Arleen Schloss has been described as a creative force of nature. She is a prolific experimental artist whose work over the course of 30 years, beginning in the 1970’s, occupied the avant-garde edge, encompassing performance art, sound poetry, video, digital multimedia and other hard-to-categorize creative genres. Schloss, who lives and works on the Lower East Side, is the subject of a remarkable new documentary called “Wednesday’s at A’s” that chronicles her work and profound influence on the underground art scene in New York.
Currently in post-production, the film is directed and produced by Stuart Ginsberg and documents Schloss’ life and influence in the No Wave movement in which artists and musicians drew upon diverse and eclectic influences ranging from punk and blues to avant-garde and jazz. Extreme word play and experimental voice performances were the order of the day.
Schloss’ base, a loft, at 330 Broome Street, between Bowery and Chrystie, was a locus of artistic ferment in the form of weekly gatherings dubbed “Wednesday’s at A’s,” where a slew of artists and musicians performed including Jean-Michel Basquiat and his band Gray, Thurston Moore, Glenn Branca, Phoebe Legere and Eric Bogosian, Richard Hambleton, Elliott Sharp and Alan Vega aka Alan Suicide before, and just as they hit. Bands like The Coachmen performed regularly at A’s as did Tymon Dogg, who played guitar with The Clash and Joe Strummer. And Moore, who had been in Sonic Youth, met the musicians who would go on to play in Sonic Youth, at A’s
Schloss hosted as many as 300 people at one time at the loft where she still lives and works, archiving and digitizing a treasure trove of material from A’s and her own performances. The vibe was relaxed, the art experimental and people just practiced their art. “No one bothered us. The neighborhood was so bad then, no one cared,” she recalls.
That Schloss can’t be pigeon-holed was evident when I met her at the generously appointed 2,400-sq.ft. space where she’s surrounded by hundreds of tapes, a huge vinyl collection and other forms of archival material which generously line floor to ceiling shelves. Posters from A’s, themselves works of art, lists and other arcana hang from the walls.
Mirrored alphabet letters in primary colors adorn Schloss’ rooftop sculpture garden, reminders of her days doing sound poetry where she’d recite all 26 letters of the alphabet in a series of four letter words, then five letter words and so forth. She created 3,000 poems in all. “I was just lucky to be able to do it,” she says, with childlike exuberance. Her first ground-breaking “alphabet” performance was in 1975 at the Bykert Gallery in Soho. She was excited to show me a photo from 1987 of the alphabet created in Hershey’s chocolate syrup, in the snow on the roof.
Brooklyn-born, Schloss studied at The Bank Street College of Education, The Art Students League, Parsons School of Design and graduated from New York University. She started out as a painter before seguing to a hybrid mix of performance art across genres and media. She’s worked with Xerox machines, all types of video cameras and even lasers. Schloss’ work has been shown in Soho galleries and she has performed at the Museum of Modern Art, The Kitchen and Danceteria, in Europe and Asia. In 1986, she performed her multimedia opera, “A.E.BLA BLA BLA,” at Ars Electronica in Austria.
Schloss moved to 330 Broome in 1970 with her then-husband, an assistant to Mark Rothko, and a group of artists. They paid just $58,000 for the former mannequin factory. She’d been teaching English to kids on the LES living at 47 East Broadway until the building was sold. The alphabet-inspired poetry grew out of her teaching experience: “I was working with sounds in order to teach them how to speak. They were mostly Hispanic kids and the LES was very poor,” Schloss says. “I was teaching pre-k at School 188 and working in an experimental Piaget program.” She says A’s, her weekly performance salon, grew out of art workshops she offered kids and adults.
“The scene was doing what you loved to do and connecting with other people. Everyone was very young at the time. We’re now a little more ancient, however I don’t like to say that, but it’s true,” Schloss recalls. “The times were very, very tough in terms of money. There was no money anywhere. Everyone was just helping each other out.”
The uniquely spontaneous, hyper-kinetic scene Schloss created doesn’t exist on the Lower East Side today — as highly curated and sponsored events have become the norm.
“Arleen had the ability to bring people together into all sorts of collaborations,” says Ginsberg, “She has a magnetic personality where people would just come up to her, they were drawn to her. She encouraged people to make their own thing happen.” Ginsberg says the underground scene Schloss was part of doesn’t exist in the same form today which is one reason he’s making the film: “These artists weren’t thinking about getting their art into a gallery. They were doing it just to have fun and make themselves better artists.”
To complete the film, Ginsberg has created a campaign on Kickstarter with a modest $5,000 goal. Take a look at the video that’s been prepared to promote the campaign:
Tobi Elkin is a writer, editor and interviewer who lives on the Lower East Side and is a regular reader of The Lo-Down. Her diverse interests include arts and entertainment, film, food and cultural critique. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.