, it was also because of the great creative energy and talent of that period. There was a lot of new and very interesting work being created and people just took notice of that and so it inevitably led to the filmmakers and artists being able to get more financing and becoming more established.
For Blank City, though, the idea that some of these people might be well-established or not well-established is not important. We really wanted to capture the scene and the moment and include everyone and not inject any social notion of anyone being more important then anyone else. Yes, you need to include in the narrative that there was some level of success because it is what happened, but it is not the ultimate point of the film, we hope.
MB: You found a goldmine in the archive once held at the legendary Kim’s Video, now in Sicily. The archive was so thorough that it held many films that they artists themselves didn’t have. Were there any surprises in your research, such as “long-lost” footage?
C&V: Kim’s was truly an amazing resource to have in making this documentary. We feel very lucky that it was still there in the East Village when I started. Initially, we learned a lot during the research phase using Kim’s as a resource and it was probably the only place in the world where you actually had a bunch of these films accessible, even if it was only on one VHS that was falling apart. We were able to see films like Black Box from Scott and Beth B, Kidnapped and Red Italy from Eric Mitchell, and a couple films there by Tina L’Hotsky who very sadly passed away while we were in the process of making Blank City. We are glad that there are copies of her films that exist out there.
We did have a bunch of other resources in addition to Kim’s: The Filmmaker’s Coop here in New York and Anthology Film Archives, for example. And Alan Moore was an invaluable help as he had collected a lot of films over the years direct from the filmmakers for his MWF video club that was a part of the group Colab. I remember meeting with him at a café in the East Village and one of his colleagues said, “Oh, you know; I think I have a film print of Michael Oblowitz’s ‘King Blank’ in my closet.” And King Blank is such a great film so we were thrilled to be able to include it. Then later, Michael Oblowitz said that he had made another film called Minus Zero but didn’t know what ever happened to it. Through much effort we found the film in a collection in London and got it digitally transferred so it was a great thing.
Also, at the Downtown Collection at the NYU Fales Library we found one of the only copies of John Lurie’s film with Eric Mitchell, Men In Orbit. And Lurie’s other film Hell Is You we were lucky to track down through the artist Christopher Wool. So in the end it is great because now The Anthology Film Archives as well as the Warhol Museum are working to preserve a lot of the films and keep a collection together so it will be more accessible for others in the future. If nothing else comes from Blank City, we are happy that we perhaps helped to get that process moving.
MB: A question for Céline: Initially, I felt skeptical about young filmmakers “documenting” a scene they are too young to have observed. But then I concluded that as “outsiders,” you have nothing at stake, no special interests in sorting out that scene. Were you conscious of these issues while working? Did the subjects you interviewed make you conscious of this?
C&V: In the beginning, I don’t think I was really so conscious of these issues because I just knew I was really interested in the topic and that I wanted to make this film. But yes, as I was getting in touch with people and when I would show up for interviews people were a little surprised at first that I was young and in fact I also had a younger crew with me. We were also a lot of women and sometimes people would be surprised that there was this strange crew of young women coming in with camera and sound gear. But it worked and I think in some ways maybe it eventually made people feel more comfortable because they saw that I was coming from this other generation and also being French, from this “outsider” perspective and that I wasn’t there to exploit any issues from the past or play up one story or another. And you’d have to ask the people I interviewed how they felt speaking to me, but I do agree that in a way it was good because I had no personal connection to anyone or anything about the scene and no real pre-conceived notion other then what I heard or read about. I just was very curious and of course with documentary it is always difficult not to inject yourself a bit, but I really wanted to allow people to just say what they wanted to say and tell their own story. For me, I hope that my coming from a younger generation as the filmmaker of Blank City will also allow a generation even younger then I to be able to connect with Blank City and the people in it and I think that the people I interviewed understood that as well. As much as I was inspired by the people in the film and the work that they created, I hope that it will inspire for generations to come.