Sunday, April 29, 2012


 Shirley Clarke's film, The Connection is opening at IFC this week. Her great film set in Harlem, The Cool World, is still hoarded by vicious misogynist Frederick Wiseman.  This photo of a Video Space Troop meeting is by Peter Simon. That's me on the left with the sandal and Shirley with the hat.

The following is a piece I wrote about her the day I heard she had died-- it is included in my book Hand Held Visions.    

Shirley Clarke was my mentor.  I learned more from her than anyone else I ever knew--  mostly about how to be a mentor-- how to energize people, how to push them to do good work, how not to give up when the technology was failing, the people lethargic or the situation impossible.  Shirley pushed things and people to the edge.  She never gave up.  Altziheimer claimed her about ten years ago, but she held on, tenderly nursed by two of her beloved disciples, Piper and David Cort, who bathed her and tucked her in and smoothed her forehead.  Her daughter Wendy and many of her colleagues were with her during her last days in a Boston hospital.  She died last month in a sweet sleep surrounded by Felix the Cat and Betty Boop, the toys of her youth held tight for all these years.

Shirley was somewhere between Betty Boop and Felix the Cat herself, with a bit of Charlie Chaplin's tramp thrown in.  She often wore a bowler hat and tight smart little suits, like something out of a 1930's chorus line. All she needed were spats to complete the costume.  She had style.  A small woman with the body of a dancer, she had piercing black eyes, like a beady little mouse.  She was witty and bright, and endlessly energetic. 

Shirley started as a dancer.  Her first films were dance films, such as Dance in the Sun (1953) and In Paris Parks (1954), a lyrical look at gesture and movement in a public landscape.  I saw this early work and Bridges Go Round, a piece she did for the Brussels World Fair at the Hunter Art Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  It changed my life.  Seeing her name on the credits and the joy and energy of the images made me realize that women could and should make their own films.  I decided to try to study film in college. 

Her work in the early 60's, The Connection and The Cool World are landmarks of the American New Wave movement.  The Cool World is a New York version of Italian neo-realism, every bit as powerful and poignant.  It remains (with Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy) the best expression of marginal life in that era.  Her film, Portrait of Jason (1967) was one of the first with a gay protagonist in an open and sympathetic (and completely unromantic) manner.  Shirley and Viva Superstar shared the screen as talent in Agnes Varda's Lion's Love, which was always my favorite Varda film.  Somehow Shirley (and Viva) added a New York edge to Varda, who can wax sentimental and cloying. 

In the early seventies I somehow found my way up to her workshop space in the penthouse of the Chelsea Hotel.  Shirley lived and worked there making live and taped video performance, installation and documentation with a collaborating group of artists.  I was lucky to have been a part of that work.  We formed a troupe, those of us who worked with Shirley.  She called us the TeePee Video Space Troupe and the idea was to experiment with performance that integrated video and other technologies.  It was the days before video cassettes and each tape had to be hand threaded into the portapak decks.  Not that it was really about recording per se.  Most of what we did was never on tape: the tape was only one of the elements of the constructions, the happenings, the events.  It was electronic performance in an interactive mode.  The troupe included myself, Andy Gurian, Shirley's daughter Wendy, Bruce Ferguson, Vicki Polon, David Cort, Bob Harris, Parry Teasdale, Shalom Gorewitz, Susan Milano, Shridir Bapat and others.  There were regular drop-ins like Agnes Varda, Shigeko Kaboda, Beryl Korot, Nam June Paik, Skip Blumberg, Barbara Haspiel, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Jori Schwartzman, or neighbors at the Chelsea, Carl Lee, Viva (toting one of her kids), photographer Peter Simon, Doris Chase, Andre Vosnevshenski, George Kleinsinger, Virgil Thompson, Harry Smith, Arthur C. Clarke (no relation).  

At any given time there always seemed to be one or two Japanese dancers around.  Sometimes even Andy Warhol climbed that flight of stairs after the last elevator stop, looking for Viva.  Louis Malle came by, as did Susan Sontag, Joris Ivens, Peter Brooks, Jean Rouche and Shelly Winters.  The Chelsea had a certain cachet for visitors from Europe, Hollywood and Japan and Shirley was queen of the Chelsea. 

Around Shirley swirled miles of video cables, cameras, monitors and telephones.  She was wired. Shirley had a new project every night.  We were needed to help make it happen.  It was sometimes frustrating, often exhausting, but it was hard not to trot over there, because you never knew what you might miss if you stayed away.

One time Arthur Clarke somehow got hold of a laser beam.  He unwrapped a long rectangular box with a fat cable, borrowed from some Columbia lab by a fan of 2001 Space Odysey.    This was many years before those red needles of light sparkled on every cashier's counter.  The laser was exotic and thrilling and Shirley and Arthur giggled like kids phoning in bogus pizza orders as they plugged it in and carried it out to the edge of the Chelsea roof, aiming it down at the sidewalk. From that distance it was hard to keep steady, but Shrider quickly screwed it into a tripod tilted over the edge.  Passers-by on 23rd street stooped to pick up the resulting tiny red jewel.  Both Clarke's roared with laughter as they made it jump five feet out of reach.  When we tried using the laser in our performances, it etched intricate patterns on several of our cameras.

One night we all agreed to do dawn.  We broke into five groups and went out to video dawn.  We recconoitered on the roof with stacks of monitors and cued up the five tapes from the five groups.  Shirley rang up for bagels and champaigne and when they were delivered we toasted the pink sky and switched on the decks for a multi channel piece of morning in New York.  Shots of steam rising from the street vents, tracking shots of bottle collectors pushing their carts, shots of pigeons in flight mixed and matched across the screens.  The natural sounds of the live streets below us mixed with the taped steam hisses and pigeon coos to make a city symphony of sounds as well as sights. Behind the pyramid of monitors flickering the black and white visual poems were the pastel sky scrapers, their windows reflecting the rising red sun ball.  One special moment was when pigoens flew right to left across one of the monitors and appeared in the bottom left of the neighboring monitor, as if in one continuous flight. It was one of those synchronisities that we were all sure Shirley planned. We didn't giggle during that event.  Exhausted and emotional we sat in the rosy light with tears streaming down our cheeks, the kind of tears that can punctuate a late Beethoven quartet played well.  When the tapes spun empty at the end we came together and hugged.  Like some Omega circle, just more spontaneous and real. 

I remember one night we set up an elaborate elevator installation: a camera on each Chelsea floor aimed at the elevator door and a Pisa-like leaning stack of monitors on the roof recreating the Chelsea's 10 floors.  Wires ran up the center staircase picking up the feed on each floor.  Then someone would do a performance on the elevator and we would watch the roof TV stack.  We could see the performance only when the doors opened on floor after floor.  It was a great idea.  It never quite worked.  None of Shirley's projects ever "worked" in the conventional sense, but we knew that the ideas totally worked.  It was exhilerating.    It was being high every night.  We were urban guerillas of the Chelsea penthouse, plotting an electronic coup that would liberate the imaginations of the world.

The image of Felix the Cat was one of the very first images to glow from a cathode ray tube in television experiments in the 1930's.   At this moment, high above us on a flickering celestial screen, an implike Shirley in a spiffy bowler hat morphs in and out with Felix in a perpetual soft shoe routine.  Goodnight, Shirley.  May some of us, your students, transmit electric visions as sassy and brilliant as you and Felix, with an edge as sharp and a passion as deep.  

Workshop Photographs by Peter Simon     Shirley kissing Nam June photo by DeeDee Halleck


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