Interview with Willie Boy Walker (by mail) by Anna Sophia Schultz, summer 2017
What role does video play in your artistic work?
Video was like making a film except it was cheaper and faster. But the quality was limited and showing the finished piece was also limited to the size of the audience and the size of your TV set.
When exactly did you become interested in video and when did you start working with it?
In 1970–71 video was very limited compared to film shows, and video shows at film festivals did not exist. So people created black-and-white ½ inch videotape, and with no editing available yet you would shoot in camera takes, shoot non-stop, one take as your teleplay unfolds, going back to more of doing a play. Or live TV as they did here in the early days of television in the 1950s. And when you made your one-take teleplay, you would take it around to all those who are interested in video, plug in your videotape recorder in playback mode, and hook it up to the TV set or carry around the biggest TV/monitor you can get, and then the show goes on. Shows in living rooms, classrooms, and later on places like “Video Free America,” “Optic Nerve,” “Carson Place.” Different film/video college programs also had Show & Tell.
My first videotape I ever made was Life with Video, a 14-minute b/w ½’ inch, one-take video play. It was very well-received in a limited show- and marketplace. So what I did was run my original ½ inch b/w 14-minute videotape through a “Kinescope” machine to turn it into a 16mm b/w film with sound and pictures now ready to show at film festivals and movie theaters. A man named Mike Getty, a 16mm film distribution guy, saw Life with Video at one of the many film festivals when he was scouting out new films to show in his film tours. This underground cinema twelve-film series, shown at 250 college town movie theaters, paid one dollar per minute for every time it showed. A print of Life with Video cost $150.
Once you had your video transferred to 16mm b/w film, at this time with this piece the exposure element was greater: more people could see it. The next thing that happened with Life with Video was an invitation to join a film package of shorts named “The Best of the New York Erotic Film Festivals.” The only thing is that “Saliva Inc.”—later to become “New Line Cinema”—and Robert Shaye wanted it in color and on 35mm film. What? Okay, so I find the money, $2,000 to rent a 2 inch color two-camera mixing studio to shoot the whole thing over. Two years later, with the same actors, I did a one-take video again with a live cello player for music and titles rolled in live: all again one-take. It took three hours to make this 2 inch color tape and pay all the invoices.
Ok, so now I have Life with Video on 2 inch color tape as a one-take video with sound/picture, action, music, credits, etc. The next expense was getting it onto 35mm color film, one 35mm print and three 16mm color prints for personal use. The 35mm print was made for Robert Shaye and “New Line Cinema,” for distribution by the “NY Erotic Festival.” I had already researched and found an LA-based company that had a brand new process that would transfer 2 inch color videotape and turn it into 35mm color film. That company was “Image Transfer” and it charged $187 per minute for the transfer. Once it was done, off it went to even larger theaters.
What equipment did you use back then?
Portapak, Sony ½ inch b/w reel-to-reel, multiple TV monitors, four large TV sets. In 1970, the possibilities were very limited: ½ inch b/w tape cost $14 per each half-hour of tape. Then there was access to TV cable stations. It’s a great tool for capturing ideas with instant playback.
I treated shooting videotapes as I would shooting a film or even like putting on a live play—not unlike early 1950s TV shows. In the early 1970s, editing video was non-existent. So you would either shoot one take, one act in real time, or you would edit in-camera—stop and start very well-played-out scenes. This was a very scary way of doing things because you might stretch the tape. But you could remember with videotape, you could see the playback right after you shot it. And if you did not like the performance you could shoot right over what you just shot and keep doing it until you got the best, and now only, piece of videotape. Then you were ready to record the next scene. That’s how you did it in 1970: only one camera, one videotape. By 1972, there was Sony’s 3650 edit-play-record deck. Now you could edit electronically. Some people tried splicing the videotape like ¼ inch audio magnetic tapes. That kind of worked, but it wasn’t good for your video heads, which would wear down, and to replace them cost a lot of money.
I’m not saying there wasn’t more expensive video equipment out there. I’m just saying that the everyday poor artist type had no access to the gear. B/w 1 inch reel-to-reel editing machines were available, so if people with such equipment liked your work, they might let you use their machines. Or they could rent them to you with a standby editor for an extra charge. You take your ½ inch b/w master/original videotape and playback deck. Just in case they didn’t have ½ inch, you put it through a prox amp. Then you boost the signal and start editing onto 1 inch b/w reel-to-reel. This is also a good time to roll in graphics like titles and credits. If you have a camera mixer with limited effects, you could do fade in/ fade out and roll in titles and dissolves, or maybe you could use inserts. Basically it’s an assemblage of scene by scene, using the best takes.
Which other artists, or which exhibitions and events, had an influence on your own work?
When you surround yourself with fellow video artists, comics, musicians, and generally performance, actor-type people, and you and your friends have the equipment and all the gear you need to produce videos of interest, then things get done. With money and/or talent, the idea will go forward. This is how you learn to get better, more professional, meaning the tape will show without any technical failures. Again, good hardware right from the start makes for good tape. You can have the best performance right in front of you while taping away, only to find that after the once-in-a-lifetime, best-ever take, when you play it back … Oh! Yes! It’s good. But wait a minute! What’s that buzzing sound?! It’s all the way through the take … Oh no! Must have been a non-grounded mic cord crossing an AC power cord creating a 60-cycle hum. Can we fix it? Yeah, maybe. But while equalizing it and putting it through a prox-amp filter, we will lose a lot. Okay, let’s shoot another take and find that cord and fix it! Happens all the time … You must have the best people and the best equipment—clean sound, great image, great lighting—even before the performance begins. Everybody will learn to better themselves, to make good work.
Your first solo exhibition took place in 1975, at the San Francisco Museum of Art. What role did video play in the exhibition?
My tapes were shown just like a movie only for a smaller audience.
What possibilities were available for presenting work in the 1970s, and alternatively what kind of restrictions were there?
Most video-viewing spaces tried to recreate the comfort one would enjoy while watching TV at home. What I like especially if the running time of the video show is longer than, let’s say, watching a TV show in your living room, is the better idea of “home theater”: good seats, everyone can see the screen or screens (more than one large TV set), the highest-quality TV/monitors available, a good picture, a good, amped-up sound system, good speakers, low lighting, comfort. Other video artists may have different ideas about viewing spaces, may have different kinds of effects in mind as part of the total experience, for example with installations.
In the 1970s, there was a wonderful group of people interested in making videos, so just by calling these people from the group to come see what each had created (this happened at home in studio lofts), it created a video show. Because getting and sharing equipment, making a Show & Tell, is a thing to do. These are video artists, composers, actors, photographers, filmmakers—performance people, people waiting to capture and save and share in order to “make things.” Videos about what’s not being shown on regular TV, broadcasts, etc. We had TV slumber parties where everyone brought a videotape to show and we watched them all night and had a sleep-over too. We even had outdoor presentations in a park or campground or backyard, with food and drink, friends. Show & Tell TV—this was something different.
Your work was featured in the television program from documenta 7 in 1977 (an exhibition featured on German public television: WDR, NDR, hr, SFB, Radio Bremen III). How was the program received?
You will have to ask a German person, I was in the USA.
Some of your works were made directly in the street. You approach passersby and challenge them in front of the camera “to experience an adventure.” What happened next?
Well let’s say you walk up to persons and inform them that Santa Claus died today….
Also, in front of a living camera and in view of a group of tourists, you pulled a body bag out a car and threw it over the cliff at Vista Point, across from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. What role does the recording of the scene play here?
We had rented a vintage Mercedes Benz mini stretch limo with a chauffeur in uniform and another uniformed guy who played the tour guide. And we stopped at the Golden Gate Vista Point parking lot and took a body bag with a real person in it out of the trunk and rolled the body over the cliff–like slope and bushes, just to get rid of the body and be off on our way to Sausalito and Tiberon, two more touristy locations. It’s amazing to me that even back in the late 70s and early 80s you could do just about anything as long as you had a camera crew recording it. People see this event and of course think “Oh! Look! They’re making a movie.” But the camera crew give signals to stay back and be silent just with hand and arm and face gestures. This is real production quality: The people are just there and behave just like they are witnessing a REAL MOVIE being made. They are not in the picture, so they do not have to sign a release form. (If they are in the picture we make them sign and hand them money.) They just want to know when it’s going to be on TV. We’ll invite them to the show.
Later we would shoot for real TV shows. That was just one scene recorded in a series of short moments dealing with controlled chance images. Some people in the limo knew something was going on: “Oh great, our parents paid for the limo, the tour guide, and the fun place to go in the Bay Area.” Two young girls and their nanny were picked up on a shopping street and driven around for the best pizza, views, famous places, etc. They were very rich Texan oil longhorns, third-generation wealth. Yes, we told the children just that. But really we are taping them in order to show proof that we have kidnapped them and want the money!
We had the children say hello to their parents on 35mm still camera; meanwhile the ¾ inch color tape records away, and also an audio tape recorder. We drive to another stop and pick up a pizza pie and eat it in the limo while claiming we must get to the next location and make a phone call. This stop was in Sausalito, at a boat marina, and we use the restrooms, while smoking and calling the Texan parents. The kids make a “get-away,” saying to each other that they didn’t feel good about this. We lost them! The nanny beat me to the tour guide with her very huge pocketbook. We yell: “You let them get away! You fool! Now what?!”
Your collection Weekend Tapes (1972) is a parody of American television culture. How did you see video’s role as a medium to criticize television? What strategies did you employ?
The TV set in one’s living room or bedroom was a window.
What role does humor play in your videos?
Most of all it’s about what info comes out.
In 1976, your work was shown as part of the “New American Filmmakers Series” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and again in 1982 in the series “Video Art/Broadcast TV: ‘Reading Video’” at MoMA. Can you tell us something about the context and focus of these presentations?
Again, I was on the road at that time. I believe they just showed my tapes.
Is it correct that your works Life with Video (1971), The Lamb of God (1973) and Prurient Interest were created at the Experimental Television Workshop under the direction of Fred Barzyk?
No. I don’t know this person at all. Life with Video (1971) was created during my graduate work at the California College of the Arts in their video/film department. Years later, I was teaching a video class and shot Prurient Interest with friends and students in the video studio at CCAC. The Lamb of God (1973) was shot on location in San Rafael, California. No experimental television workshop or Fred Barzyk had anything to do with these video works.
Your work Prurient Interest, which was shown at MoMA in 1982, is in the Ludwig Forum collection. Could you tell us something about the background of this work?
Prurient Interest was written by ex-producer Larry Arnstein, and the actors were all from the Chicken Little Comedy Hour, a weekly news comedy show on channel 20, KMEO TV UHF in San Francisco. I produced and directed it.
You were also active as a consultant for video productions. Can you tell us more about what you did?
I taught video production, sound, lights, the Do’s and Don’ts with equipment, storytelling, working in the field. I also did video workshops and taught interview techniques and working with nothing. Later I also taught editing and Show & Tell.
What kind of specifications would you set out for a presentation of your works today?
If we’re talking about a retrospective of a body of work, I’d need to upgrade selected pieces of video, to assemble a new and interesting flow of such works and show these different works just as I have in the past, playing the part of the first and oldest video disc jockey and introducing each piece of tape and showing them. Now, in 2017, one would have a bigger screen, with better sound and more seats, just like a good movie theater, that’s all.
Some video pieces have never been seen before, others have. “The Best of Willie Boy Walker’s Tapes” would cost some money, just to upgrade such old tapes and then to edit them using computer editing systems, etc. It’s the same old process, using the next best gear available. I know just the place to do it.
But if we’re talking about all-new material, that is possible with a proper budget. I have many wonderful ideas to shoot. Just a low-budget feature film costing $300,000 would be good. Or, because you get what you pay for, $50,000 would also work wonders.
What are you currently working on?
I always liked watching TV in the 1950s and right up to present day. If you compare sixty to seventy years of watching film and television as setting the goal, all had their different challenges: things like access to equipment, keeping up with all the changes in the technology and the cost of innovation, which happens about every three years. The quality is the key when you compare it to film and the cost of any type of production. Now, in 2017, you can make a movie on your cell phone, your pocket computer full of high-quality digital equipment with instant live feed to one person or 500,000 people—it’s still a catch-up game.
What am I doing now for my art fix? Keeping it simple with paper and pencil, writing all my ideas down and telling the story with sounds and pictures. When you know the right people, friends who will share your dreams and make it happen with money and equipment and people … that’s all you need.