With David Cort in Israel
Laughter erupts. Laughter that includes 57 varieties of feeling. Laughter sparked by a virus with a sense of humor. Full laughter, uninhibited, rumbling like thunder during a storm.
In 1971 I was drafted and passed my physical in Los Angeles where I was finishing my last year at California Institute of the Arts. My draft lottery number was very low. I pondered whether to go to jail, Israel, or underground.
I remember driving to the draft board office in LA with fellow students who’d ingested LSD or others wore women’s clothes. We rehearsed the things we’d heard that would get you deferred or dismissed, and clearly expressed our disdain for the war in Vietnam. We all passed.
“You and your artist friends are needed on the front lines,” one of the psychologists said.
Luckily, the radical curator Allon Schoerner commissioned David Cort, a video artist; Bob Quinn, a photographer; and me as an interpreter, assistant to David, and audio artist to make fill a gallery at the Jewish Museum in New York City with a multi-media installation.
The trip was scheduled for December 1971 -January 1972. The exhibition Jerusalem Calling would open during the late spring and then travel to several other sites in the United States. We had only a few months to prepare. I was surprised when my new draft board, in New York City, gave permission for me to participate in this.
This was the very early days of video portapaks. Our equipment was cumbersome. The tapes were fragile. Many batteries and power adapters were required. We had to be technically self-sufficient because there were no Sony techs in Israel.
Jack Goldstein, the visionary president of Technisphere Corporation, a great patron and friend to the early video artists, was very supportive of this project and contributed invaluable help in preparing us for what was then an unusual and challenging small-format production.
David realized that this would be the first time many Israelis would see the new portable video systems. He created several videotapes to show on the battery operated monitor we also carried. Because his work relied on an interactive relationship with the subject, he wanted to show who he was, what he did, as part of the process.
Bob and I worked in traditional media. Bob’s photography was journalistic, objective, detached. He could stand away from the event or activity and take pictures without becoming part of the content.
I worked as a conduit, collecting interesting things that I overheard or that people said to me while speaking into a microphone.
For David, the camera was an extension of his gregarious nature, and he worked in "close-up" talking, engaging, and reacting within the situation as though the tools were transparent.
Allon Schoerner had told me about David’s background- he was one of the founders of the Children Museum in Brooklyn and had purchased one of the first portapaks for the museum. He was using it to record a home movie of Woodstock Festival where he met others with the first generation of portapaks. They decided to join forces, calling themselves the Videofreex They lived and worked as a collective.
Still, nothing had prepared me for David Cort or his work.
The first thing that one experiences upon meeting David was his uninhibited and infectious laugh, curiosity, and sense of amused dread.
With Buddha like girth and easy social warmth, David was an excellent companion. His charm usually burst the reserve of those he interacted with on video, often transcending the superficial and formal process of question and answer into the deeper, more subjective issues of communication and what it means to be alive.
The work that he prepared for Israel mystified, but intrigued me. I haven’t seen it since, but during the days before and while in Israel, I saw it often.
I don't know if David called it a Vidrash (Midrash is a way to subjectively comment on passages from the Talmud to make fanciful associations and connections) but that’s what it was: a textured, multilayered interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel as a first person narrative working in the gap between documentary and fiction. Like the Rabbis, David was concerned with the textures and details of mundane existence.
Collaborating with Skip Blumberg and Bart Friedman, two members of the Videofreex, David was the God behind the unblinking eye of video.
Several things confused me during the first ten or more times I saw it- there was no theatricality, no acting. The group of two “performers” and David behind the active camera stood around a tree. I think the camera might have moved into the tree at some point, shooting from above. They didn’t mention Cain and Abel, but there was a sense of a conflict between brothers with different sensibilities. The voice of the all-seeing (David behind the camera) prods them, amplifies the tension.
The video ends when one of the “brothers” leaves. There is no murder, no shame.
I often observed others who watched the tape with us in Jerusalem and was amazed at the concentration of the viewers and appreciation many expressed.
It was something new, another way of telling a story, but without the linearity of conventional film or television. The viewer is always aware of the camera and the personality behind it, even while it watches the struggle between the primitive and technological, the familial struggle at the root of difference.
It wasn’t until we were sitting in an apartment in Jerusalem with Israeli television journalists that I understood the inherent subjective nature of the video camera as a first point narrative.
We were on our own with a limited budget.
David had a fairly typical New Left attitude toward Israel. The glow of the Six Day War had worn off quickly; there was a tremendous amount of unrest among the Jewish poor, mostly recent immigrants from the north African countries.
There was also considerable criticism of Israel for oppressing Palestinians. In the US, Jews were being blamed by some people in other minorities and some political figures on both the far right and left as being the cause and perpetrator of many social and political problems.
David was not a practicing or particularly knowledgeable Jew, but he exuded the essence of Yiddishkeit, a word used to describe a kind of joyful soul. He spoke with everyone like some kind of media Moses, he often gathered fellow travelers during the course of a day.
We took a few rooms at a small hotel and spent several days just wandering, exploring the city carrying our equipment gathering images and sounds as we walked. Although there was an undercurrent of tension, the walled city was relatively safe, and most shopkeepers were friendly to tourists.
We interviewed Mayor Teddy Kollek early on and always felt we were under his protection even at our wildest moments, such as smoking hash with members of the Moroccan kids who called themselves Black Panthers. They took us an ancient guard post overlooking the inside and outside of the old city and tried smoking out of broken bottles.
This was a time of great upheaval throughout the world and Israel faced pressure from within and around its borders. We spent considerable time with Blank Panthers who we later realized used us as a propaganda vehicle for their cause. They were around the same age as us and represented a fringe element that was exciting and somewhat dangerous.
One of the Panthers became an onscreen guide through some of the poorest parts of Jerusalem which we recorded on video. We interviewed people living in slum conditions.
We showed the footage to people from the Jerusalem television station who laughed and said that the guide was not translating what was being said by those we interviewed, rather delivering an ideological polemic based on things people were telling us about the dire living conditions in their community and the general brutality of Israeli prisons.
He wasn't exactly lying, we were told, just that he filtered the answers.
We videotaped a demonstration that was broken up by police who backed buses that released fumes of noxious gas into the crowd.
David didn’t panic and calmly caught the frenzy of an escape on video and audio tape as we backed away. After some of the Black Panthers were arrested, we tried to visit them in the prison with our equipment but were turned away.
After a few days in downtown Jerusalem, we decided to save money and celebrate the holidays by staying in an apartment that was part of a convent in the valley below the old city, at the cusp of Palestinian dominated East Jerusalem. The food in the markets and restaurants of this part of the city was better and less expensive than what we were buying downtown. The apartment had a small kitchen where David kept an always evolving soup cooking with leftovers of our meals.
We met a filmmaker whose work I'd seen at the Anthology Film Archives, the filmmaker and actor, Ben Haim. I interviewed him about the state of Israeli cinema him for the exhibition.
Ben arranged to have his taxi driver brother take us and be our guide in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. By the time we arrived at the outskirts of Bethlehem, the police were turning away all without special passes.
I remember driving around the city until Ben’s brother recognized a cousin at one of the roadblocks who passed us through with a wave.
Ben and his family had emigrated from India as a group and they had influences through their community that were deep and easy. David videotaped and I used the audio tape recorder to record the praying and singing in the square, At sunset seeing Jerusalem truly golden was very peaceful and moving. After the formal services, we wandered to the holy spots and had another good meal, meeting people from Australia and other places.
When our production time in Jerusalem was over, David decided to remain for a few more weeks to learn from a Hasidic rabbi whose laugh and manner matched David’s.
David arrived in Israel with leftist or anarchistic leanings and remained to study with a mystic.
I went with overly idealistic ideas about Israel and left shaken by what I’d seen.
One day we visited an Israeli artist in a valley between what had been Jordanian controlled Palestine and Israeli controlled Jerusalem. David recorded the bullet holes in his canvasses. What had seemed utopian and humane, was turning sour and materialistic.
David was our de-facto leader in Israel, and back in New York I continued to follow him around, helping him with his projects. I think the Jerusalem exhibition was successful, and probably one of the earliest to use only multimedia as a way of looking at a place and time.
David was never content with the obvious, and edited work so that it could be exhibited on multiple monitors to convey extended performance space.
David’s work was intuitive, distinctive, and humanistic. While handheld perspective was used by experimental filmmakers and as a cinematic technique in Hollywood, it was rarely used by artists or journalists, and never with David's comfort. Using his theatricality, exuberant personality, and astute psychological insights into people, he was clearly the "author" and "director" of the flow of information pixelating the black and white monitors.
David created several charming and sensual interactive video experiences, especially the Love Couch, in which people were able to move their hands over a table to exchange parts of their faces which they could see, still in black and white, on tv screens.
David had a Brechtian attitude about his installation. He didn’t hide the big black and white cameras with snaky cables, dim and heavy black and white monitors, and a three channel keyer rigged by Chuck Kennedy, David Jones, and other engineers. This was basically a hacked conventional Special Effects Generator, which usually only has two channels. With the third channel and the video equipment, one could sit on a couch with a friend and move hands under a camera pointing at a black background, creating a kind of fluid mixing of the two bodies. With a few minutes of experimenting, people on the couch could be seeing an others arms, legs, and head on their own body.
Note: My ten channel audio installation expressed anger, frustration, and bitterness, not exactly what the Jewish Museum was expecting. The participant/viewer, had access to earphones and a dial with options. The channels included poetry, documentary, ambient sounds, and interviews with artists, wounded soldiers, and students involved with “secret” peace talks with Palestinian counterparts.