Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Passed and Present

Page 1


Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project

Hiraeth, 2019


Published on the occasion of the exhibition October 17–November 17, 2019 Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project Howl! A/P/E Volume 1, No. 34



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The world as seen in Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s early films is one of startling extremities. In movies such as her do-it-yourself go-go dancer documentary Baby Doll (1982), shot at Tribeca’s fabled Baby Doll Lounge; or Dirty (1993), her unrelenting adaptation of George Bataille’s tale of excremental abjection Le Bleu du Ciel (Blue of Noon) made with Annabel Lee; or Rat Trap (1986), a collaboration with Tommy Turner which veers between footage of a filthy junkie’s fix and violent acts of vermicide; Hughes-Freeland confronts the viewer with images of pain and pleasure, ugliness and beauty, terror and humor, the erotic and the thanatotic. In Nymphomania (1994), made with Holly Adams, a woman dressed in fairy garb dances to a passage from Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in a woodland glade, when she is violently assaulted by a goat-horned Pan, sporting a monstrous phallus that ultimately rips through her body. What shocks is not merely the punch of any of these elements on its own, since images of great potency can today be found with a few clicks of the keyboard or swipes on phone screen, safely discrete from meatspace life, neatly compartmentalized as a series of digital commodities. In these films, contradictory extremes are everywhere thrown into the same frame, crammed into the same space, inhabiting the same grubby rooms, surging through the same fleshy bodies, as inseparable from one another as yin from yang. After arriving in New York from England in the early 80s, Hughes-Freeland became part of a circle of ultra-low-budget filmmakers that included her sometime collaborators Tommy Turner and Ela Troyano as well as figures like Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, David Wojnarowicz, Lydia Lunch, and others, members of a small Lower East Side social network that Zedd would later name “The Cinema of Transgression,” a contentious moniker that nonetheless did sum up a shared interest in aesthetic and social subversion, expressed through both an embrace of the barest means of production available (videotape, Super 8, or 16mm at best; flickering wall transfers; the tenement apartment as set), and a willful poaching of themes and techniques from disreputable genres like pornography, low-budget horror, and exploitation.

Hughes-Freeland’s participation in the cultural scene extended to her work as a writer for publications Paper, the East Village Eye, and the Underground Film Bulletin, chronicling the art-making around her in films like Graffiti Hall of Fame (1984) and Virginia Tripping Film (1985), and running film nights at spots like Danceteria and Club 57. Her major foray into film programming was the New York Film Festival Downtown, founded and managed with Troyano as a kind of punked-out version of Lincoln Center’s event. She also began a long practice of expanded cinema, using multiple film projectors and performance as a form of live image-making, operating right at the juncture of production and exhibition. Such work would feed into her use of layered projections in fixed pieces like the found-footage collage Instinct (2007), a phantasmagoria of female screen archetypes. The elements of fairy-tale fantasy and weird nostalgia seen in Nymphomania would become more prominent in Hughes-Freeland’s later films. Gift (2010) reworks found footage of an early cinematic production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, altering its images with a variety of superimpositions and masks. This film evokes fond memories of Drink Me, an East Village café run by Hughes-Freeland in the early years of this century, which took its name from Alice’s transformative gastronomic experiments, in keeping with a strain of psychedelia that runs through the artist’s output. Another collision of old and new is elegantly achieved in the installation Mirror Mirror Daylight Cinema (2017), which situates a massive kaleidoscope, crafted from an old camera tripod and its case, so viewers can make their own movies by holding their phones to its eyepiece. The title of Hiraeth (2019) refers to a Welsh concept not dissimilar to the more well-known Portuguese saudade, a somewhat undefinable longing for a home that may no longer exist; the film itself follows a masked crone who journeys, as if through the stages of a ritual, from a pantomime playland through woodland paths, to rolling fields, burning hills, and eventually the sea. One feels in Hiraeth a longing for an older, more elemental world, expressed paradoxically through the machinations of contemporary imaging technologies, and the unsettling ambiguities of a dream.


HD video, Super 8 film Duration 00:09:45

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NAme, 1999 Medium Third Line

Top row, L-R, second and third images, additional photography: Ves Pitts

EXPANDED CINEMA, 2019 A multiple-projection installation composed of three films—Secret Message, Mooncatcher, and Natural History—made with digitized handmade 16mm film, video, and digitized handmade slides; eight-part folding screen; rear projection fabric; and painted wooden frame. 69fl x 112fl x 29 inches

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NAme, 1999 Medium Third Line

NAme, 1999 Medium Third Line

NAme, 1999 Medium Third Line

NAme, 1999 Medium Third Line

NAme, 1999 Medium Third Line

KALEIDOSCOPE, 2017 Cast iron, wood, steel, nylon, fabric, mirrors, plexiglass, polyethylene tape. 56› x 46fl x 41 inches “Displaying moving images usually requires some form of electricity. Faced with the challenge of exhibiting in a space without any, I arrived at the idea of a kaleidoscope. Housing the optics of the kaleidoscope in the case of a wooden tripod designed for a film camera, then mounting the kaleidoscope on the tripod instead of a camera, in itself it becomes an interactive no-tech camera of sorts. The Old Shul for Social Sculpture, where the kaleidoscope was originally on display, has the most beautiful, colorful stained-glass windows, as well as an interesting architectural interior. By using the movement of the fluid head, the viewer could look though the peephole and create an instant optical extravaganza. In this way it is pure cinema. In addition, anybody could make their own personal film by putting their phone to the peephole. The kaleidoscope is visually interesting looking though both ends. When shooting material for Secret Message and Mooncatcher, I continued to experiment with taking images using the kaleidoscope, and encourage all visitors to Howl! Happening to make their own film through it as well.” —Tessa Hughes-Freeland

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Additional photography: Michael Staats


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For some 40 years, Tessa Hughes-Freeland has been, in her own highly idiosyncratic way, carving out an utterly unique place within the realm of art and film. Sometimes it makes sense, corresponding with cultural currents that have placed her work firmly within a recognizable context, allowing us to see her as part of something larger, be it the lineages of expanded cinema, underground filmmaking, postfeminist erotica, multiprojection psychedelic lightshows, and experimental film, or more crucial to her identity in the mid 80s as a seminal figure of New York’s Cinema of Transgression movement, and even now anew as a continuous presence in a film renaissance. That all these terms somehow fit her career to date, yet also completely fail to capture the essence of her oeuvre, might remind us why artists so loathe adopting labels. Perhaps we just need another phrase to encapsulate the entirety and evolution of her ongoing efforts to reposition the 20th century’s dominant language of motion pictures into something more elusive, migratory, subversive, and irascible. Better yet would be if we would grant those who work in fields not immediately associated with fine art practices the simple acknowledgment that they are not defined by medium or genre, but they are rather first and foremost artists regardless of their discipline. Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s films are far more concerned with the issues of a fine-art practice—aesthetics, materiality, composition, and sensory experience—than what moviemakers in the traditional sense are trying for. In movies, all emotions ranging from the visceral to the sentimental are triggered by narrative. Even when she may at times rely on such a language of film, allowing aspects of dialogue or plot to slip in and out of her moving pictures, the sense of a story is almost incidental, pushed to the side by aspects so off-kilter and disorienting that any synopsis would be utterly superfluous to what could more properly be called effect. Simply put, Tessa is not a storyteller. I probably sensed this more than 35 years ago when I saw her early movie Baby Doll, a clandestine recording of two dancers at the old Tribeca topless bar Baby Doll Lounge talking about

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their lives and experiences working there. Since then the movie has been regarded as a classic not only for its revelatory disclosure of women’s perspectives but as a unique document of how sex workers were part and parcel of the downtown scene. Baby Doll has gradually found its place in the canon of experimental film, and more recently even been included in the genre of documentaries, but it’s just so raw and real as to be a misfit for either, and as the girls try to make sense of their situations, viewers remain equally at odds trying to make sense of it as a document—the movie is just all elbows, thrusting and nonlinear, confusing, noisy, and dark like the world it conjures. In the nearly four decades that I have lived with this artist, I have as such never really asked her about what she’s working on in terms of what it might be about. Even when there is something to follow—a story of seduction and debasement culled from Bataille’s Blue of Noon (Dirty), the dehumanizing horrors of heroin addiction (Rat Trap), the rape of a nymph by a satyr (Nymphomania), or any of her elusive performance-based portraits of artists including Mike Bidlo, Rhonda Zwillinger, the Butthole Surfers, and Poppo—she’s never so much concerned with content as she is with process, and consistently forgoes the idea of illuminating an audience with meaning or resolution to rather subsume the viewer in someplace magically foreign, dangerously adrift, visually disquieting and, in essence, beyond words. In this way there is probably no better example of her quasi-narrative technique than the obscure late-80s gem The Story of the Little Green Man, which is her most literal of stories few of us could actually read because it is a film of two hands speaking to us in sign language. For many generations now, underground and experimental filmmakers have had an unfortunate relationship with the consumer culture and society of the spectacle from which their medium in fact emerges. Far too weird, personal, and idiosyncratic to ever find a place in commercial movies, they also fail in the marketplace of fetish objects,

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typically exerting a tremendous influence on their times but never financially rewarded in the way that painters often are. We see them, legends all, occasionally pop up in the galleries or even museums, but it is all too often a default compromise in their work, trying to fob off ephemera or visual relics and simulacra far from their real genius to reach an art market primarily concerned with objects. In this fundamental regard Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s ongoing investigation of the material aspects of her medium, penchant for radical combinative juxtapositions, postmodern appreciation for found footage, and deliberate steps to knit her works together through object-based assemblages while breaking down the authority of the picture plane via these presentations and installations, makes her a rare filmmaker able to communicate in the language of fine art. In this way, the hybridity of her film fans or her three movies projected on a folding screen, one of which (Secret Message) is in fact entirely text-based being made of Letraset, emphasize a physicality not associated with film while maintaining a way of disrupting normative perceptions that is central to all her work. But all this is merely an explanation for what lies beyond clarity and definition. Tessa Hughes-Freeland continues to operate in a more flexible space of visual and linguistic slippage, somewhere intermediate, interstitial, and indeterminate. At times it all makes sense, but first and foremost it is about the sensory and sensual. In this way her work may follow in a lineage of filmmakers like Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Derek Jarman, but as it continually drifts off into the mesmeric she seems closer to the notion of spielraum—that has little correlative in the English language, but could be considered a kind of creative leeway or latitude that incorporates its own margin of error as part of the whole—suggested by Walter Benjamin in his lesser-known aside within The Promise of Cinema. This is how she works, beyond format, formalism, or function, a mechanical and handmade conjuring of light that casts shadows of doubt and delusions of hallucinatory unreality.


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Parade/Porn, 2016 8mm film, natural wood ribs 10› x 18 x 1 inches

Runt, 2015 8mm film, natural wood ribs 4 x 6 x 1 inches

Farm 2, 2017 8mm film, natural wood ribs 4 x 6 x 1 inches

The French Wedding, 2014 16mm film, natural wood ribs 12fl x 24 x 1› inches

After the French Wedding, 2017 8mm and 16mm film, natural wood ribs 10â „ x 18 x 1 inches

Snow Hill, 2019 8mm film, natural wood ribs 4 x 6 x 1 inches

Countdown, 2018 16mm film, natural wood ribs 13 x 23 x 1 inches

When the Street art phenom broke big in the early 80s art worldlngs got a grip soon enough and Keith Haring Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat became the anointed ones. But in 2017 Richard Hambleton, the creator of that Street presence, Shadow Man, OD’d. And blew up. That, and last year’s strong Rammellzee retrospective, made it clear that the narrative of Street art is in melt. So it’s good timing for a show of Linus Coraggio, who brought sculpture to the streets with 3D graffiti and has spent nearly four decades making a remarkable – and remarkably diverse – body of work. Linus – it’s always just Linus - grew up in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, his father a musician, his mother a writer, who bought him lino-cutting tools when he was seven. He has meticulous memories of making his first sculpture aged nine, a pyramid glued together from 20,000 toothpicks. A decade later he was at Purchas, the State University of New York, and settled on an art-making future but quickly dropped the idea of looking for a gallery. “My teachers would say things like one in 3000 of you might make it as artist,” he says. “They were so dismal that I started to look for other ways to get my work out.” Linua had friends making graffiti, and accompanied them from time to time, so after he graduated in ’84 and moved to the city, his plan was to wheat-paste abstractions Downtown. The crew he approached though were looking for a gallery show, not a newbie. “That got me thinking what kind of Street art can I do on my own?” he says. “I was already doing metalwork. So one night I was having trouble going to sleep and I flashed on these No Parking signs I climbed as a kid. You could jam your feet into them. And I started welding the next day.” Installing a Street sculpture is more time-consuming than work with a spraycan. “I had a Volkswagen bug,” Linus says.” So I drove around the East Village and SoHo putting them up. I had been hanging around the Life Café so put up a few round there. And by the Hell’s Angels on Third Street.” Installation, being more time-consuming it’s also that much riskier. Which can help. “The edginess in the art comes from the roughness of the way I put it together and the chances you

Commercial, 2018

35mm film, painted red wood ribs 13 x 25 x 1≠ inches

have to take to put it up,” Linus says. “And that energy creates a tension as an artist that goes into your work … the rough edges and the gestures … and that stays with you when you do your studio work.” Linus had been the first to make 3D graffiti but soon others were at it too. Were they competitive? Well, it was the streets. He spotted a piece by a rival in Tompkins Square Park while drinking a beer at 5 o’clock one afternoon. “So I climbed up and crushed the beercan onto one of the sculptures,” he says. Later though he hung his competitor in a Street art show he curated. “So I guess we buried the hatchet.” He followed up the sign weldings with more complex assemblages, some including figurative elements and text. You could say the toothpick pyramid was a precursor because multiplicity is key, and the signature style of Linus has become an inventive array of signatures. One piece will pack the raw Minimal punch of scrapmetal, but alongside there’ll be a Motorbike piece, an unnerving Barbie doll assemblage and a piece bristling with knives and/or gunnery “Minimalism is too quick. And too planned,” he says. “There’s a subconscious level to what ends up getting finished, based on the material I’m thinking of using.” The coming of the Internet largely transformed the world of Street art, which has become a world-wide phenomenon, intimately – too intimately often – involved with promotion and sponsorship. Street sculpture has been largely immune from this. “The great graffiti artists, like Futura, their work was easy to photograph,” Linus says. “But a piece of 3D Street art on a No Parking sign, perched on the edge of a sidewalk, with cars and trucks passing near it, a building 25 feet away and patches of sky with sunlight, that’s difficult to document with a strong picture.” It’s a position Linus accepts, rather than embracing. “I always saw myself as the underground in the underground,” he says. “Like I was subverting the art that was supposed to be subverting the level above it.” It’s a thoroughly ornery attitude, a good attitude for an artist, and one that suits his uncompromising art. When the Street art phenom broke big in the early 80s art worldlngs got

China, 2019 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film, painted black wood ribs 13 x 24 x 1≠inches

Bondage, 2016 8mm and 35mm film, painted red wood ribs 12 x 24 x 1≠inches

I’m Still Sorry Mother, 2019 8mm and 35mm film, painted red wood ribs 13 x 24› x 1fi inches

#1, 2013 16mm and 8mm film, natural wood ribs 9 x 16 x 1 inches

Light Leak, 2015 8mm film, natural wood ribs 4 x 6 x 1 inches

The Escape, 2014 16mm and 35mm film, painted red wood ribs 12 x 23› x 1‹ inches

The Hole Of It, 2019 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film, natural wood ribs 12fl x 23≠ x 1› inches

Sad Day, 2014 8mm film, natural wood ribs 4 x 6 x 1 inches

Farm, 2016 8mm film, natural wood ribs 4 x 6 x 1 inches

Racing Blues, 2019 8mm film, natural wood ribs 7 x 14 x 1 inches

Countdown (For Warhol), 2016 16mm film, painted silver ribs 12fl x 23› x 1› inches


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Watching some of Tessa’s hallucinatory classics like Instinct: Bitches Side is my idea of cinematic pleasure: a bizarre mix of Bette Davis, Mae West, a spider, and a sexy seductress, all driven by a score echoing film history. Tessa has been at it since the early 80s, making films for no money…films clearly stamped with her obsessions: women kicking against being used and abused; seduction, frustration, transcendence, and a bit of torture. After Tessa arrived in New York from London in 1981, she was broke and desperate to see films, and discovered 42nd Street like a big box of chocolates—all those lurid marquees for two-dollar admission at any hour. Tessa was drawn to B horror flicks like Basket Case and The Blob. She was excited by the dark stew of sex and danger, being on the crowded strip and all those spots that offered 25-cent peeps and sold cheap Super 8 films to play on your projector at home…the same ones that were suddenly gone from the shelves! Everyone wanted the new thing—videocassette. Super 8 was dead. Tessa asked a clerk if he still had any of the old Super 8 reels; he shrugged “not for sale,” proceeding to offer a box of old reels they were putting out to the curb that night. The blank box contained not just old porno clips but amateur movies and cheap knockoffs of forgotten films like The Mummy’s Ghost and The Unsinkable Bette Davis. Tessa attempted cutting and pasting the tiny pieces of her Super 8 finds together with her own stuff and found it very tough going. Doing live multiple film projections in clubs opened Tessa to how fun and fluid filmmaking could be. Layering whole reels of Super 8 with non-synchronous music tracks led her to the live rephotographed multiple exposures seen in her early classic Play Boy (1984), which began as a gallery installation. She wanted to present it in a Super 8 peep machine like the ones on 42nd Street, but instead found a “traveling salesman suitcase” that held a looping 8mm cassette of the film. Play Boy opens with a couple peeping through a hole in the closet to view a woman writhing in S&M gear—in a ship’s hold? Triple exposures of three nuns sexually molesting a man ensue, followed by some deep throat action, and a boxer cast in green

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followed by a gladiator wrestling a lion. The music holds the suspense without linear coherence or buildup. Tessa’s use of “found” footage connects her to ancient forbearers like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death, as well as contemporary work like DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation film performance. One of the most powerful elements in Tessa’s films is her use of music. For over a decade since Instinct, Tessa has collaborated with Mark Abramson, who has contributed intoxicating tracks that combine rare recordings. The sound floats behind the images, allowing the viewer to make associations. Tessa’s 1986 collaboration Rat Trap, made with the infamous Tommy Turner, thrusts us into a kind of docu-horror film. If the retinal flashing in Tony Conrad’s The Flicker left us with a headache, Rat Trap might induce vomiting with its searing, pounding warning against intravenous drug use. The film works to alienate and torture the viewer. Nymphomania, Tessa’s 1994 classic narrative with writer and performer Holly Adams, is a kind of fairytale for adults. A lovely forest sprite is dancing gaily among the ferns, spied upon by a gnarly Pan played by Bob Mook, who strokes his long shaft with malevolent intent. Tessa plays this scenario as a farce—a childlike femininity against aggressive horniness, until the dance becomes a brutal rape scene I won’t describe. I highly recommend it. Tessa’s newest film, Hiraeth (2019), is another kind of adult fairy tale, inspired by a childhood Christmas cake her mom made. The film obsesses on themes of motherly loss and sacrifice…the central old-crone character waving long gold fingernails menacingly at her child in the beginning. The theme is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The character Sibyl, shunned by her lover Apollo, is banished to live for eternity as a slowly shrinking old woman, until she leaves us—the size of a grasshopper—being washed out to sea in a glass bottle.

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NAme, 1999 Medium Third Line

THE BUG/Lost Movie, 1998-2018

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Play Boy, 1984

Baby Doll, 1982

Instinct, 2007

Dirty, 1993 (made in collaboration with Annabel Lee)

Virginia Tripping Film, 1985

Watch Out!, 2007

Nymphomania, 1994 (made in collaboration with Holly Adams)

Jane Gone, 1987

Gift, 2010

Arturo Vega Foundation Lalo Quiñones Jane Friedman Donovan Welsh BG Hacker Board of Advisors Dan Cameron Curt Hoppe Carlo McCormick Marc H Miller Maynard Monrow Lisa Brownlee James Rubio Debora Tripodi Howl! Board of Directors Bob Perl, President Bob Holman, Vice President BG Hacker, Treasurer Nathaniel Siegel, Secretary Riki Colon Jane Friedman Chi Chi Valenti Marguerite Van Cook, President Emeritus In Memoriam of our Beloved Board Member, Brian (Hattie Hathaway) Butterick Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project Founder and Director: Jane Friedman Gallery Director: Ted Riederer Assistant Director: Josh Nierodzinski Director of Education: Katherine Cheairs Program Coordinator: Daniel Wallace Registrar/Archivist: Daniel A. Silva Collection Manager: Corinne Gatesmith Production: David Gimbert Marketing and Public Relations: Susan Martin Gallery design: Space ODT/Teddy Kofman Creative Consultant: Some Serious Business/Susan Martin Gallery Photographer: Jason Wyche

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Tessa Hughes-Freeland Passed and Present Published on the occasion of the exhibition October 17–November 17, 2019 Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project © 2019 Howl Arts, Inc. Howl! Archive Publishing Editions (Howl! A/P/E) Volume 1, No. 34 ISBN: 978-1-7338785-4-8 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of Howl! A/P/E. © 2019 Lydia Lunch © 2019 Ed Halter © 2019 Carlo McCormick © 2019 Charlie Ahearn Additional photography © Ves Pitts © Michael Staats Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project 6 East 1st St. NY, NY 10003 www.HowlArts.org 917 475 1294 Editor: Ted Riederer Copy Editor: Jorge Clar Design: Jeff Streeper

The Arturo Vega Project: Jane Friedman

Front cover: Mystery Multiplied 2, 2019 Natural History, 2019 Back cover: Parade, 2013 8mm film, natural wood ribs 4 x 6 x 1 inches Instinct, 2007 Inside back cover: Installation shot at Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project

NAme, 1999 Medium Third Line

NAme, 1999 Medium Third Line