Thoughts on Shirley Clarke and the Tp Videospace Troupe

By Gurian, Andrew | Millennium Film Journal, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Thoughts on Shirley Clarke and the Tp Videospace Troupe


Gurian, Andrew, Millennium Film Journal


Shirley Clarke's reputation as a filmmaker is as secure as anybody's, 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, was in the context of her unique workshops. The workshops were live and evanescent events; what remains are fragments....

Midnight

7972 or 1973. A group of about 15 people have gathered inside the base of a pyramid, originally erected to support a flagpole on the roof of the Chelsea hotel, on West 23rd Street in Manhattan.

Some time ago the pyramid, a permanent structure, was divided into several spaces on several levels. It had windows, furniture, plumbing-ana now a network of audio and video cables running to and from each interior and exterior space. It was also Shirley Clarke 's home/studio, and on this evening she introduced the group members to each other and to what lay ahead in an eight or nine hour video workshop: video game-playing, portrait painting, tape-making-all to culminate in a grand four-channel playback at dawn. Five feet tall and with the trim body of dancers half her age, Clarke always wore something on her head, and, favoring black and white, that something could be a small cap, Mickey Mouse ears, or a silk top hat.

The Totem

A top hat also crowned the Totem, now standing and facing the group. Clarke had built a human-like, totempole like form using four b&w video monitors: a 19" monitor, rotated 90 degrees so that it was oriented vertically, was the torso; two 11 " monitors were arms; and one small monitor with spherical casing was the head (the "ball"). Each of the four monitors could have a unique image, and the images could be live or from videotape.

Clarke constructed a bank of four cameras in front of one person, whose head, arms, torso, and legs became the source of the four (live) images. Next, four people contributed one body part each to create a new composite, and then live body parts were combined with recorded ones. Members of the workshop played with a variety of totem images; and whatever or whosever arms, legs, heads, and torsos were on screen, this Totem could dance in ways no human being could.

Then Clarke explained that the Totem facing the group was only one of many in her studio.

THE BEGINNING DISCOVERY

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 1/2" Sony and Panasonic video hardware: cameras, Portapaks, edit decks, monitors. Immediately, she discovered the technical impossibility of her project-that 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 have a camera and two monitors so that each could see the other camera's 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 people's images on adjacent or nearby monitor displays.

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