In 1982, Futura 2000 teamed with members of the Clash and Fab 5 Freddy for the song “The Escapades of Futura 2000.” In the rudimentary track that stretches to nearly-ten minutes, Futura raps about graffiti culture in New York, calling out luminaries and institutions like Dondi White, Zephyr, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lady Pink, Rust-oleum and the Fun Gallery.
During a light YouTube click-a-thon, I came across a video for the song that I’d never seen before. Directed by Dean Winkler and Stephan Gosweski, it combines footage of Futura and Fab 5 Freddy painting and images of fully covered subway trains with tripped out video effects that seem dated now, but were cutting edge for the time. To get the story behind the clip for “The Escapades of Futura 2000” I got in touch with Winkler, a video artist who still lives downtown, to tell me what he remembered from that hazy time.
What were you doing in New York in the early 1980s?
I went to engineering school in Upstate New York at a place called Rensselaer Poly Tech from ’75 to ’81. I was an electrical engineering and a video art major that they frickin’ hated. I would get engineers and artists to try to work together and not kill each other. When I came to New York City in ’81, I went to work at Teletronics, one of the original post-production facilities.
In the ’80s, getting access to video equipment was really hard. It wasn’t like today where you can edit your cat video on your iPhone. Edit suites cost millions of dollars and they were a really big deal to operate. Getting access to that was a gigantic deal. So I went to work at this post-production house specifically so I could be an engineer during the week and have access on the weekends. This lead to a bunch of stuff, with everyone from artists from school, to Nam June Paik and John Sanborn and the whole video art scene in New York.
As it turned out, in the early ’80s, I had the same pot dealer as Lenny Futura and Keith Haring and that whole crowd. We sort of overlapped by Gerb. If you look in the video at about five minutes and 30 second in, you’ll see a shout out to Gerb, and that was his apartment. So we’re hanging out there one day and I met Danny Cornyetz, who would go on to be one of the first VJs at Danceteria and the club world. He and this guy Stephan [Gosweski] were sitting there talking about how it would be cool to make a video with all this stuff in the city. So I was like, “Yeah, okay, do you want to play on the weekend?” And that’s pretty much how it came about.
Did Futura already have “The Escapades of Futura 2000” done?
He had already gotten together with Fab 5 Freddy and the Clash. The song existed, so basically, Stephan shot some video, Danny shot some video, and we got some stills. With that kind of analog image processing, you’d put in a bunch of stuff and feed it back and see what came out, and if you liked it, you kept it and then layered more on top. It took a long time to set all that equipment up and align it. I’d line it all up, kind of get high, and then just watch this stuff get layered. The stuff that thrilled us, we’d keep. For me, that piece was kind of a transition, because all my stuff before that was Terry Riley and much more slow and abstract. This was much more accessible and much faster.
Was Futura into this type of video art?
Lenny was trying promote himself in any way he could, like the rest of that scene. They were starting to get some recognition, but certainly it’s not like their work was getting sold at Christie’s. He was basically doing everything he could to make stuff happen. Really, Steph and I just worked on weekends on our own. Lenny would come in and see it a couple times. At one point I think Joe [Strummer] and a couple other guys from the Clash came in and watched a cut—that was towards the end when we were almost done. It was one of these things we were just doing it for the hell of doing it. It wasn’t like there was any kind of formal approval, it was more like, let’s just make this happen, which is more like the whole ’80s.
Did this video get shown anywhere?
We played it everywhere. In the ’80s, remember that three huge music things happened: MTV, MIDI, and CDs. The whole music world was exploding. I don’t want to sound like an old fogey, but clubs were much more interesting because they were much more curated environments of different types of people, it wasn’t just people who could afford bottle service at a table. On a good night at Danceteria, you’d have artists and writers and punks and kids—a real mixture. And video was an integral component of that. We would do video art shows in all of these clubs. There was big video distribution network for what was loosely called music videos. There was MTV. It was all just part of the ’80s art scene. It wasn’t like this was commissioned, we just did it.
Did the video get on to MTV?
There was MTV and there was this show called Night Flight on the USA cable network, and there were a bunch of just getting started cable venues that played all this stuff. I don’t remember specifically sending the master to MTV, but I’m sure [it got played].
There was a real thirst for pretty much any kind of alternate stuff like this [in New York]. It got a much better showing because the fact that it was there at all was kind of a big deal. It was harder to get this stuff made with the limiting factor of getting access to this equipment. While it’s certainly wonderful that there’s the democratization of all this technology, there was an energy and magic that came from being in the studio. The fact that you had to overcome this hurdle made for a natural, cool gatekeeping. That energy infused a lot of the work in those days.
Did your aesthetic match up or have any ties to what Futura was doing with his stuff?
You mean, besides the fact that we had the same pot dealer? Well, they were open to us doing image processing on all of their work. That was my whole thing, which evolved a lot. It captured a moment, but a lot of the technology was brand new. There was this device called the squeeze zoom, which was the first digital visual effects device. A lot of those artifacts where you see things go off in the distance or you see multiple images, that’s all from that machine, figuring out what you can do with it that you don’t normally use it for. It was an editing suite normally used for commercials and programs, it was certainly not used to make stuff up. We were trying to see how far we could push that. I guess you can judge the merits of the piece, but it was good for us in terms of learning how to do all that stuff.