Thoughts on Shirley Clarke and The TP Videospace Troupe
Printed in MFJ No. 42 (Fall 2004) Video: Vintage and Current
Shirley Clarkes reputation as a filmmaker is as secure as anybodys, and any history of film that omits her is lacking. Her work in video is as startling and creative as her work in film, yet she has been repeatedly overlooked in histories of the early video movement. She pioneered video installations (her Video Ferris Wheel at the 8th Annual Avant-Garde Festival of New York, 1971, for example) and video technology (she designed, with Parry Teasdale, a wrist-watch camera by taking apart a portable camera and separating its components). But her most extraordinary use of video was not a performance, a tape or an installation, but her unique workshops. The workshops were live and evanescent events; what remains are fragments .
In 1970 Clarke received a government grant, via a program sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art, with the understanding that the grant was to enable an established artist familiar with one medium to work in another. Clarke, a filmmaker, wanted to use the grant to invent a new protocol for editing film, by using video technology. She took the money and bought a studio-full of the just-developed ? Sony and Panasonic video hardware: cameras, Portapaks, edit decks, monitors. Immediately, she discovered the technical impossibility of her projectthat of editing videotape. It should not even be attempted.
But Clarke discovered that video offered something new and exciting: live, moving images, which could be transmitted to several discrete architectural locations simultaneously.
Moreover, the images could travel in two (or more) directions: two people in different rooms, for example, could each carry a camera and two monitors so that each could see the other cameras live image as well as a live image of the other person.
Video could dissolve the distinction between creator and audience; anyone could use a camera and create live moving images. The images were immediately available to be combined with other peoples images on adjacent or nearby monitor displays.
Video was not subject to complex editing: images existed in real time and were combinednot one after the otherbut one with, or next to, the other.
Video asked to be made and seen inside an architectural/physical environment: combinations of monitors built up larger formsnot in a darkened theater where the spectator was the fourth wallbut as one part of larger space.
Video implied something beyond the frames (housings) of monitors: it acknowledged both what was inside and outside the border of the cameras image.
Clarke created a workshop environment that could demonstrate these elements of video.
Clarkes rooftop pyramid became The TeePee. The space tapered gently as it rose about 25 feet to its apex. The lowest interior level was a sunken living room/kitchen. Up a flight of stairs was another space, approximately 15 X 20. Above this, more stairs led to a small platform. Access to the buildings roof was from the lowest two levels; there was approximately 1500 square feet of private outdoor space. Across the roof, Clarke rented an additional large studio to live and work in.
Clarke wired each of these spaces for video and audio. A custom-made, portable matrix switcher (patchboard) sent and received signals between spaces, each of which was also equipped with a variety of monitors and cameras. The switcher enabled transmitting an image originating in one space to all the others, and vice versa. And the electronics was always fired up. TeePee regulars co-existed with random, live video images of themselves, the floor, the windows, furniture, Clarkes poodles, video monitors, even broadcast television.
The four spaces (lowest level, second level, high platform, outdoor roof) were usually nicknamed colors (red, blue, green, yellow), occasionally geographical places (Paris, Tokyo, New York, for example). All this was a model for the anticipated inevitable: the ability to send and receive simultaneous audio and video signals to and from anywhere on earth.
Sometime in 1971 Clarke conceived of a group of artists, drawn from the full compass of disciplines, who would develop new skills for a new art. She appropriated the model of the jazz ensemble: videographers would improvise, trading images back and forth. Clarkes reputation and contacts attracted such people as Arthur C. Clarke (no relation) and Peter Brook; actors Jean-Paul Léaud, Carl Lee, and Viva (a close friend who lived across the hall); filmmakers Richard Leacock, Nicholas Ray, Willard Van Dyke, Peter Bogdonovich, Milos Forman, Agnès Varda, Harry Smith, Paul Morrisey, Michel Auder, Severn Darden, Storm De Hirsch, and Lech Kowalsk; Zen writer Alan Watts; poets Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky; jazz giant Ornette Coleman; and notorious cable-TV pioneer Irving Kahn. The video world was represented by Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota, the Vasulkas, Shalom Gorewitz, Ira Schneider, Philip Perlman, and lots of others. More regular were TeePee members Wendy Clarke (Shirleys daughter), Bruce Ferguson, Shridhar Bapat, Susan Milano, Elsa Morse, DeeDee Halleck; and VideoFreex commune members Nancy Cain, David Cort, Davidson Gigliotti and Parry Teasdale. The TeePee became a salon as Clarke sought to incorporate the range of talents of its visitors.
From an interview with Clarke in Radical Software:
Over the next five years this groupThe TP Videospace Troupegave workshops at the TeePee and toured in the Northeast. Membership constantly changed and at any given time was between four and ten people. I joined in 1972, soon after I graduated college. My artistic career had begun when I started making movies at age 12, in 1962. I continued making films as a teenager, some with Rodger Larson, who, at the Mosholu-Montefiore Community Center (Bronx, NY), the 92nd Street YMHA, and the Film Club of the Young Filmmakers Foundation, was among the first to put 16mm cameras in the hands of teens. These films caught the eye of Willard Van Dyke, who gave me Clarkes phone number and told me she was doing interesting things with video.
1:00 AM: Playing Games
In the early 70s most of us did not yet possess the technology to venture forth on electronic crossings over vast distances in space; we could only play at it. Much of the workshop materialreal and virtual (images on monitors)was childlike, game-like. The TeePee was stocked with costumes, toy musical instruments, masks, and arts-and-crafts supplies. During the Head-Body Games Clarke encouraged people to use this inventory, more suggestive of a kindergarten than a sophisticated New York artists studio. She humanized the machinery: monitor housings were painted and cameras were decorated with cutouts and decals (many were of Clarkes beloved Felix the Catshe claimed his was the first image ever broadcast). Control knobs were camouflaged. This gear was to be disentangled from its imposing super-tech look. Its origin of manufacture by big, big industry was to be negated. The vernacular was to replace all tech talk. (Clarke found, however, she could not avoid jargon with equipment dealers and engineers. She conceded defeat in this part of the battle against domination by the technology; she vowed if she were ever to re-marry, the groom would be a TV repairman.) Our hammers and screwdrivers were enameled milky-pink (in part so we could distinguish them when on tour), making them, too, look like toys. Indeed, The TeePee was also called The TP-Tower Playpen. Many work shoppers resisted this return to juvenile childhood, but the rewards were high for those who fell under the spell.
I hesitate to psychoanalyze or over-interpret Clarkes concentration on childhood or the childlike. But she did make some film shorts featuring children (In Paris Parks and Scary Time), which were curious in light of her better-known films, Portrait of Jason and The Connection.
Some critics complained that these Head-Body Games had only simplistic content. The games in and of themselves were ultimately of little consequence, and the new-age references to totems, magic, mystic power, and shamanism seemed trivial at first, even condescending. Clarke would agreeand disagree. She said that her contribution was to suggest possibilities (her word) and paradigms, leaving them for others to perfect, that more significant content was to come later. (Some other observers, though, were probably not interested in content of any kind.)
And this from Clarke:
The Totem Tapes
Many early investigators used video to turn the camera back on themselves or to encourage the viewer to become the subject, but Clarkes contribution to this schema was the most intense. She asked people to enter a private architectural spacetheir own bedrooms, an area in the TP, for exampleand set up a small monitor fed by a camera situated just a few inches above it. The subject/tapemaker faced the monitor and looked directly at the live image of her/his head. A tape recorded the subjects looking, commenting, face-making, doing nothingwhateveruntil the tape expired thirty minutes later. (Thirty minutes became a standard duration in much tape making at the TP. Sony designed the Portapak to hold a thirty-minute reel; it was convenient to make a tape until it simply ran out. It became as natural to measure time by the reel as by cycles in nature.) No other subject matter or instructions were suggested. She called the resulting tapes Totem Tapes.
For some, the exercise was empty or routine. For others, it was emotionally profoundto the point that Clarke was sometimes concerned about possibly dangerous psychological consequences. But, for everyone, this modality introduced the concept of seeing and making a live, moving image that could also be saved. It demonstrated the concept of public/private space/time and who might or could control images. In my own first Totem Tape, I made a mistake. I stared at myself, made funny noises and faces, thought about this and that. Only thenabout fifteen minutes laterdid I push the record button. Afterward, Clarke told me I missed the most important fifteen minutes.
Videos seeming ability to let anyone turn inward and glimpse at the true soul was undeniably appetizing for early experimenters. It would, after all, be a pity to deny such a powerful tool. Everyoneartists, critics, philosophers, semioticians, psychotherapists, aestheticianssideswiped each other racing to define it, analyze it, and practice it.
Plenty of other artists of the 70s made tapes or installations in which they looked directly into their own image. But it is important to remember that most of these works were made by artists to be (passively) viewed by other people (an audience). When the viewer or audience also becomes the subject, we quickly get the point of the other as ourselves, of what Rosalind Krauss calls reflection vs. reflexiveness.5 These works did often demonstrate videos potential to slip the viewer from architectural space to video space, but watching most people enter these variations on video feedback loops was not unlike watching people today playing with their own images in the windows of electronics stores in shopping malls.6
The Totem Tapes asked for more. Subjects understood from the outset that thirty minutes was to be the duration of the event, and this length demanded some commitment. The tapes were private. Anyone could erase her/his tape before anyone else saw itthough few did.7
The making of Totem Tapes was primarily a process in, of, and for itself. They were not intended to mimic or reference any particular theory of psychologysuch as Krausss analysis of Freudian and Lacanian narcissismthough they were not intended not to do so. For most people, they were memories, dreams, reflections andin Krausss phrasemoments of reflexiveness. For others, there was also narcissism; for some, fear of narcissism; exhibitionism and fear of exhibitionism; revealing secrets and keeping secrets.
Most of the Totem Tapes retired to boxes on a shelf. From time to time, somebody showed his to a friend. I once had occasion to watch four or five simultaneously, each on its own monitor. In this playback context, they fascinated. They conveyed an atmosphere of focused concentration on an unrevealed common cause or purposedirectness, humor, chance, and anything else you would care to impose on them or extract from them.
We at the TP were continually watching images of ourselves because our equipment was always turned on. I decided after a few weeks at the TP that I had better find a way to do so without the queasiness I initially felt. I have always believed that most people feel awkward about their own appearances, and seeing themselves on video calls their attention to their uneasiness. I developed a skill whereby I could invoke a different persona for myself. I trained myself over time to see my video image not as me but as someone else. Only this way could I be objective about my appearance. I became an average guy, just like anyone elsenot perfect but good enough. To see yourself with this learned, un-spontaneous, self-conscious objectivity is probably the most accurate way of seeing yourself (maybe what Ryan meant by your real self, your inside,but maybe he meant the opposite), and it is probably the closest to how others see you.
Perhaps Clarke called them Totem Tapes because, like the other video totem formats, they spoke to the same issues of magic/image/power/group/ individual. Totem Tapes were not visual recitations of people with blank expressions staring at cameras. They were a new kind of portrait with continuous input and output from the subject. To make a Totem Tape was to experience the video rite of passage. Nowadays, anyone can make one at home.
Just maybe the Totem, the Totem Tapes, and the video games did have considerable and worthwhile content. Shirley was the shaman, electrons were the power, and the magic was to come at dawn.
2:00 A.M.: Making Tapes or
Ive never seen a videotape I liked
Filmmakers and Filmmaking
Clarke began her artistic life as a dancer. The subject of her first filmDance in the Sun (1953)was a dance. Many short films later, her subject matter was still danceand that which dance and film had in common: motion. But film had a movement all its own and a tempo all its own, determined by editing.
About fifteen years after Dance in the Sun, in the late 1960s, portable and inexpensive video cameras and recorders became a reality. This technology followed the invention of professional, portable, sync-sound motion picture equipment by about a decade and a half. Videotape was cheap; 16mm film was dear (dearer still for the costs of developing and printing). But film was cheap to edit (you needed a viewer, a pair of scissors, and tape or glue). Editing videotape on the other hand was either expensive or, in the case of small-format video, expensive and lousy.
And so early independent videotape makers inaugurated an era of long and boring electronic films. Tape was so cheap that it quenched any thought of letting go of the record button, and the frustrating technical problems of editing undermined any inspiration of tightening the work. The film editors slogan, when in doubt, cut, became the videotape makers slog, when in doubt, dont assemble a sloppy edit. Editing, the beating heart of filmmaking, became the clogged artery of video.
Many believed in the promise of the early 1970s, the promise to liberate the moving image from the monopoly held by mass-media moguls and their enormous corporations. Hollywood studios and network television could now be challenged by local grass-roots groups. Downtown Community TV, Paper Tiger Television, Raindance, Videofreexall tried to bring the power of media to the people. And, indeed, there was some success.8 The notion that video was somehow to make art more democratic has been repeated often enough.9 It was certainly a concept Clarke espoused.
Just as Krauss found narcissism intrinsic to video, many people consider progressive politics a video built-in. Michael Rush, in 2002, makes much of early videos unusual acceptance of a large number of women.10 (He mentions eight, but misses Clarke!) The attraction to video felt by the relatively disenfranchised is best understood in the context of the traditional economics of filmmaking and the society of filmmakers. (Elitist skeptics will reply that all video has done is to give cameras to the masses, and now we must suffer what the masses give us back.) It is obvious that forms such as painting or poetry, though historically laden with political and social elites, do not face the same financial issues as film does because their means of production are so inexpensive.
One branch of the new video practitioners experimented with electronic painting: making abstractions and non-objective designs. Synthesizers, chroma-keying, and feedback were the engines driving these tapes, by such makers as the Vasulkas and the Etras.
For Clarke, this was simply filmmaking or picture making on the cheap. Her filmmakers eye saw videotape-qua-film as undisciplined, bad-looking, and bad-sounding, with edits that further destabilized the already crippled imageall on a small screen of washed-out gray murk. It hardly mattered whether the maker was from the world of film, the plastic arts, music, or literature.
Video was fighting for its own aesthetic identity, and most tapemaking was not helping. Videos chroma-keying imitates films blue-screen and traveling-matte processes; other video special effects imitate films optical-printing possibilities. Zooms, close-ups, dolly shots, and panning are all inventions of film. The history of forcing the capabilities of video editing is the history of spending millions of dollars and building mountains of black boxes with their secret inner organs, only to imitate a razor blade, tape, and glue.
To be fair, Clarke did retreat from her anti-tape dogma from time to time. She was a lifelong believer in progressive political causes (including feminism), one of which was to challenge the control of mass media. In this she echoed and valued the contributions of those who took on the big guys by experimenting with tapemaking in small formats. I do not think I am extrapolating too much to say that Clarke recognized that low budget, lo-tech tapes were not necessarily ends in themselves but part of something larger. They indicated a change in the control of the image. That was important in the 1970sand it is even more so today. Aesthetic principles of video would develop.
Clarke realized that, in her words, broadcast television is just a method of film distribution. Most broadcast TV was made of movie-like images routed to the living room and did not exploit the potentials of video. (But when it did, it was exciting. TV could distribute a live news event on a global scale. It was when Clarke passed a store window and saw a television tuned to a live feed of the McCarthy hearings that she considered the merits of owning one of these boxes.) Whatever alternative value small-format videotapes offered, to be effective they required a new means of distribution. Clarke once wrote a long description of how to create such a distribution system. In essence, short tapes would be created at a local level and shuttled to central hubs (community centers, museums, libraries) for immediate dissemination. (Clarke was also one of the founders of the Filmmakers Co-op.) In anticipation of the future technology of electronic conveyance, bicycles would do! She even planned the First Inter-Arts Synergetic-Space Telethon for October, 2, 1972, which was to use this system together with the resources of the local cable-TV company for a forty-eight-hour marathon to produce ten new videotapes. The tapes were to be a collaborative effort between two-hundred artists at the TP and the public. It was, however, too ambitious for the time and was aborted a week before the scheduled start date. No one can know for sure what these tapes might have looked like, but I cannot imagine they would have been extensively edited or have reflected professional production values.
Unlike films, the tapes made in the TP workshops had no start or finish; i.e., there was no frame around their time dimension. The long strip of magnetic tape coiled on a reel was a blank slate: as on a schoolteachers blackboard, the inscribed images were laid down, not at random, but without a sense of any field demarcated by a start or finish. The tapes did not gently fade in or fade out. At their heads the first images crudely burned into the video snow. At their tails they simply ran out and that was that. The frame around the two dimensions of height and width was also nebulous. It was determined by the shape, proportion, and orientation of the monitor screen, but simultaneously was destroyed by the monitors existing in an equally-felt architectural space.
The tapes unquestionably existed in a time dimension, as do films. But TP tapes were not conceived in shot-by-shot linear progressions. They were designed to be watched side-by-side with other tapes. Like films, they were played on a screen, but TP video screens were never in a darkened room or removed from exterior contexts.
DAWN: Watching Tapes, Watching the Sun Rise
Here was Clarke at her most radical: The TP workshops were ideal in pointing to art as active, not passive. Gone is the artist who creates a thing for a viewer, a reader, or a listener. This notion was sometimes threateningdownright scaryto career artists and other professionals in the arts industry (curators, funders, patrons, government administrators). I certainly felt unsettled. Anyone could be an artist; criticism, judgment, perfection, and elitism all took a back seat. Art ceased to be a fetish for the art object.
and aestheticize it to:
Clarke herself thought her video work was process art. Heres a term that has been flung aboutusually in self-contradictory contexts. A sculptor who throws molten lead against a wall may claim that what is important is the throwingnot the thrown or the thrower. But he has created an object, and it is this object that he sells. It is this object that is admired and it is this object that is displayed. True, the object suggests a process; but then Impressionism, too, suggests a processpainting en plein air. The Sistine Chapel ceiling suggests back pain and frescoes must be produced according to a strict procedure, but no one calls Impressionist paintings or Michelangelos works process art.
For Clarke, if you had a process you probably could not have a product. The art disappeared; it left no serious artifacts; it could only be replicated approximately. She never saw a tape she liked. Video was the ideal medium to demonstrate art as process precisely because the products of video, i.e., videotapes, looked so bad.
Mekas then unfortunately strays from his point, which he himself seems unable to fully appreciate. He still insists on the model of one image-one monitor and evokes Richard Leacock as the true prophet. He is down to earth and the glory of video...will be revealed...when the...video workers go into life and begin to record people, even if it be their own livespeople, and they will do it straight and clear.
I recently watched Shigeko Kubotas videotape My Father (1973-75). An opening title reads My father died the day I bought an airplane ticket to go to see him. I called Shirley Clarke. She asked me how I was. I told her I was crying. She said, Why dont you make a videotape of yourself crying. Kubota did. My Father is an uncomplicated tape. Kubota did exactly what Mekas and Clarke prescribed, and she made a tape as close to a document of a process as possible. She used a Totem-Tape variation by tearfully confronting the video image of her father and the monitor that plays that image. The viewer sees Kubota literally do this and react to it as she makes physical contact with the monitor/image. The tape is affecting; it was made in a home and is best watched in a home.
The Beginning Discovery Re-visited; Video in 2004
Irony #1, Film vs. video: Clarkes original, then quickly abandoned, dream has come true! Video now offers a cheap, fast, easy technology for shooting, editing, distributing, and exhibiting film. The future is probably photo-electronic, not photo-chemical. Final Cut Pronot Moviolas; fiber optics and satellitesnot cans of celluloid.
Just as the first generation of filmmakers sought to imitate the theaterintercutting, close-ups, sophisticated manipulation of time were all yet to comemany early video practitioners, often purposefully, imitated filmmaking. This is still truemore than thirty years later. Commercial video and a considerable amount of non-commercial video are still measured against standards of film (resolution, gradations of the gray scale, sharp edges, the illusion of depth, and so forth). A few months ago, an excited woman, a filmmaker of thirty years now in her fifties, commiserated with me; she doubted video could ever have the definition and richness of film. A few months before that encounter, another excited woman, in her twenties, showcased her new $4,000 digital video camera for me. I asked her about its features. Her first enthusiastic response was about its ability to shoot at 24 frames per second and portray motionjust like 16mm film.
This is the kind of confusion that prompts such innocent but nevertheless perceptive comments that describe video as the too-common tendency...to be either eye candy or failed attempts at cinema writ small.15 It is confusion that Clarke campaigned to elucidate. Just as she claimed broadcast television was film distribution in disguise, much video found in art galleries is film exhibition in disguise.
Less innocent, but to the same point, are, for example, comments by Amy Taubin about a video installation by Eija-Liisa Ahtila. I find it curious that Taubin calls her observation a problem when in fact she has uncovered what I would consider a truism:
Irony #1-A, More about film vs. video: Hollywood contrived the wide-screen format to compete with 1950s television. People now want their TVs bigger than life, just like the movies. The last symbolic blow to film-qua-theater came in the 1960s when the twin theaters Cinema One/Cinema Two opened on Manhattans East side. The news here was that the screen was not covered by a theatrical curtain when the audience entered the auditorium. The wall-to-wall screen was finally legitimate in and of itself. There was no more disguising that the motion picture was not three-dimensional. Now we are transforming the video monitor into a flat movie screen. We are saluting the coming of the video projector and the demise of the CRT. In the 20th century, as film matured it did everything possible to differentiate itself from theater; in the 21st video is still aggressively doing everything it can to imitate film.
And what will happen to the poor little monitor with its own personality and presence beyond the images it plays, the images we impose on it? The flat screenno longer referred to as a monitor or a tvwith its artificial, filmic, wide 16:9 ratio, is inching toward victory in a marketing war.
Irony #2, Ive never seen a videotape I liked: In the early 1980s Clarke started making single-channel videotapes. With Joe Chaikin and Sam Shepard, and produced by The Womens Interart Center, she directed Tongues and Savage/Love. More tapes followed. Did she capitulate? I dont know.
And what of the TP Videospace Troupe? Clarke accepted a teaching position at U.C.L.A in the mid-1970s. Some of us continued in New York and on tour for a year or two. Clarke had proselytized for putting control of the moving image in the hands of everyone. But two observations have to qualify her dreamy epiphany. First, not everyone wants their home populated by cameras, monitors, and recording devices, no matter how unobtrusive or simple they are to use. Some people would rather work for the Red Cross, run marathons, or perform heart surgery.
Second, no one else is Shirley Clarke. The workshops she led required personality, presence, and temperament; she had a surfeit of each. She was quick, domineering, one step ahead, short-tempered, but with a sense of humor. People described her as difficult, controlling, and ornery. She often appeared cold; in fact she was not. She could, however, spend several days behind her closed door, sulking and speaking to no one, or she could behave like a cannonball and flatten everything in her path.
She identified with her grandfather, an Eastern European Jew and a creative, successful inventor, who designed the self-tapping screw. She had considerable trouble getting along with her mother and father, a wealthy Park Avenue businessman, who nonetheless was the source of financial support for Clarkes art. After knowing Clarke for a few weeks, I was amazed to realize that the Beatnik creator of Portrait of Jason and The Connection was a Jewish Mother.
On more than one occasion, a student who witnessed a Clarke temper tantrum asked me how I could work for such a woman. I simply replied that she was the closest person to a complete artist I had ever met and there was more to learn from her than anyone else in the business. She successfully combined personal vision, logical methodology, political awareness, self-reflection, and an impulse to communicate. Thirty years later, having met artists of all kinds by the score, I still maintain this opinion.
Can TP-like video continue? Clarkes approach, arguably, should not depend on a single personality. She was setting an example, consciously asking others to follow her and take video further than even she took it. But it is undeniable that there are only a few people who could lead workshops in the Clarke style.
The TP Videospace Troupe, 1971-1975