by Gregory de la Haba
For over thirty years she looked outside the window from her second story loft on Broome street where she's lived since 1970, on New's York's Lower East Side, and filmed it, capturing all the trivial and mundane happenings as it happened, as it passed by, hurriedly or not, in the snow or rain or while the sun set between buildings on the far west side, and while no one was looking or cared if anyone was. But Arleen Schloss cared and never stopped looking. And filming. Looking to capture and captivate her surroundings, her community of fellow artists, while morphing it all into a new art that was her's alone. And this she did brilliantly, two fold: she was one of the first artists to integrate technology (lasers), sound and video into their art. And secondly, she opened her loft, her window, and let the world around her in. Countless artists, musicians, dancers, performers, lovers and soldiers of the avante garde marched in and flooded the place with their light, with their silence and noise, with their underground swagger and Cageian indeterminacy, and they danced pasodobles of experimental activity into the wee hours of the morning.
Wednesdays at A's, as it became known, flourished as a hotbed of artistic synesthesia where Warhol and Beuys exhibited and Sonic Youth played (back when they were still The Coachmen), and Willoughby Sharp, Eric Bogosian, Glenn Braca, Phoebe Legere and Alan Suicide all jockeyed to participate and to duke it out over what it all was or wasn't. It was a place to let the imagination run wild with no boundaries to stop or hold it back. This was when the Bronx was burning, the city bankrupt and AIDS reared its horrific terror; with heroin and graffiti more prevalent on the streets than hipsters and 'Open For Business' signs and when a building on Broome, an entire building, could be had for fifty thousand dollars or one of the many vacant, derelict, lots, scattered all over the Lower East Side, for much, much, less. It was a time when a loft party could happen all night without care, with little money, and with no neighbors or cops to give flake; no silly fines issued for drinking on the street or ridiculous summonses of $5000 for 'impeding traffic' the way cops these days give to bar owners on Rivington street when their patrons smoke cigarettes outside and block the pedestrian flow of traffic on the sidewalk, god forbid. It was a time when such art happenings in the 'hood' were the rare strain of life, of humane existence, that occurred in this part of town and the community of poor, struggling artists, and the Puerto Ricans who called it home, embraced it because they were all truly poor and in it together. It was a time of survival and invention out-of-necessity and Arlene Schloss was at the helm upstairs at A's- welcoming in anyone and everyone who cared. Back when she could still look out her window and wave to her friend Keith Haring who lived on the third floor walkup across the street and have him over for some mint tea with honey. Before his life was cut short.
Arleen Schloss first gained attention as a critically acclaimed performance artist in the early 1970's. She would eventually perform the world over including the Ars Electronica festival in Austria and, in 1978, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with a live video performance called its A at MoMa. The New York Times noted of her performances as "superior to much performance art" and the SoHo Weekly News stated that her voice was "musical the way Patti Smith or Yoko Ono are musical." In 1979 the first band to play at A's was Jean Michel Basquiat's noise rock band Test Pattern, later renamed Gray and included fellow bandmates/artists Michael Holman, Shannon Dawson, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford and Vincent Gallo. It was here, also, in October of the same year, Basquiat unveiled his SAMO© color Xerox work (see picture). In the 1990s A's became A's Wave where website works and other forms of new digital media were shown. Arleen would further establish herself as curator, co-organizing shows at Danceteria and The Storefront of Art and Architecture and in the mid 80's, upstairs in her loft, she curated a then young and unknown kid from China into an exhibit titled The Asia Show, his name, Ai Weiwei.
There is much renewed interest in Arleen's work and her lifelong documentation of it. She is featured in the New Museum's Come Closer: Art Around The Bowery, 1969-1989 that runs till December 30. Uptown, in Harlem, Speaking In Tongues, curated by Ellen Hackl Fagan at Art In Flux (where owner Leanne Stella is making a grand impression on the city's artscape with her three storefront gallery), till January 27. They'll be a special screening of her work Windows of Chance/Change, featuring an interview with legendary composer John Cage, during the New York No Limits film festival at White Box gallery on December 15. And with a documentary on her life coming out in the new year by Stuart Ginsberg, aptly titled Wednesdays at A's, Arleen Schloss is as busy a bee as ever yet she stopped for a moment so we could lunch and chat a little about her storied life, all the cool people that shaped it and vice versa and the intriguing sounds that sporadically burst from her voice box. We walked slowly, arm in arm, on a cold day, over to Dudley's on the corner of Broome and Orchard.
Gregory de la Haba: Arleen, when I first walked into your loft I thought you had a parrot who knew the alphabet. Then I realized it was you -making all these beautiful sounds in a repetitive, cyclical, pattern.
Arleen Schloss: I was?
de la Haba: Yes. You didn't realize?
Schloss: No. Did it sound good?
de la Haba: It sounded amazing. I wish you didn't stop.
Schloss: Maybe I'll start up again. You never know.
De la Haba: Sound poetry and the alphabet are a big part of your repertoire. Can you tell me how this began?
Schloss: Back in the early '70s I was working in the neighborhood with children who didn't speak English. I was experimenting, trying to find creative ways to teach language. "A's" formed out of my teaching: I started giving performance art workshops that focused on ways to help develop works using voice and sound.
de la Haba: But didn't you start out as a painter? Why did you switch to performance based art?
Schloss: Necessity, Gregory. I didn't have the wall space back then to paint what I wanted so one day I just put the canvas down on the floor, a la Pollock, and began to paint with my feet. It was 1970 when I first created Arleen's Dance, a painting that infused performance and movement across the canvas. I wanted to develop this idea further so I started hosting these performance workshops.
de la Haba: And how did that go?
Schloss: The workshops were very popular. In fact, it grew quite large. I decided shortly thereafter to open my space completely for the creation of artwork in general for anybody who wanted to come on in and experiment.
de la Haba: So who floated in?
Schloss: There were so many. Hundreds, over time. But there was Phoebe Legere, Glenn Branca, Berhard Heidsieck, Alan Vega (Suicide), Y Pants, Willoughby Sharp, who became a good friend and Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore whom I loved.
de la Haba: The guys from Sonic Youth?
Schloss: Yes, they played here, back when they were still The Coachmen. Along with Basquiat's band, Gray. They were the first to play in my space.
de la Haba: Tell me what you remember about Basquiat?
Schloss: He came in to play in his pajamas.
de la Haba: Was Julian Schnabel with him? And if so was he wearing pajamas, too?
Schloss: Oh, I don't know.
de la Haba: I see.
Schloss: The whole point about A's was loving what you do. And if you're serious, and you love what you do, then you do it. And a bunch of us artists were doing it real good.
de la Haba: I hope your real hungry. What would you like to eat, Arleen?
Schloss: Are you paying?
de la Haba: Yes, I am. (Her eyes fierce and penetrating, and filled with life; but on this they cut through me with gratitude and joy.)
Schloss: Oh, that's so nice of you. What's good here?
de la Haba: The hamburgers.
Schloss: I only eat 'grass fed' beef.
de la Haba: (I lucked out, surprisingly the menu said 'grass-fed' beef) Great. That's what they have! I'm gonna have a cheeseburger.
Schloss: Ok. I'll have that, too, but with french fries. And I think I'll have the chicken salad to start, that sounds nice.
de la Haba: Whatever you want, Arleen. Would you like a drink?
Schloss: No, I'm trying to stay away from that stuff now. A tea would be fine.
de la Haba: Shall we have mint tea?
Schloss: Yes, that sounds right-on. With honey, the way Haring liked it.
de la Haba: Were you friends?
Schloss: Yes, he lived diagonally across the street from me, up on the third floor. I would wave when he was out on the balcony.
(The food arrived, all at once.)
Schloss: My, this looks good. Would you like some salad?
de la Haba: Might as well, I'm having tea.
Schloss: You know I once had Andy Warhol sign my favorite pair of yellow boots at an art opening back in the early 80s. I was so excited.
de la Haba: Do you still have them?
Schloss: No, I lent them to a girl friend who needed boots for something and she borrowed them and never returned them. I think she moved to Boston.
(de la Haba: On this I thought for a moment on all the things in life that have been taken, borrowed, never returned, or paid back; lost or overlooked and of artists who've spent lifetimes giving themselves over to their art and their art never giving a return greater than only the joy it gave in doing it; never recouping all the losses from exhibition expenses or materials or studio rents and never, ever, allowing for the withdrawal on sweat equity. It's 'loving what you do' she tells me. And tells me with the most amazing smile, still. The kind of smile that triggers the eyes to light up and swell with wonderment. Even though, she said, she's never had health insurance. Even though she sits across from me with her leg up on the bench because the circulation doesn't flow as it once did when she danced across canvases on floors. And I wonder how much money Arleen could possibly have made over the years as a pioneering video artist, as a sound poet, as a reciter of the alphabet for children of the Lower East Side, as a women who came of age in the 60's and as artist the last 50 years who never hit it big as many of her male counterparts did. She has no children, no husband, no pension. Only a loft filled to the brim, shelf upon shelf, with a lifetime of hard, honest, work: of film and videos and performances captured so many years ago and that captivated so many more along the way. Her pulse always on it. Arleen Schloss is a living national treasure, like a nation's poet laureate, with a treasure trove of original, obscure, experimental--sacred even--films of our art story's past- to pass on, to pass along. Who will be the guardian of this work upon her passing? What collector will step up to the plate and offer her a measly million for the entire lot of it, giving it to MOMA or the Smithsonian, so she could live the rest of her glorious life with the dignity she so deserves, is worthy of and to know how grateful we are for showing us the light, with lasers and all, and for keeping the window open, all these years, upstairs at A's.)
Schloss: Gregory, would you mind if I take the hamburger to go?
de la Haba: Not at all, Arleen. Are you ready?