MFA Art Practice and BFA Fine Arts faculty member Beth B has been a leading figure in New York’s underground art scene for decades. Considered a core member of the No Wave film movement (along with Jim Jarmusch and Amos Poe), her early Super-8 films (including Black Box, Vortex and The Offenders) were shown at the legendary Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s, and those and many of her films since have been acquired by the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Her latest documentary, EXPOSED
(watch the trailer here), offers an inside look at New York City’s thriving underground burlesque scene and features performances by luminaries Rose Wood, Julie Atlas Muz, Mat Fraser, Dirty Martini, Bunny Love, Bambi the Mermaid, World Famous *Bob* and Tigger (many of whom will be performing at each upcoming EXPOSED screening). SVA Close Up recently caught up with Beth B via email, just ahead of the film’s NYC opening at MoMA (March 3) and premiere run at IFC Center (March 14 – 20).
Why did you decide to make EXPOSED? Have you always been interested
in the burlesque scene in New York?
EXPOSED brought me back to my roots in independent, uncensored filmmaking. I have spent most of my career making art, media installations and films that have broken boundaries regarding the social perceptions of those who exist outside the accepted norms of society. In 2007, I had been producing and directing documentaries for cable television, which had taken me away from many of the issues I had been interested in throughout my career. But for the first time in my career, I was actually making a good living financially. I vowed that I’d never work on another project unless it was fully financed, but when I began going to clubs like the Slipper Room, Cutting Room and other venues, I saw a new breed of performance artists and was passionately moved to make a film about them. They were combining traditional burlesque with performance art in what I would call new millennium performance art, a hybrid of old and new. They are brave and eloquent voices in a society that drowns out voices that don’t echo the acceptable, conventional norms of today. EXPOSED is about original voices that are crossing frontiers—outrageous, uncensored, comedic and sexual.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this film?
When I began filming some seven years ago, the involvement quotient was what really surprised me and that I found profoundly enlightening. The burlesque scene is a gathering of diverse people who come together as a community and their goal is extremely
inclusive, not exclusive. These artists often address the separation between stage and audience, sometimes severing it and offering up the possibility to have a dialogue. I found ideas made quite literal, especially in regards to gender lines, and that were articulated with such vulnerability, appeal and honesty that we, as the audience, could understand their perspective.
You’ve been involved in New York’s underground scene for a long time. How has it changed over the years?
I was thrilled to find that NYC still has a vital and thriving underground scene and that even though I’m of a different generation from the artists I was filming, we are cut from the same cloth. They are responding to a history that I was a part of in the late ’70s when artists were not afraid to offend, inform or shock. Today, the art scene is all about the marketplace—showing in the right gallery, going to the right art fairs, getting reviewed in the right publications so as to elevate ones economic stature in the art marketplace. I, along with a wonderful group of creative people, rebelled against this in the late ’70s and I have found my way back to rebelling. EXPOSED is uncensored, and that in itself creates a sense of liberation. This is why I became an artist—to express ideas with cultural significance and grapple with this in uncensored and provocative ways. It’s necessary to challenge your audience so they walk away asking questions.
You’ve worked in a variety of mediums, from film and photography to painting and sculpture. How do these art forms inform each other? And how does your work outside of SVA inform your teaching here, and vice versa?
I have always worked from the idea as my inception point. I consider myself a creator, not a painter, filmmaker, sculptor, etc. All these labels serve to make things easier for the establishment, but they are categories that limit how we can think and express ourselves. To me, this is the antithesis of being an artist. I want the freedom to express myself in
whatever medium my idea dictates. So that is why the idea comes first, then the choice of medium, then the execution and sometimes even figuring out the context in which I want to present the work becomes an important consideration. Teaching at SVA keeps me honest and humble. I value my students’ insights, talents and innocence. That informs me and I believe helps me to stay open.
After the upcoming screenings, what’s next for EXPOSED? And for you as an artist and filmmaker?
The next project I’m going to be working on is a documentary about artist Ida Applebroog, which I’ve been filming for the past three years. I also have two dramatic feature scripts in development and a television documentary series.
For more information about EXPOSED and the upcoming screenings, visit exposedmovie.com.