Wendy Clarke is the daughter of Shirley Clarke, and together they began experimenting with video in the late 1960s—forming the Tee Pee Video Space Troupe and collaborating with other pioneering video artists, such as the Videofreex.
Wendy Clarke, who helped her mother through all the stages of the production, recalled that it was the first feature film shot in Harlem using inexperienced actors and ordinary people. “Over two thousand folks auditioned for The Cool World, and I got the role,” said Hampton Clanton, who was cast as the lead—Duke, a fifteen-year-old gang member. “I never acted before, so there was a lot of things I never did, like look at a script.” He grew up in the projects, though Clanton himself was nothing like the character he portrayed. His parents raised seven kids who went to church every Sunday and stayed out of trouble. “But I grew up on the Lower East Side, where all of that was around me,” he said. “The gangs were prevalent, man.” Clanton had been employed as a summer youth worker at St. Augustine’s Church when Carl Lee came by scouting for young actors and encouraged him to audition. When Clarke asked the aspiring actors to improvise a gang scene during auditions, everybody was quiet until Hampton shouted from the back, “Get that motherfucker!” They all started fighting, and she said, “Bring that kid over here.” Clarke and Lee sat Clanton down and gave him a script, which he had difficulty reading because he had never seen one before—though that didn’t stop the fourteen-year-old from landing the role (he has since appeared in dozens of films, as Rony Clanton). Over a half century later, Clanton vividly remembers the production. “Shirley was very focused, very creative,” he said. “We’re talking about 1962, right? Because of Shirley, I was one of the first cats that walked around with an Afro back then, in 1962, because of working on this movie. Duke was one of the first cats who was wearing it natural, which was the way Shirley wanted it. That’s how innovative this film was.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Shirley Clarke’s early films were multimedia experiments that explored how dance movements worked in dialogue with camera movements and edits. Her first short film—Dance in the Sun, a collaboration with choreographer and dancer Daniel Nagrin—effortlessly melded the expressive worlds of cinema and dance. “She would have a gesture that Daniel was making with his arms onstage in the rehearsal hall in New York,” her daughter Wendy Clarke said, “and there would be a cut to the completion of that gesture that was shot on the beach. When she got into film, she was a really good networker, and people came over all the time. Jonas Mekas and other people came over for dinner and they would all show each other the films that they were working on.” Mekas and Clarke were classmates in 1950 at City College of New York, where she studied film with Dadaist Hans Richter. Mekas and Clarke stayed in touch and eventually formed the New American Cinema Group in 1960, along with other likeminded filmmakers, as well as the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. This group advocated for a low-budget, more personal and auteurist approach to cinema; their manifesto stated: “We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished but alive.”
Shirley Clarke’s journey from modern dance to independent film and experimental video embodies the downtown’s boundary-blurring—straddling many scenes and facing even more obstacles. While the gay men at Caffe Cino were subject to routine homophobia outside their little theater’s walls, Clarke dealt with rampant sexism that left her emotionally bruised but defiant, as did her home life. Her father was a difficult man who wanted a son to take on the family business, but he instead had three daughters. Worse still in his mind, he was saddled with artistic daughters: Shirley became a dancer, and her sister Elaine Dundy took up writing and authored the bestselling 1958 novel The Dud Avocado. “Shirley argued with Daddy, pitted herself against him, knowing full well the denunciations and derisive mockeries she was subjecting herself to,” Dundy wrote in her memoir, Life Itself. “It made dinner a different kind of hell, but she stood her ground. Nevertheless, I know his constant disapproval took its toll on her. She was wounded by him in a way that would last for the rest of her life and lead her to seek more and more dangerous ways of rebelling against him.” Before she dove into the world of downtown bohemia in the 1960s, staying at the Chelsea Hotel for many years, she lived a respectable middle-class life married to Bert Clarke, a successful art book designer. She had married Bert in 1942 and settled in an uptown brownstone not far from where Andy Warhol lived, then gave birth to her daughter Wendy Clarke in 1944.
MacDougal Street intersected with the park on its south side, creating a critical mass that included Wendy Clarke, the daughter of Shirley Clarke, who was another regular at Washington Square Park. “It was such a mixture of gay and straight and black and white,” she said. “You talked to anybody and everybody, and there was a lot of hanging out on the street. I loved walking around the Village, barefoot.” Back when Debbie Harry began catching the bus from New Jersey to wander the streets of Greenwich Village, Chris Stein (her eventual boyfriend and Blondie cofounder) was taking the subway to hang out in the area. “I used to come in from Brooklyn a lot,” said Stein, who would not meet Harry until 1973. “It was an interesting time, right after the Beatles came along. We used to play Washington Square, just hanging out there playing banjo and finger-picking stuff. We went to the clubs there to see groups, all that folk stuff.” When the city passed an ordinance banning musical performances in the park, the folk crowd pushed back hard. “There was the New York Mirror headline, 3,000 beatniks riot in village, on the front page,” recalled Village Voice critic Richard Goldstein. “That was for the right to sing in the square, and we won. So that became a huge gathering place, huge.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Shirley Clarke began work on Portrait of Jason with Carl Lee. She had already divorced her husband and began living with Carl Lee, the actor who had appeared in her first two feature films, The Connection and The Cool World. Their off-and-on romance lasted twenty years. Portrait of Jason was the first film project Clarke shot in the Chelsea. She produced it with no funding by using donated stock film left over from an NBC television production and a very small crew. “I was the set dresser for Portrait of Jason,” said Wendy Clarke, who was a teenager at the time. “I left before they started filming. It was a very closed set.” This feature-length documentary was distilled from a twelve-hour interview with a gay African American male prostitute who went by the name Jason Holliday and was the only person who appeared onscreen. Clarke and Lee stirred up Jason with their off-screen questions, which ventured into uncomfortable, very personal territory—getting him to respond, riff, and perform for the camera. “It was the first time a black gay hustler had ever been seen by most human beings,” Wendy Clarke said. “It’s a very provocative film, and it raises a lot of issues about race, class, politics, sexuality.” Portrait of Jason was, in part, a pointed critique of cinema verité documentaries, implicating filmmakers who claim to objectively capture real life—without acknowledging how their very presence alters that reality.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Wendy Clarke felt that the Chelsea was a great place for her mother, Shirley Clarke, because it connected her to other like-minded souls. “It was the perfect lifestyle for her,” she said. “The lobby was like your living room, so you can sit in the lobby for hours and just have conversations with the most amazing people—Jonas Mekas, Divine, the guys who did Hair, Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni.” Just off the lobby was El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant and bar that served inexpensive lobster and was a popular hangout. Smith wandered in one night and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Shirley Clarke had lived at the Chelsea since 1965, and at times her daughter Wendy also had a room in the hotel, where the two often crossed paths with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti prowled the hallways and peeked in other rooms, each of which was its own little universe. On some days she loitered in front of Arthur C. Clarke’s room, hoping she might get a glimpse of the famous author. During another one of her hallway adventures she came across the underground filmmaker, folklorist, and occultist Harry Smith, who wore big Buddy Holly–style glasses that complemented his wild silver hair and tangled beard. On another evening, Patti Smith wandered into the restaurant connected to the lobby of the Chelsea and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.
Wendy Clarke’s way of rebelling against her mom was to not do anything artistic, though she eventually found herself making visual art. “Then I stopped painting and drawing, and just did video,” she said. “My mom and I became video artists, so we stopped what we had done before. We had lost interest because video was so exciting. It was so new. There was no history, which was very freeing.” After getting a New York State Council on the Arts grant to create video art, Shirley Clarke began acquiring video cameras, monitors, and other recording equipment. Unlike today’s portable digital cameras and mobile phones with high-definition video capabilities, Sony’s reel-to-reel DXC 1610 Portapak camera was quite bulky. It weighed about six pounds, not including the heavy batteries, external microphones, headphones, and other gear. As Shirley acquired more video equipment, her Chelsea Hotel penthouse became a hub for video aficionados of all kinds. “There were different groups that were happening in New York,” Wendy said. “We all would do these events at the Chelsea, on the roof.”
From Chapter 22 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Nancy Cain, a member of the Videofreex, remembered Shirley Clarke as a wonderful, lively person whose Chelsea Hotel rooftop penthouse was like a salon, filled with artists, students, visitors, and her two little poodles. Fellow Videofreex member Skip Blumberg added, “Shirley was very eccentric, and I think, kind of out of her mind.” Her frenetic nature was expressed in the way she looked and dressed, with lipstick that sometimes smeared beyond her lips, and her place was a cacophony of cables, electronics, and other equipment. Videofreex members participated in the Tee Pee Video Space Troupe activities as well, and Shirley was also involved in their group. “Things were fluid then,” Blumberg said. “It wasn’t proprietary. So when Shirley worked on our thing she was one of the Videofreex, and when I worked on her things I was part of the Tee Pee Troupe.”
Andy Warhol dabbled in video, but it was Shirley Clarke who fully realized the potential of this new technology. She and many other downtown artists who embraced video weren’t trying to make low-budget movies or television shows but instead wanted to explore the unique potentials that portable video cameras offered. “With video, you can use it like film, but there are so many other possibilities with it that you can’t do with film,” said Wendy Clarke. “Just viewing it live, you can see yourself in the monitor while you’re doing something, which you can’t do with film. Nobody else was doing this, and you felt like everything that you did you were inventing.” There has been quite a bit of celebratory talk about how the Internet made possible “user-generated media”—materials made and shared by everyday people, as opposed to the products of corporations—but as early as the 1960s the denizens of downtown were laying the groundwork for a new media age. Through their experiments in video, Clarke and her peers were in some ways beginning to imagine the Internet before its technological infrastructure existed. She advocated for what she called “participatory communication,” imagining what we now call videoconferencing by setting up cameras and video monitors in different parts of her Chelsea apartment and rooftop space. “My mother would be pretending that one of the monitors was in China, one was in Russia, one was in France,” Wendy Clarke said, “and we would sort of act like we were talking to each other across space and time. It was really crazy fun playing with this new medium.”
The Chelsea rooftop’s focal point was a two-story pyramid tower, nicknamed the “Tee Pee,” which contained a kitchen and a room with a bed on the first floor and a second-floor loft, where Shirley stored equipment. “On the top floor, she had a Plexiglas platform built, so you could shoot videos through the Plexiglas,” Wendy Clarke said. “There were different places to experiment, like on the roof garden. Video equipment was everywhere, and there were probably, like, fifty monitors of all shapes and sizes and configurations.” This teepee-like structure provided the namesake for Shirley and Wendy Clarke’s group. “The Tee Pee Video Space Troupe was kind of like a theater troupe,” Wendy said. “All of us came from different art backgrounds. I had been a painter, and my mother a filmmaker and a dancer, and we had photographers or others who worked in different mediums. There were a lot of visitors all the time. We would start playing and experimenting with video in the evening, as the sun went down, and we would go through all night long until the sun rose.”
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.”
“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