THE NEW YORK DIARIES / 2008
Documenting the initial filming of Stuart Sherman documentary in New York.
Sitting on Delta Airlines flight DL 79 from Berlin to New York, I spent my time mulling over the usual fears of entering the US and trying to explain the nature of my ‘business’ - it seemed avoiding the word ‘business’ was going to be the best bet. How do I explain my Stuart Sherman project? Is research classified as business? Is independent filmmaking with no real financial motivation behind it a form of business? And what if they open my suitcase to find my Oreo stained suit jacket from last nights performance at the Hebbel Theatre? Not to mention the laptop containing a video I shot outside an Obama fundraiser in London! Hardly incendiary stuff, but god…maybe I should have dumped/deleted all this before boarding. Its not as if I’m ever going to do that performance again…
A thousand ‘what ifs?‘ later, I was diverted from my low level angst with an announcement from the surreally monikered pilot…Captain John Travolta no less. Eight hours later, Luis the border guard waves me through with a smile. Why do I always have this idea that a visit to the USA will end up with me being led into an ante room to be measured up for an orange jumpsuit? Well there’s always the next time.
The Sohotel (my home for the next two weeks) is on the corner of Broome and Bowery, and is seemingly the perfect location for a project centred on the downtown arts scene. I’m looking forward to lots of Chinese buns and black coffee for breakfast. New York is very hot and stinky at the moment, and wondering around initially, I started to understand what Allan Kaprow meant about ‘the full image complexity of downtown Manhattan’. I’ve been to New York a few times, but staying in Queens as I did before doesn’t really compare to this for sheer ‘everything turned to eleven-ness’. Of course, all those things that drive me nuts about London don’t bother me at all here. The cab drivers can be as surly as they like for all I care…hey, I’m in New York for chrissakes!
Starting this project has been the hardest thing - the idea has been rattling around in my head since mid 2006, and now the time has come to actually do it, the whole ‘time sensitivity’ of it has become increasingly apparent. I think my awareness of this was particularly heightened with my attempt to interview Ritseart Ten Cate a couple of months ago in Holland. Former director of the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam, he was an early champion of Stuart’s work in Europe, and his perspectives on the relative reception of his work on each side of the pond was going to be very important. However, he had to cancel at the very last minute, due to an ongoing illness. Its hard to know to what degree to push for the interview and still remain sensitive to his situation. In New York, similar issues have come up. I had wanted to meet up with Stefan Brecht (son of Bertholt), and writer of ‘Queer Theatre’, a key text in documenting the works of people such as playwright Charles Ludlam whom Stuart Sherman had worked with in the early days. However, I understand that Brecht is now a very frail man for whom an interview would not be possible. I suppose my disappointment at the absence of these voices has in some respects motivated me to push things forward…before its too late.
Yesterday, the first interview conducted was with John Hagan and Yolanda Hawkins, friends and colleagues of Stuarts. We met at an apartment on East 13th Street (I love saying these street names), and as we were setting up, the heat of the city placed the first obstacle in our way. The iced tea that Yolanda served certainly helped take the edge off things, but with the noisy air conditioner off, the beads of sweat soon started flowing. Of course, it had to remain switched off for the sake of a clear sound recording, but with a few regular breaks to have a welcome blast of cool air, we got through a couple of hours of very stimulating conversation. I’m now very conscious of the fact that the possibility of slickness for which I was striving may have to be revised somewhat. In terms of locations, we really have to take what we are given.
My knowledge of Stuarts work was primarily centred around his solo tabletop ‘spectacles‘, but Yolanda and John were able to fill in a lot of biographical information on his ensemble and group performance works from the late 60‘s onwards. Some beautiful photographs were produced of his version of Hamlet, as well as a moustachioed Stuart playing the role of Nietzsche in a play I didn‘t catch the title of. Yolanda tells me that in an unscripted flourish, he pulled off his moustache at the end of one of the performances. I suppose this is where the character of Stuart is becoming more fleshed out for me - the work I had seen him do live seemed to centre around him as a non-performer, the puppet master of objects if you like. John did wish to question some thing I had raised about the notion of Stuart appearing to ‘disappear’ on stage, so that the objects he performed with became the focus. He said that from his perspective, it was more that Stuart became one of the objects himself. Probably the strangest anecdote I heard was when John told me that Stuart had been working on some kind of TV pilot - I’m not sure if we’re talking situation comedy exactly (I believe it might have been a talk show of some sort) but there was a suggestion of some kind of stab at the mainstream. I’m looking forward to tracking that one down anyway.
I think the interview also made me realise that perhaps my initial premise (the notion of Stuart as an underrated, unsung artist) is maybe from the perspective of somebody who wasn’t there at the time. Yolanda said that she always felt that Stuart was doing well in terms of the opportunities to show his work, and the reception it had. She also seemed to suggest that if there was a sense that the audience for some of this work was small, Stuart was not alone in this. It was pointed out that at certain points in the 1970’s, even someone like Richard Foreman also had small audiences, half of whom would walk out! John did say that he spoke to a reviewer about the fact that perhaps the problem for Stuart in terms of the life of his work after his death was that he had no disciples. I certainly had to take issue with that…
Typically, there was the sense of missed opportunity regarding things that were said after the cameras had stopped rolling. As we took the lift down, John mentioned in passing that Stuart’s email address took its name from an antiretroviral drug he was apparently taking. I mulled over the significance of that strange fact as we walked a couple of blocks for a celebratory drink at the end of our first day of filming. Then Yolanda started talking about the sense of Stuarts death in some ways being ‘upstaged’ by world events. Stuart died a few days after September 11th 2001, and she described to me a phone call she took from Stuart as he lay dying in San Francisco…it seemed his only concern was for the safety his friends in New York.
As we sat drinking Guinness and Margarita’s in the early evening sun, (and admitted how nervous all of us were before the start of the interview!) Yolanda produced from her bag a book of self published plays by Stuart. As I thumbed through the pages I saw a series of writings I had only previously known by title. Here we moved from the realm of time sensitivity to object sensitivity, as clearly the spine of the book may not hold if we attempt to photocopy. Anyway...seems the first part of the jigsaw is in place.
Next Instalment: Meeting Stuart’s Lawyer and Executor to discuss his archive and legacy.
So, for some reason, this was the image I had of the average New York Lawyer - fast talking, no-nonsense, speech peppered with Yiddish slang. I suppose I could have been forgiven for a degree of nervousness before meeting Mark, who had the role of Stuarts lawyer and executor…or as he described it ‘Stuart‘s stand in’. In our email correspondence running up to this meeting, I had had to do a fair amount of explaining about my motives, and at times, I wasn’t sure if I had fully convinced him as to the merit of what I wanted to do. However, I was reassured by the phone call we’d had the night before. He explained that tomorrow he would be in Manhattan for a meeting…some high powered legal knockabout? Well no…he was getting a haircut. We had an amusing discussion as to whether we should do the interview before or after his visit to the barber.
Just a few words about the interview location - I need to skip back to our first night in NY. Mark had explained by email that neither his office or house would be suitable locations for filming, so we had to come up with an alternative, and pronto. The hotel room perhaps? Well, not with only two feet of space around each side of the bed to work with. Having investigated the possibility of borrowing a function room…I rapidly came to the realisation that it ain’t that kind of hotel (i.e. they don’t have one). This was still on my mind as we sat disorientated and heavy lidded outside the first restaurant we could find that didn’t appear to be a dodgy noodle and chop-suey joint. As we were finishing our meals, the manager (a rather eccentric Dutch lady called Marja) came over to do what appeared to be the standard ‘I’m the owner, did you enjoy your food?’ type spiel, but we somehow got talking about the project. Turns out she knew a few of the people we were planning to interview, and went on to regale us with memories of when she performed at The Kitchen. The temptation to ask her whether she meant ‘a kitchen’ or ‘The Kitchen’ was great, but the per square inch distribution of performance artists (or at least people claiming to be) was always going to be quite high in this part of town. I was right not to be cheeky, because as well as lots of sake on the house, there was also the offer of a quiet space in her restaurant where we could conduct the interview with Mark.
Mark arrived in a full suit and tie get up, which was very quickly removed in favour of a black t-shirt. Once again, we went through the standard drill of switching off the fan and keeping our fingers crossed that we didn’t all pass out. Mark began by saying he was happy to talk about issues beyond the legal stuff, and stressed that although he was a lawyer, he didn’t see himself as Stuarts lawyer…this was clearly a friendship as much as anything else. He’d even performed in one of his shows. He said that he was acutely aware of the dangers of Stuarts work disappearing, which I pointed out echoed my reasons for trying to produce this documentary. It seems that his work is now scattered amongst several archives - The Fales Collection at New York University is one I’ll be visiting next week. Also Electronic Arts Intermix is in the process of digitising his film work. What was very interesting for me is the questions that came up in relation to the broader notion of archiving. I had talked to John and Yolanda about the idea of the artists home being in some way a reflection of their artistic practice. According to them there wasn’t a sense that Stuart valued the notion of ‘home’, and that his living conditions were rather Spartan - not as an aesthetic decision, but rather the domestic environment was something he just wasn’t that concerned about. It seemed that during the decade or so that Mark knew him, he had become far more peripatetic in his living arrangements. According to Mark, Stuart had two rooms…one for sleeping in, and one filled with his work. Tapes, reels of film, sets and objects. It was around 1995 that Stuart had started distributing his work and documentation to several archives, (his cans of film went to the Museum of Modern Art), sublet his flat and started wandering the world. Hearing this I started to think about the idea of Stuart having the knowledge that his time was now tangibly finite. Mark also pointed out that around this time, he started visiting monasteries, and that he actually spent his final days in a Zen monastery in San Francisco.
Mark was unable to solve one mystery in relation to this…what happened to the objects that Stuart used in his performances? Having seen many of the table top performances in particular, I would have imagined there to have been an enormous accumulation of stuff. I broached this question by talking about the last time I saw Stuart perform in London in May 2001. He had just come back from Finland, and was showing some portraits of places he had produced in response to his visit. I remember one of these performances involved one of those plastic aeroplanes you see in the windows of travel agents. This one was a really beautiful Finnair 737, and I was going to ask him how he got hold of it, but somehow forgot. When I heard he had died a few months later, I seem to remember that one of my first responses was to wonder what would happen to his objects. I felt a bad about thinking that at the time, but I still couldn’t help but ask Mark if he knew. It turns out that other than a few Mickey mouse hats, a pair of shoes and couple of the folding tables in his apartment, nothing else seemed to have been kept. For all the talk of the desire for preservation, I wondered if this was in some ways a conscious act of disappearance on Stuarts part. But of course, as Mark pointed out, Stuart was not his objects.
To take it off the overly legalistic path, we talked a little about Stuart the person. Mark seemed to make a connection with the desire Stuart had to have his work preserved after his death, with a protectiveness and sensitivity he displayed about it in is lifetime. My memories of Stuart as a very gentle, almost shy figure were balanced out with Mark’s recollections of his fierce reactions if he perceived that his work was being slighted in any way. This was also apparent in what Mark described as a bluntness that Stuart often displayed towards the works of others. Apparently, both of them were on some kind of funding panel with an amusingly nebulous title…‘Performance Art: Emergent Forms’. Mark recalled how forthright and meticulous Stuart was in his criticisms. I told Mark that I certainly experienced this side of Stuart when he visited my university in 1994. I was a first year student, and had showed a performance entitled ‘The Idiot’ in which I drooled, wore a dunce hat, and shaved my dyed pink hair off. Stuart had said to me afterwards that he didn’t really like it, because (I quote), ‘you’re not an idiot’. That stayed with me for some reason.
We wrapped up by discussing an overview of ‘the scene’ that Stuart was in when he lived in New York, and Mark expressed his annoyance about the tendency to throw the punk label on anything that happened in the city in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. He went on to conjecture that the ‘secret history’ of what was going on there is a ‘gay aesthetic’. We both baulked somewhat at the term, but nonetheless, there seemed to be a mutual understanding that this was a subject worth discussing. Not as a means of ‘understanding’ the work, but in fact looking at the idea that the subject of sexuality in Stuarts work was not necessarily straight forward. Mark talked about his recollections of Stuart’s ‘Queer Spectacle’, claiming that in this performance, Stuart had the strange ability to be explicit about the sexual content without changing what he did. All he had to do was say ‘this is queer’, and suddenly it became strangely charged with eroticism, despite the fact that this was still just a performer moving objects around. According to Mark, “…there was a bit where he was furiously eating an ear of corn…and it was filthy!!!”
We wrapped up there, and continued a conversation about the relationship between electronic music and performance art over more Guinness. I think Mark was amused at the horror we displayed when he said he preferred to drink it at room temperature. As for the location, it turned out to be perfect. In fact, Mark said he could easily have imagined meeting Stuart here for lunch.
Next Instalment: Meeting Richard Foreman, and discussing Stuarts work with the Ontological Hysteric Theater.
Bill Hicks had a bit in his stand up routine where he would describe how people would try and encourage him to give up smoking. One of the reasons suggested for doing this was that he would get his sense of smell back. Hick’s reply was the following: ‘I’ve got news for you. I live in New York…I don’t want my sense of smell back.’ Yes indeed, the sights and sounds of this great city are taking on a diminished significance relative to the sweet (but mostly sour) odours of Chinatown. Paradoxically, this was the first day there was actually some movement of the air, but of course the cooling breeze could only mitigate so much due to its less than neutral fragrance. However, part of the experience of being here is about being out on the streets, and despite my fascination with subways and underground train networks, I’m happy to be above ground. The set up for filming is a very simple two camera and tripod affair, so generally its easy to get to most of our appointments on foot. This time, we were meeting Richard Foreman at his loft on Wooster Street, about ten minutes walk from the hotel. When we arrive, we have the same discussion that has recurred over the last few days…should we be filming our entrances to the buildings we’re interviewing in? Those long rides up in the wood panelled lifts (with me looking pensive) could potentially set the scenes fantastically. But then again, I’m determined to stay as far behind the camera as I can, at least in this leg of the filming. I know how annoyed I get when bloody Michael Moore lumbers into view in his documentaries.
Richard Foreman is viewed as a (if not, THE) key figure in experimental American theatre practice from the 60’s onwards, so in many respects, it was quite a coup getting him to talk to us. He had been at the ICA in London a few weeks previously, and it had actually crossed my mind to try and catch him there, but I’ve a feeling that familiar territory for the interviewee really does help…a home advantage if you like. I guess I was conscious of the fact that the email correspondence running up to the interview was characterised by a sort of brevity and minimal directness (replies of singular words in some cases!) that made me think that he is asked to do these sort of things rather a lot. I wondered if this was going to be a sign of things to come.
I’m always fascinated by peoples collections, be they books, music (or even stamps), but in this case, entering Foreman’s loft was a potentially intimidating experience in terms of gauging before the interview how level the intellectual playing field was going to be. It was almost as though the building itself was constructed from ceiling to floor with seemingly endless stacks of literary and philosophical tracts. I need to be on my toes here, I thought.
We started out by discussing the fact that essentially, Stuart Sherman only started his solo performances after working with Foreman in the late 60‘s and early 70‘s. However, he went to great pains to explain that he didn’t feel himself to be ‘responsible’ or ‘influential’ in terms of what Stuart went on to do. Part of me still wanted to push this issue though, particularly as my knowledge of the specifics of Foreman’s work was quite limited, whilst acknowledging that in terms of exploring the origins of the stylistic aspects of Stuarts work this period was key. Richard spoke about his use of ‘non-performers’ in his work as a possible angle of entry, but rightly or wrongly, I wanted to expand on the notion of influence and methodologies being carried forward….the notion of the protégé. I had found this quote on his website:
"Foreman engages in what the poet John Keats famously described as “negative capability” - i.e. 'when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' He seeks to make work that unsettles and disorients received ideas and opens the doors for alternative models of perception, organization, and understanding."
I told Richard that this quotation resonated with my memories of watching Stuart perform - the idea that meaning would appear and then disappear like the swash and backwash of waves on a beach. For me, it didn’t matter that I didn’t always ‘get’ what it was I was seeing. There just seemed to be an inherent pleasure in watching, and besides, in a few moments time, you knew that something would happen that one could latch onto, albeit momentarily. Richard admitted he wasn’t really that familiar with much of the material on his website, and although he understood what I was saying, he couldn’t really expand upon it. Many of the descriptions of Stuart in previous interviews have been somewhat gushing, but Richard was certainly more measured in his approach….certainly less anecdotal anyway. Bearing this in mind (and wanting to try and develop a dialogue between interviewees based on similar stories) I told Richard that in email correspondence, George Gajek (a good friend of Stuart’s) had mentioned to me the following incident:
“Later, some time in the 90s, Foreman invited Stuart to create a performance to follow directly one of his own plays at the Saint Mark's Church, using the same stage setting, props, and recorded dialogue. It turned out to be one of the best (and funniest) Stuart shows, so I think, with some elements never seen otherwise in his work, such as taped quotes from Foreman's piece. It appeared to be a scathing parodistic variation on the host play, its concerns, aesthetics, philosophy, or expressive means. Stuart has never repeated this production... Seemingly, no written or photographic material has been left. Yet the house was full to witness the event... Richard, though ashen-faced at the conclusion, later wrote a warm obituary…”
Richard seemed somewhat nonplussed. He did remember the performance (vaguely), but questioned the recollection of him being ‘ashen faced’ at the end of it…
‘Why would I be?’ was his response.
Overall, I don’t feel that Richard was any less forthcoming, but many of my queries were met with a ‘I really couldn’t say’ or ‘it was such a long time ago, I can’t really remember’. Although these responses were qualified, this certainly translated into a lack of momentum in the conversation. However, perhaps this says more about my questioning style than it does about his willingness to talk. Looking back through my notes, I’ve a feeling that maybe I was asking him to overly speculate on what he thought Stuart‘s motivations were, and it seemed the tone of his answers implied (quite rightly) that he wasn’t really the one to know. Once again, here was somebody else who pointed out that Stefan Brecht would have been a key character to have spoken to in terms of establishing a more intimate portrait. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that this interview lasted thirty minutes rather than the usual hour or so, but, there was still some very useful and usable material here. I’m finding that in all the interviews, I have developed a form of ‘double consciousness’ whereby on the one hand, you are attentively listening to the speaker whilst at the same time making mental calculations as to the possibility of using a specific anecdote relative to other sections already recorded. In this sense, the editing process has already started happening.
I say that Richard was a little more reticent, but that said, he was one of the only interviewees to flesh out his thoughts about Stuarts relationship with some of his family members, which I understand was strained at times. A wry sense of humour also bubbled to the surface when Richard mentioned with a chuckle that he had recently noticed a physical resemblance between Stuart and the current Republican presidential candidate John McCain. I think he was referring to the strange hunch that McCain has in his shoulders, apparently something to do with the torture he experienced as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. As you see him now, his posture suggests that he has left the coat hanger in his jacket…something I could imagine Stuart Sherman doing as an action in one of his spectacles.
As we were packing up, he asked what our plans were for the documentary. I said I wasn’t really that sure, as any further developments were dependent on funding, which is in quite short supply. Richard then started talking about a documentary film that had been made about the US underground filmmaker Jack Smith (described by Laurie Anderson as ‘the godfather of performance art’), another key figure in the New York experimental arts scene. What he said made me stop in my tracks and listen…apparently, there was a feeling that this film had comprehensively misrepresented Jack Smith, with slick editing, mood music and sound-bite after sound-bite that was so far removed from Smiths aesthetic and methodology as to give a way a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the man and his work on the part of the filmmaker. Richard seemed to be very angry about this, and although I didn’t take this as a veiled warning to take care with how I use the material regarding Stuart, it certainly brought back into focus an issue at that has concerned me since the inception of the project. Not only the question of reverence, but also the degree to which I am ‘the right person’ to be doing this at all.
Next Instalment: Filming street scenes in Downtown New York.
Its been over a week, and I’m starting to feel a bit like Alan Partridge now…stuck in a cheap hotel where all the staff seem to know you. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is essentially a ‘productive holiday’, in that schlepping around Manhattan with my camera has been as much about sightseeing as anything else. In my previous missive, I think I wrote about the idea that during the interviews, there is a portion of the brain that is already calculating what is likely to make the cut in terms of the final outcome. However, having started the task of looking back at the footage we have, other narratives and observations that I have missed or forgotten about are being retrospectively yielded by this process…its quite daunting actually, especially as one becomes aware of the amount of biographical holes (especially regarding Stuarts childhood) that still need to be filled. Another mental calculation I have been making during the interviews is what sort of footage (other than performance documentation) could potentially accompany a specific observation or anecdote, so my itinerary has very much come out of this process. I’ve asked the interviewees to imagine something akin to a ‘Stuart Sherman tour’ of New York, and used their suggestions of locations as stimulus. Hence, I’ve pretty much an entire tape full of static shots of venues that Sherman performed at (The Kitchen, The Performing Garage, LaMama, The Whitney), and a few other places that don’t appear to be performance spaces anymore. I also managed to track down Stuarts apartment, and found myself pointing a camera at pretty much what I expected…a fairly nondescript brick building. It did occur to me that doing this at all could be viewed as barking up the wrong brownstone, especially considering what has been said about Stuarts rather dispassionate attitude towards domestic space. At some point I do need to get some footage of the seating area on the Staten Island Ferry where Stuart used to perform. I’ve been told that the use of recording equipment on the ferry is certainly prohibited…the old ‘begging forgiveness rather than asking permission’ ethos that I have always tried to adopt may need to be revised somewhat. But in terms of avoiding the possibility of falling foul of the city’s rather arbitrary filming regulations, so far its just been a matter of whipping it out, and trying to look like a tourist. As many of you know, my equipment is actually quite diminutive, so I don’t seem to be attracting any undue attention.
Lenora Champagne is about to show her performance ‘Traces/Fades’ at the Ohio Theatre on Wooster Street. I arrived to meet her at the theatre, feeling a little the worse for wear due to a vicious circle of drink, dehydration and insomnia (each in someway responsible for the others) that has been accumulating over the last few days. The location was certainly appropriate in terms of Stuart specificity, as he had performed at this venue in its previous incarnation as the Open Space. I can imagine this being a wonderful space to perform in, due to the depth of its stage, and the prevalence of all manner of nooks and crannies for a performer to work and play with. We opened the huge doors at the rear of the stage that led onto Wooster Street, let the light flood into the space, and began talking. Lenora had with her a fascinating dossier of Sherman memorabilia that she had dug out for the interview, and seemed content to talk in amazingly eloquent terms about Stuarts performances in formal terms (she had written about his work and reviewed him extensively), as well as speaking very affectionately about her experience of performing (whilst heavily pregnant) in his ‘Spaghetti Spectacle’. Interestingly, the very exacting nature of Stuart as a director that others had talked about was less apparent in Lenora’s descriptions of his working practices…she characterised the process as being incredibly good fun. She was also able to speak from the perspective of being an audience member for Stuarts performances, and recalled watching a show that Stuart had being doing at the Open Space where she found herself sitting next to John Lennon. She wondered if the long black hair she had at the time had led people to mistake her for Yoko Ono.
A key issue of this project has been a series of re-enactments of Stuarts work that I have staged and documented over the last couple of years. This has essentially involved me watching video’s of his performances, and transcribing them based on these records to be subsequently performed by myself. In a couple of cases, I have showed copies of these restaging to the interviewees and filmed their reactions. This is a technique I readily admit having stolen from a documentary I saw on the singer and composer Scott Walker, whereby various subjects would be filmed listening and reacting to old Walker Brothers records, and his later solo work. Its pretty affecting stuff, especially if this is a piece of music that the listener has not heard for some time. In this case, I set up my laptop with a video showing my version of one of Stuarts performances (from the Erotic Spectacle) that Lenora had talked about quite extensively in the interview. We refocused the cameras on her face, played the video, and proceeded to watch her watching. She sat attentively and initially uttered a few comments about the way I used my hands when working with the objects, and how she felt I had achieved a certain air of Stuarts presence. Then she continued watching in silence…it took me some time to realise that she was crying.
She explained afterwards that it was exactly like seeing Stuart perform, only it wasn’t Stuart. The performance begins with myself/Stuart unrolling a strip of gaffer tape, and Lenora said that it was this simple action (the sound, the movement?) that she had responded to. Not that it had ‘taken her back’, but rather it had made her feel that the work was still alive, even if Stuart wasn’t. We agreed that it was funny how such an ostensibly mundane action could trigger an emotional response of this kind.
We left the interview feeling pleasantly gob smacked by all of this…at least I had all but forgotten about my earlier fragile state. A quick bite to eat, and we then wandered up to Bleecker Street for our second round of interviews of the day. We were to meet the artist and director John Jesurun at his apartment, along with one of Stuarts oldest friends and colleagues, a woman called ‘Black Eyed Susan’. In my initial emails to people regarding this project, her name had come up again and again, so I was intrigued to be meeting somebody who appeared to be so significant in Stuarts life. To keep it chronological, we spoke to Susan first. She had known Stuart from his pre-Richard Foreman days, when they were both involved with Charles Ludlam’s performance troupe, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Mark Bradford, (Stuarts executor) had claimed that this was the great undocumented period of Stuarts life, and felt that his time with Ludlam would be key to understanding him. I believe that Stuarts first play with Ludlam was the fabulously titled ‘Turds in Hell’…
I asked Susan what she felt that Stuart had taken from working with Charles, both as a performer and a person. She talked about the idea that both Sherman and Ludlam shared a strong sense of humour, as well as a fierce intelligence. However, I suppose I am still having trouble trying to process the significance of Charles Ludlam for Stuarts biography. In terms of explaining his influence on a personal or performance level, Susan’s descriptions of Ludlam as an incredibly flamboyant, larger than life character seem to be rather at odds with the portrayals of Stuart as a shy and private individual. I still wondered what was the precise basis of this friendship. In a short article that Sherman had written about Ludlam, he described how he performed in the role of Ludlam himself at his memorial in 1987. This made me think that perhaps Stuart would understand what it was that I was doing with his the re-enactments of his work, despite the fact that always in the back of mind there is the possibility that he maybe be spinning in his grave. Back to the Black Eyed Susan interview (shit, I forgot to ask her how she came to adopt that name), it was good to hear anecdotes which were less about trying to explain or deconstruct his performance style. Rather, Susan seemed to be able to humanise the portrait somewhat; Stuarts fear of mice…Stuarts uncontrollable laughter at some kind of self help meeting that they had attended for a joke…Stuarts interest in stand up comedy that apparently led him to hang out with Dick Cavett and Woody Allen occasionally. The last one was particularly interesting as again a means of raising the possibility (as John Hagan had) that a flirtation with the mainstream was perhaps not a totally alien concept to Stuart. What might have happened had his work taken such a direction?
John Jesurun’s perspective was clearly that of an admirer of Stuarts work. He was able to give a very interesting perspective on my image of Stuart as an ‘unsung artist’. He talked about a panel he was on for the National Endowment of the Arts whereby artists would apply for funding for their work - Stuart was one of the applicants, and John recalls being shocked that he had not made it past the first round of applications. One the one hand, he suggested this was a generational thing - a re-emphasis on the younger, emerging artists, and on the other, perhaps a reflection of an organisation playing it safe following the case of Karen Finley and others successfully suing the NEA for not funding their work due to perceived obscenity (a paraphrased overview - I‘m not clear on the details). John made a speech to the panel expressing his discomfort that Stuart was being overlooked in favour of other artists who may not even be making work if it wasn’t for the influence of Stuart and the like. It worked, and apparently Sherman was given $5000. But why the need for such arm-twisting? The prevailing artistic/funding climate was one thing, but John confirmed something I had always thought - Stuart was not much of a networker, so perhaps the unsung thing came out of an unwillingness to indulge in shameless schmoozing?
John’s reaction to my video re-enactment was very different to Lenora’s. His primary observation was that my height made me appear to be too far away from the surface of the table on which the objects were placed. No tears then, but the interview ended with a bizarre tip off. John told us that a few blocks up from his apartment was a pizzeria that had a glass counter in which were placed various images of New York’s personalities and scenesters. He said that one of these pictures was of Stuart in his ‘spectacle’ pose…wearing a pair of glasses, one lens of which was replaced by a clock. I gather this was in some ways quite an iconic image in the New York arts scene at the time.
A few minutes later, we arrived at the ‘Two Boots’ pizzeria, where each of the pizza slices on display were named after a comedian. I figured it would be better to buy and eat first before trying to explain what I wanted to do and why, so I ordered a slice of ‘Tony Clifton’, a delicious concoction named after the foul mouthed nightclub entertainer played by Andy Kaufmann. The guy behind the counter adopted a ‘whatever you say’ type of expression as gave him a potted biography of Stuart Sherman. After leaving a generous tip in recompense, I did a handheld panning shot across the rows of pizza, settling on Stuarts face staring out from under the translucent counter surface.
Next Installment: Archive fever at the Fales Library and Franklin Furnace
What happens to an artists work when they die? Who ultimately has the responsibility to preserve the work, to preserve the memory? Is it the artist, or is it the institutions whose raison d’etre it is to archive and classify? Preservation is one thing, but access is another. The institution or library may gather the work (to have and to hold), but this could just as easily translate into the evidence of an artists output disappearing into a huge storage space, akin to that we see in the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark…crate after unmarked crate to vanishing point. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen all manner of archives relating to Stuart Sherman’s work, personal and institutional…I’m going to focus on the latter initially. Some, as in the case of the Franklin Furnace relate solely to performances staged in relation to the institution concerned. I visited their offices in Brooklyn (my first time ‘Sarf of the river’), and was quite surprised to see what a small HQ it was. Martha Wilson the founder and director said in passing that they did used to have a performance space. This seemed to be another one of those wistful allusions to days passed when the rougher edges of New York was mitigated by an incredibly vibrant arts scene…and buildings in which things could happen. It seems to me there is something of a subtext developing in the film regarding socio-economic changes within New York and the affect these changes have had on the production of art in the city.
Martha produced two manila folders containing a handful of images and texts relating to one of Sherman’s Spectacles shown at Franklin Furnace. She popped out for lunch, and I spent the next hour diligently transcribing a biography seemingly typed by Sherman himself…interestingly, the word ‘biography’ was hand written next to the scribbled out typed word ‘bibliography’. A New York Times review about some of the one act plays fleshed out a few of John Hagan’s anecdotes…from this review, I now have a textual description of a photograph that John showed me of Stuart peering through a Dostoevsky book torn in half. In viewing this whole process as something of a giant jigsaw puzzle, looking at material like this serves to confirm (and yet in some ways contradict) the picture that had already begun to emerge.
In the subsequent interview, Martha was able to give an overview of ‘the scene’ within which Stuart operated. She suggested that in some respects, he was something of an outsider…not in terms of his work, but rather that he was not the sort of person you would be bumping into constantly at cheesy gallery openings. This in turn leads me back to the question as to whether those who shout loudest (making a spectacle of themselves if you like) whilst not necessarily the most talented, will always be those who are remembered? Perhaps the unsung artist may be a victim of their own modesty...or at least their unwillingess to be part of anything extraneous to the creative process. An overly romanticised view perhaps, but part of me also thinks about this in terms of self sabotage…maybe the unsung artist is happy to disappear, to remain unpreservable, uncollectible…irresponsible? One moment of slight (but amusing) discomfort in the interview…I mentioned to Martha a publication entitled ‘The Downtown Book’. This was a seemingly definitive account of the Downtown arts scene from the mid 70’s to the late 80’s…I asked Martha if she was aware of this book, and the fact that while many of the people I have interviewed over the prior week were in there (Foreman, Matturri, Jesurun), Stuart Sherman himself is not mentioned. Martha paused, put her head in her hands and said she was very embarrassed about this…she had been on the steering committee for the book. I guess also in the back of my mind was the awkward fact that I was short listed (but not chosen) for a Franklin Furnace Award for Artists to help with the development of my Sherman project. Although I had absolutely no issue with the fact the project wasn’t supported (ho hum…), Martha and I discussed the idea of re-enactment as a seemingly new trend in performance practice. She had said that there are an increasing number of applications for the fund that engage with this way of working…as much as I hate the idea of being part of any trend, I took this onboard as an indication that what I’m doing appears to be part of a wider discourse…performance art eating itself?
My experience at the Fales Library at New York University where a large portion of Stuarts video documentation is held was very different. I’m never very comfortable in the hush hush atmosphere of the library setting, but it was good that the people I met there seemed to take the project very seriously. Marvin Taylor, the Director of the Collection (and the editor The Downtown Book!) said to me that he felt that ‘Stuarts time has come’…reassuring in terms of the idea that I’m onto something with this project, but also heightening the sense of expectation and responsibility to do this properly. The Fales have begun the process of digitizing much of Stuarts video work, so it was great to spend a couple of hours viewing copies of films and performances I had only previously seen on scratchy third generation VHS copies. Whereas at the Franklin Furnace I could only transcribe, (no photocopying permitted), I wondered how I could come away from the Fales with something to show in terms of footage. Obviously, I would not be able to make copies of the DVD’s, but then it occurred to me that I should try and think about the notion of the archive in a more concrete, material sense. I asked Marvin if I would be allowed to take some footage of the boxes containing Stuarts work? I was taken three floors down, where I was led into some sort of climate controlled room. In the corner was a shelf, the top three levels of which contained the ‘Sherman Collection’. These were mostly U-matic tapes, (a somewhat chunkier version of the domestic VHS tape). This is a dead format that I haven’t seen on this scale since I was at university. In fact, the last time I saw a U-matic player was in a skip outside an advertising agency in central London. Seems that the shift to digital makes such items (and stuff playable in them?) utterly disposable. I remember that I considered fishing it out of the skip and calling a taxi to take it home with me, as I still have so much of my old student work on these sorts of tapes…but I digress.
I quickly set up the camera and set about panning left to right, up and down. I scanned the black and grey plastic coffins neatly lined up with faded typed labels, overlaid and overwritten again and again with handwritten scrawl…palimpsest I think is the word. As for the room itself, (to stretch the filmic metaphor beyond Raiders of the Lost Ark), it reminded me of the bit in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome where one of the characters is led into a room filmed with video tapes and told, ‘This is my father…or what’s left of him’. Richard Foreman’s apartment also sprung to mind again, but with videocassettes rather than books. Taking out individual tapes from their cases, I wondered about the notion of ‘life’ in relation to these tapes…how the ‘life’ of Stuarts work depends on the life of these insubstantial pieces of plastic and flimsy magnetic tape. How many times can these things be played before they start to destroy themselves from within? Something Martha Wilson said to me comes to mind…transferral to DVD does not constitute the terminal point of preservation. All material has a finite life, even a digital hard drive. So what does posterity mean in absolute terms? Although I believe in the power of the oral description (with all its contradictions and subjectivity) strangely, I found there was an aura to these static objects that elicited as potent a reaction in me as some of the verbal recollections we have gathered in the interviews. Speaking of which…
The last interview conducted in Manhattan was with artist John Matturri. I was particularly excited about this one, as John has a series of recorded interviews he conducted with Stuart in the 1970’s…apparently we are talking several hours worth, so if they are usable, Stuart may at least have a tangible voice in terms of the documentary. However, my excitement was tempered with nervousness…technically speaking this was going to be harder. Christopher (producer and camera person) had already had to return home, so I was going to have to work with all the equipment on my own. Luckily, I approached this interview in a way that perhaps we should have done all along…I met up with John the night before, and over a couple of beers we discussed the project and Stuart himself. From this, I went into the interview with a much clearer sense of the most potentially fruitful paths of discussion, despite a reduction from two camera positions to one. When we sat down in John’s apartment, the conversation flowed easily, and in a similar way to Lenora Champagne, John was able to balance out his theoretical musings on Stuarts practice as an artist, with some absolutely hilarious anecdotes about Stuarts character; his wearing of a fake pig nose for a newspaper interview…and his insistence that the interviewer did the same; his befuddlement when another ‘S. Sherman’ moved into the same apartment building as him; his games of Scrabble with John where they would try to outdo each other with increasingly rude/insulting word submissions…apparently Stuart demanded that this had to stop, claiming that it was thwarting his spiritual growth.
On the question of re-enactment, John was also a key point of reference, as at Stuarts memorial, he had taken on the role of Stuart in one of the performances. We discussed the idea of ‘being Stuart’, and whether the question is of absolute replication or approximate evocation. This had clearly been a problematic process for John, as when it came to choosing his outfit for the re-enactment, he felt unable to wear a trademark black t-shirt as Stuart often did in his performances. This certainly made me think about my own approach in this area where I have gone the whole hog, by wearing not only the black t-shirt, but also the maroon shirt so often seen in the documentation of his work. Indeed, Black Eyed Susan and Yolanda Hawkins had mentioned that Stuart had an actual shade of maroon that he wanted the shirt to conform to. Seems that approximate evocation might be the only way…
A sort of Memento Mori in the form of a toy plastic skull given to him by Stuart is sat on John’s book shelf. So (in conclusion), this is where the distinction between the institutional archive and the personal archive can be reiterated…the most interesting stuff I’ve seen are the incidental bits and pieces that people have somehow kept without necessarily knowing why. John’s folder of Shermania is huge, and I have started the process of digitising this stuff…posters, letters, flyers, programmes, photographs. A bought cheap scanner for about $70 (my god, the exchange rate!) that doesn’t need a power source…you just plug into the laptop via a USB cable. At time of writing, I’m maybe a tenth of the way into scanning all this stuff. Then there are the tapes…listening with John to these voices from this other time and place was certainly strange, maybe more for John than it was for me. It was mentioned that somewhere is a tape where Stuart talks about his relationship with his parents…apparently he asked to record this with nobody present, and I believe it has not been listened to since it was recorded thirty years ago. John still has to find it though…
Final instalment: A visit to Hampton Bays to meet the legendary George Gajek.
Return home and the momentum evaporates…two weeks ago, it was the beads of sweat from my forehead that were seemingly evaporating before they even had a chance to reach my eyebrows. So rather than being in the proverbial ‘New York State of Mind’, I now find myself in London …depressed. I’m sure Billy Joel never found himself in the midst of a typically middle of the road British summer, with twenty two hours of unwatched footage to contend with…
So, onto the long awaited (well, according to some of you) final chapter. Press rewind, and stop the tape at two weeks ago today. It’s Thursday, and I’ve a few loose ends that have to be tied up before leaving New York …buying a bottle of wine for Marja (remember her?) to thank her for allowing us to film in her restaurant. It was suggested that buying wine as a gift for somebody in the catering business was a foolhardy plan of action. I didn’t stick around to see if she would spit it out in anger. And yes…my worries about filming on the Staten Island ferry were soon allayed when I saw how the groups of tourists onboard were tooled up with audio visual equipment that actually made them resemble small film crews…pretty much the works, minus the clapperboards and catering trucks. Back on dry land, and a quick nip back to the Sohotel to pack up the evidence of two weeks of slovenly behaviour (only in the hotel room mind), and then the beginning of the journey to the beginning of the end.
So now, I’m on a bus travelling to Hampton Bays, about 80 miles out of New York City…well, not just yet. Some confusion between myself and the taxi driver from the hotel led to him dropping me at the Port Authority bus terminal, about ten blocks from where I needed to pick up my bus. An ensuing walk East to West across central Manhattan in temperatures of 95 degrees (with a suitcase full of filthy, heavy laundry) was rewarded with a two hour wait for the next bus. So now…yes…now, I’m on a bus travelling to Hampton Bays, about 80 miles out of New York City to meet George Gajek, an old friend of Stuarts. The Hampton’s…the only prior knowledge I had of this location came from an episode of Seinfeld where a visit to this seaside getaway had George (Costanza) experiencing the problem of genital shrinkage as a result of a dip in a cold swimming pool. In these temperatures, such an occurrence would not have bothered me in the slightest…
Joanna (George’s wife/partner?) met me off the bus, and immediately remarked on what she thought was my resemblance to the writer Georges Perec. It could be argued that a physical similarity between myself and any French born Polish Jew could be contested…from the pictures I’ve seen of Perec, it was the probably the hair she was referring to. What followed was two days that were characterised by absolutely mind blowing hospitality, beginning with a home cooked meal on my arrival at the house…a welcome antidote to the ‘tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner’ regime I had hitherto adopted in the big smoke.
George Gajek seemed to have quite a formidable reputation. I know he had been very ill of late, but despite his seeming fragility, he was still a very imposing figure…both in size and force of personality. As we talked about the interview over supper, George let me know that the temperature was going to be a key factor. As the wooden house was not fully air conditioned, he explained that he was certainly not going to be in a position to talk when the sun was at its full midday brutality. So he gave me the option of interviewing early in the morning, or early in the evening when the temperatures were going to be more forgiving. To make the most of the light, I decided to go for the morning slot. The beautiful setting of the house was just as George had described it in his emails; ‘…woodsy, a short walk from the bay, maybe a few deer on the way...’, but the heat again precluded us from taking the interview outside as a means of utilising the pastoral backdrop. Besides the deer, the other denizens of this Long Island idyll were raccoons (bigger than I’d imagined they’d be) and semi domesticated cats, one of whom insisted on getting into bed with me. I quite appreciated the company…the nights can be lonely when you’re far from home.
It seemed appropriate that George was the last person I interviewed on this particular visit. He was a point of contact for the Theatre of Mistakes crowd, including Anthony Howell who had introduced me to Stuart Sherman in the first place. Whereas many people had talked about Stuart in terms of the language of words, George was able to make some very valuable links in terms of a reading of his work in terms of music…he mentioned the soundpieces that Stuart had done, and his thoughts on the role of aural structure in his performances. All of this seemed to be filtered through George’s own life story, and the more he talked, the more I felt that there was potentially another documentary here about Mr Gajek himself…a genuinely fascinating chap. As a friend rather than a colleague, he was also quite vocal regarding his dissatisfaction on how Stuart’s work has been treated since his death…he certainly didn’t mince his words here.
In my conversations over the two weeks, it had been suggested that what might be lacking was Stuart talking about his work on camera. Towards the end of the interview, Joanna dug out a battered VHS tape which contained a strange home video…perhaps the closest I’ll come to a taped interview. The footage is initially taken from Stuarts point of view…sat by a dock, a bicycle leaned against the bench on which he sits. He is reading, holding out the book in front of the camera…a book of prayer. A friend happens by, and the two strike up conversation. Stuart passes over the camera, and speaks directly to his friend/us: he complains how short of money he is… extols the virtues of having access to a video camera…describes his experience of performing in drag for the first time. Relative to the tapes that John Matturri had played me, this was something else. The ‘quality’ of a second or third generation video copy has a different kind of poignancy to say, a scratchy Super 8 film. The latter seems somehow timeless, but in this case, the videotape seemed locked in a very particular space, time and format...I think this was what made watching it such an emotional experience. George and Joanna sat in silence as we watched in the lounge…my camera was running, and for the first time, I had a sense of being an intrusive presence. Perhaps the role of the house itself had something to do with this. Joanna later told me that Stuart had planned to come and stay with them here in September 2001, but had phoned to say he was feeling unwell…from what I understood, this was the last she had heard from him.
The afternoon was spent undertaking several more hours of sweaty, obsessive scanning…all done topless. John Matturri had lent me an enormous amount of printed material, none of which I was prepared to leave without some record of. The unsung artist notion is further called into question when one sees the amount of column inches generated in his lifetime. So perhaps the main issue is what has happened (or not happened) since. George and Joanna had some very odd items in their own archives: a programme for Stuart Sherman’s staged version of Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’…some very strange (as in conventional) black and white headshots of Stuart, seemingly for the purpose of getting straight acting work…a cassette recording of a Japanese radio programme showcasing Stuart’s poetry (ruined for me by a preponderance of cheesy ‘Oriental’ musical interludes)…postcards from Stuart with messages from around the world….some funny, some cryptic, some alluding to financial difficulties. Again, the sense of potential intrusion loomed large, but I had to keep telling myself that access to this stuff was granted and encouraged.
The journey home is hardly worth going into. It began with a bizarre taxi ride involving two Chinese women and a Sikh. It continued at the airport check in when I was told I owed $80 for excess baggage, and had to go off and find an ATM, queue, come back, queue again, only to discover that I had had a $100 bill stuffed in some recess of some obscure pocket all along.
One of the first conversations I had on arriving back in London was with a friend who told me he was browsing in a bookshop and stumbled upon one entitled ‘New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground 1978 – 88’. On page 134 (rubbing shoulders with images of post punk band ESG and writer William Burroughs) is a picture of Stuart Sherman doing the same Spectacle that I had shown my version of to Lenora Champagne. The one thing I was conscious of throughout the journey was the tapes stored in my backpack…hand luggage of course. The first thing to be unpacked were the twenty two small cassettes representing a material replica of two weeks intense activity…they remain on the shelf where I placed them nearly two weeks ago. While in New York , I had watched Alex Gibney’s (over produced, I think) Hunter S Thompson documentary, and became acutely aware of what lies ahead in terms of a finished product. Its one thing getting the footage, but this is clearly just the beginning…I know a few more of these journeys will be required, but maybe less than I had expected before this one.