Pooh Kaye

New York

at Shoot the Lobster


In her brief film Going Outside (1980), Pooh Kaye barely makes it outside at all. The work takes place almost entirely inside a bedroom of her downtown loft. Kaye, in a T-shirt and pants, raises and lowers a window shade, climbing onto the windowsill to do so; she slithers through the window, lying on her back on the fire escape with her legs in the air; she maneuvers across the sill, the floor, a chair, and a bed; she wriggles beneath the fitted sheet of the bed and bends and jumps atop the mattress. Throughout, her movements are twitchy, due to their having been shot on Super 8 using a method Kaye accidentally discovered when she set the camera speed incorrectly, allowing her to condense longer performances into a minute or two of film. In this private performance transformed into filmic experiment, Kaye assesses the contours and functions of the room by confronting them with those of her own body.

Going Outside was one of the five performance-films by Kaye—and, at two and a half minutes, one of the longest—on view at Shoot the Lobster in “Pooh Kaye: Object Actions 1975–1980,” which was organized by writer and curator Josephine Graf. Kaye was a graduate of Cooper Union and active in New York’s downtown scene in the 1970s, and the show made a strong case for the relevance of her early work to histories of interdisciplinary art practice. The five films, with their explorations of the body in motion and in space, attest to the convergence of experimental dance and cinema in New York at the time, and offer an intimate record of a moment whose art historical import is still being unpacked.

The films Swim (1977) and Table-Walk (1976) focus most explicitly on the moving body, with simple, prosaic actions that evince the influence of minimalist choreographer Simone Forti, for whom Kaye worked in the mid-’70s. Both feature a nude Kaye interacting in unconventional ways with pieces of furniture in the loft. In Swim, she balances her body on the armrests of a metal chair that is itself balanced on a table, paddling her arms and legs as though moving rapidly through water. Table-Walk centers on the table, which the artist climbs on top of, around, and underneath. Throughout the works on view, Kaye’s manipulation of the film gives her actions a frenetic energy and renders the images grainy and pixelated. Specific movements—back, forth, up, down—shift an object or Kaye’s body an inch or two at most; these tiny shifts eventually coalesce into the simple actions illustrated by the films’ titles.

Despite the rigorous focus on the basics of movement, Kaye’s works feature moments of humor that undercut the potential for self-seriousness in the main contexts in which her practice can be situated, minimalist dance and structural film. In the playful Climb (1976), Kaye shimmies up and down a column in the loft while wearing a grass skirt; at one point, she’s interrupted by a curious dog. And Going Outside features audio of Kaye’s voice sped up along with the image to create a comically squeaky, unintelligible soundtrack. That film in particular draws out the absurdity of the body-object interactions Kaye sets up, and of the ways in which environments structure human movement more broadly. While Kaye disavows the influence of feminism on her work at the time—“We’d already been liberated . . . we were freed women,” she claims in a new interview published in the accompanying publication—her corporeal-cinematic experiments defamiliarize her usual surroundings, and in doing so suggest, if very subtly, the limitations domestic space imposes on the gendered body.