TeePee VideoSpace Troupe: The First Years

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Reviewed by: Chris

Although celebrated for more substantial works, such as her hyper-realistic portrayal of Harlem gun-culture in The Cool World or her documentarian ‘journey inside a man’s soul’ with Portrait Of Jason, many commentators feel that Shirley Clarke’s most enduring contribution is her work with video.

TeePee Video Space Troupe: The First Years is maybe more akin to segments of little-seen footage than a ‘film’ in the usual sense (of an intentionally produced moving image). It is less ‘controlled’ than even von Trier’s Automatavision, in which he positioned the camera and then let a computer choose when to move within a shot (so producing a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel without the jitteriness of handheld cameras). Clarke goes one further. Her cameras, as we shall see, just ‘happen to be there.’

In 1970, she had received funds from the New York Museum of Modern Art to explore video. As DeeDee Halleck, one visitor to her eponymous ’TeePee’ pyramid penthouse suite on the rooftop of the famous Chelsea Hotel commented, "Around Shirley swirled miles of video cables, cameras, monitors and telephones. She was wired. Shirley had a new project every night. We were needed to help make it happen. It was sometimes frustrating, often exhausting, but it was hard not to trot over there because you never knew what you might miss if you stayed away."

The TeePee became the fulcrum for a band of experimental film-makers and artists who called themselves the TeePee Videospace Troupe. They would film constantly, with Clarke creating new workshop projects that looked at different ways of using the new medium.

According to Professor Jennie Klein: “In the Seventies, a woman's decision to produce video was considered to be a feminist act.” Taken in relation to developments of the time, it is even more revolutionary, “Taped as it was in real time and space in an effort to subvert the condensed time and space of broadcast television.”

What we see in the film, edited down highlights of what the cameras catch, are the interactions of a wonderfully eclectic group of visitors. Artists chilling out and bouncing ideas off each other. A warm vibe with probably no awareness of being filmed – other than the knowledge that their host ‘filmed everything’. The result, if not exactly gripping, is also among the most intimate and candid footage there is of people like Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Videographer Andrew Guerlain, who worked with Clarke in the 70s, described the set-up. “Clarke had wired each of the living areas in the TeePee for video and audio. A custom-made, portable matrix switcher (patchboard) sent and received signals between spaces, each of which was also equipped with a variety of monitors and cameras. The switcher enabled transmitting an image originating in one space to all the others, and vice versa. TeePee regulars co-existed with random, live video images of themselves, the floor, the windows, furniture, Clarke’s poodles, video monitors, even broadcast television. The four spaces (lowest level, second level, high platform, outdoor roof) were usually nicknamed colors (red, blue, green, yellow), occasionally geographical places (Paris, Tokyo, New York, for example). All this was a model for the anticipated inevitable: the ability to send and receive simultaneous audio and video signals to and from anywhere on Earth.”

People learnt to use video as something for playing with. It didn’t need to be immediately profound or moving, but it was an environment that opened possibilities.

One of the more coherent bits of footage in the film has Arthur C. Clarke playing with a laser. (This is long before laser pens became common.) The device had probably originated in a film studio. Arthur and the other people in the room are giggling and messing around with it, experimenting in different ways, creating starbursts as they shine it directly into a video camera, instantly checking and refining the effect. It’s a bit like watching geniuses goofing around on acid. Or sewing the seeds of the future.

The New York Times obituary for Shirley Clarke called her, "A champion of independent film-making and a missionary for video as a force in communications…" She said that her contribution was to suggest possibilities and paradigms, leaving them for others to perfect.

Clarke’s philosophy was to break down the barriers between the filmmaker and those filmed. She saw it as almost a collective experience. “We need very much as adults to play. To understand that playing is art and art is playing—what is the difference? We’ve separated these things much too long. We’ve lost the tribal culture and we’ve lost shamans and the campfire and the group energy that’s needed if the rain dance is to produce rain. We have separated the artist from the group. We’ve gotten to the point now where there are these freaky people called artists and then there’s everybody else—we are changing that, and video is the tool that will let the artists connect back, by interacting with the group—that is, if we can learn how to use video properly.”

Reviewed on: 06 Jul 2008
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Video segments from Shirley Clarke.

Director: Shirley Clarke

Starring: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson, Arthur C. Clarke, Alan Watts

Year: 1971

Runtime: 16 minutes

Country: US

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