Art that catches you unawares is sometimes the most fulfilling experience. Unexpected, unknown and unintentional, it can titillate your soul expand your mind in ways you might never have imagined.
This July, the monthly film series Dirty Looks mounted the second installment of their “On Location” program, an ongoing presentation of art interventions that encroaches everywhere from bars to galleries to the television sets of everyone in the New York area. The series takes on guerrilla tactics of presenting queer experimental underground films, sometimes confronting unsuspecting viewers, mixing up social stratospheres, and creating a brief totality of art and life.
From Bruce LaBruce’s Fringe! Fest Finger Fuck! to Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, creator Bradford Nordeen and co-curators Karl McCool and David Everitt Howe mine the cultural archives and some burgeoning talent to present a totality of art, history, and community.
Everitt Howe, a curator and freelance writer, and McCool, who’s starting the Moving Image Archiving and Presentation program at Tisch this fall, are at the forefront of engaging historically queer sites in New York City and infusing them with specialty and rarely seen works, thereby introducing them to a new generation of viewers.
I sat down with David and Karl at Calliope in the East Village to discuss what’s coming up in On Location, the aesthetics and politics of pornography and the state of underground filmmaking in New York.
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Alexander Cavaluzzo: What’s the origin story for Dirty Looks, and On Location specifically?
David Everitt Howe: Originally On Location was inspired by Urge. Were you around for [the East Village gay bar] Urge?
AC: Yes, I used to go there.
DEH: Yeah, so Bradford wanted to show some gay porn art film on Urge’s monitors; that was the actual impetus for the whole thing. Like, wouldn’t it be cool to have drinks and have this five minute interruption of normal porn videos and have Mariah Garnett show. Like everyone would be confused and intrigued by this, so that was the whole pretense.
AC: Can we talk about the aesthetics of porn and its position within Dirty Looks’s roster and even muse on its place in the art world?
DEH: Well, at the time it was a liberal view of gay sexuality. Just a way to get towards an idealism of liberation in the 1970s. Karl, you’re the expert on porn …
Karl McCool: [LAUGHS] Not so much. I’m just interested in ’70s porn, maybe into the ’80s, because to me that sort of pornography, especially queer (mostly gay) pornography, it’s so closely tied to the gay liberation movement and it’s a really radical form of independent filmmaking. I mean to me the kind of stuff that’s interesting is from Fred Halsted, Wakefield Poole or Arch Brown … what these pioneers of gay art porn did, it was a time when you could make these films really cheaply and turn a huge profit and there weren’t a lot of people doing it. So it was this politically, aesthetically, and sexually radical independent filmmaking. You could get away with that. The reason I’m not interested in contemporary porn is because it’s an industry now. It’s more horrifying than Hollywood blockbusters.
DEH: In the 1970s they were decriminalizing homosexuality in a lot of states.
KM: Right? Stonewall was only in 1969, so 1972 with movies like Boys in the Sand, it’s only three years later. And the filmmakers could be artistically daring. These people thought of themselves as artists. But even before AIDS, before VHS, in the mid-1970s their careers were already over because it’s a huge industry.
DEH: But, anyway, officially, Bradford began the first Dirty Looks screening with Curtis Harrington’s films in 2011 and he stumbled upon a very unique idea finding a bunch of locations for queer, experimental film work.
KM: I went to Dirty Looks screenings from time to time; I would have gone to more actually, but I had weird hours. So I started as an audience member, really.
AC: Having been drawn into it because of its unique concept of a monthly queer experimental underground film series, do you have any thoughts on why there are so few venues specifically for this kind of work?
DEH: Well, I kind of feel like there doesn’t always need to be a certain space for queer artists in a certain regard, I feel like there are a lot of venues in the city where artists happen to be queer. I think having a place for underground filmmaking is a little more important, a little more unique, because that doesn’t really have a place. Like, if you look at visual artists and galleries a lot of straight and queer artists are mixed in. But underground filmmaking, there isn’t much of a place for someone like Lionel Soukaz, who is barely shown in the US.
KM: I mean, that’s where I come at it from. Like as an audience member for Dirty Looks when I was going to screenings, it was mostly because there are only so many venues for that kind of filmmaking, and then when you add to it queer filmmaking, and then queer experimental filmmaking, like how often are you going to get to see Luther Price or Fred Halsted … that’s even worse, it’s queer, it’s porn, but it’s also experimental film.
DEH: It’s like so specialty, sort of. I feel like they’re fulfilling a certain role that no one else is doing in filmmaking.
KM: Anthology shows that stuff, but they aren’t dedicated to that.
DEH: Yeah, and I think what’s good about Dirty Looks too is each of the screenings has a publication, so it’s contextualized by writing, so it’s different than other venues and programs.
KM: It is different. And we get a different audience. I feel like the people who go to Anthology go all the time, so I love that audience and I’m part of it, but it’s nice that at our Dirty Looks screenings there are so many people that never see these types of things.
AC: So, considering the fact that you’re attracting a new audience, that’s good, but I’m interested in the push-pull of having underground filmmaking being, well, underground but also widening the audience and giving these works broader exposure.
KM: I feel like it’s good when there are people in the art world who don’t go to Anthology or wherever and make that connection.
DEH:Yeah, I don’t know why there aren’t more screenings for this type of work. I mean, they’re not always the easiest things to watch, so that kind of plays into it too, but I also think it’s just not knowing about it.
KM: And I mean there’s dedicated spaces for this stuff, Light Industries, Anthology, but there’s something about Dirty Looks being a roaming venue that starts to pick up new audience members. The atmosphere of Dirty Looks is sort of like the 1950s or ‘60s in that it’s a social atmosphere rather than a straight space.
DEH: And I think On Location is really the embodiment of that social space too, which is why I think it works so well. Like to see these works in social spaces, all over the city, literally and indirectly, like in bars, so it really brings that social element out explicitly.
KM: It’s nice, too, that On Location allows us to have a roster of curators. It’s nice that once a year we can plan it out and have all these other people come in. Although no matter how much you plan it there’s always … something doesn’t work out, there’s always a built-in manic craziness.
DEH: There’s always a scramble, mostly to solidify dates and venues.
AC: I would imagine that would be one of the most difficult parts of On Location.
KM: It’s weird, everything always seems crazy and I think this year it’s not going to work out, but it always does somehow. Last year had a lot more installation work, like something projected on the street whereas today’s event [Abigail Child’s Perils, shown on a loop in the lobby of Anthology] is one of the only days that’s happening. But this year has more cinematic, sit down screenings, some of them with readings, for some reason. I don’t know, it just happened.
AC: It’s interesting that you say that, because even though it’s a lot more cinematic and traditional, it still feels like an intervention. Maybe it’s because they’re pop-up events.
DEH: Yeah, I think it’s because it’s a different venue each time. So we are kind of popping in.
KM: I know, I was going to say, I don’t know what it seems like on the outside, if it feels like that. It feels like something we’d do in the regular monthly series, like have Bette Gordon introduce Variety. Did we have that as much last year? Like the filmmaker being present? That’s much more like a monthly Dirty Looks thing.
AC: Do you prefer one to the other?
DEH: I prefer interruptions, personally, because I think they’re more interesting. Not to discount cinematic screenings, but to me the project was all about interrupting queer spaces in the city and I liked the idea of it activating people who normally wouldn’t be around for that kind of work.
AC: Okie, two questions: one, what are some of the highlights of this past month, nights you were really proud of, and what can we expect from On Location for the rest of July?
DEH: The Museum of Modern Art was really great, when we showed “Taylor Mead’s Ass” [by Andy Warhol], it was funny because that was the most well-planned one and there were still unexpected complications: it rained, of course, a half-hour before the screening in the sculpture garden. Everything was set up, we had tech people around, it was going to run seamlessly, but they had security concerns about people slipping on the pavement, even though it only rained for like ten minutes. So we moved it inside and we were literally running to get chairs set up.
KM: I feel like the things I’ve been proudest of is the moments when the artist is there. Personally as a curator I’m proud of Samuel Delaney’s reading because I took him to the event and took him back and I think he was a bit nervous beforehand, but you could see he was so thrilled afterwards that there were these young, queer people who wanted to hear him. And Bette Gordon, too, she was so happy to see Variety being shown in a bar that she would have shot Variety in [Tobacco Road].
DEH: And the whole point of On Location is to highlight places that used to be really important in queer culture and be able to pair it with a film, which you can’t do in a normal institution.
KM: And it’s so great, I feel like you get more out of the event even through the preliminary research. Like Scott is such a wealth of memories of New York from 1993 on. We were in Tobacco Road and he’s pointing out to me the little alleyway that used to connect the bar to the porno theater behind it so that if the bar, which was full of drag queens, got raided all the drag queens could run into the porno theater and if the theater, which was full of gay hustlers, got raided they’d run into the bar.
DEH: That’s why On Location is kind of like a New York love story.
AC: This is something I ask a lot of people and I like to hear different opinions: What do you think is good and bad about New York culture now, and how do you think it was better or worse 20, 30, 40 years ago?
DEH: That’s such a loaded question, because I feel like it’s so easy to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, like, “Oh, New York was so great in the ‘80s when there were crackheads manhandling you and you were fearing for your life.” And I feel like it had a lot of benefits then, but it probably felt really scary, too. Like I probably would’ve been scared, and is that a good thing? In some ways there was such a great cultural scene there and I think it’s sad the city is so expensive now and everyone’s moving or getting pushed out and there’s a lack of space, and that’s sad. But I don’t think you can suppose it was so much better. It was just different.
KM: I don’t know, I feel like such a grouch, I’m more pessimistic. I agree, and I might sound more nostalgic than I actually am, but I’m really disturbed by how expensive this city has become. I don’t want to live in the ‘80s, ‘70s, ‘60s, whatever, but when I do work with people like Bradley Eros, or some of these filmmakers, I just wonder 20 years from now, will there be an equivalent of these people? Where’s the place for that kind of person in the city today?
DEH: Bushwick! I feel like you can always find a way to make things work here. I don’t think it’s an impossibility.