Originally published in the Anthology Captured: the history of Film and Video on The Lower Eastside edited by Clayton Patterson, published by Seven Stories Press, New York, 2005.
From the East Village to New Realities or the Non Narrative Life by Alan Steinfeld
In John Cage’s an Autobiographical Statement he says, “ I once asked Arragon, the historian, how history was written. He said, "You have to invent it."
The recent history of the East Village shows the influence of the non-narrative life, which I feel is the only life worth living. With that understanding came the lessons of not being afraid to look at anything, inventing yourself and look for the patterns in things not the plot.
In 1980, I had just graduated from at SUNY Buffalo and went to New York City looking for the Avant-Garde. Here was the one place in the world that existed outside the normal social consciousness of America. New York was like a Ferris wheel of creative openness; and the East Village was the hub of it.
“This is the one place in the 4,00 square miles of America that life is lived in different ways and experiments with, different perspectives develop and this is the source of it historically.” That is the opening comment in my documentary “A Walking Tour of the East Village”. The quote is from filmmaker and café sitter Al Robbins in describing how the East Village became a Mecca for art, music and alternative cinema. The documentary was filmed mostly in a single day in June of 1985, when the East Village was at the peck of its delicate balance between the old neighborhood people and the new young gentrifiers and the blossoming fashion scene.
The East Village for me was a place that birthed the invention of life, art and creativity. A sort of non-narrative life began for me in the ‘80’s, a decade of transition for the East Village. Every day I would step out of my apartment onto East 6th street and be caught up in a river that was the East Village. Never knowing what each day may bring and having rent lower enough not to care. I was swept along in the adventures of the day.
One of the things that inspired me to document the life of the East Village was: One evening as I was walking up the Bowery with my friend and film producer Richard Schlesinger; I was relaying to him how William Burroughs, while very drunk, shot his wife between the eyes playing William Tell. Just then a car careens to a halt in front of us ands out jumps William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, posing for a picture that Ginsberg took in front of Burroughs old Salvation Army loft on the Bowery called the Bunker. From reading about these characters in Jack Kerouac’s books to meeting them on the street was like walking into an ongoing movie. And it is this ongoing explosion of expression that has characterized the neighborhood from the 1950’s onward.
I was then compelled to document this unique way of life any way I could. Looking for the non-narrative Life. Inventing oneself. I photographed and videotaped the Avant Gaarde Arama at PS 122, the political art performance pieces at the Franklin Furnace, the street performers at Tompkins and Washington squares. All to get a sense of the diversity of creation.
At college I had taken a filmmaking course with Dave Lee, a teacher of alternative non-narrative genre. There I found the rewarding difference between Hollywood and Experimental films. It was like the difference between poetry and prose. Lewis Klahr was also a student in that filmmaking class and seemed to already have a handle on understanding that things can tell their own story without a narration. In the absence of a linear story the mind makes one up and that can be in some ways much more satisfying. Lewis showed a film about a series of Fences then one of Houses that was very inspiring.
In the early ‘80’s (and probably before that) the East Village was the place where the linear 9 to 5 life need not apply. People lived outside the social box and would invent a life for themselves instead of trying to fit into someone else’s world. Realizing this I thought of what ee cummings said in his six non lectures, “…so far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was and is forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality…poetry is being, not doing.” I knew that when I discovered the essence of that I would take another step up.
He goes on to say that the artists responsibility is to be oneself “…and the most awful responsibility on earth. If you can take it, take it and be. If you can’t, cheer up and go about other people’s business; and do (or undo) till you drop.
My first introduction however, to non-narrative was with Ed Emshwiller, a visiting filmmaker to my high school on Long Island. It was a revelation to me at the time when I got that, “You mean the film does not have to have a plot. It can talk about other things, other dimension and other ways of perceiving.” My film Evolution/Involution demonstrates the progression of forms that leads to an internal narrative.
Although idea of the internal narrative was a revelation to me it was what everyone in the East Village seemed to know anyway. What made me realize this was, in my wondering around the village in the early 80’s, I saw an interesting crowd entering the down stairs of a church on St. Marks place. I followed.
I felt distinguishingly out of place. With a button down shirt and side burns, as a college student of the ‘70’s I was meeting the new fashion of short-cropped blue and purple hair and woman in dresses that suggested a revival of the 1950’s. It was my first of experience of the punk future and the retro past colliding. Club 57 was a place out of the narrative time and the start of an influence in New York that still survives.
When MTV showed up in the mid 80’s, the non-narrative of East Village become prime time fodder.
Keith Haring was part of the Club 57 crowd. I went to his loft for a party one day and he said, “Take a picture of me I am going to be famous.” I thought ‘no way this is just some guy who is making chalk drawings on subways. That will never catch on’. Some time around then I went to the Fun Gallery, when it was on 11th street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. One of the first shows there was Kenny Sharf’s drawings of the Flintstones. Like my reaction to Keith Haring I thought, ‘who I going to be interested in this?’ The same was true of Basquiat when I saw his paintings inside the relocated Fun gallery, I thought ‘this is just graffiti on canvas.’ But as East Village art scene exploded in the 80’s, I felt like Winston Churchill who said, “I often had to eat my own words and I find the diet very nourishing.”
A major inventor of personality was Andy Warhol. Occasionally I would bump into him and photograph him. He was a very difficult person to have a conversation with, because he would only repeat back what you said to him. If you said it was a nice day he would say “Oh it’s a nice day.” One exchange that I do remember was saying to him, “Wow the critics really did not like your last book.” He said, “I know isn’t it great! All the publicity.” He did take me aside one day and asked me what the key to longevity was, but at the time I said I was not sure and just said, “taking care of yourself.”
Jackie Curtis as the Lou Reed song goes “was just speeding away”. He really did think he was James Dean and not just for a day. In addition to James Dean he also thought he was Marlin Monroe and Gary Cooper all rolled into one. I know because when I sublet him my first apartment in the East Village and he made it a shrine unto himself; with all his Jackie-he-and-she pictures and his Chelsea girl memorabilia. Jackie invented himself as a hybrid of personalities, charisma and addiction. He would take speed to get him up in morning and a quarter of beer to bring him down at night. Once when he and his fiendish friend Margo Howard Howard stopped by my new place, they raided my medicine cabinet and all they could find was Magnesium supplements, so they downed half a bottle to get some kind of buzz, which kept them up a night watching television.
It was from these people that I realized that it was the inventing of the personality, style and marketing that made the difference.
Then there were people like Harry Smith. One of the kings of the non-linearity. I only had some vague notion of him as a filmmaker. Others said he was known for his music ethnocology. But when I met him in at his room in the Breslin hotel in 1980 he was engaged in some large-scale paintings on his coffee table. And when he talked in his exaggerated tones I had no idea what he meant.
Yet I was fascinated with what he had to say. Years later after I got to know him better I videotaped his toy collection from around the world. For each piece in the collection he would give a comparative explanation about childhood coordination and how cultures from Africa Asia and South America all had similar ways of assisting with the developmental skills of children with the simple mechanical toys. All the while he would throw out comments about Isaac Newton and alchemy or how he thought met Alistair Crowley once. When I asked him what he meant he would say, “Oh never mind”.
I remember being with him when he was recording the night sounds of New York at a certain time of evening and although I think I never understood exactly what he was doing. He would then make comparison studies over a period of time to see if there was some overall patterns to the highs and lows of the New York night.
I realized now that Harry was a Seer of Patterns. It seemed to me that what he was doing in his films, paintings, music and collections was establishing relationships with abstractions that would again allow the mind to tell its own story. The way Kandisky abstracted the world to express the internal stimulation Harry was doing with sound and colors and shapes. Harry wanted to show to the world ways of seeing and hearing patterns that we all knew existed, but were not consciously realized.
Dave Lee, my film teacher from Buffalo was also living in New York at that point and he showed me one of his films that influenced me a lot. He would take a camera and shoot winos and homeless of the East Village and the Lower Eastside. What was so disturbing about this film was that he would keep the camera on these people for a very long time. Like five to ten minutes close-up on the face or body. These were usually shot from the hip in order not to be obvious. These long takes forced me to look long and hard at all the details of these homeless people. Dave Lee compelled the viewer to break the barrier of perception give more than a passing glance at this pool of humanity. This film showed me the commonness of all people with the flies crawling on the over these sleeping faces or wine drool seeping out of their mouth. I had never before realized the power of film to direct people’s attention to look at things they normally would not see or avoid.
Sitting next to John Cage one evening at the New Museum in 1986, we were watching a performance piece where two people would stare at each across a wooden table for 8 hours a day. They would just sit and stare. John Cage and I and a few others were there for the last day of this 3-day performance. As the lights came up after 8 hours of watching these people watch each other I tuned to John Cage and said,” So what did you think?” And he said, “Now I know how busy I’ve been my whole life.” Hearing that from somebody who wrote 4 minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence for piano, was like a flash of lightening. In that moment I understood something beyond the surface of appearance. That started me in a new direction of looking to Eastern religions as inspiration for being and not doing.
Allen Ginsberg was a familiar figure in the East Village and for me the first to show that you can be an artist and a spiritual seeker as well. Once I asked him if his connection with Tibetan Buddhism influenced his poetry. He gave me a long drawn out answer about some of his practices, but he basically said “no it did not” influence him and that they were two different parts of his life. I thought that was strange. But of course he was one of the original dharma bums and his stream of conscious Howl was an expression of the Zen moments for all times. Buddhism was merely a defining label of expression for his lyrical poetry.
But Buddhism gave meaning to the absurdities of life. It was in some sense my doorway into the general field of metaphysical studies. In the 1990’s I started to do my cable program New Realities on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. It was inspired by what I had seen in the 1980’s in the East Village. In my exploration of new realities I was able to take everything I had learned in the twenty years of hanging out in the neighborhood to another level.
My orientation of seeing men in dancing in drag on the top of the Pyramid lounge bar took a step further. Suddenly there were people claiming to be ancient warriors from Atlantis; or having been taken aboard UFOs; others discovered a new form of cosmic healing energies; or investigating the strange phenomenon of geometric pattern the fields of England all were a new level interesting information I had grown to thirst for.
In the initiation of inventing life, seeing the patterns and not being afraid to look at what others wouldn’t; I found a new niche. I knew that I could reinvent my self, because I saw some of the extraordinary characters that have inhabited the East Village do it. And there was nothing, not even the most outlandish, that was too bizarre for me.
From seeing the underlying patterns of things; to comprehending the illusion of time and non linearity of reality that quantum physics suggested; to inventing of the self were all part of my program of exploring that vanishing line between the impossible and the outrageous. What I discovered was that things were even more out there then the characters the East Village. I openingly embraced UFO abductions, gurus from the East and trance mediums from all time-space dimensions. And the personalities were just as authentic as any inventor on the fashion scene. My association with the unique and original figures that I met in the East Village convinced me that anything is possible especially if you invent the scenario yourself.
The East Village showed me that NewRealities is all about consciousness as a non-local, non linear epi-phenomenon of existence. Meaning that history can only be seen from the present momemnt and that there is no objective reality. The new paradigm is one of Experience as we pick and chose who we migh want ourselves to be right now.