Since the mid-1970s, Ericka Beckman has experimented with film as a medium for expanding the possibilities of performance, often creating set pieces and rule-based actions specifically for the camera. Presenting the original film in conjunction with animated props, the installation You The Better (1983/2015) implicates the viewer as an active participant in the game. You The Better is on view through December 31 in the Walker group exhibition Less Than One. Here, we talk about the spirit of easy collaboration in New York of the 1970s and ’80s, how the original film resonates with today’s plugged-in audiences, and the analogy between games of chance and life.
Victoria Sung: There seems to have been a real spirit of collaboration—especially in the fields of experimental dance, film, and theater—in downtown New York during the late 1970s and ’80s. We can see this in your films, where Ashley Bickerton, Mike Kelley, and other artist-friends take part. How did you get started in film, and how did this collaborative spirit inform your work?
Ericka Beckman: I loved film because it recorded performance, and I used film as a very plastic element—much like a moving canvas—for performance work. I started first by using myself, and then I began to engage my friends, who all loved to perform. At the particular time this film was made, conditions in the economy and in the art world allowed for a lot of experimentation because there wasn’t a real active gallery scene until 1980/1981. Artists worked with what they could, and a lot of what they could work with was the city itself and themselves. Because everyone was doing performance work, or somehow engaged in it, it was very easy to collaborate and do workshop collaborations (i.e. not necessarily make work that’s finished or ready for an audience, but really just develop ideas).
Many artist-friends—like Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, and David Salle—based their early work in performance before shifting to object-making. And whether or not they were performers in their own works, they engaged pretty easily in the work that I was doing because we were all concerned with the available media at the time, especially the media that we grew up on—records, television shows, and commercials. We tossed around a lot of ideas, mixed what we saw on television with what music we were hearing, what we were reading, what we were watching in theaters. The period was really marked by a fluency among all of these mediums.
Sung: In 1983, when You The Better premiered at the New York Film Festival as a 16 mm film, it wasn’t picked up readily by the “art world.”
Beckman: You The Better was my first 16 mm film. I was trying at this time to build a larger audience for my work than just the few venues that were in downtown New York for screening, so I moved to 16 mm hoping that I would be able to engage a larger distribution structure.
This particular film was created after a long, introverted period in my life when I was beginning to investigate what is behind performance. What is the language of action? How do we learn as children to do things? How is our identity formed through action? I wanted to make something work without using narration or dialogue, and because I was using this theatrical, industrial medium of 16 mm film, I knew that I had to have some kind of hook. When I was making the Super-8 Trilogy that was based on Piaget’s work (my sort of incubation period), I made a film that involved Mike Kelley doing a series of team sports outdoors. I said, “This is it: gaming structure is going to replace narrative for me.”
When the film came out it was so off the path of what you expect to see in a theatrical film because of its non-narrative gaming structure. Though it circulated quite a bit, I wasn’t able to show it the way I wanted to show it; I showed it on screens in museums in conjunction with a lot of art shows, but there was a really strong divide—a barrier in fact—between film and visual art in the late ’80s.
Sung: It’s interesting to hear about this deep divide between the moving image and visual arts worlds, especially when thinking about the popular reception the so-called Pictures Generation was getting at the time. Though perhaps it’s not as straightforward as this, the language of appropriation, the pre-digital, the photographic also figures in your work. Given this context, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the somewhat delayed reception for You The Better and what it means to see the work being revisited with renewed energy over these last few years.
Beckman: That’s a good question. In the ’90s, when media switched over from analog to digital there was a change, a big sea change, and there were more and more things coming into the gallery that were time-based. I was pretty aware of it, but I wasn’t really thinking about my work re-entering the art world; I was off doing other films at that time. And then, around 2011, some curators came to my studio and sort of opened up a box of my work. It was pretty amazing that there was a younger audience that could totally engage with it. And I find it really rewarding because the conversations that I’ve had with young curators have been the kind of dialogue that I’ve been missing and wanting for so many years.
Sung: We can see today that you were ahead of the curve in terms of engaging such concepts as digital avatars, virtual reality, cybernetics, video gaming—all of which has become so prevalent in today’s networked society. As you’ve hinted above, this may be a reason why audiences are so much more able and ready to engage with this type of work now.
Beckman: Right. When I made this film it was a faux-interactive game, and the idea of interactivity was sort of coming into being, but there wasn’t really anything out there except for arcade games, which I studied a lot, and casinos. You The Better was going to set up what maybe an interactive computer game or an interactive betting game could be. I started with these very simple games of chance. What is chance? Why are there so many games that are fascinated with chance? And it soon became clear to me that the gambling aspect was the fundamental structure for the uber game I was constructing, because I could use the audience as the bettor here. The audience is able to think about why the bets are being laid down, and to engage with what the players are doing. These ideas are cultural: with all of the activity going on today in terms of digital gaming, and the fact that kids now grow up learning the behaviors of other people by playing games, we understand these kinds of games even though many of us don’t go out and gamble.
While I was doing research for the film, I went to a live casino in the desert in southern California, and inside was a jai-alai game being played by Mexicans and bet on by predominantly white men. There was a big distance between the betting area and the playing area. The betting area was high, like in a mezzanine, and then the pit was the game play. The game play was very rough, and there was a net protecting the bettors from the players. I kept thinking about that kind of use of human value. That informed this idea of the big separation between the off-camera bettor (the audience) and the players; as a result, the audience is not fully able to empathize with the players and the players are arguing with the audience, but they don’t know that it’s not the audience, it’s really the house that they’re fighting against.
Sung: In thinking about the game as structuring device, and the various game piece-like motifs and “blue-collar” uniforms adapted for the film, I’m wondering if you can speak to the larger, social implications of You The Better.
Beckman: Most of the players are boys or young men. That was a conscious decision: much of my work from this particular period created a cast of characters that you saw more and more of in culture, such as the highly active and productive achiever. Again, it’s 1983. I wanted to get at the underbelly of the myths that were out there to promote capitalism. And I found that the casino is a perfect example of it, because you have people going in with this false hope that they can win at something that is either purely chance or rigged. So this optimism for economic gain was a myth that I really wanted to debunk. But I didn’t want to go at it didactically and do something really direct with it; I wanted to create a kind of situation where you could experience what the players are going through.
Sung: The Walker’s presentation of You The Better shows the film as part of a larger installation with props based on those from the original film. It’d be interesting to hear you talk about the different modes of presentation—16 mm film versus installation—and if and how this changes the work today.
Beckman: Most of the work was shot in a black studio—it was produced in my studio in New York City, a basketball court of P.S. 1, and a swimming pool at Media Study/Buffalo. What that allowed me to do was to have a field that’s off screen that can merge with what’s on screen. I wasn’t thinking about film as cuts, but as a framing device in a larger context, in a larger space. Something is captured here, but there’s all this other stuff going on around it. And I conceived of the world that way—this big game world. So when it came time to do this particular installation, I flipped through all of my drawings from the time to figure out what game boards I wanted to use, what kind of structures I wanted to put in the room with the film. The house shape is the predominant motif, and it keeps on changing from being a target to a scoreboard to representing an actual house. It also brings in the Monopoly element—that we’re occupying some structure here that is motivated by capitalism.
I’ve been revisiting a number of my films because the work was always conceived that way; I kept a lot of my props in storage because I wanted at some point to do an install with the film. It’s not until now with digital projection, where you can synchronize lighting and other cues to the film itself, that it’s possible to do this kind of work. It’s definitely shaping my ideas for future work. I’m becoming less and less interested in working on a screen per se, like one screen, but instead am looking to work with multiple screens and multiple objects and lighting cues.
Below, a selection of Beckman’s drawings for You The Better :
 Beckman’s Piaget trilogy—We Imitate; We Break Up (1978), The Broken Rule (1979), and Out of Hand (1980)—applies Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s developmental theories of learning to game playing, exploring such ideas as how team sports use movement rather than language as a means of communication.