Published in Captured: A History of Lower East Side Film and Video, Clayton Patterson, ed., New York: Federation of East Village Artists, 2003, pp. 261-6.

"Live Video as Performance on New York City's Lower East Side in the 1980s"

by Eric Miller

I write to commemorate aspects of the art scene of the New York City's Lower East Side in the 1980s.  Michael Jackson and Madonna were inventing the music video.  And we -- Diane Dunbar, myself, and numerous others -- were developing the video happening.

In the mid-80s, various types of artists (performers, painters, etc.) were working in many different styles on the LES.  Small performance spaces and art galleries abounded.  Audiences were largely composed of artists.  Artists, and groups of artists, could afford lots, which were used as workplaces and gathering places.  There is a need for outdoor workshop spaces, as there is a need for gardens: communities and scenes can develop in and around such common spaces.

Today (2003), the scene as we knew it is dwindling.  The artists' lots are gone, and painters and performers are much fewer in number -- in part because so many people, including those in the arts, now work primarily with computers.  It used to be that independent young people could come to the LES and find a way to survive, doing a minimum of manual work in a part-time day (or night) job.  This sort of self-support is much less likely today.

In the mid-80s:

No Se No, the performance space and bar, was a storefront walk-in -- actually, a walk-down -- on Rivington St., between Forsyth and Allen Sts.  The entrance to the No Se No toolshed/clubhouse was around the corner, on Forsyth St., between Rivington and Stanton Sts.  Adjacent to the clubhouse was a lot that the No Se No artists, led by sculptor Ray Kelly, shared with Adam Purple, the garden maker.  Adam Purple's side of the lot featured a lovely spiral garden.

One fun activity at the No Se No lot was the ritual smashing of TV sets that had been found on the street and carried back to the lot.  I suppose for some people this smashing of TV sets expressed a disdain for the passive consumption of mass media.

Welding and blacksmithing work was being done by Robert Parker, Tovey Halleck, and others.  Scrap metal was artfully welded to the chain-link fence around the lot (this was a common practice around many artists' lots).  A fire, covered with a grill, was often burning, and many steaks were cooked here.  Cold beer was very popular. 

A quality of the LES-in-the-80s aesthetic was that there was a lot of bleeding -- both literally and figuratively.  Colors and shapes typically bled out of their frames, boxes, and borders.  Artists displayed a nonchalant and whimsical, but often also virtuoso, mix of the sophisticated and the crude.  Keith Haring brought his art world version of graffiti to the subways.  Richard Hambleton painted dripping black shadowy figures on many walls.

Diane and I lived a few blocks to the north of No Se No.  We have been partners in a video company from 1982 to the present (in the old days, it was known as Eric and Co. Video; now it is Storytelling and Videoconferencing).  For some years in the 80s, we made a living doing video documentation of performances (music, dance, theatre, etc.).  Artists needed video recordings of their work in order to apply for grants and for other purposes, and in those days few performers owned their own video equipment.  A video camera and portable (VHS) recorder were separate pieces then, making the video process much more cumbersome and elaborate than it needs to be today.

Both of us had backgrounds in theater, and from the beginning Diane and I performed with the equipment onstage, in addition to using it for recording from offstage.  We were both working toward M.A. degrees at NYU -- she in the Dance and Dance Ed. Dept., myself in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.  Both of our M.A.'s involved creating and analyzing performances that involved live video.  In this way we theorized the use of live video in performance, a genre that grew out of many traditions, including: 1) illustration in general; 2) art installations (in galleries, museums, etc.); 3) 60s happenings; 4) 60s theater (involving audience-participation, site-specific events, and improvisation); 5) painting-in-performance; and 6) the liquid-oil light shows that often accompanied rock concerts in the 60s and 70s. 

Diane and I share a love for forms of traditional storytelling, and many of our individual and collaborative performances that involved live and pre-recorded video also utilized narrative.  Diane performed the story of  Lavinia Williams, her beloved Haitian dance teacher.  I performed numerous stories, mostly made up by myself, that were a mix of realism, and fairytale and legend.  We were interested in ways in which a narrative (and a narrator) can provide a structure for an event without totally dominating the situation -- that is, in ways in which all present can comment upon, elaborate on, enact, and otherwise respond to the ongoing narrative.  When narrative is used in a video happening, a three-ring-circus atmosphere can develop, and I have always found this order/chaos tension to be stimulating. 

What we were doing was part of the early stages of home-made and interactive TV, which now also includes the editing and storing of video on one's personal computer, and webcasting and videoconferencing.  ("Webcasting," in this instance, refers to sending video through the Internet; "videoconferencing" refers to simultaneously sending-and-receiving video.)

I always felt that using video equipment only for recording by individuals was like using a Rolls Royce to cross the street.  The equipment is capable of so much more.  I felt that the video process was very interesting, and that it would be fun and useful to show this entire process to all present as it was occurring.  When all who are present can see the electronic image, then, when desired, all present can participate as co-creators and co-directors of that image.  The video process need not be a secret, pressure-filled process which only the cameraperson is in on, and for which only the cameraperson is responsible.  One thing needed to enable the opening up of the situation is a large viewfinder, or a monitor, that others, in addition to the cameraperson, can see. 

There is a continuum between the traditional recording situation and a video happening.  In our plain-and-simple recording situations, the performers would often view at least some of the recording directly after the event.  We had a 5-inch and a 13-inch color monitor for this purpose.  We could use these monitors during the taping itself, and others could watch if they liked -- although often this was too distracting for all concerned, as we often taped during public performances.  (For display events, we used larger monitors; and in the late 80s, we began to use video projectors.)

The video process can be asynchronous (image-creation and recording first, with community members viewing the images later) or synchronous (image-creation and community viewing simultaneously).  If the experience is synchronous, all present can suggest or make changes in the visuals as they are being produced, as mentioned above.

If people are geared to experiencing an in-the-flesh-only performance, it can be distracting and annoying to have to also see a monitor with an electronic image.  However, if people are prepared to see both the in-the-flesh and the electronic, they can find the combination enjoyable.  It is all a matter of expectation.  For example, if an artist is focused on showing her/his previously-done work, s/he may not be interested in others being able to electronically visually respond to the original work anywhere near that original work.  But if people enter an event expecting to collaborate and to add to each others' statements, then this can work out fine.

Today, people are much more used to the combination of the in-the-flesh and the electronic.  Many political, music, and sporting events feature this combination.  In fact, many arenas and stadiums now have video systems as part of the house system, so seeing the in-the-flesh and the (live or recorded) video image has largely become an inherent part of the arena and stadium experience.  Public participation in the creation of the electronic image, however, remains almost unheard of.

For art events / video happenings, Diane and I specialized in creating multiple layers on the video screen.  I believe that at times we had the image going through eight separate pieces of video and computer hardware, each of which could be controlled by a different individual, or group of individuals.  The entire combination involved: 1) the creating of the live video picture (through the selection and framing of images); 2) the processing of the live video picture (manipulating color and frame-rate, horizontal and vertical stretching and compressing, etc.); 3) the mixing of the live video picture with pre-recorded images (often supplied by videotape); and 4) electronic painting over all of the above.  As you can imagine, a good deal of self-discipline and sensitivity is called for when multiple individuals are manipulating this number of factors to create a combined picture.

Our computer input devices included mice, keyboards, and electronic pads and pens.  The video mixers (used especially for image-processing) featured knobs, sliders, and buttons.  For the electronic painting, we had Amiga computers, and eventually, four small Sony electronic paint pads.  Keying was done with both the Amigas and the mixers.  (Keying is a type of image-processing and mixing in which, for example, the image of a dancer's body, costumed and lit to be light-colored, can be replaced by another video source, often just a solid color; or conversely, it can be the dark areas of the picture that are replaced by the other source.) 

Diane and I were fond practitioners of video feedback, which is created by pointing a camera at a monitor screen that is showing a live image of what the camera is picking up.  By changing the angles of the camera position, and by adjusting the picture controls (on both the camera and the monitor), one can produce swirling, pulsing, lacy, amoeba-like images.

In the 80s, the concepts, if not the actualities, of virtual reality (Jaron Lanier) and artificial reality (Myron Krueger) were getting a good deal of publicity.  These processes involve the possibility of one's body movements affecting computer-generated two- or three-dimensional environments.  Virtual reality involves wearable input devices (such as gloves) and display devices (such as video goggles); whereas artificial reality -- more to my taste -- involves input devices that don't hinder the body (such as video cameras and computer processing), and a common, large-screen display.  In this latter vein, Diane and I looked (and continue to look) forward to using such input devices as 1) weight-sensitive floors, 2) heat-sensitive environments, 3) electro-magnetic-sensitive environments (Theremin-type technology), and 4) sonar and other types of signals that can bounce off the body and be read so as to create images on a screen.

One thing we did we called video projection dance parties: as people danced they could see their live images (with the processing, mixing, and painting) on a large screen.  Few people were prepared to pay us for these live video experiments, so usually we did them for free.  We liked to think we were working in the tradition of Nam June Paik, a father of video art, who, in the 60s, traveled about giving video demonstrations and talks with a "porta-pack" (which produced black-and-white video on reel-to-reel tape).  Our demonstrations always involved inviting members of the public to participate in and play with the video process.

The events we did with Red Ed were especially enjoyable.  Red Ed was putting out the Fine Art News newsletter, and was very active in the art scene, as she is today.  I was delighted to set up the live image processing and painting system for two events she organized.  One was at a gallery on 11th St., between Aves. A and B.  The other was in the back room performance space of a bar on Second Ave., near 12th St.  At both of these events, people performed, mostly reading poetry and singing, as others created the live video art.

We did numerous events for and with Arleen Schloss, especially at her famous Broome St. loft, and at a club near 12th St. and the Hudson River.  I recall one fellow at the latter venue telling me that what was appearing on our monitor was the "worst video I've ever seen."  Of course, I took this as a compliment.  Factors he was perhaps referring to were the ways the camera was at times moved quickly and unsteadily, and was left on as the cameraperson walked around.  Most of this "backstage" process is omitted from "good" video.

One theme of Arleen's work during this period involved the letters of the alphabet.  For some performances we did with her, as she spoke the letters, we had electronic letters appear in the mouth of her live video image.

Diane and I produced live video shows/installations at the Limelight, Danceteria, Sounds of Brazil, and many other nightclubs.  Sometimes the images of the onstage performers went onto the screen; sometimes the images of members of the public sitting, standing, and dancing went onto the screen.  Nicholas Bergery also worked many of these events: he showed slides of his computer-processed photographs; and sometimes projected light through crystals.  Some of these events were organized by Baird Jones. 

Once I recorded and displayed video on a monitor while Peter Missing and the Missing Foundation (a so-called "noise band") were playing.  Although they were taking a sledgehammer to a refrigerator that had been found on the street, our video camera and monitor, which were in the midst of the action, were untouched.

Once, for a ceremony at the Tibetan Museum on Staten Island, we played the video recording we had made of our journey from Manhattan (which had occurred via subway, ferry, and bus).  Following that, the live video camera was directed at a statue of the Buddha.  The images appeared on the video monitor we had carried there.

Once at the Roadrunners' Club on the Upper East Side, I danced, holding a 15-inch monitor in front of me, while Diane, also dancing, directed a video camera at me.  The live image she was producing (of me and the monitor) appeared on the monitor.  In other performances, I danced while holding a camera, enabling audience members to simultaneously see my body movements, and the video images of themselves that were produced as a result of my movements.  (I have a longstanding interest in developing ways for performers -- through the movements and sounds they make -- to take an active part in creating and manipulating accompanying electronic images on large screens.) 

Three other teams that did video projection were Vlasta and Jeff (Floating Point Unit), Feedbuck and Missy, and Owen and Gabby.  Owen worked for a time at Pseudo, the webcasting operation based near Broadway and Houston St. 

A scene developed in which numerous individuals with video projectors would bring their projectors (and image providers such as VCRs and computers) and project onto a single surface -- sometimes onto a huge bubble made of glued-together  sheets of clear plastic, with air blown up into it.  Video mixers were sometimes used to combine two teams' images. 

Raves/parties/festivals/exhibitions/openings/etc. in various warehouses/ships/etc around the City (especially in Brooklyn) took on the quality of slightly far-out arts-and-technology workshop-demonstrations and multi-sensory engineering experiments, as live-video artists displayed new and evolving image-creation devices and processes.

I am writing this article in Tamil Nadu, south India, where I am in the midst of a two-year Folklore Ph.D. research project involving forms of traditional storytelling practiced by members of a tribal people in the mountainous interior of the state.  The project is scheduled to culminate in a videoconference (which is scheduled to be webcasted live, for public viewing) between people, including myself, in Chennai (the capital of Tamil Nadu), and people at the university in which I am enrolled (the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia).  Chennai, formerly called Madras, is on India's southeast coast, facing Singapore.  I enjoy Chennai life, and am planning to settle here permanently.

During the time that I was doing coursework in Philadelphia, I videoconferenced with Warlpiri aboriginal people in Australia.  They have been videoconferencing since 1992.  They have videoconferenced with other tribal people around the world, including Native-Americans in the USA and Canada, and Saami people in northern Sweden and Norway.  They are planning a global tribal-people-based music-dance-storytelling videoconference-and-webcast festival, and I am hoping to assist.

Art scenes come and go.  As mentioned above, it seems that the old art scene in the LES is dwindling -- as is the neighborhood's Rainbow Gathering scene, and squat scene.  So many idiosyncratic local people and groups seem to have vanished into thin air.  Perhaps some will reappear via cyberspace.

Defiance and obsessive determination were also parts of the LES-in-the-80s aesthetic, along with the aforementioned whimsicality, and rawness-crudeness and sophistication.  It was a culture of these and other juxtaposed extremes: such multi-textured cultures have been called, post-modern.  The spirit of the LES-in-the-80s aesthetic will not die -- not while the present generation is alive, anyway.  Likewise the spirit of the 60s.  For myself, my work here in India is in many ways a continuation of what I was doing in the LES in the 80s.

The desire to enable audience participation in collaborative performance events drove our efforts in the 80s.  We wanted to help others as well as ourselves to overcome social isolation and alienation by providing an alternative to the passive consumption of mass media -- as typified by an individual watching TV alone in her/his room.  We wanted to move the process of video creation and reception more into public spheres.  There is something thrilling and empowering about making and manipulating electronic images of oneself and others, and helping others to also do so is wonderful work.

In our activities in the 80s, we were, perhaps unwittingly, laying the groundwork in microcosm for long-distance tele-participation events.  Now we can do such events, as we have arrived in the age of teletoriums -- spaces equipped with technology for videoconferencing, and display on large screens.

I never bought into the cynical and sarcastic aspects of the LES-in-the-80s aesthetic; I am much more an aspiring flower child of the 60s.  As such, I want to invite any and all individuals to collaborate with me here in Chennai, both in-the-flesh, and via video-mediated communication (webcasting and videoconferencing and such).  Let's do long-distance, multi-site art events! 

Eric Miller 
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, south India,
June 2003.