Tuesday, October 28, 2014 at 7:30pm
Kathy Acker and Alan Sondheim's Blue Tape
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
Light Industry presents a rare screening of Kathy Acker and Alan Sondheim's Blue Tape.
Blue Tape, Kathy Acker and Alan Sondheim, 1974, video, 55 mins
Chris Kraus on Blue Tape:
In a notebook entry written months after she'd declined chemotherapy, Kathy Acker tried to make herself believe that she could will herself to live just as she'd willed herself to become a famous writer: "I look at myself. I saw 2 things. My will & imagination. My will to live & to not do chemo. Concerning imagination: At age 30 I was working in a cookie shop. There was absolutely nothing in the society that in any way made it seem possible for me to earn my living as a writer. I was, and still am, the most noncommercial of writers. I said, if X doesn't exist, you have to make it exist. You just imagine it..."
A year later, in 1997, Kathy died in an alternative treatment center in Tijuana. Her will to exist as a writer had certainly succeeded. She'd understood, like all the Great Men of her era, that the only way to transmit difficult work through the culture is by becoming a myth. And she got it right, creating the myth of herself as a Bad Girl. In the eighties, Acker's tattoo-and-motorcycle image gave her a base for her work. This image later became something of a parody, in which the strategic candor of her work had calcified into an Official Story. Had Acker lived, it's certain that she would have figured out her next move. The myth she made began in service to her work, and Acker always was a highly disciplined, ambitious thinker.
That determination is already evident in Blue Tape, a videotape made in 1974 by Acker and the artist Alan Sondheim, which was recently restored by the Buffalo-based video artist Tony Conrad. Though Blue Tape has screened informally once or twice around New York, it has never been transcribed or viewed in the context of Acker's life and work or Lower Manhattan social history. In Blue Tape, Acker and Sondheim agree to document their love affair—a forty-eight-hour truth-and-sex marathon encounter staged in Sondheim's loft—in a fifty-three minute "project." Originally shot on crumbly open reel black-and-white video, Blue Tape is an amazing portrait of the young Kathy, when she was inventing herself for herself. It also gives us access to the countercultural seventies, the world she had to move in, where every moron knew that sex and love were radically discrete Cartesian categories. Blue Tape wasn't unprecedented. Three years before, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith had sequestered themselves in the Chelsea Hotel, fighting and fucking and writing a play. As Acker would later subtitle one of her short texts, "Algeria, An Invocation Against Pain Because Nothing Else Works," Blue Tape is a kind of marking, an invocation by them both against the meaningless of what would otherwise have been a short, failed sexual encounter.
But Blue Tape is not just a love story for the loveless; it is also a strange art historical document. Acker, unknown, could not have picked a better ally or adversary than Sondheim, who, at thirty-one, had just written a three-hundred-page tract called A General Theory of Reality, purporting to investigate states of emotion through consciousness-hierarchies. In the mid-seventies, high minimalism ruled in the art world. The uncompromising deadpan purity of artists such as Robert Smithson and Agnes Martin dominated the landscape and it seemed the only way a newcomer like Sondheim could break through was by making work that was denser and more difficult, to the point of being absolutely incomprehensible. It was a mannerist phase, in which a puritan work ethic was highly rewarded. Sondheim's most impenetrable musings were praised by Robert Horvitz in Artforum as proof of "the seriousness of his commitment." Like the metaphysical poets three centuries before them, the minimalists saw the mind as high, the body low. Acker's gutteral insertions of herself into found histories and biographies ("No one touches me; I'm constantly horny; I think only about sex. I don't like sexual explosions getting mixed up with hampering my work. I'll do anything to fuck" — Lives of Murderesses) were like an atom bomb exploding on the minimalist horizon. When Sondheim faces Acker, Blue Tape becomes a shoot-out between high minimalism and what would become punk's new narrative.
It begins with Acker sitting up against a wall. She looks like the young Emma Goldman, but with an undyed buzz cut framing large rimless glasses. It's spring, 1974, and Kathy—visiting New York from San Francisco, where she lives with her boyfriend, Peter Gordon—has recently met Alan, who lives in a raw downtown loft with his girlfriend, Beth. At twenty-six, Kathy's magnificent, certain, and determined to learn what she's thinking. In a voice that is candid and poised, she outlines their "project": "I met Alan Sondheim when I was in New York two or three weeks ago. I had dinner at his and Beth's house and ended up talking to Alan for about twenty-four hours. We talked mainly about certain gestural and mental similarities we had both noticed that existed between us. And at the end decided to do a piece together. The next day I went back to California." Alan's voice picks up off-screen. He states presentationally: "And I received a work from Kathy dated March 1, Section from Part Three of a Long Work, Floating through Memory to Desire."
Kathy had, at that point, written and self-published three novels. With The Black Tarantula (1971), Some Lives of Murderesses (1973), and Rip Off Red (1974), she invented the genre she'd go on to develop, a kind of emotional formalism. Being the first post-Beat female writer to reject the repression of "cool," Kathy hot-wired feeling into found texts. Her "I" was shamelessly fucked up and confused, but also funny and shrewd.
Philosophically, Kathy and Alan were closely related. But Acker was an activist, determined to live through what Sondheim called a "phenomenology of feeling." While Kathy's ambivalent attraction to Alan was genuine, she also had a strategy. In the great paranoid tradition of Kafka and Artaud, Kathy coyly concurs with the art world's reverence for Sondheim's genius the better to position herself as challenger. Throughout the tape, Kathy-as-lost-little-girl-outsider tries to crack the facade of Alan's disembodied composure with the direct eruptions of emotion that already characterized her writing.
Alan reads aloud from Kathy's text. Unblinking, she takes it: "Being human is too boring and difficult, who wants to be human all the time I'm sick of being rational doing things right I'm becoming a cat. I sit in the bathtub, Rich comes over, afternoon, 1:30, wakes me up we fuck, two-, two-and-half times. He doesn't come the third time because Peter calls he's coming home we don't have time. I know who Alan is: Alan is my father. He'd better be my perfect father take care of me but not restrain me doing anything I want. Touch me softly with his hands and voice, like everything I do. If Alan isn't my perfect father I'll turn away from him unless he touches me again... Alan I don't understand a lot of what you write; you understand everything I write. I understand you when you talk to me and I feel wonderful..."
While Alan had recently praised Vito Acconci's "personal phenomenology" in Arts magazine, he apparently finds Kathy's too personal. Kathy announces their "problem": "Alan thought that I was wrong to send him that material, that in that way I was ripping him off, because I was using him, as, say, an analyst... However what the problem is and what we're trying to explore is whether I was right to use him at all... Alan feels that I was using him."
Soon the discourse breaks down and they bicker. Alan really wants to be her father—why won't she let him?—although he probably doesn't understand that Kathy wants to be both girl and boy, seducing the father in order to kill him. She says: "That's not what I want now." "Then what do you want?" Alan replies. "Because I think that the change would be so deep in you and something is voicing itself out." Petulantly, Kathy replies, "Well, I'm just saying to you something that I feel about myself that I'm doing about myself and you're telling me you know more about myself than I do." "Yes," Alan says. Kathy: "It's a question of authority." They argue more about who has the guilt and who has the power, as if these dead therapy words could summon a future.
But then Alan says something that's really prophetic: "You're a very powerful person. At this point. And God knows if you're powerful now what you're gonna be like in a couple of years. There's gonna be hell to pay for anybody who gets in touch with you. (Kathy nods and listens seriously.) You're gonna burn people. You're gonna kill people, you really are." Kathy's face lights up. She nods and smiles. And then they embark on a series of sexual exercises. Kathy fondles her breasts while Alan reads aloud from his difficult work about the phenomenological basis of language. Can he compete with her tits? Alan says: "The image is one of Kathy I don't want you to pay attention I want you to listen to me talk about the world I want to talk about the world I want you to think that I'm a great artist..." And then he fingers her cunt while Kathy directs ("Lower... no no it's too hard no no not there..."), but she doesn't get off, and then they talk about power. "One of the ways I feel I have great power," Kathy says, "is that I can give Alan a great deal of pleasure." In the next scene she proves it, sucking his cock while he valiantly talks about materiality until the words fall apart and he comes with a scream.
Watching the video twenty-six years later, I'm mostly struck by its brave pathos, the way Acker and Sondheim unquestioningly accepted their abrupt coupling, in which there could be no love, no sustained generosity of exchange between them. Acker's aesthetic clearly triumphs over Sondheim's, and yet—"the King is dead, long live the King"—two decades later she would herself be stuck as one of punk's most mannered high practitioners. Clearly, the failures and successes of an artist cannot be separated from the demands placed upon them by the market. While Blue Tape is a gorgeous portrait of Acker as a young person in the process of becoming, viewed historically, it also sounds a warning about the cyclic repetition of aesthetic style—when becoming is not ongoing.
At the end of Blue Tape, Alan and Kathy take turns writing out their feelings on an overhead projector: "There is so little space to move in... so little time... Right now I'm beginning to hate the word 'I'." It is utterly felt, and utterly false. The words quickly melt, and both are exhausted.
Originally published in Feed (2000).
Tickets - $7, available at door.
Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.