This all happened on Aug. 6. Aug. 6, 1988, that is.
Clayton Patterson joined the unruly crowd that night, carrying what was then a relatively rare object: a handheld, consumer-grade video camera. With that camera, Clayton recorded more than three-and-a half hours of extraordinarily powerful images and sounds, from outrageous acts by anarchists to outrageous responses by police, including the beating of fellow videomaker Paul Garrin, with interludes of speeches by unofficial neighborhood poet laureate Yuriy Kapralov, bloody passersby, tough-guy cops and many others telling tales of neighborhood tensions now tearing apart the neighborhood and the night.
At 3:15 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2007 -- this Sunday -- Clayton will screen an hour of his footage from that night and discuss the tape's extremely complicated history. The program takes place at the Pioneer Theater (where this writer works), and is offered within two immediate contexts: upon the 19th anniversary of the riot; and within the context of New York City's ongoing "camera wars." As Clayton shot, authorities and civilians challenged his right to do so. Then, after the riot, his tapes became subject to lengthy court battles, touching on such still vital issues as the relation of original tape to duplicate tape, the relation of raw documentation to artwork, who can claim ownership over street documentation, and who has the right to shoot on public property. As such, Clayton's work provides an essential background for today's New York City filmmakers as they campaign for the right to shoot freely in the streets.
A big boulder of a man with a shaggy goatee and metallic teeth, Clayton Patterson has been an essential figure in Lower East Side culture since he and his Norwegian-Canadian spouse and co-conspirator Elsa Rensaa emigrated from Alberta, Canada, in the late 1970s. From a few years after their arrival, Clayton and Elsa have made an artistic, political, and social hub of their two-story building at 161 Essex Street, just south of Houston Street. Upstairs are living quarters, on the main floor is the part-time "Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum" where friends (including this writer) sometimes gather for exhibits and receptions, and in the back quarters of those two floors, then throughout the basement, is an oceanic collection of neighborhood ephemera. Paintings and sculptures by themselves and others, fliers from long-ago arts exhibits and political actions, even a collection of bags in which drugs had been sold so that the markings on those bags can be considered as historical and aesthetic objects: these complement an enormous collection of their own photos and videos in a raw stash that is the product of Clayton and Elsa's 30-year addiction to documenting the Lower East Side.
Their most well-known work is, of course, The Tompkins Square Park Police Riot Tape. But they also have endless footage and photos of building demolitions and constructions, drug injections and drug busts, performance art actions and city council meetings, tattoo engravings and spontaneous fights among motorists, body piercings and much more. On one stunning tape, a Lower East Sider hacks off part of a finger with a hammer and a chisel, and without anesthetic. The reason? He wanted to look more like a Greek statue.
Whatever the medium, Clayton's work is almost always raw, rumbling with vitality, surprise and contradiction. He is legendary -- perhaps notorious -- for his combative, stream-of-consciousness rants. In e-mails circulated widely through the community spiked by sentence fragments -- punctuated by dashes -- Clayton rails against gentrification and the exploitation of artists, indicting antagonists for their corruption and betrayal. His rants -- including many against the ownership of the Pioneer Theater -- are ferocious, meandering and often ad hominem, but they are the verbal incarnation of his pursuit of a utopian neighborhood ideal, a busted and semi-coherent dream created from a mixture of his mind and memory. Even Clayton and Elsa's edited videotapes resemble raw rushes extracted from Clayton's quickly distracted but eternally curious eye, with little sense of composition but endless fascination for the phenomena before the lens. A cut will likely transition from one scene to something associated taking place a little later on, with little concern for the chronological or graphical dynamics between images; a fade to black will transition to either the same subject later on, or something very different. The books Clayton has put together feel raw, too. Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side and Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side, bill Clayton as "editor/curator/producer," as if world and time do not allow the determination of a single, correct title so all are left in place. The pieces within the books, too, ramble far and wide in topic and tone, and also in editorial process and attention.
Clayton and Elsa's works, whether in video or written form, are not impeccably honed and nuanced objects of study published by major university presses to serve as "definitive histories." They are much more. Their work is the thing itself: an unaccommodated, bare, sprawling, contradictory mass of life that forms the transition stage between the lived past and refined future analysis. In the not far off future, their archive will hopefully be systematically cataloged, made accessible as the major resource that it is and serve as the stuff for those definitive, analytical histories. In the more immediate future we will have a documentary about Clayton and Elsa, also called Captured, made by Dan Levin, Ben Solomon and Jenner Furst with Clayton and Elsa's collaboration. But for now, we have the brutal presence of their books and occasional shows.
After the screening this Sunday, join Clayton for a walk up Avenue A to the Tompkins Square Park of 2007. A (now) rare punk rock concert will be underway, like the screening recalling the riots of 19 years ago. One wonders what the joggers, sunbathers, and patrons of the Kibbles 'N' Bits-sponsored dog runs will think of the punk show. Perhaps Clayton will tell some of the punk show's historical significance. For sure, however, Clayton Patterson and his cameras will be there capturing the raw contradictions of life on the Lower East Side.