Sheffield Doc Fest Features (Part 1): Keith Haring: Street Art Boy and The Vasulka Effect. Other features can be found at Sheffield Doc Fest Features (Part 2)
Esme Betamax | @betamaxer
Keith Haring: Street Art Boy
Keith Haring: Street Art Boy is a retelling of the artist’s short life as understood by his family, friends, and peers. It’s also told in his own words, amassed in his archive in the form of videos and voice recordings.
The director is Ben Anthony, known for Grenfell (2018) and 7/7: One Day in London (2012). Younger than Haring, and an ocean apart, nonetheless he grew up heavily influenced by Haring’s imagery. As the soundtrack unfolds it turns from Haring’s influences (The Monkees, The B-52s) to Anthony’s influences (Talking Heads, Davy DMX). It’s an eclectic and apposite accompaniment to Keith Haring’s visual style. Becoming an icon of the 1980s, the decade began as a time of freedom and discovery for Haring both artistically and personally.
Editor Paul Van Dyke’s quick cuts underline Haring’s high energy and opportunistic attitude, suggesting time is short. Even before the narrative turns to the AIDS epidemic, it’s clear that he had an impatience about him. But Keith Haring: Street Art Boy also reveals the depth of Haring’s character—a kind and thoughtful person who responded to his environment astutely. In one brief sound clip he sums up his work with a reference to Walter Benjamin: “[It is] art for the age of mechanical reproduction.”
The Vasulka Effect
The Vasulka Effect is a film by Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir, director of Svona Folk (1970-1985) , (a documentary about the rights of LGBTQ people in Iceland). It is a retrospective of the video art pioneers Woody and Steina Vasulka. They were early adopters of video, slotting into the New York art scene of the late 1960s, having relocated after meeting at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.
In New York from the 60s to the 70s, they were adjacent to the art world, always with one foot in, but often seen as ‘techies’ rather than ‘artists’. They crossed video and audio signals, which created new types of art and music. The Vasulkas founded The Kitchen in 1971. Serving as a studio and performance space for multimedia artists, The Kitchen was formed with inclusivity and collaboration at its heart. They wanted to create a space for experimentation in new media.
Woody and Steina explain that their artwork isn’t ever necessarily finished. Final pieces exist, for example Noisefields (1974) But their attitude is that it can all be reused and repurposed. They are always experimenting and inventing, unearthing treasure in the form of surplus military technology and their own enormous archive of footage. The art they create is a direct representation of their relationship, which itself is a type of feedback loop. Steina and Woody exist in a state of perpetual collaboration.
Appearing in Sheffield Doc Fest Rhyme & Rhythm Strand alongside Keith Haring Street Art Boy the curators have deftly juxtaposed two biographies with New York’s art scene as their nucleus. Twenty years their junior, Haring arrived in New York after Woody and Steina had decided to move further afield. His generation were immersed in video culture that the Vasulkas had pioneered, and it played no small part in propelling him to fame. It’s fascinating to watch these two documentaries as a double-bill, and to observe their similarities: How they create with urgency—artists in a constant state of play.
In contrast, we can see the results of fame and fortune. As Haring was thrust into the spotlight, enjoying celebrity, sex, drugs, money, but ultimately illness and untimely death, the Vasulkas continued for decades longer, flying under the radar. Their success is really a matter of perspective. They never stopped creating, which is crucial. Were they shunned by the art world or spared from it? Interesting that 2020 sees filmmakers inspired to make documentaries from both Haring’s and Vasulka’s archival footage. “Humankind is much more interested in archived past art than whatever is happening now” says Steina with a cheeky smile. Likely fully aware that there is only some truth in such a sweeping statement.
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