MOVE4 / “I’ll play in yours if you play in mine”: Co-creation in COLAB’s films (New York, 1978-1985) / Céline Murillo

Directing and acting in Kidnapped (Eric Mitchell, 1978)

MOVE: Subcultures, Movements, Aesthetics is a series of documentation, a critical-collective output of the “Researching Subcultures and Aesthetics Postgraduate Symposium” that took place at National University of Galway Ireland in September 2019. This event was organized as part of the Punk Scholars Network event series, with the aim of bringing students and early career researchers who work on subcultural movements and arts together and offering a space to connect sociological studies on resistance with the more Humanities-oriented discussions around countercultural aesthetics. 

The three episodic clusters in the series are designed to reflect the gaps and connections between disciplines, aiming to demonstrate the necessity of re-conceptualizations and how each paper can be thought as both specific to itself and part of a story, an episode of a collective research chapter. Topics ranged from neglected subjects and refusals in the literary world to the politics of independent music and punk subculture, from experimental filmmaking practices that blur the borders of American video art and cinema to the occupy, diasporic and subcultural movements in Romania, Brazil and the UK.

MOVE will run the course of autumn 2020 while the covid-19 is fluctuating in different time-spaces, gesturing towards new ways of moving under restrictions. Thanks to all the contributors, Moore Institute at NUI Galway and Punk Scholars Network for support and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J. You can access all MOVE essays here.

– Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz (Editor)

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Late 1970s. The Lower East Side of a nearly bankrupt Manhattan. Rents were low and nearby universities had opened cinema classes prompted by the countercultural movement of the 1960s. The NEA made federal money available for artists. Musicians and artists of all kinds flocked to the south of Manhattan. 

Living and working in a small area, these artists could attend each other’s shows, gigs, or performances, forming a scene that included bands such as The Ramones, Blondie, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks as well as artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Tom Otterness. Lydia Lunch, one of the star singers of the scene, declares: “Work? Are you nuts? Please. $75 per month–that was my rent when I got an apartment on 12th  Street. You could eat for two or three dollars a day. You begged, borrowed, stole, sold drugs, worked a couple of days at a titty bar if you had to.”

In this context, many art collectives were born. One was COLAB, a group formed to give some power to their artists so that they would stand a better chance to obtain grants from the institutions. One of COLAB’s slogans was “Get the money not the institution,” encouraging members to obtain as many grants as possible without abiding by any demands made by the funders. They were getting together in order to give each person freedom to pursue their individual artistic practices. They combined individualism with collective action. By individualism, I mean the Punk refusal to obey social, academic, or institutional rules.

Indeed, COLAB was formed at a moment in the history of art and cinema that makes it a vessel for various ideologies. It took shape in a scene (an in-group of interconnected artists and spectators) that was dominated by the Punk and No Wave movements that had in common the Do It Yourself ethic that rejects the need for know-how to produce art. COLAB, in its four years of existence, gave birth, among other art projects, to many films. One of these is Men in Orbit (John Lurie, 1979), a makeshift mockumentary about a space trip. I will use it as an example to show how DIY can be a powerful drive for collective creation.

Endeavoring to assess how co-creation worked in the context that I have just outlined, I will take two other films which also reflect on the collective – a wider notion than collective action, collaboration, or co-creation. Kidnapped (Eric Mitchell, 1978) uses improvisation as a tool to abolish barriers and share creative responsibility; and Wild Style (Charlie Ahearn, 1982) depicts co-creation in its narrative. 

I – Collaborating for a DIY space conquest

Men in Orbit is about two astronauts (played by two COLAB members Eric Mitchell and John Lurie) on their way to a mission in space. We see them in their capsule and a few shots showing the mission control as well as archival footage of a rocket’s take-off.

The film is emphatically DIY. The set is made entirely of objects scavenged from the streets and arranged by John Lurie who is initially a painter and a musician, not a set-decorator. This way, the film, created outside the pale of market economics in true punk fashion, pays no attention to know-how. On the contrary, everybody can practice art regardless of their training. The film has only nine participants – five of them had already directed a film. Their roles (as it is the case for Lurie) are not linked to their profession. James Nares who holds the camera is a painter for example. Because they can’t use their expertise in the film, participants are placed on an equal footing. John Lurie, is the official filmmaker but he rejects authorship and direction. As a result, all participants are co-responsible for creating the film. 

The theme is very maladapted to a small budget film and ironically linked to co-creation. A space conquest demands a large-scale collaboration that is hierarchical and done by hyper-qualified workers in industrial consortiums, relying on huge budgets, which is completely divergent from the egalitarian and untrained co-creation of the film’s crew and its shoestring budget. The involuntary contribution of taxpayers to the space conquest effort is diametrically opposed by the active and outspoken commitment of the whole team behind this film project. 

The latter are successful in their intent: to begin, with the handcrafted capsule appears to float thanks to James Nares’s swirling camera. And even if the actors, who had taken LSD, sometimes lose their hold on the fiction, the film overcomes this and moves on, restoring our sense of a fictional world namely because of the realistic voices of the mission control who also tell the actors what to do and transform them again into characters in doing so. Co-creation that was brought about by DIY ethic creates a hybrid form, a sort of mockumentary where absurdist humor attacks NASA’s heavy spending and yet manages to fly us to the moon.

Men in Orbit

II “Eric, it’s rolling! Oh, Really?” Improvisation and lack of work in Kidnapped (Eric Mitchell, 1978)

Kidnapped is considered a “film exercise in real time improvisation.” In this ninety-minute film, friends attend a party, drink, do drugs, discuss the need to act – to “do something” – and eventually decide to kidnap and torture somebody. Because each reel is only one take, there is no editing as if it is a recording of a theatrical performance, which recalls experimental theater groups such as the Squat Theater in which Eric Mitchell took part. These groups had inherited creative methods from the 60s. The Wooster group, for example, used collective improvisation exercises in order to create a collective mind that would remove the need for a director in communities. Creating a collective mind was considered as important as, or even more important than, the play. “The collective” was not instrumental to this practice, but the creative output as such.

Kidnapped abolishes barriers – not between audience and actors as in 1960s plays, but between the fictional and extradiegetic world. Eric Mitchell is both a director and an actor, and ceaselessly changes his role on set: we can hear him sometimes giving directions to the actors, while they also tell him what to do; for example they may remind him that “it’s rolling” thus assuming a responsibility in the direction of the film that is now shared among various people on set.

Participants are not experts. They did not even learn their dialogues; they either read from the scripts pasted on the walls or improvise all together. The absence of editing is not the result of a precisely planned perfect take, as it is the case in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Rope (1948), instead the multiple takes on the same reel were not edited out of the final cut. The film refuses to choose or to decide on what is good or important or meaningful. A good editor, who would like to create a logical and well-paced narrative out of Kidnapped which is 90 minutes, would make it last less than half this duration. It is left to the spectator to do this part of the creation by mentally editing the film. 

Improvisation, lack of work, lack of editing disperse creation among the entire film team and also involve the spectators. Nobody takes film creation seriously, the actors forget to play, the filmmaker does not know it is rolling and the editor is nowhere to be found. In this lazy atmosphere, everybody chips in minimally. Collective creation is emphatically not collective work but rather a punk collective refusal to work. 

On the fictional level, the film questions group dynamics and political action, both individual and collective. Because the film is improvised and barriers fall, we experience a very intense closeness to the characters. This becomes crucial when they decide to torture somebody. We wonder what they feel, for example, when one of them (Anya Philips) very delicately burns the kidnapped man’s shirt with a cigarette an inch away from his skin. Or when they ask him to “do the pig.” This is a shock value typical of No Wave but also of punk films that try to shake spectators out of their slumber. The question is what does the terrorist feel like? Political action has become another drug echoing one of COLAB’s much criticized slogans: “Get wrecked, get political.” Dissensus between the participants in the beginning appears more ethical than their cooperation at the end. The group allows the creation of the film but it is the same group that kidnaps and tortures a person. Kidnapped sheds a harsh light on the tension between individual and collective that is very far from unquestioningly positive valorization of the collective in many 1960s experiments.


Epilogue: Tapping the energy of co-creation

It seems that collective creation in Kidnapped and Men in Orbit relies on the lack of know-how, lack of work, and individual participation and not at all on a unified collective action. Charlie Ahearn, a COLAB member, talking about his 1982 film Wild Style says: “I like to think of it as parallel play, with I’ll play in yours if you play in mine before we all went our own ways.”

Wild Style is a film with a sizable budget and a professional crew, far more organized and less unplanned than Kidnapped or Men in Orbit. Yet it still relied on cross-participation from different CLOAB friends. In addition, Wild Style provides a clear comment on co-creation in the Downtown scene in its fictional content: the hero is a graffiti artist who works alone, while a large collective happily paints graffiti both for commercial and artistic purposes. As the lone artist reaches a dead-end in his creative practice, he is rescued by feeling the energy of a larger artists’ group: the very group of DJs, rappers, and dancers for whose show he is painting a mural where he eventually represents the energy coming from the stage. 

If up to now I have insisted on what collective creation was not, the idea of the collective as a source of energy is a very positive characteristic of collective creation. The notion of an underlying flux of energy was extremely common at the time.  Instead of divine inspiration falling on the lone artist, in Ahearn’s film inspiration comes from the collective: every individual artist can tap it. The downtown milieu is often described as “vibrant” or “paradynamic.” The collective’s energy is the new myth and depends on the fact that artists are everywhere and share egalitarian beliefs: one of the characters in Wild Style says that everybody has talent and the kids in South Bronx declare “we are all graffiti artists.”   

Co-creation in No Wave films was linked to DIY ethics. It occurred through necessity primarily because nobody was professional and everyone needed to collaborate in the form of cross-participation. The individual remained important, and the value of community was questioned. Getting together looked, rather unflatteringly, just like a means to achieve something. Yet the global collective, the downtown scene–through the density of artists and the crisscrossing artistic participations–are viewed as directly positive, a mana, or a limitless reservoir of energy that was both the cause and the consequence of co-creation. 

Mural and community in Wild Style