William Kelly on Dieter Runge and the East Village

Sticking by William Kelly

William wrote this essay in 2008 when I got ready for my thesis exhibition, which was called Festival of Patience and the beginning of the blog of the same name.

As the East Village art scene rode in on the last wave of late seventies Lower East Side Punk, artists flocked to the area by the  promise of cheap rents and artistic community. Economic necessity served not only as a catalyst  of the movement’s beginning  but drove its development in the form of the Do-It-Yourself (“DIY”) ethos. Living, creating,  exhibiting and sharing were all informed by minimal means. No longer an excuse to wait for the corporate cultural gatekeepers to allow you to make and show your art,  painters painted on street walls, exhibited in apartments and tiny store fronts, musicians recorded on 4 track cassette machines, pressed and distributed their own records; writers and poets published in cut-up photocopied magazines, filmmakers shot with Super-8 cameras and showed their films on the nearest white wall. This shared aesthetic–and indeed ethic–extended to all the arts and helped to realize that promise of a vibrant artistic community.

At one time over 50 galleries functioned in an area of little more than  a dozen blocks.  It became the norm to see on just about any night of the week crowds with drinks and cigarettes spilling out onto the streets at openings.  (A freelance writer friend went for two years without spending any money on food and booze by attending gallery openings.)  Add the many bars and clubs which often exhibited (and sold) art besides showcasing music, performance and films,  a breakdown of traditional barriers among exhibition spaces became inevitable. But the walls between  the art forms themselves blurred as well. Painters, dancers, filmmakers, photographers, poets and of course musicians couldn’t help but influence each other by living, working  and exhibiting in such a concentrated (if not the same) space.  Whatever one’s  take on this short lived neo-expressionist movement — Positive or negative? An influence on art itself or on the business of art?– doesn’t change the fact that the East village art scene has had an impact far out of proportion to its relatively short life span and small size.

When I first met Dieter Runge in September 1987, this scene was still in its heyday but not for much longer. In less than a year the Tompkins Square Park riot would occur–the event most of us saw as the beginning of the end.   The occasion for my meeting Dieter arose from a suggestion by a mutual friend, Steven Wren, that I might be able to help with a stalled music video project. I  edited the footage which became the  Step Into the Fire music video and commenced a fruitful working collaboration, and a lasting friendship.

As I got to know Dieter, I realized he was a bit of a character who seemed to know practically everyone in the East Village while just about everyone in the East Village seemed to know him. And why not? He had a great story people loved to hear:  arrival on a $99  Freddie Laker one way flight as an illegal immigrant, wanting to experience first hand  the mecca of punk music–the lower east side; living in a flop house near Times Square while learning English by watching television all hours of the day;  then, making it downtown to St Mark’s place, living in the old Electric Circus building and working in Trash and Vaudeville, a celebrated used clothing store; and, of course, playing rock’n’roll.

Many, myself included, found so appealing in Dieter an openness, a willingness to try something, almost anything, whether an idea or a technique.  For a time he worked at the perfect meeting place, Banditos, a small Mexican restaurant on Second Ave  whose lethal margaritas made it one of the chief brain-cell-killer centers for musicians and artists, a perfect location to meet people. He must have introduced hundreds of area denizens to each other resulting in other artistic endeavors and friendships. Small wonder then, his album, East of Eden,  contains some of the best musicians of the  East Village community.

Dieter has always been something of an obsessive. I  got my first glimpse of this when he showed me 365 photos of himself which he took over the course of one year–one photo each day. I was stunned as much by the simplicity  of the idea as by its audacity and the discipline it required. Until that moment I’d always associated Dieter exclusively with music. This was the beginning of my awareness of his visual acuity. It wasn’t long after that that he was asking me about shooting and  editing film. The next thing I knew, he made an impressionist bike messenger film he cut to his song, Mystik Mood.

Of the many the paths within Dieter’s life’s way one of the most important and long lasting  is Tai Chi.  I’ll never forget one winter evening in 1990 when he dragged me to a studio on Broadway south of Canal street to a Tai Chi class taught by a lovely woman  named Jennette. It would leave an indelible impression; a year later I began studying another marital art and  still study after 17 years. Credit, or blame, Dieter for that one. One of the  chief tenets of  Tai Chi is “sticking,” wherein you stick to your opponent. Dieter is great at “sticking.”  If, as the saying goes,  your greatest opponent is yourself, then Dieter has stuck to that opponent and pushed himself forward to develop and grow in so many ways–music, martial arts, big wave windsurfing, and astonishingly, the visual arts. Combining patience and perseverance, two more key tenets of martial arts, with an antithetical  East Village orientation makes for a unique synthesis in Dieter.

During what now seems a rather short period, Dieter and I  collaborated on two more music videos, Pain of Love and November 18th.  Since then I’ve been involved in other collaborations, but working with Dieter on those two videos was one of the best creative collaborations I’ve had in terms of the work and the human interaction.  Despite the no-budget conditions, we used whatever we had and managed in these videos to capture something of the time, and to express a bit of our take on the world.  Although not exactly typical of the era’s in-your-face-neo-expressionism,  the DIY spirit informs every frame of these videos.

That Dieter developed into such a superb visual artist later in life than most  is  a testament to his patience and perseverance  as well as  an inspiration to us all to understand it’s never too late to learn something new, and to not give up.  Dieter Runge not only survived, he moves on and thrives. And now, with the aptly titled, Festival of Patience, he continues building community with new collaborators, reuniting with old friends and creative partners in the good fight to move forward. We celebrate that patience. And sticking.

-William Kelly, 2008

William Kelly is a writer, film maker and professor who still lives in New York’s East Village. Check out his brilliant new series How to Train Squirrel Martial Artists on you tube.

Talking about New York a while ago William said: “In the 80’s New York was inclusive. Now it’s exclusive.”

 

 

 

 

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