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Episode 2: Doris Chase
Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archive
HP: Hannah Palin
DC: Doris Chase
RC: Randy Chase
SS: Sondra Segal
TD: Thulani Davis
[Begin transcript 00:00:04]
HP: Scope and Content for Doris Chase films, audio and video recordings, 1972 to 1991. Films, audio and video recordings documenting Chase’s work exploring the interaction between dance performance and sculpture. Includes master recordings of performances from the “By Herself”, “Concepts”, and “Dance” series.
HP: Also includes dance, animation, video, sculpture, documentaries, promotional materials and research from Professor Patricia Failing for her book about Chase, Doris Chase, Artist In Motion: From Painting and Sculpture to Video Art.
HP: Welcome to Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archives. My name is Hannah Palin and I’m the Moving Image Curator at the University of Washington Libraries. I’m about to take you on a deep dive into a few of our collections featuring women filmmakers. Now you probably haven’t heard of these artists. They’ve been overlooked or they’ve faded from our collective memory. But the thing is their work is sophisticated and passionate and just really surprising. So after you finish listening to this podcast, you’re going to need to go watch their films. Trust me. Let’s get started.
HP: In 1972, Doris Chase left her husband. The Seattle-based painter and sculptor not only left her husband, she moved across the country to New York to immerse herself in the world of video art, a completely new form of expression. Then she moved into the Chelsea Hotel, possibly the coolest place to live in New York City at the time.
HP: Doris Chase was steadfastly true to herself and to her vision. She was so cool. Lots of women left their husbands in the early 1970s. It was part of the zeitgeist. Women broke free of their traditional roles with a vengeance, exploring, experimenting, taking on the world after decades of being held back and held down.
HP: Doris was on the forefront of a movement. But she was always at the forefront of something. She was always trying something new and was eager for change when the time came. But it wasn’t always that way. Doris was a Northwesterner through and through, raised in a traditional family in Seattle.
HP: Doris was saddled with some daunting challenges early on. She suffered from postpartum depression, something unacknowledged at the time, and then our husband contracted polio while she was five months pregnant with their second child. The disease left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
HP: If I put myself in her shoes, I’m stunned by how difficult this would be: two children under the age of five and my husband with a debilitating disease that would leave him unable to care for himself in any substantial way for years. I honestly do not know how she did it.
DC: When I was married, I guess like old magazine stories, I thought we would live happily ever after and-and society and family had led me to believe that you have children and then you have a lovely home. And then maybe you have a house in the country and then you have two cars or three cars. And then you have the second child to fill the needed number in the family.
HP: This is Doris Chase from her film Portrait of an Artist.
DC: And I thought I would have all those as well as my painting, sort of a gracious living. I might go back and study some more at the university. I’d like to broaden myself. I hadn’t any idea about changing the world. I thought the world was just fine. I was terribly naive. So then it was a couple of years and we started building a house and then we were expecting the second child. Then that’s when my husband got very ill with polio so that in the midst of all the trauma, I think the only reason that I-I did survive as a person, as an individual is because of my art. At that time it was painting.
HP: I had a conversation with Randy Chase, Doris’ son, a few months ago. This is what he had to say about his childhood.
RC: I knew things were different. I knew my mother was different than most mothers. I knew my father was different than most fathers all for their reasons, you know, and, so yeah, it was not a typical. Every family has its challenges and we had ours.
HP: Doris took class with Jacob Elshin, Nickolas Damascus, and Mark Tobey as well as Kenneth Callahan at the Edison Vocational School. She later taught there herself beginning in 1951. At first it seemed like the kind of ladies-who-lunch activity that all good society matrons did at the time. And that’s who she ended up teaching too.
But later it developed into a coping mechanism, as a form of expression, and finally, as a way of life. Doris found her calling under the tutelage of some of the Pacific Northwest’s most important painters, and then gained a reputation as a painter and later as a sculptor herself.
RC: I mean in a quick synopsis it’s an oil to watercolor essentially to painted wood to sculpture of the wood which evolved into, you know, steel, acrylic. And you know, she just kept on stepping. I don’t know if she, you know, got bored or or what but she always would move on and just, you know, through media.
HP: Ever curious and restless, her sculptural work found new forms.
HP: She was approached by Mary Staton to collaborate with her on a dance piece for a children’s opera called Mantra choreographed so dancers would interact with large sculptures built by Doris.
DC: I wanted to capture this experience in some permanent way. I also wanted to expand and elaborate the visual effects. We convinced KING screen to make a film of the production with the stipulation that I could use some of the outtakes for another project. I knew that film was an ideal medium for capturing movement.
DC: It was also a medium that was very new for me. I put together a team, found Frank Brown and Robert Olvey to help me work out the technical effects. Circles II was made entirely from outtakes of the KING screen Mantra production. We chose those outtakes and visually transformed them, created a whole new film.
DC: Most images in Circles II are composed like a traditional easel painting. They are centered, symmetrical. The organic forms play against the edges of the frame. The palette is somewhat like a watercolor, soft pastels and various shades of yellow, blue, purple. It’s created with a very exacting series of color separations.
DC: I approached this film as a kind of painting in colored light also as a means of capturing the kinetic energies of sculpture and dance. The content, in other words, was as important as the form. I felt I was moving with the spirit of the time leaving behind canvas and paint, in favor of multimedia technology that could reach larger audiences.
HP: Doris continued her work with film and began to explore a movement called Experiments in Art and Technology. EAT was started in New York City, but branched out across the country. It was an effort to embrace the strengths of a variety of different disciplines to create new forms of art.
DC: After these first films, I wanted to experiment more in film and video. I had the chance to work with a computer that the Boeing Company had offered and I wanted to create a computer generated sculpture.
HP: This is from Patricia Failing’s book, Doris Chase, Artist In Motion: From Painting and Sculpture to Video Art published by the University of Washington Press.
HP: Circles I, Chase’s first film, was a classic EAT collaboration. Working with William Fetter, chief computer programmer at the Boeing Company, Chase was given after-hours access to a room-size computer and the assistance of programmer Robert Tinguely. Chase wanted to create an abstract film using concentric circles. The circles would, in effect, dance with one another. To communicate the images she had in mind, she made sequential drawings for Tinguely, who attempted to emulate them with his computer graphics systems.
HP: Together, artist and programmer worked out timing, direction of movement, and appearance and disappearance of the forms. When completed in 1970, the seven-minute film was scored by electronic music composer Morton Subotnick, who showed Circles I during some of his performances in the early 1970s.
HP: All of this work seems really simple to us today, but at the time it was groundbreaking, setting the stage for the marvels of computer technology we know today. It makes sense that Doris would travel to New York to explore the new genre of video art. She’d already started the transition from painting and sculpture to a more technologically oriented form of her craft.
HP: In order to tell this part of her story, though, you need a little bit of context. Video tape is older than you think. The story goes that when Bing Crosby was working on live radio he would incorporate audio tape into his radio broadcasts so that he could pre-record his program and then take time off to go pursue more important ventures like golf.
HP: In 1951, his company, Bing Crosby Enterprises, demonstrated the first videotape recording. Although it wasn’t broadcast quality, it did inspire others to perfect the technology, bringing it first to the television studio, then later into the hands of the public. In 1967, Sony introduced the Portapak, a battery operated self contained videotape analog recording system that could be carried and operated by one person.
HP: This was a vast improvement over earlier cameras that were large and heavy, mounted on a pedestal, requiring a crew to operate. The Portapak made it possible to shoot and record video easily outside of the studio without requiring a crew. Around this time, artists became interested in technology, exploring ways to use video as a form of expression rather than simply as a way to communicate information.
HP: Video art is often said to have begun when Nam June Paik, a Korean American artist who studied in Germany, used his new Sony Portapak to shoot footage of Pope Paul VI’s procession
through New York City in the autumn of 1965. Later that day, across town in a Greenwich Village Cafe, Paik played the tapes and video art was born.
HP: In an article on History Link, which is an Internet encyclopedia of Pacific Northwest regional history, Deloris Tarzan Ament wrote, “She moved to New York in 1972, when macho male alcoholics and a gay in-group dominated the art scene. Conformity was out; drugs were in. Someone observed that Chase, with her pageboy haircut and her soft-spoken Seattle manners, resembled a kindergarten teacher.”
HP: This is also from History Link: “In New York, she was unable to find an affordable space for a sculpture studio, but found doors open to her for film and video work. She found that Circles II was widely known and well regarded. It was written about in The New York Times and the Village Voice. They called her work “ravishing,” and “technically dazzling,” and “multidimensional poetry.” She was the cutting edge — soft-spoken manners and all.”
HP: After coming to New York, Chase was introduced to Nam June Paik and was encouraged by the artist to explore video as a medium.
DC: In 1972, I arrived in New York City. Pop Art was in bloom. Rock was rolling. The city was going bankrupt, and I moved in to the Hotel Chelsea. Built in New York’s Theater District in 1883, the Chelsea was the tallest building, one of the first condominiums, and an artist’s colony from the beginning. Part Victorian, part Edwardian, it’s an architectural mongrel that stood through wars, depressions, and fires as a center of unrest and creativity.
RC: Mom was up on 7 and her next door neighbor was Viva. You know, Warhol’s, muse. The rooms were beautifully built. You know, uh, initially you know what she-she had a real crude 16 millimeter editing table all saying and then she got into a video. You know, when video became, equipment, more, I’ll say, reasonable.
RC: Sony made a nice editing system and for their old cassette systems. She was able to, I’ll say, rough edit at her place. She would do rehearsals in her apartment. Her apartment was extremely small, big enough for a kind of a little dining table, a kitchen that was three feet wide and five feet long.
RC: It was a very small space, but she-she had her view going south. That’s why she liked the room and you know she had a couple of monitors. You know, like I said she could, she could rough edit, get it close, and then take it up to a lab or wherever she had to go and they’d cut it right.
RC: Production space or time, she really had to battle for it. It wasn’t commonly given and but she is a very persistent woman and I know what it was, I think it was WNYC, she traded rights for their being able to broadcast her stuff for studio time.
DC: In the early 1970s, I began working on my video sculpture series, which I continued to create for about 10 years. I was dealing with a new definition of kinetic sculpture. Each of these tapes begins with a shot of one of my sculptures or a graphic. These are small modulars. This tape is processed with a Rutt/Etra synthesizer.
DC: I could manipulate the shape of the image, its position on the screen, it’s pattern of movement. I worked with multiple cameras, changing lights, sequencers, a variable speed turntable. Here again, I worked in a team situation with someone who not only knew the equipment, but could push the capabilities of the technology.
DC: In 1974, Stan Vanderbeek and I taught a workshop in experimental video at Brooklyn College. Immediately thereafter, I began work with the Brooklyn College Dance and Television Department on a project specifically designed to refine and expand the idea of dance for television.
DC: Certainly the fact that I lived and worked in New York where I could see so many good dancers was important to my work in video dance. And I was also very interested in theater, especially off Broadway productions and non traditional kinds of performance. In 1980, I talked with Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines about applying my experience to a new kind of theatrical performance, designed especially for the video screen.
DC: Breuer offered a script and Ruth Maleczech agreed to perform in my first video theater production. It was called Lies. The National Endowment for the Arts gave us a grant and we flew into it. Breuer’s script for Lies points to the costs you might say of ordinary kinds of social hypocrisy that blur the line between reality and falsehood.
DC: Once again, I was trying to involve viewers more intensely with the performer by emphasizing the intimacy of video. I used an approach to space that’s different from most stage performances you see on television. It’s more like the space of a portrait painting than more open forms of conventional theatrical space.
DC: Up to this time I had little regard for feminist issues. I had not faced the reality that women were not treated as equals to men. I’d always felt my personal rejections were directly related to my work, to my personality. Not to the fact that I was a woman. It was in working with and listening to people like Sondra Segal, Roberta Sklar, Linda Mussman, Claudia Bruce, Jessica Hagedorn that triggered me.
DC: I started a series of video theater collaborations. And I used video effects to highlight the different kinds of female expression. In Electra we considered the range of voices women adapt in patriarchal cultures, difficulties women have in-in communicating their real feelings and concerns.
SS: She’s slapping. She’s slapping her thigh. She’s slapping her knee. She’s slapping and smacking and snorting and quacking. She’s talking like she knows what she thinks. She’s talking like she knows what she’s talking about.
DC: Some of the video theater productions were written and performed by women of color. These tapes explore feminine identity from a wider cultural perspective than the white middle class vantage point of American broadcast television. One of my collaborators in the “Concepts” series was writer, performer Thulani Davis.
TD: The only person I ever met from southeast DC was a genius who stabbed her boyfriend for sneaking up on her in the kitchen. She was tone deaf and had no ear for French. She once burned her partner in [inaudible] whist for making a mistake, but she would wait on a corner at night for a guy with a suit and briefcase who didn’t want to be seen with her in the day. He wanted to buy me a Bentley because he didn’t want to be Black. I wanted her to get him in the kitchen, prove she wasn’t so deaf she couldn’t hear the dirt flying.
DC: In my latest video theater series called “By Herself”, I focus on viewpoints and experiences of older women. See I wanted to create a distinct alternative to the car crashing shoot ‘em up diet people tend to get from network television. I wrote the scripts for Table for One and the early “By Herself” productions and as they developed the series I began to work with dialogue, two performers. With Joan Plowright, I worked with a full production crew at Channel 4 in London.
DC: This experience made me look back to the technical team work I first became involved with in Experiments in Art and Technology. It was an absolute joy to work with highly professional actors like Luise Rainer and Ann Jackson, Geraldine Page, Joan Plowright. Like many artists who became involved with video in the 70s, the 80s was a time when I found that a lot of my early assumptions about video art weren’t sound, especially ideas about distribution of video art to large audiences.
DC: Now, in the 1990s, video art is at a crossroads. The tremendous promise in communicating artistic vision to people at home, outside the museums and art gallery, will continue to attract artists forever. Ironically, video is still an art medium of the future.
HP: She took these works with her on her return to Seattle in the 2000s and developed a curriculum and program for elders to begin a discussion about aging, another area of unflinching examination. In 2003 I was working on a grant funded project in Special Collections and I was really new to the profession. And I knew just enough about archives and film preservation to be dangerous.
HP: And then Doris came in with her son Randy to look at videotapes in the collection because they were putting together a compilation of her work to distribute on DVD. They just wanted to see what we had at the U and what shape the tapes were in. So I dragged out an old TV stand, the kind that you would have found in a 1980s classroom and it had this gigantic monitor and a huge three quarter inch pneumatic deck and I was really nervous but trying hard not to show it.
HP: I didn’t know much about Doris’ work and I was new to the whole procedure. But the one thing I did know was videotape and I knew that these tapes were fragile. I held my breath every time I had to put a tape in the player. Doris and Randy spent two days in my work area in the basement of the Allen Library arguing back and forth about the work, the tape, what he remembered, what she remembered.
HP: I facilitated and listened and marveled at their testy but incredibly loving relationship. I was astonished by what I was seeing on the screen. It was amazing. We did run across a few tapes that were not in good shape. They squealed and stopped and had snow all over the screen. We opted to put those aside, and Randy took some tapes for his compilation.
HP: I never had a chance to spend time with Doris again before she passed away. She lived in Horizon House until her death in 2008. Her work waited on the shelf for decades, waiting for funding and waiting for me to get better at my job. In 2017, the Henry mounted a retrospective. Randy was instrumental in getting the best version of her work that he could. It was beautifully done and I was thrilled that I had the chance to see her work projected in a huge room. We need more Doris Chase in the world. That’s all there is to it.
HP: Doris’ work is held by the Museum of Modern Art, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, the Henry Art Gallery, and the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.
HP: Today’s episode was brought to you by a grant from the Friends of the University of Washington Libraries. Thanks to Ketsia for our theme music “Hope in Endings” and to Bluemount Score for our scope and content music “Captain Cover Clam.” A very special thanks to Sarah Meidl, without whom this episode simply would not exist. Thank you for listening and stay tuned for upcoming episodes of Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archive. Thank you so much. Have fun out there.