Media Arts Program

Tuesday, December 12, 1978


Presented at:

In person presentations by media artists Ericka Beckman and Kathy Bigelow featuring: THE SET-UP (Kathy Bigelow, 1978) and WE IMITATE; WE BREAK-UP (Ericka Beckman).

A much better bio than IMDB on the art-world & Columbia University beginnings of 2009 Oscar-nominated HURT LOCKER director Kathryn Bigelow, shared by early Hallwalls curator Roger Denson: “An only child, Kathryn Bigelow was born in 1951 and raised in a town, San Carlos, 25 miles south of San Francisco, where she first nurtured a lifelong love of art and horses. She was a student painter at the Art Institute of San Francisco and later the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, where she studied with Vito Acconci and Susan Sontag. She joined a conceptual art group, “Art & Language,” with Lawrence Wiener and Joseph Kosuth, and appeared in Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist film BORN IN FLAMES. [Bigelow] earned her Master’s degree in the film division of the Columbia University School of the Arts, where she immersed herself in theories about [semiotics] and the cinematic spectacle. “Film,” she says, “became the interchange where all these ideas were intersecting.” As she moved between uptown and down, she also made her first film, THE SET-UP (1978), a short in which two men (one of them Gary Busey) fight each other as semioticians Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky deconstruct the images in voice-over. Although she now plays down the film, it seems like a template for much of her later work, with its emphasis on men, masculinity, violence, and power. A few years ago she elaborated on its themes: “The piece ends with Sylvère talking about the fact that in the 1960s you think of the enemy as outside yourself, in other words, a police officer, the government, the system, but that’s not really the case at all; fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time” (Manohla Dargis, NY TIMES).

Kathryn Bigelow, age 27, visited Hallwalls in person on December 12, 1978 to screen her first film, THE SET-UP. Lizzie Borden visited Hallwalls on May 9, 1986 to present BORN IN FLAMES (1983), which featured Bigelow in the role of "Newspaper Editor." Other artists cast as actors in BORN IN FLAMES: Ron Vawter, filmmaker Sheila McLaughlin, performance artist Marty Pottenger, playwright/actor Eric Bogosian, video artist Gary Hill, and photographer John Coplans, most of whom (with the exception of Coplans) visited/presented work at Hallwalls in the period 1979–1986. Several other films and videos featuring Vawter were screened 1992–1995.

Roger Denson Facebook post 7/24/17: "Wayyyy back in 1978, when I was programming director for Hallwalls [in] Buffalo, we screened Bigelow's very first film made while she was a grad student at Columbia, thanks to artist Tony Conrad and critic Sylvère Lotringer, Bigelow's professor."

Kathryn Bigelow’s Proto–Fight Club Art Film Surfaces at MoMA
Dawn Chan Vulture, November 17, 2014

In a 1995 interview, director Kathryn Bigelow (of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker fame) recalled filming The Set-Up — her experimental short film that she ended up submitting as her MFA thesis with Columbia University. It also happened to be her first cinematic endeavor. “I started shooting at about 9pm and finished at 7am,” she said. “It was in an alley off White Street downtown, and it started to snow.”

In it, two men (one played by Gary Busey) pummeled each other to a bloody pulp, accompanied by a voice-over of two philosophy professors providing dry commentary. “I knew exactly what I wanted,” said Bigelow. “But I didn’t understand that you fake shots and fake hits and put sound effects in.” As a result, “these guys were getting bloodier and bloodier. They were in bed for two weeks after, I almost killed them.” With French structuralist theory among its influences, The Set-Up took a formal look at violence’s allure and its political connection to fascism; though Bigelow was still in grad school, she’d already refined her aesthetic and conceptual-art chops, having studied as a painter, gone to Whitney’s Independent Study Program, and worked with the likes of Richard Serra and Lawrence Weiner.

Maybe because the Academy Award–winning director downplays this student film — which is also maybe why it’s nowhere to be found online —The Set-Up enjoys a somewhat mythical status in the eyes of cinephiles hoping to trace the director’s skillful deployment of violence back to its very earliest roots. (Critic Dan Kois even issued an on-line plea asking her to release the film: “We want to see it so bad,” he wrote.) It doesn’t help that the director is notoriously press-shy, turning down profiles from major magazines.

Now, at MoMA this evening, Bigelow’s fans can view The Set-Up alongside the six other short films with which it was screened in 1978. The occasion: an evening restaging of a cinema series organized by Bigelow and filmmaker Michael Oblowitz, who—as twenty-something denizens of New York’s underground cultural scene—were active in a group of grad students and professors who’d founded Semiotext(e), a radical New York–based journal that imported French theory to the U.S. and sought to dissolve boundaries between high and low culture. In 1975, the group staged a conference and a special issue of the magazine, which they called “Schizo-Culture.” Uniting artists, writers, and No Wave bands, the event brought everyone from John Cage to William S. Burroughs into the mix.

Oblowitz remembers meeting Bigelow on their first day as students at Columbia University: “We were the only two students wearing black jeans, motorcycle boots, and leather jackets.” Collaborators henceforth, the two dubbed their film series Cine-Virus—a name inspired by Burroughs, who at the time was comparing words and images to viruses that mutated and infected people’s minds. Partially re-created tonight at MoMA in celebration of Semiotext(e)’s 40th anniversary (which also inspired an afternoon of performances and readings yesterday at P.S. 1), the two-hour-long program includes non-narrative flicks and experimental mash-ups, and ranges from a montage-driven music video for Devo’s first single “Mongoloid” to video “cut-ups” on which William S. Burroughs himself collaborated. It’s pretty clear that, back then, reaching audiences nationwide wasn’t first and foremost on anyone’s mind (even while Bigelow has said she was discovering that movies were more accessible than painting, her first chosen art form). “Cine-Virus was an epistemological break with syntax,” Oblowitz saidBut even as some of those featured in the film series graduated to much higher-profile projects, the evening’s after effects seem to live on in their creative lives. Oblowitz himself later became one of MTV’s first directors and three years ago filmed The Traveler, a horror movie starring Val Kilmer. Though he’d learned to reach a large audience, he said: “I always have symbols, allusions, deconstructions, alienations that harken back to what was first floating through my mind in 1977 and 1978.”

“The legacy of Cine-Virus has not totally surprised me,” Oblowitz added. “It is a virus, after all.”          

Some publications related to this event:
December, 1978 - 1978