Video Art Rocks!
I was living in a railroad flat in the East Village, just doing enough to pay the rent, eat, and buy other bare necessities. Larry Scott, a friend and comrade from High School years, coincidently was living in the same building. We had been co-editors of an underground student newspaper that was banned, but distributed in several Rockland High Schools anyway. It was mid 60’s, revolution was in the air. I was a middle class kid with a fairly stable family who moved to New City in the mid 50’s. Larry was raised by his mother in a trailer camp in Haverstraw. I was an intellectual ideologue, he was the earthy pragmatist. I wanted to talk, he wanted action. There were others, more or less like me, from other schools. Larry stood out. We were both friends with Maria Cabri who wrote for the Forum and helped distribute it. Maria was brilliant and beautiful. I’m sure we weren’t the only guys who had a crush on her. Larry was in city, studying acting, and working as bartender in SOHO. He was very social and charismatic and had gathered a diverse crowd of actors, musicians, artists around him, ripe for videotaping.
With the first cable television channel on the horizon, we organized a series of events in and around NYC that would become a weekly series on Raster, our program which ultimately ran for one year on cable 1976-77, when it was only available in midtown. I had very long, natted hair, and Larry called me Raster, which is the name of the dot scan screen of television. We plastered midtown with my picture and info about the show and I started to get recognized on the street. We spent many hours in our cramped apartments sequencing a series of encounters for performers who have been given a code to their intentions as actors in any given circumstance. The performers sometimes didn’t know each other, but were scheduled to be at a certain place at a certain time. I had a small crew help me move a portable deck and camera to set up in these places, a cue to begin encounter. Later we called this segment of Raster, Life in the Reel World. We set up all kinds of strange improvisations that dealt with issues of life and death. One weekend recording session at J. Marder’s place on LI turned into a jagged soup opera of discontent and jealousy interspersed with unexpected, often lewd shots of actors caught unexpected. We also did some segments in television studios that were available for public access, evolving characters that were spun off into their own weekly segments like Mr. Television.
The ensemble morphed as we developed the situations and characters. One of the regulars, Ozzie, was a bartender near Madison Square Garden. He was older than the rest of us, but had a passion for acting and enjoyed any role. He had experiences that were dark and dangerous, so I wasn’t surprised when he purchased a bar in Hell’s Kitchen. I was surprised that he called it Ahhhhzzzzz’s after Larry’s suggestion, and that he host Raster on Thursday nights with the additional name Electronic Lounge. The show was on at 11:00, against the news, but usually not competing with sports, so Ozzie and his benefactors convinced other local bars to tune in. Meanwhile Ozzie (the previous owner closed after a fatal shooting) let us put up multiple monitors connected to cable and began to draw a regular irregular crowd of theater workers having one before going home after a hard night’s work, restaurant workers wanting to unwind, street people, transvestites, prostitutes, as well as some hipster video artists who began contributing shorts to Raster, like Mitchell Kreiger. Larry and I could park for free in the local garage. Our ensemble would assemble as their bar and restaurant jobs ended. The street became crime free and many of the local businesses made it a point to thank Ozzie for the good influence his friends brought. Yes, there were two impeccably dressed gentleman with reserved seats in the front of the bar, near the window, small smiles as they watched the show.
In addition to Reel World, Mr. Television, and short experimental video works that I was also making at the time, we included segments featuring the guests who were coming to the bar to watch the show. This might be street poetry, fashion show, or polemics about why numbers running was more compassionate than lotteries, sports gambling, and other corporate or government rackets. While Ozzie was a friend and collaborator, I made other connections to the Life, through father of a student at Scarsdale HS where I was teaching film for a few years. He had come to Ahhhhzzzz’s early in our run and enjoyed the atmosphere. We sometimes wandered around the neighborhood checking out some of the new clubs that were opening around us. We wondered if we could get some big time support to open a club that featured video screens with images that set moods for different spaces. After he okayed it with his friends, we had lunch with Pierre Cardin, and later, with others, showing drawings and playing clips of still crude video images edited to a variety of music. I had recently shot a nude model in a car and walking along the LI coast and in the studio, clothed her with color so that what remained was just a suggestion of sensuality. Later when we showed it to some gentlemen with major influence over restaurant and club business in Manhattan, one of the gentlemen said he wouldn’t invest in a place where he can’t take his wife.
In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t help open a club. Larry moved to Florida. Without his presence the painted cake crumbled. I’d been spending more and more time in owego experimenting with the amazing analog/digital video systems David Jones, Richard Brewster, Matthew Schlanger, and others were building at etC. I didn’t think about final products while there, didn’t edit, or try to predetermine too much. The process was very physical and required constant tinkering. But sometimes, when the three or more channels of video were synching, the results were amazing- I thought I was seeing new colors and ways of shaping landscapes and events. One of the Jones machines, a sequencer, was especially exciting to me because of the musicality and intensity of the cutting between channels, sometimes on fields revealing sometimes spectacular juxtapositions. Afterall, I was a student and loved the work of Paul Sharrits, all about flickering and hypercuts. Since I was using a wide variety of images based on my regular journies around the uS during that time, there was a throbbing urbanism, something like visual rap, or the jazz of ornette coleman. When tom Kay and others saw these images they peddled them to the spate of video clubs around NyC. Ed Stein, rock America, used images in the mixes he was sending to clubs all around the us. I suggested songs, usually by Gang of Four, Sousie and the Banshees, the Clash, and other punk bands of the time. But the dj could use the visuals with anything- it was always interesting and contemporary, like seeing the news of the neighborhood, but fast and fragmented. I used to like watching people at the ritz where my video was the first used in that kind of experimental way. They had the idaphor projector developed for NASA, at that time the best projector available. People looked small compared to the images bouncing off the screen, dancers caught between the musical and visual beats. My wild mixing, colorizing, and radical perception was getting around, anonymous, hidden in the late night underground. Years later someone would tell me they’d seen some of my sequenced videos in far away cities, or as part of someone else’s video.
For me, video, like rock and roll, was meant to be free and flowing. I tried to write about this for a video art book during the mid70’s, and based on research of rock and roll in experimental films, predicted that video art could ultimately replace or colonize popular music as the dominant medium of the future. But the article was not well received by the editors of a book that was trying to separate video art from popular culture, ie, television. My instinct with Larry and our formal exploration of common television forms, our use of a bar as venue and focus of a cable show, and other activities were meant to be subversive and radical, not elitist. I think this approach challenged the conventions of art. One night Jeffrey Lew pulled me out of Ahhhhzzzz’s and told me I was stupid for limiting my audience to the blocks around the bar. If a gallery, like his, wanted to show it, why not? Jeffrey was the kind of person who always got what he wanted, so I gave him some of my videos which he showed at 112 Greene St. Gallery in SoHo. Hal Bromm gave me space and time in his gallery. There was no interest by collectors, but other artists were able to see things in these early galleries. Since these were my only conscious exhibitions in galleries, it might have caught the attention of John Hanhardt who included two videos in 1979 whitney Biennial. This led to some critical and popular attention, a relationship with Barry Blinderman and the Semaphore Gallery, and support through grants, sales, and residencies. Rock and roll became less important as I settled into a more “mature” phase of my career.