“At that time in New York things were really wild,” Emily Armstrong recalled of the ’70s punk scene. She and her partner, Pat Ivers, are old school East Village types– they truly lived the Downtown era, and lucky for us they documented over 100 shows at CBGBs, filming bands like DNA and unbelievable moments like Iggy Pop covering Frank Sinatra for their weekly TV show, Nightclubbing. After NYU’s Fales Library acquired their archive for the Downtown Collection, thousands of the duo’s film reels were digitized and, for a time, were part of a weekly column at B+B.
Alone at Last emerged out of that archival effort and now, after more than 30 years since the artists last saw them, the 1981 black-and-white vignettes featuring 52 people who were prompted to seduce the viewer, will be shown at Howl! Happening. The video series captures the last breath of the freewheeling ’70s Downtown scene right before AIDS hit. “People who have seen it feel that it’s a very interesting depiction of that culture, that moment, because it was truly a moment. Soon after it was shot, people realized what AIDS was. So having a lot of sex for pleasure was completely redefined: having a lot of open sex was suicide. Things really changed, really fast.”
Around 1980, Pat and Emily were working at Danceteria. “We had a video lounge there on the third floor– it was an unlicensed after-hours club,” Emily recalled. That period was so great, because you could do so much with so little,” Pat remembered. Eventually, the place got busted by the police. “We all got arrested– my partner, Pat, and I just walked away at that point.” In some ways, Alone at Last was one of their last major video projects documenting the scene before the big change, before there was no more scene left to document.
“Then AIDS happened, and things weren’t so fun anymore, things were really depressing,” Pat explained. “Everything changed. The scene changed, the world changed. And to a large extent, I just sort of pulled back and just stopped working for a while and just had to deal with my personal life.”
Some of the people featured in the seduction videos were their friends, but most of them were simply “Downtown people who were creative, and made the scene what it was,” Pat explained. “Some of the people we don’t even know to this day, what their names are or who they are, really.” However, Pat and Emily were granted releases at the time by each participant. “A lot of our friends on the punk scene were in the adult entertainment business– I mean, lots of people were,” she continued. “A lot of boys did it, a lot of girls worked at topless places, it was a way that people made money back then.”
Emily also remembered it this way. “A lot of girls made their money by working at Show World or the Pink Pussy Cat downtown, in Lower Manhattan. No one really thought twice about it, it was really kind of different.”
Back then, Pat said, “people were really free about their sexuality, because there were no consequences– we thought everything was just great.” Recruiting people for the videos then, was really easy. The pair drew up a flyer explaining the prompt: “The camera is the person […] We want you to come-on to them, try and pick them up, shake them up, turn them on and take them home. Perform the ultimate seduction.”
They shot at two separate locations: once on Avenue A and again in Chelsea, and were able to get a variety of people on board including Haoui Montaug, a beloved doorman (Pat described him as “the ultimate scene maker”), a couple members of the band 3 Teens Kill 4; Ann Sargent Wooster, an art critic at Village Voice, and more.
“Oh, [all the videos] are different,” Pat laughed. “You go into the booth and someone is looking straight at you, and they try to seduce you. Everybody seduces in a different way. The gay boys were the most direct. The straight boys, on some level, were the most uptight. The gay women were much more sensitive. Straight women, they were all over the place. Everybody was different, but it was very much of its time.”
According to Pat and Emily, a young woman who recently saw the videos was actually offended by the language used by the participants. “But you kind of can’t bring your politics of today to the politics of then,” Pat said. “I think that now the whole gender issue is, in some ways, a little bit more uptight, even though there’s so much fluidity. Because if you don’t say things a certain way, people get really mad at you.”
Emily also admitted that generally, views on sexuality and gender were very different back then: “This was like the 1981 version of sexuality– so it’s like gay/straight, boy/girl, submissive/ dominant.” She said that she even had to consult her kids, 29 and 25, before going through with the screening. “We’re wondering how this is gonna go over because it’s different, it’s dirty,” Emily laughed. But despite protests from her kids she told them: “It’s time.”
The videos are very much an expression of the participants’ personal approach to sexuality, what unique things turn them on. “People self-directed, sometimes they came with soundtracks, with costumes,” Emily recalled. “We just had a really big piece of seamless paper, and those were their boundaries.”
The Alone at Last videos were always intended for an installation, though the technology Pat and Emily used back then to construct an interactive piece for their punk rock videos left a lot to be desired. “In early 1981 we went to London and we did a show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and we designed a video juke box,” Pat recalled. “It was my first experience with an interactive installation. It was really crude. It was basically playing back a 3/4” video cassette tape, and any time anyone would push a button on the jukebox for a song, it would have to search and rewind through this video tape, and then it would come up and play it.”
The set up didn’t exactly work, but Pat was still intrigued: “Interactivity, that’s something that I wanted to work with, but it just wasn’t happening enough and so it kind of, you know, floundered because of the technology.”
AIDS further discouraged the duo from working to get this project out there. “The videos, they go from funny to super raunchy and poignant really, because many of the people are deceased now,” Emily explained. “We’ve lost a number of friends […] When we shot these videos in 1981, [it was] right before people really identified AIDS. There were people at the time who we knew that were sick, but they didn’t really know what it was at the time, they used to call it ‘gay cancer’ and stuff like that.”
But decades later, Emily and Pat were encouraged to revisit the videos. “We started hearing from people, ‘This stuff, it blew my mind’ and I thought it had real potential as an art installation,” Emily explained. The artists solicited the help of a programmer to help them design a touch-screen interface for the installation, where visitors can select from a number of choices that will lead to different outcomes, a rather raunchy choose-your-own-adventure game. “So you go through the questions and it’s you alone in the booth with the person who’s trying to seduce you,” Emily explained.
Howl! helped Emily and Pat set up the two booths, which are modeled after the scuzzy peep shows in ye olde Times Square. “So there’s a lot of red, a lot of neon,” Emily continued. “It’s designed for solo-viewing, with a certain amount of privacy. We opted for curtains instead of doors, just because we don’t want people getting locked in there or going in there to do cocaine or something.”
Pat’s dream is to create a third booth for the installation. “It would have a camera inside it, so we can record new seductions and see how people participate in expressing their sexuality and fantasy and seduction in 2015, versus how it was in 1981,” she said. “I think it would be really, super interesting.”
But as is, the exhibition functions as an important window in a very different era– something both Pat and Emily want people to better understand. Pat added that, if there’s one thing people could walk away with is an appreciation for the present, “To live in the moment, because you never know what’s going to happen. There’s not a single person in any of those videos who had any idea what was waiting just around the corner. I mean, I know all young people felt like they are going to live forever, but not like this. You really don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
Opening reception for Alone at Last takes place Friday, Nov. 13th, 6 pm to 8 pm at Howl! Happening, 6 East 1st Street, East Village. The exhibition runs through December 6th. Visit the gallery Wednesday through Sunday, 11 am to 6 pm.