Steina Vasulka

Steina Vasulka

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Video
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Mercer Arts Center
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The Kitchen was founded by early video pioneer Steina Vasulka and her husband Woody, two immigrants who created an alternative arts space at Mercer’s that programmed everything from video to electronic music.

 

Women In Early Video

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For the first time, women played a large role in developing an emerging technology. Of the nine Videofreex, four were women, and they participated equally in most of the technical aspects of the productions. Unlike the film industry—which had a significant barrier to entry for women, as Shirley Clarke discovered firsthand—video emerged at a time when gender roles and relations were transforming in the United States. “It just all collided at a lucky moment in history,” Wendy Clarke said, “in terms of being able to be among the first people to explore a medium. That was so unique, and I feel so lucky to have been around then.” The Videofreex’s Nancy Cain said, “With the video camera, I was seeing it for the first time and so was everybody else, males and female, everybody. It was a level playing field. You all began with a same amount of knowledge: none. I must say that the men in the Videofreex, they were great. Everybody taught each other, and then you went out. We truly were equal, and I could do whatever I wanted. It was the best thing.” Steina Vasulka, another early video pioneer who cofounded the Kitchen in the Mercer Arts Center, maintained that so many women were involved with video because it was an underdog medium. “There were no men there saying, ‘Let me direct this scene,’ or anything like that,” she said. “So this allowed women to take control of the video-making process, like Shirley. She had a huge success at the Cannes Festival, and came back home and thought that Hollywood would be waiting for her, but they didn’t want to have anything to do with her.”

From Chapter 22 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


The Kitchen Mixes Ingredients at Mercers

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The Kitchen was founded by Steina and Woody Vasulka, two European immigrants who wanted to create an alternative arts space at Mercer’s that programmed everything from video to electronic music—though they also made room for rock ’n’ roll. “The New York Dolls started in the Kitchen,” Steina said. “They rehearsed in the Kitchen and then they performed there, and it got very wild. Their audiences were very out there.” She recalled one night when she saw a bag of heroin on the floor during a Dolls show; Steina ran over to hide it from the police just outside the room, but an enterprising audience member snatched it up first. The Vasulkas also helped incubate an all-male ballet troupe founded by Larry Ree. “Les Ballets Trockadero started in the Kitchen, after he performed his dance in Vain Victory,” she said, referring to Ree’s interpretation of Anna Pavlova’s famous dance, “The Dying Swan.” “I knew Larry through Jackie Curtis,” Steina added, “and he asked if he could rehearse there.” Steina gave the Kitchen’s keys to Ree, who used it as a rehearsal space for his troupe, which was originally named Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company (some members eventually branched off and formed the well-known Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo company). Many other contemporary dancers also performed at the Kitchen, including Shirley Clarke collaborator Daniel Nagrin, who asked the composer Rhys Chatham to accompany him in 1971. “I saw these Slavic-looking people that Daniel also invited to come play, and it was Woody and Steina,” Chatham recalled. “Steina was on viola and Woody had his synthesizer. So we hit it off.”

From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


Shirley Clarke at the Kitchen

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The Mercer Arts Center’s many rooms provided a home for underground rock, contemporary dance, Off-Off-Broadway, and even Shirley Clarke’s video experiments. The former filmmaker embraced the egalitarian potential of video as an alternative to broadcast television, a mass medium that encouraged passive media consumption. “It was very important for her that it should go back and forth in a two-way type of communication,” recalled Andrew Gurian, her longtime assistant. “She was very democratic and ahead of her time in that way. And I think she really was excited by the fact that all this equipment was getting smaller and smaller and more accessible to everyone.” Clarke also found creative ways to subvert the masculine-coded domain of electronics. “One day Shirley just painted all the equipment pink,” Gurian said. “You associate it with six-year-old girls and their dolls, which I think was the point. She constantly would refer to what we did as being ‘playful.’ We were adults playing around. So if you wound up with a pink screwdriver, there was something lighthearted about that. It desterilized the equipment so it became an extension of your eye and your hand.” Clarke’s aim was to make the hardware feel more user-friendly, so that no one felt excluded. The Kitchen, cofounded by Steina and Woody Vasulka, provided a testing ground for Clarke and others to imagine these new modes of electronic communication. “Shirley’s idea was to have video always going, constantly there,” Steina said. “So the first programming we had was video on Wednesdays, an open house where anybody could come in and show stuff.”

From Chapter 28 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


The Vasulkas Make Room for Video

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“The Vasulkas videoed everything,” recalled Pork actor Tony Zanetta. “They didn’t just videotape theater, they did it all. They have an incredible archive of everything that went on downtown.” Steina and Woody Vasulka could be seen shooting a Fillmore East underground rock band or behind the video camera at an Off-Off-Broadway show. Steina taped her friend Jackie Curtis’s first play, Glory, Glamour, and Gold, as well as Femme Fatale and Vain Victory a few years later. “That’s how I discovered that this was what I should do, shooting video,” she said, “and then after that, Jackie would always call when she thought we should be there.” In 1970, the Vasulkas got an opportunity to fix up the Mercer Arts Center’s old kitchen, which is how the venue got its name. “Everyone thought the Kitchen would sound mystical,” Steina said, “like we were going to cook art in there.” In addition to Shirley and Wendy Clarke’s Tee Pee Video Space Troupe and Videofreex, several other downtown video groups had formed by the early 1970s—Raindance, People’s Video Theater, Global Village—most of which made use of the Kitchen. “People would be coming with a tape, which was at that time reel-to-reel, just totally hot,” she said. “They ripped it off their equipment and ran as fast as they could down there to show it.”

From Chapter 28 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore