I have been accused of playing fast and loose with the issues, and this video has been a bit of a
lightning rod for this criticism. But it has an interesting life of its own which, I hope, when
fully understood will explain some of what we did and why.
"We" are the Loofah Method. While this is the last of the three full videos I did for
the ensemble, it was actually the first one I worked on as a performance piece. The genesis of
"Vogue with the War Dead" goes back to 1990. Cin Salach and I knew
each other through the performance poetry circuit. In fact, we shared a bill at the original
Wholesome Roc Gallery on
Clybourn Avenue (Chicago) and were introduced by host Patricia Smith. From there, I became
acquainted with other goings-on in the Loofah Method's life. For example, Patricia and I went
to see "TV Dinner Theater" at Chicago Filmmakers in the summer of 1990 and
we enjoyed the show thoroughly. I admired their work and their ability to meld pop art with
performance poetry in a stylish yet homespun way.
I had an Amiga computer and
Cin did, too. When Cin needed a hand fixing her Amiga, she decided to call me. Hoping that
I might be asked to be part of the group, I prepared a video clip on floppy disk which showed
Mark Messing wiggling his arms and Cin talking... well, blabbing actually. She was charmed, and
when it came time to look up a videomaker, I was one of the first they considered.
In 1990, the Iran-Contra Affair was still a fresh topic, and the whole bourgeois
spend-now-and-pay-later attitude of the Reagan years was still in full bloom. Madonna had recently
released her "Vogue" single which rocketted up the pop music charts, and seemed to
reinforce everything about glamor as a
somewhat fascist, haughty expression of fashion. That it was queer was no matter, or if it mattered it
did so in a fettishistic way much as some gay men are as attracted to military uniforms as much as
tuxedos or haute couture. The 1980s, their descendent fashions and politics were
totally consumerist and driven by authority, and therefore in bad taste. At least they were to us.
This constellation of anxieties fomented in Mark and Cin's minds for the summer of 1990, before
the Gulf War. By the end of the summer they had congealed the idea of taking several of these
threads and lacing them into a meaningful whole. They had been in touch with a photographer,
Paul Dix, who had traveled through Central America during much of the Nicaraguan Civil War,
and who had taken pictures and interviews with many victims of the Contras. This information
wasn't processed, propagandized, or filtered; it was first-hand. It moved Cin and Mark to act
(or re-act) through their art.
In August 1990, they approached me about making a video component to this elaborate piece
they called "Vogue with the War Dead." At first, I was piqued but more than a
little rattled. The plan was to take bits of public testimony by Oliver North, weave his speech
through a performance poem which Cin would do, and incorporate Dix's photography with
cartoon skeletons voguing during other parts of the piece. It sounded like an NBC Saturday
Night Live sketch delving into full bad taste, but they assured me that the Nicaraguans' interests
were at heart. I felt their stories and images were sacrosanct, and I had a little difficult time
trying to reconcile the urge to lampoon at Madonna in the whole recipe. Cin and Mark
simply wanted to know whether I could animate a video figure on cue and in performance. I
assured them I could, so they were satisfied. The elements which "Vogue..." needed
seemed a bit dissociated from each other to make much sense, but we forged ahead.
We culled testimony from the Iran-Contra hearings and found more than a few choice lines to
sample. Mark did most of that previewing. Cin and I met to go over her lines and then met with
Mark to find good moments -- extracted form Dix's Nicaraguan stories -- to contrast with North's
quotes. With that nailed down, I set about digitizing and processing the video to lend it a more
artistic feeling. The effects were done on very primitive gear: my old Amiga 1000 with a Live! board
and a couple consumer-grade special effects boxes which posterized, strobed, or tinted video. Keep
in mind, though, that desktop video in 1990 was new.
The video as a performance component premiered that fall in a show at Club Lower Links. It was an
awkward presentation, but it worked. I set up my VCR and switcher on one side of the room, near
the bar. We cabled the VCR out to the a big TV on stage. A couple other people, whom
I hadn't met before, were set up not far from me with projectors. They had slides and Super-8 films.
On cue, we sort of cut our own stuff into the performance. Audio from my tape was fed into the
band's audio mixer such that any samples on the video tracks could be blended live with the music.
The "train wreck" nature of the show (Cin's term) didn't bother our audience.
Lower Links was a haven for the politically atypical, and they loved what we were saying. The
clarity of the expression didn't seem to matter too much... just the intent.
Over the next two years, we developed our "Vogue..." with greater finesse. At least once,
I remade some of the video effects. Mark kept improving the music and Cin learned to bend with the
occasional timing snafus which would ripple through a performance piece as elaborate as this. I learned
a little bit more about the value of the moving image on stage, which is a rare opportunity. When
we got a show at Chicago Filmmakers, we were able to use truly theater-sized video projection to great
effect. It also put the video on par with the film and slides. All visual media shared the same screen, so
I rehearsed with the film and slide crews such that we blended smoothly in performance time. (These
experiences are why I say there is a whole range of cinematic forms which are not contained by typical
production and critique. The interaction of live performance, sound, language, and the moving image
has its own unique virtues and liabilities beyond conventional film/video production. There are direct
consequences to poetry when this is applied to such poetry in performance. Learning these
consquences first-hand is a step toward understanding poetry video in a much fuller sense.)
After nearly two years of having "Vogue..." in our repertoire, we decided to retire it
as a finished piece. This meant taking all the bits we'd collected before and assembling them on one tape.
Mark had to go back to his studio to reproduce our "Vogue..." as a single with Cin's vocals.
I transferred the films to video; actually, we shot the animations at close range on a small screen but
used camera angles to mimic the same ones we used on the large screen at Filmmakers.
We also had to reprioritize which parts went where. With a new soundtrack, there was no more room for
overlap or slop as we might have in performance. Mark extended the length of some of North's quotes using
his sampler, shortened and pitch shifted a few more bits, and he looped others. This meant we had to do
some very creative editing to keep in step with the sound, especially since there was no way for us to speed
up or slow down the video we had.
We also had to nearly totally re-execute the video for effects. This
turned out to be an advantage, though, since it meant we could play more with composition and the
various treatments than we could only a couple years before when the piece was first rendered.
Nearly all the tools we used for this still came from my studio, true to desktop form,
but we did "discover" a cheap source for chroma key.
We found a vanity music video boutique at North Pier. For a small fee, the boutique would play any song
in its library and you could sing or lip-sync to it karaoke style. They would then switch between a pair
of cameras trained on their guests in a blue room. Using a Fairlight VMI (an early digital video effects
box which specialized in more-or-less psychedelic effects), they would then mix, key and process the video
from the cameras and any old tape they had on hand. We approached the boutique with our own music
and our own background video, and when they saw what we were doing they happily doubled our
studio time for free. This is how Cin was able to give North a virtual peck on the cheek in the video.
During our last run at Filmmakers, we also used the full stage to advantage. We mocked up a performance
of "Vogue..." with lights, smoke, and all the classic elements of a rock concert. (This was
a bit more glitz and glam than what we did for a genuine live performance.) We ran film and video
projections behind Cin and Mark, played with strobe lights before the cameras, and had Cin dance in and
through the video projections. Cin didn't think we were really rolling tape for the production, that we
were just going through the motions instead. But I was more than happy with the results so we used them.
We premiered the video for the Guild's National Poetry Video Festival, and just barely. I remember making
last-minute edits on the piece the day of the show, literally hours before it was due to be seen by a paying
audience at the Hot House. It was the hit of the night.
The video was impulsively edited, and the rough edges show in many places. With so many gadgets chained
through each other to achieve a certain effect, video sync was often compromised and the picture began
to flag a bit at the top. But people still comment on how sophisticated the effects are, and all I can say is
that they were as primitive as the editing. The homespun quality of it, though, is true to the Loofah Method.
Much of our work could have been done by more experienced or professional people, but we chose to do
nearly all of it ourselves. I think that speaks of a sincerity which high gloss commercial works don't have.
The piece also took on a life of its own as North kept returning to the public's attention over and over again.
We seriously hoped that after committing the piece to a video form we could finally retire it and let it go.
This was not to be. North made bids for election and kept finding his way back into the news. So as
he rose to the cusp of notoriety again, we found a new demand for the video. The piece remained
popular with audiences long after North had fallen below the public's celebrity radar threshold, so I think
the video speaks to the way people feel about Iran-Contra in enduring terms.
Criticisms in the aftermath:
I want to address some of the comments I've heard from the public, from students, and critics.
It has been said that "Vogue..." is slick with the image it paints of Nicaragua,
but perhaps too slick.
Yes, the video is probably as guilty of oversimplification of Nicaragua's political situation as anything
else in American mass media of the time. The difference is we went to the source. I not want to
be flippant about invoking Nicaraguan amputees and desaparecidos, and still feel that presenting
them in anything, whether it's a documentary or pop art, is something of a hot button. The American
public will twitch when they see that in any case. (Or perhaps not. Consider how immune the public
were to news of Bosnia when the civil war there was a well-known fact.)
We believed very strongly, though, that the Nicaraguans' interests were at heart. We repeated a similar
"if only" mantra among ourselves which we were told the Nicaraguans themselves
believed: "If only the American people knew our situation, they would stop hurting us." The
feeling was that many Nicaraguans had greater faith in the American people and government than we
did ourselves. The onus was on us to reveal the truth -- taken first-hand -- and share it with the public.
Conceding the oversimplification, we felt we were more on a mission of cultivating a
basic awareness in the first place. Putting the Nicaraguan plight into a pop music form not only served as
criticism of the commercial music industry, but made our work agit prop as well.
Let's stay with the point that we Loofahs lived our politics in a very personal way. Dix's photography really
moved us. When we heard that North was coming to Chicago for a book signing at a major downtown
store, we decided this was a moment for us. We took Dix's picture of Carmen (the woman in the collage at
the top of this page, far right) who lost her legs when the truck she rode in rolled over a Contra land mine.
Mark and Cin stood in line to have their copy of North's book signed, and I was poised to record this
on tape. The upshot was that they inserted the photo where the autograph page would ordinarily be.
We wanted to confront North with the photo since we felt Carmen's life was written by him just like
the book. Same author, same autograph.
Because I held a camcorder, I was taken outside. North's table was fixed upstairs at the store, out of view
from the street. The store insisted that no one have video cameras present for the signing. We
noticed several cameras indoors from television stations just the same. When Mark handed him the book,
North openned it and an assistant standing nearby seamlessly swept the photograph away. Mark and Cin
spoke on Carmen's behalf, but they were ignored. When they reached the end of the table, they were handed
an autographed book. I could only wait outside.
I noticed that North's handler had gone outside, too. He was leaning against the store's façade,
smoking a cigarette. Since he was all there was to tape of our North encounter, I decided he would have to
do. At this point, my encounter at the bookstore turned nonverbal. He did not speak to me, nor I to him.
It was fairly clear that he knew I was not on his side, and that I could see it, too. I got the feeling that his
orders were to stand and give no malice, no matter what. I didn't taunt the fellow. Instead, I simply
committed myself to witness him, to document his likeness on tape. I began walking around him in a long
arc, at all times about 4 meters from where he stood. I taped him, he smoked his cigarette with stifled
aggression and stared me back, and my camera didn't blink. This took most of a minute to do. During
this time, all foot traffic between him and me ceased; we were standing on a downtown block of
Wabash Avenue during lunch hour. It was as though time were suspended.
Some people who've seen "Vogue with the War Dead" have immediately likened the
Loofah Method to a group from New York called EBN, short for "Emergency
Broadcast Network." But this comparison is not quite right. EBN had no women as principal
partners. Loofah was founded by Cin and Mark. Sue Walsh (a gay female) and I (a gay male) fairly
rounded out the complement of genders among Loofah's lead artists. This mix puts a much different
spin on the message and style of the ensemble as a whole.
While Cin did not know who Laurie Anderson was until 1988 or '89, it's safe to say that we were
aspiring toward the Anderson model for performance, except as an ensemble and not as a solo performer
with a backing group. Cin definitely held the leading role, but in 1992 everybody had some say in the
development of our shows. "Vogue..." relied heavily on the boys (Mark and me) and our toys
to accomplish its task. Because of this, "Vogue..." is rendered more like EBN who have
a similar mode of operation.
In other pieces, and these were usually beyond the view of video watchers since they were done on stage,
a far more feminine hand was guiding the art. Cin and Sue co-conceived "Grandmother," a
very magical performance where the photographic process was actually part of the show. The theater was
darkened to allow us to develop a mural-sized print of Cin's grandmother on stage. The piece was
terribly cathartic for Cin to perform due to the highly personal relationship she shared with her deceased
grandmother. And it was an antithesis of EBN's signature work in almost every practical regard: low
light and simple, physical technology; tactile media; symbols of nostalgia, childhood, and maternal
continuity; soft and gentle sounds; and a female soliloquy.
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