Conrad Ventur’s Artistic Journey: From Photographing Clubs to Warhol’s Footsteps
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra,
Conrad Ventur is a multimedia artist who works with video and photography to blend the past with the present. By dovetailing the work of others, discovered online or in underground film archives, with his own twist on presentation and execution, he is able to reimagine and give a new slant to forgotten artistic gems. One of his more well-known updates is his re-creation of Andy Warhol’s screen tests using the same central figures from Warhol’s Factory studio days. Here, Ventur talks about his creative passions, working with the likes of Mario Montez, Ivy Nicholson and the artist Ultraviolet and shining a light on the past to illuminate the future.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 14th issue of ODDA Magazine.
Did you study Photography in New York?
I studied Photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. After graduating, I moved to New York City, in the year 2000.
How did you first get interested in photography?
My main projects began when I moved to New York City. I was with DJ Larry Tee at the time, and began photographing the club scene he was a part of. Over the next five years, I met lots of different people in the scene, and would work on assignment, photographing them for magazines like SPIN, Interview and V Magazine. I also put some of my own photographs in a zine I published during this time called USELESS, although that I saw as mainly a platform for other photographers. In 2006, I moved to London and began graduate school at Goldsmiths, where I started to add drawing, single- channel video, and video installation to the mix.
You revisited the Warhol’s Screen Tests again, with some of the artists who are still alive? Which artists put themselves in front of the camera again to be recorded?
In 2009, I began a series of moving-image portraits based on Warhol’s Screen Tests. Using similar framing and lighting, I “re-did” the series with original Factory subjects, who had been filmed by Warhol 45 years before. My first recording was a friend of mine, Factory photographer Billy Name. Then, I recorded Bibbe Hansen, an artist in her own right and daughter of Fluxus artist Al Hansen. And many others, including poet Taylor Mead. Artist Ultraviolet. Actress Mary Woronov. Filmmaker Jonas Mekas. The 1950s supermodel Ivy Nicholson. Ivy, and Mario Montez, would become subjects of more sustained and intimate photographic collaborations.
Was it 16mm, like Warhol’s?
I often work with film, but not for the screen tests. The sitters have changed over time and so has the technology. So I used HD Video.
How was that process of working with them?
Rather than asking subjects to come to my studio, I did the recordings in many different places instead. I flew to Los Angeles and shot Sally Kirkland and Mary Woronov there. Mario Montez I shot in Florida. Billy Name in Poughkeepsie. Almost all the others I shot in New York City: Ivy Nicholson and her daughter lived in Staten Island, John Giorno on the Bowery. Bibbe Hansen I shot at a friend’s apartment in the Lower East Side. Jonas Mekas in his Brooklyn loft. Taylor Mead at the Bowery Poetry Club, for example. I remember my first meeting to discuss the project with Ultraviolet was at her penthouse apartment overlooking the Guggenheim, on the Upper East Side. Then, I shot her at her studio in Chelsea, Manhattan. She wore a purple cape, purple wig and purple sunglasses. I continue to do these “portraits” from time to time, although I made most between 2009 and 2011. When I learned that Warhol had filmed the French pop singer Antoine, through a mutual friend I was able to meet and have him sit for a screen test in Paris. And I’ve opened the project up to include those who were fortunate to sit forWarhol but who went on to lead more private lives.
Among them, you shot Mario Montez, the mythical muse of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith’s films. What was it like to work with him on this new project?
Mario had lived in Florida since 1977, leaving New York and his drag persona behind. When he and his boyfriend came to New York in 2010, we met and they invited me to visit them in Florida. Before my trip there, we spoke about the possibility of re-making Mario Banana and his Screen Test. Mario loved the idea and began preparing outfits. So, when I arrived a few weeks later, everything was ready. Mario was a planner, and as I got to know him over the next 3 1/2 years, I came to understand just how incredibly disciplined he was as a performer.
How did you convince him to do it?
We trusted each other. And he was happy to be in front of the camera again. He told me that he had grown restless over the years. He missed performing, so he saw this as an opportunity to get back to work again. I made myself completely available to him, as a friend and collaborator, which probably made his transition back to performing easier. He styled himself for each photo or video session and I would figure out logistics and locations.
Did you make Mario dance or eat a banana like Warhol did? Using different artistic disciplines, such as photography, portraiture, or video?
Mario always planned ahead. Back in 1964, it was Mario’s idea to bring the banana in his own handbag, not Warhol’s. Without any idea what Mario would do, Warhol invited him over to the Factory for a film session. Mario brought music, several outfits, and the banana in the handbag. “Mario Banana” came from that session and a few years later it won Warhol an award in Los Angeles. It became an icon in and around the Factory and I think credit can be given to Mario for introducing the idea of the banana to the Factory. Just after that session, Warhol began screen-printing bananas. Between 2010 and 2013, I traveled to Florida many times to work with Mario. We also collaborated on separate occasions in New York and Berlin. In a video from 2010, we recreated the outfit and dance he did in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. In it he spins around and around gripping a red rose in his teeth.
A year later, we collaborated on a green-screen performance in which he interprets the archival footage projected behind him – aerial views shot from a helicopter of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. I also recorded him on several rooftops in New York – in one he’s dressed as a sort of Dracula character, alluding to the film Batman/Dracula, starring Mario and Jack Smith, which Warhol shot but never edited.
What do you remember about your encounters with Mario Montez? How would you describe him?
We were friends. We would watch classic Hollywood movies together and then go get hamburgers. We’d shop in thrift stores and bargain stores for drag items.
Tell us about the Montezland project.
In 2013 and 2014, I organized a series of exhibitions about the various films, photographs, and other projects that Mario had appeared in throughout the 60s and early 70s. Iterations of this exhibition were mounted at Rokeby Gallery, London; Museum of Contemporary Art, Rio de Janeiro; and the ONE Archive, Los Angeles. For the London exhibition, we made a little cinema room where Jack Smith and Ron Rice’s films were projected in a program. The main space included photographs of Mario shot by Leandro Katz, Avery Willard, and Hélio Oiticica, as well as our collaborative photographs. We also included Warhol’s Camp and Mario Banana on CRT monitors in the main space. And Mario’s 2010 performance of Mario Banana on a monitor as well. The Los Angeles version of Montezland included costumes and ephemera. Two large vitrines held papers, photographs, books, zines, and posters related to Mario’s participation as a founding member of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. I also included two headdresses that Mario wore in early Ridiculous plays. In another vitrine, I included several dozen posters from the 40s of the exotic films starring Maria Montez to give a sense where Mario’s inspiration came from.
I have read that you used Ron Rice’s kaleidoscopic technique for your video installations.
In my video installations from the 2008-2010 I would project found footage from YouTube through rotating crystal prisms. In 2010, one of these was installed in Greater New York at MoMA PS1. The affect is like being inside a kaleidoscope. Ron Rice’s technique was also a multi-layered one, and he accomplished this by double and triple exposing the film using an optical printer – creating layers of images inside a new frame. My installations shatter the film frame, covering the walls with image. A few years ago, I did a project at the Andy Warhol Museum called Fragments of Frame where I installed some of these kaleidoscopic installations in a gallery with works by Warhol, Haring and Basquiat.
What are you doing now?
I am doing a few things all at the same time. I’m making a feature-length documentary about Mario Montez, which will take a couple more years to complete. I’ve also been exhibiting cyanotypes, photographs, and a single- channel video from two years of documenting 200 1st Avenue, an apartment I moved to just after the artist Kathleen White died there of cancer. And I’m working on an exhibition for 2019 which will be something very different, which I’m excited about.
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary.
For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others.
Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler.
Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary. For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others. Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler. Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
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