From the late 1970s through to 1982 Irish film artist Vivienne Dick was a key creative force in New York’s “no wave” scene.
Through Super8 films like She Had Her Gun All Ready and Beauty Becomes the Beast, Dick captured the take-no-prisoners attitude of the East Village’s art scene. These were raw, immediate and uncompromising shorts full of underground energy.
For her new documentary, New York Our Time, Dick returns to the Lower East Side to walk the streets and talk to the people who made the “no wave” movement.
The tour begins with Dick standing outside her old apartment building. Right away, we see that the East Village is not the place it was when Dick left America for England in the early 1980s. What was once a rundown apartment building full of musicians and other starving artists is now an upmarket wine bar.
We hear that in the late 1970s when New York was going bankrupt apartments were sold off for the equivalent of a few months of rent. Most of the film’s interviewees lived in or around this particular apartment building. Some of them owned apartments they had bought for $250.
Dick’s own Super8 films from inside the apartments give us a view as to why they were going so cheap. You got what you paid for: busted-up floors, leaking ceilings, real fixer-uppers.
During an interview, a frequent collaborator, Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, laughs about having to board up her apartment windows because of near-nightly burglaries. Admitting that following more break-ins, she gave up on the DIY.
Dick describes her one-room apartment in similar terms, though not without fondness. Everyone remembers her bathtub, which, when covered over with a metal sheet, served as the kitchen table.
Grainy footage from Dick’s personal archive shows other apartments in various states of chaos, but as we are told by the film’s key subjects, out of this chaos emerged something important and vital. For a brief period, this little section of the East Village found itself at the centre of noise music and experimental film.
For Dick and her friends New York was a place of endless possibilities. Lunch tells Dick that she and many others like her were seeking escape when they arrived in the city. A new start and a chance to be who they wanted to be.
The musician and writer Felice Rosser speaks about the encouragement and support she found in the East Village, where she was convinced to pick up a bass guitar for the first time, beginning a decades-long and influential career.
Outside of the wine bar, Dick turns to the camera and gestures to the sky. “In America you could climb up to the roof, you couldn’t do that in Ireland,” she says with a smile.
Many more of Dick’s former collaborators and friends make appearances, including photographer and activist Nan Goldin. Goldin talks frankly about her struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, and is one of the few subjects in the film who speaks to the hard living of the scene.
Goldin’s life experience led her to founding PAIN, an organisation that campaigns to raise awareness of America’s opioid crisis. Goldin, along with Lunch, seems to have changed the least. We see her guzzling down sparkling water with the same youthful swagger seen in the film’s archival footage.
Later, we see a different view of ageing bohemians when Dick attends a house party in Brooklyn. Bean dip, ice cream in cups, talk of holidays and television programmes. The usual, subdued, good-mannered stuff. It’s amusing when set against the footage of wild parties and gigs seen earlier in the picture.
It also shows a general sanding down that comes with growing older. For some of the film’s subjects, growing older meant growing milder.
Archival and new interstitial footage bookends most of the film’s interviews. In these scenes, we see a lot of rooftop footage, mainly featuring Lunch and others acting up for the young Vivienne Dick’s film camera.
Those Super8 rooftop scenes are contrasted with contemporary skyline footage by cinematographer Declan Quinn, uniformly shot with an unreal orange hue. In these sequences it’s hard to tell if what we’re seeing is the sun setting on New York, or rising for a new day.
What is clear is that Manhattan is a very different place 30 years removed from “no wave”.
“They’re building in front of the Empire State Building for Christ’s sake,” an interviewee motions out a window in disgust. “Capitalism has totally gone wild here.”
There is a feeling that the general discomfort of those dilapidated apartments in the Village was preferable to what people – young and old – have today.
In the film’s sun-drenched interstitial shots the pulsing music and errant camerawork recall Dick’s older Super8 footage, but the scuzz has been washed away by gentrification. At times, the orange tones of the colour palette make the glass buildings look like giant gold bars emerging from the ground.
Later, Cynthia Sley and Pat Place of Bush Tetras sit at a kitchen table and talk about the state of renting in the city. Sley’s son, we’re told, rents “a closet” with his girlfriend. They agree that for young people in New York today owning a home is practically an impossibility.
The film’s present-day concerns, and the concerns of its interviewees, are the same as those of any ordinary person living in a metropolitan city today, but intensified because at one time this city was theirs.
We see Sley’s son standing on the roof with his girlfriend facing away from the camera. Skyscrapers obscure the sky, the glass on the buildings reflects other buildings, a closed loop of commerce. Wealth reflects wealth.
For Dick and her contemporaries “no wave” provided the courage to do anything, for the next generation anything is as unreachable as the burning golden sky above Manhattan.
[CORRECTION: This review has been updated at 10.25am on 2 June 2021 to correct the spelling of Cynthia Sley’s surname.]