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The Black Gate Theatre

Holding true to the philosophy of the underground that art can be created outside the restriction of expensive equipment and materials, I continued to work in many art forms. Therefore, it was a natural progression to treat my films in a physical way by experimenting with painting, drawing and burning on clear leader and scratching, punching holes and eating away the emulsion on black leader later, using chemicals which caused me to develop severe allergies. Simultaneously, I was working on 35 mm sequential images on slides. I produced my first 4 minute film called “BLACK IS.” The Grove Press Film Catalog which later distributed almost all of my films described “BLACK IS,” “To the sound of a heartbeat and made entirely without the use of a camera, this film projects abstract forms and illuminations on a night-black background and suggests says Tambellini, ‘seed black, seed black, sperm black, sperm black’.”

One day, while walking on the street, I found a large discarded roll of what was then computer tape. The punched out holes was data in a language understood by a computer. I transferred this language onto clear leader by using this tape as a stencil, spraying the holes with black paint. By projecting this leader, I realized the frantic action that the frames produced forming a new visual language through its images. I began to collect leader from Japanese films whose markings were different, other found footage and scraps of film. A filmmaker sold me a used Bolex Camera for $300 and I started shooting film. After endless hours of editing, viewing and re-editing a series of film which were “sensory experiences” was born. My 10 films became paintings in motion.

The 4-1/2 minute “BLACK TRIP” of which the New York Times said, “It is a trip for blind America. It is an experience of the destruction of the senses.” The “Japanese Film Review,” Tokyo said that “It is excellent work…… .Tambellini stepped into a new stage of imagery and his work is a pioneer piece of electronic age.” Another film, “BLACK TRIP 2” is an internal probing of the violence and mystery of the American psyche seen through the eyes of a black man and the Russian Revolution.

The only film made totally shot with a hand-held camera was the 8-1/2 minute “BLACK PLUS X.” Grove Press said of the film, “The time is summer and the characters are black children spending the day playing in Coney Island. The extra, the ‘X’ of ‘BLACK PLUS X’ is a filmic device by which a black person is instantaneously turned into white by a mere projection of the negative image. It is “Tambellini’s tongue-in-cheek “solution” to the race problem.” This film was represented in “Projected Art Show” at the Finch College Museum of Art in 1967. About the film “MOONBLACK,” 14 minutes long, Grove Press says: “Tambellini employs action painting on film and videotape with white on black abstraction projected in split-second cuts, rapidly changing their forms, and moving ever upwards into the blackness of the cosmos. The sensation of a space flight is further heightened by the continuous roar of the rocket engine and the conversations between astronauts and Houston Control.”

“BLACK TV,” a 10 minute film, is my most social and political movie. It was made from a compilation of pre-taped videos of news events of the times including the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the racial riots, police brutality, the Vietnam War and special programs such as “Hunger in America.” The tapes were re-shot in a re-edited form using the Bolex camera and then underwent more extensive editing. It was originally conceived and presented in a split screen form. “BLACK TV,” reports Grove Press in its catalogue, “won the Grand Prix at the 1969 Oberhausen International Short Film Festival (shown as a single screen). The film is the artist’s sensory perception of the violence of the world we live in, projected through a television tube..…’BLACK TV’ was broadcast by ABC-TV News.”(Actually, what was broadcast was my first “black” video) “Tambellini’s “BLACK TV” is a great work in video tape. Of Tambellini’s work so far, this is a masterpiece. Here video TV has become a personal and artistic medium,” reported the Japan Film Review, Tokyo. Some of my films were shown at the Jewish Museum in the show “Film as Art”.


black is
Still from BLACK IS

On September 16, 1966, Elsa and I opened the 200 seat Gate Theatre on 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, a building whose sign is still carved in the entrance as a Presbyterian Tabernacle Church. The Gate Theatre was the only theatre to show avant-garde, underground films in continuous showing, till midnight, seven days a week. The theatre charged $1.50 admission. The Gate was dubbed the “Radical Underground in Film” and its programs became part of what was labeled “The Angry Arts in Underground Film.” We advertised our weekly programs in the The Village Voice and The New York Times. The outside of the theatre had a flag which I designed with the word Gate inside of a black circle. Our wall marquis held huge Photostats of the programs. We displayed photographs of artistic events as well as poems on the walls in the lobby. Young and old, educated and uneducated flocked to the Gate Theatre. We were trying to expose the general public to a type of film which was usually reserved for a small and more sophisticated audience; as well as, supporting up-and-coming filmmakers who had a difficult time finding a theatre that would risk showing their features because they were not established.

At The Gate, we premiered Brian De Palma’s first full length feature The Wedding Party, that he made while studying at Sarah Lawrence College. I remember De Palma’s 16mm film being shown in the theatre while he personally was projecting his trailer with an 8 mm projector on the glass of the front door of The Gate. One of the early shows at the Gate was Robert Downey’s first feature, Chafed Elbows. It starred his wife who came often to my theatre holding a baby who grew up to be Bob Downey Jr. of Hollywood fame. Downey’s film was shown in a double billing with Scorpio Rising by Kenneth Anger. This program ran for over a month. We were showing Jack Smith’s feature film, No President when a funny incident happened. We usually hired young students as projectionists from the New York University who would sit and study and periodically attended to the film. Jack Smith, who was also in the projection booth, was changing his mind about the editing and wanted to re-edit the film when the projectionist was changing reels. This re-editing caused a major problem in the projection booth and a major disruption with the projectionist threatening to quit. Jack ran down the stairs screaming as he ran out of the theatre, “I am going to kill the projectionist! I am going to kill him!” I ran to the projection booth and pacified the young projectionist excusing Jack Smith’s actions describing him as a very good but difficult artist who needed our understanding.

On one occasion while sitting in the audience in a fully packed house viewing one of my films as part of the weekly program, I sat next to a man who was becoming progressively more uncomfortable with the film. He became very agitated, covering his eyes, looking down saying, “This is awful.” “This is terrible.” He kept on asking me if the film was over, to which I kept on answering “No.” When it was over, I told the man and relieved he responded, “Thank God!” I never told him that that was my movie. At the end of the same program, however, a woman in the audience went to the ticket seller to ask who had made that film. They brought her to me. She said that one of her very close friends was almost totally blind and she felt that he would have appreciated “the experience” of watching my film. Young people loved my films. I had problems with the older generation.

An example of a typical special, sold-out program which we had at The Gate was “Psychedelia Tune In.” This program brought Dr. Ralph Metzner, Chief Associate of Dr. Timothy Leary, on stage with a discussion “Psychedelic No-Art.” Richard Aldcroft, also, presented his Infinity Machine which had been featured on the cover of Life Magazine, 1966 issue. The rest of the program included the screening of experimental films by: Jud Yalkut, Bruce Conner and my first film “BLACK IS.” Dan Sullivan, in the October 29, 1966 review for the New York Times entitled “Gate Theatre Screens a Psychedelicate Subject” calls “BLACK IS” “the most interesting… a dazzling succession of black-on-white and white-on black splotches, dots, zig-zags and starbursts painted directly on the film… suggested that action painting might have found, in film, a home that suits it far better than canvas ever did.”

A rare movie event occurred when we projected the rare and seldom seen Salome. An older Russian dancer Alla Nazimova, starred in a film as the young 'Salome’. Natacha Rambova (later the wife of Rudolph Valentino) patterned the set and costumes after the Aubrey Beardsley illustrations. The Elder and Spiritual Leader of the Hare Krishna who had brought the movement to the Lower East Side had his gathering place in a storefront near The Gate. He came to ask me if he could have an evening at the theatre. There, he conducted their rituals which included chants, dances and songs.

Saul Gottlieb, a member of the Living Theatre presented a political play utilizing the whole space and involving the audience. Months later, together, we organized a demonstration called “Black Death.” We called for a midnight mass in “mourning for atrocities in Vietnam with an offering for Cardinal Spellman” for his public support of the War. The flyer asked people to wear black and to carry a flashlight or a candle. We started on the 2nd Street and 2nd Avenue on Sunday night at 10:30 p.m. There was a procession half mile long with people joining us on route with candles lit or holding flashlights and carrying what seemed to be dead bodies on their shoulders. I was in front of the procession carrying a 6 foot crosses while a drummer was beating a funeral march. We ended up at the Chancellery up-town but, Cardinal Spellman was not there. The press covered this event while a far in the right magazine called our efforts anti-American.

Typically, each program at the Gate Theatre which changed weekly consisted of an hour and a half of a compilation of individual short films. Often we challenged the Censorship Laws with erotic shows, one of them called “Erotica Neuratica.” Very often we showed the films of: Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Ed Emshwiller, the Kuchar brothers and others, as well as having my films. George Kuchar asked me to take a minor role in one of his films playing a rapist who was raping a woman in the upstairs’ Gate bathroom. As he filmed, he was on top of the water fountain, broke it and water started to come gushing out running down the stairway just 15 minutes before the theatre was due to open. We quickly mopped the floor and tried to repair the damage; but, in all of this, we could not find George Kushar who felt so badly about what happened that he hid away from the action.

Many of the films came from the West Coast; but, also we had several programs of Japanese underground. Taka Imura, a Japanese experimental film-maker, whose films we often showed was our contact to Japan and many times brought us the Japanese underground films. He also brought the American underground to Japan, including several of my films which were shown at the Sogetsu Arts Center, Tokyo. Where The Gate was located, within a five/six block area that, in other times had been called the “Jewish Broadway.” It is that very area that exploded as the new cultural center of the “Hippie Generation.” There was so much activity, that one of the major TV stations ran a 5 minute spot of programming at The Gate and The Black Gate.

On the weekends, the theatre became the home of the Theatre of the Ridiculous, directed by Charles Ludlam which performed there between the hours of 1:00 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. Their plays were parodies and most of their female parts were played by men. Some of the members of the cast included: Mario Montez, Black-Eye Susan and Jack Smith who had a fight with the cast and separated from the company. They were presenting such outrageous plays as: “When Queens Collide,” “Dracula” and “Grant Hotel” to name a few. They attracted a faithful large audience. One evening, I saw a delegation of diplomats from the Indian Embassy enter the theatre. Men and women were dressed in their national garbs, all looking very proper and formal. They sat to watch what they thought to be a serious play. The Theatre of the Ridiculous was putting on a play called “Indira Gandhi’s Secret Desire.” The guys in drag were bad enough to shock the new audience who sat motionless but the culminating blow came when an actor came out sporting a 3 foot stuffed penis.

One weekend evening between the main showing of the film and the beginning of the Theatre of the Ridiculous program, the ticket seller was talking to two men who were sitting on a bench. Suddenly, one of these pulled out a loaded gun holding it to his temple asking him for the box office’s evening take. The young man came up-stairs to my office very scared but very concerned about the fact that he had to hand over the money. Since this was not the only robbery having been previously robbed of one of our 16 mm projector, I decided then to buy a large German Shepherd puppy which I did at 14th Street. “Jet” grew up in the theatre and became a permanent addition as an excellent guard. “Our lives held many struggles, controversies and harassments for those of us on the fringes of a society.” Elsa in her article for Arts Canada described that kind of artistic life steeped in problems: “One is never sure when subject matter (political or social) revolutions in artistic form and structure, will place everything in a state of jeopardy… Sometimes rather subtly, there is a rash of city inspectors and policemen who think they can find some technical way to close the doors…At other times, war is openly declared.” Battles with the various departments at the city became a common occurrence.



In March 1967, using the large space above the Gate Theatre, Otto Piene and I founded The Black Gate Theatre, the first “Electromedia” Theatre in New York City. I painted with black the 3 inch thick wooden platform covering the floor. Someone volunteered to make black cushions which were placed on the platform and used by the audience to sit on. The space had three large, rectangular pillars. The walls were painted white. The room had no lighting facilities but had plenty of AC outlets in which one could plug numerous projectors. This room was to be considered an open space for experimentation by the artists working with the new media for Performances and Installations. Carman Moore from The Village Voice, after a visit to the Black Gate in 1968, wrote, “The vibrations of the Black Gate room seem to be about thinking.”

Otto Piene and I opened the first Black Gate Program with “BLACKOUT” which was the simultaneous showing of my hand-painted film projected slightly out of synch and four carousel projectors zooming lumagrams of concentric circles continuously onto the environment, covering the entire wall. Otto Piene’s “THE PROLIFERATION OF THE SUN” was a series of hand-painted slides projected around the room as the audience sat on the floor. The program notes given to the audience included Otto’s description of his presentation and I included a series of philosophical statements such as “blackout—man does not need his eyes but to function with 13 billion cells in his brain.”

Future programs had performances by, to name a few: Nam June Paik who performed without the use of video and Charlotte Moorman who zipped herself inside a bag and played the cello; Kosuki, made an installation experimenting with radio sound; the Group USCO with Gert Stern and Jud Yalkut did an installation projecting on balloon screens; Preston McClanahan used light and fog for an installation which surprisingly was visited by anthropologist Margaret Mead; Jergen Klaus brought an evening of short German films on conceptual and other German artists including an early work by Hans Haaker shot on a Berlin Street. Carman Moore in The Village Voice in 1968 talks about a visit to the Black Gate: “I dropped in on a rehearsal of composer Jacques Beckaert’s (from France) piece of tape, viola, and voice last Saturday. Composer-violinist David Behrman owned the electronic equipment and was whipping out just the right box with the right switch to get the right sound all afternoon. An Intense work of strong musicality and social statement on the black man’s plight seemed in the making.”

Memorable is Kusama’s performance called “Obliterations” with music by Joe Jones’, a Fluxus Artist. In this case, the music or sound consisted of about thirty live frogs in a tank full of water that Joe Jones would rub under their bellies to stimulate their production sound as Kusama painted dots over the bodies of female models. The frog music was to be amplified by microphones. Kusama advertised on the Village Voice with a photograph of herself naked lying on a mat, her back completely covered with painted dots. There were several days of preparations and Joe Jones, besides coming to change the water and stroke the frogs on a daily basis, had rented a delivery tricycle and rode around 2nd Avenue with a sign to advertise the show. Joe Jones was hit by a car. With his leg in a cast, I saw him one early morning arguing with Kusama because she thought the frogs had no sense of rhythm as she was painting the dots. She took a small drum and beat out the timing saying “I want beat dot, beat dot, beat dot.” Joe Jones screamed back, “My frog music is not polyphonic, your drum is.” The day of the event it was pouring rain and full of heat and humidity, the Black Gate was packed with a standing room only audience. The place looked eerie with purple lights and it was full of under cover police as they thought it was going to be a sex show. Her performance was going to be preceded by a talk by Gordon Brown, Art Critic. As the time to begin came and went and Gordon Brown was not appearing, Kusama became very agitated. The more agitated she became the more difficult she was to understand. She wanted someone to go to her loft, break the door down and get him out of bed. She ran around nervous and crazy. Finally, Gordon appeared, the show began, with all the noise, we never knew if the frogs croaked, Kusama painted the dots on the models and the police made no arrests.

On March 1968, I presented “BLACK TV,” an “Electromedia” environment using several monitors. At other times, in informal gatherings, I presented my video tapes. Keeping with the concept of Media at the Black Gate, I published two newspapers in the form of posters called “The Black Gate.” The first had philosophical statements by Otto Piene and me and announcing the future programs. The second one had a circle in the center with a social statement about the social reorientation of America in the Space Era that I wrote surrounded by still photos of my first video tape as it was rebroadcast with an interview on ABC TV Channel 7, New York City on December 21, 1967.

In 1966, at Willoughby’s on 32nd Street, I purchased the first model of video-recorder on the market, a Sony CV 2000 before the portable was sold. At The Black Gate Theatre, I mounted the camera on a tripod, set up a microphone, set up a feedback with the sound, took a portable light and created simultaneous live movements by shinning the light directly into the camera. The recording of these movements, in 1966, was my first videotape. These lights slowly began to burnout the vidicon, leaving permanent black spots that showed on the recorded tape. That day on the Lower East Side, I produced the first half hour segment and the following day it became an hour. This tape was shown on Channel 7, ABC TV News in New York on December 21, 1967. It was difficult at that time to find labs where I could make copies of this tape. I did find a place near La Guardia Airport called Video Flight which was transferring movies onto tapes for the airline companies. They copied the tape. As they were duplicating the tape, I saw test patterns and other electronic images on the monitors that excited me. I spoke with the young engineers and decided to collaborate with them returning to make a second tape of the electronic images. This manipulation of the test patterns became my second tape. The sound heard on the tape was from an oscilloscope which I controlled and through the sound manipulating the images. Further into the tape, the sound is my own voice improvising as I reacted to the images.

I received a grant from the NY State Council of the Arts to show the film and video in several locations in upstate New York. “The Knickerbocker News” reported my presentation of the program at the Campus Center of the State University of Albany on March 27, 1968: “the audience was sitting and lying on the floor in the assembly room of the Campus Center…Mr. Tambellini turned out the lights…what emerges is a audio-visual bombardment that mesmerizes and attacks the senses. Light leaps out, falls back, scrawls itself into squiggles. New images merge with the other images left from the image before. One tries to identify, to seek contact, it is impossible. Hypnotic light takes over, the sound screams whistles and crawls up and down through a cycle tones, the biggest fingernails in the universe is being scratched over a blackboard. The audience becomes to get uneasy, one girl flees hands over her ears. Physiological factors begin to emerge and one begins to wonder somewhat uneasily if there is not limit to human endurance… Then comes the threshold and the mind takes no more… or cannot. One sits waiting for the end… Part 2 is a similar bombardment only using the four TV consoles, two motion picture projectors and two slide projectors plus the sound… a vast subterranean rumbling that never ceased while on the walls and ceiling flickered sudden images… coiling tubes, clinical-looking non identifiable objects. It was an ever-moving Rorschach test, updated… At the end of the performance last night when the lights went up everybody looked at each other dazed, their eyes looking like road maps.

In the issue of The East Village Other of January 26-February 1, 1968, the art critic Lil Picard asked, “Why is it television?” I answered: “Because television is no longer a painting or a form which could work on a canvas which can only be owned, which can only be seen which can only involve a small, limited amount of people. I am looking for the many. I am looking for the multitude. I am looking for the simultaneous. I looking for humanity as humanity… To me humanity is the sharing, the exchange, the giving of my particular experience for man to have. For man to have it there should be no dictatorship or owning a particular work as if owning someone’s particular life. Like somebody might say ‘I own a Van Gogh.’ I want to say that somebody does not own anything but he has the same experience, the same life, the same fucking heart, the same human concept as anybody else can have.”

aldo as filmmaker

“The Black Gate is a large room above the Gate Theatre. In the past it has been devoted to environmental mixed-media. Over two years ago, the Black Gate and the events of the Martinique Theatre were the first commercial places to ‘happen.’ Later this fall the BLACK GATE will again present mixed-media programmed by Aldo Tambellini. When I spoke to Aldo Tambellini a few days ago, he mentioned that the programs would continue in the new dimension of ‘Electromedia.’ ELECTROMEDIA is electronics, lights, television, etc. in the hands of artists. In Aldo’s ‘Electromedia’ is a significant belief which is radically different from the present-day art world. Today’s filmmaker works independently from the painter and the sculptor. All three artists work individually and their works are exhibited separately. Aldo believes that this is outdated, for by combining the three, the experience is intensified and the artists can ‘stimulate the senses with many leveled, multiple and simultaneous experiences often expressed through environments or live events . . Artists working in this media can no longer consider themselves specialists in a single discipline. Although they come from different backgrounds such as film, theatre, dance, painting and sculpture each is interweaving their media. Electromedia is our era. We must get to the heart of the media, to its tube, its filament, its energy.’ Aldo is looking to a future in which art objects are no longer purchased by a collector, for Electromedia is kinematical and must be experienced. – Jerry Wakefield, down town magazine, 10/7/67

poster for black gate theatre

Aldo with potopac
Aldo with Potopac

I also worked with engineer Tracy Kinsel, from Bell Laboratories,whom I had met during the show at the Brooklyn Museum called “Some More Beginnings,” sponsored by EAT (Experiment in Arts and Technology) organized by Rauschenberg and Billy Kluver. I showed “BLACK VIDEO 2,” a combined or television sculpture, later shown at the Howard Wise gallery show, “Festival of Lights.” I approached Tracy Kinsel, who later introduced me to Hans Reinbold, because I wanted to alter a black and white television set in order to have it broadcast in a spiral configuration. A set was re-circuited for me so that all regular broadcast imagery was transformed into a constantly moving spiral that is drawn into the center of the tube. After many attempts, we finally got the results we wanted. To me it was nature as we will see it in the future, in circular or spiral form. No Up- No Down-No Gravity. Floating. I called the piece, “BLACK SPIRAL,” a television sculpture, later exhibited at the Howard Wise Gallery, New York City in 1969 in the show , “TV as a Creative Medium,” the first television show in an art gallery. Kenneth Baker in his article, “Levine, Tambellini, and TV” states, “The result is a TV that swallows images, almost as a metaphor for what television does to the distinctions that our ordinary perception of the world trains us to make.”

black spiral at brandeis

In 1968, I came upon the idea of photographing an image directly from the TV screen without using the camera. Upstairs, at the Gate Theatre, next to the projection booth, I placed the emulsion side of the photo paper in front of the TV monitor in the dark, turned on the TV set and when the beam flashed on the paper, I immediately shut it off. I developed the paper in the sink and a black dot appeared the image of the beam. I made many variations using this method. One of them was a self-portrait made by playing back a pre-recorded tape of myself, stopping the recorder and reproducing in photo paper my self portrait. I called these prints “Videograms”. They were exhibited with other works of mine about television on January 21-February 22, 1970 at the “Vision & Television Show” at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Massachusetts. As part of this show, there was also the experimental program with children which I was invited to make for Channel 25, Board of Education Television in New York, which the producer entitled, “Aldo Tambellini: TV Media Pioneer.” The whole exhibit was the first acknowledgement of television as an art form by a museum in the United States.

I was in the first show of video at the Whitney Museum, called a “Special Video Show” in 1971. This was the first New York Museum to acknowledge video tape as an art form. Otto Piene and I were invited to make the first ever one hour broadcast by television artists at WDRTV, German television in Cologne, Germany in 1968. My “Electromedia” environment and Piene’s helium inflated polyethylene tubing became, “Black Gate Cologne.” Subsequently, in 1969, six artists were invited to work with television technicians for the creation of "The Medium Is the Medium," the first broadcast in the U.S. by artists making use of television as an art form on WGBH, Boston, MA. The program was nationally broadcast. “Aldo Tambellini’s work "Black" features images from slides, films, and television monitors and the responses of children. The work, which is black-and- white, opens with abstract circular designs and moves into street scenes and images of children's faces. At one point the children are heard discussing blackness and racial identity” (quoted from the description found on the web site of the New Television Workshop Collection).

Recently, I was in New York’s Lower East Side and saw the Old Gate Theatre which is now a clothing store and the storefront at 217 E 2nd Street is an empty lot.

aldo with tubes
"A set was re-circuited for me so that all regular broadcast imagery was transformed into a constantly moving spiral that is drawn into the center of the tube"

black spiral image

black spiral 2nd image
Tuning the tube: Images from Black Spiral