The Energy of Artist-Run Spaces and Music Venues Captured by Laura Parnes

The downtown New York art scene, and many other DIY scenes across the country, are defined by youthful energy, but how do artists keep that vigor as they age? That was one idea that propelled Laura Parnes to start working on her Creative Capital Project, Tour Without End. The film installation and archive captures a movement of musicians and artists in artist-run spaces and venues (some now defunct) as they perform, converse, congregate, and interact with each other. Over the course of the film, Parnes captures improvisational and fictional scenarios based on real people, and real events, such as protests and performances. The project culminates in an exhibition now open at Pioneer Works through November 28. As part of the exhibition, Laura has also curated a special performance with many of the artists in the film such as The Blow, Crickets, and Macy Rodman on November 12.

We spoke to Laura about the origins of the project, the collaborators she worked with, and how improvisation allowed her to capture something more true than documentary.

Alex Teplitzky—So, tell me about your project.

Laura Parnes—My project is Tour Without End. It’s a multiplatform installation that casts real-life musicians, artists, and actors as bands on tour. It spans into a cross-generational Trump-era commentary on contemporary culture and politics. So it has real musicians, artists and writers in real situations, and it was shot over the course of four years. It’s all improvised—so it’s collaborative in nature, and it aims to capture what you might describe as the New York, underground scene. The locations it was shot in were mostly artist and musician-run spaces and venues, many of which have since shuttered their doors. It really functions as a time capsule of sorts.

Essentially, it’s shot right before and after Trump was elected, so you can see the cultural shift happening. It’s right before COVID and Ghost Ship as well, (both caused many spaces to close) so you see there is a real wildness at all of these underground clubs.

By having the performers work in real spaces, reacting to real events, it brings out something that is more true than a documentary. Within fiction, reality gets intensified.

I do multi-platform installations that usually have an element that functions like a narrative feature, but is much more experimental. There are often portions that are related to a digital archive or a digital web series. Photography is another important element in the work. One of the things I’m really interested in is how improvisation can work in terms of capturing a moment in time—and capturing a way that people are engaged in a community together. The artist-run spaces and music venues are marginalized and not well documented, so that’s an important part of my project, Tour Without End—archiving a scene. At the same time, it celebrates the eternal, downtown energy, which is sometimes brilliant and sometimes banal.

Alex—I’ve always wondered how this project started. It seemed to come about at a perfect moment, and I wonder if you were sensing something or something happened that made you turn your attention toward it?

Laura—One of the central themes of Tour Without End is how do you keep working as you get older in a very youth-driven culture? It’s not just about the age range in the art or music field, or any creative fields; it’s also about maintaining that enthusiasm and youthful energy. I started looking to venerable figures in the community to figure out how they keep going. I started by interviewing people about their collaborative experiences, how they work collaboratively—and also how they maintain a practice over an extended period of time.

In a sense, I was searching for a way, in my own life, to continue. I was very interested in seeing how certain people had such longevity, whether it’s in performance or music. All these fields take a tremendous amount of energy. It’s sometimes not very rewarding, financially. I used to be the co-director of an artist-run space called Momenta Art. There’s a tremendous energy that happens in those kinds of spaces, where the market is not what is driving the artwork.

In terms of the time-period when the film was, that was pretty coincidental. When I started making the project, I didn’t realize how much it would be like a time-capsule. Things have culturally shifted so much. On the one hand, in my community, I feel like there’s been tremendous progress, openness, and real intellectual engagement in terms of finding ways of making our art world more equal and diverse. Then, we have the exact opposite thing happening in the world where we have this completely reactionary tendency.

Alex—I remember you told me about filming some of the protests after the 2016 election, and capturing the energy of that moment. I wonder if you can walk us through some of the events you captured and what it was like to be on the ground with a camera.

Laura—At a certain point in shooting, a couple of years into the project, I realized I needed to give it a grounding to establish what time period. It was weighing so heavily on every conversation that we captured, but it wasn’t there visually. I was thinking about that movie Medium Cool, which was during the Democratic convention in Chicago when there was a police riot.

Installation shot from Tour Without End by Laura Parnes at Human Resources, Los Angeles, CA. Photographs by Justine Kurland.

So, I thought since these bands are on tour, let’s take them to the Republican convention and take them to the protests outside of it, and just have it be part of their regular musical tour. We went with some members of the cast including Lizzie Bougatsos, Matthew Asti, Tom McGrath, Sam Richardson, and Adam Khalil (another Creative Capital Awardee) was the camera person. We imagined there would be counter-protests at the convention. Instead, what we ran into was a lot of extreme right wing people. I don’t blame counter-protestors for not being out there because it was frightening. It was definitely an eye-opener for me. I hadn’t imagined that Trump could win the election, but after that trip we realized how intense the reactionary tendencies in this country are.

Alex—The film has toured in different iterations, and it’s seemed like a work in progress as it’s toured. Now, it’s coming to this moment at Pioneer Works when it’s all coming together. Can you describe what it’s been like to hit the road with the project, and what the feedback has been like over the years.

Laura—It’s been really interesting. It opened with a performance and screening at The Kitchen. I think it was the first time that JD Samson played with Roddy Bottum in their band Crickets. Macy Rodman and BB TAY VEE was there. It was one of the most exciting moments in my career because of the energy in the audience. Granted, it was a very New York audience, so a lot of people seemed to know the participants. But that just speaks to how the film taps into a genuine community, which has its own creative intensity—and is very much the opposite of the destructive energy of the right-wingers.

We’re going to do a live performance at Pioneer Works. Bringing the energy of a live audience into the equation helps to resist the destructive politics of the right. There’s power in the film itself; but the live performance closes the circuit. The film focuses our attention; we can feel that all performances have a larger context.

Presenting the installation version is vital to the project. The interactive performance archive allows the viewer to watch all the performances that we filmed in those four years, including the performance at The Kitchen. Also there is an interactive archive of the raw footage from the film—so, you can see how the film is constructed. In a sense, with the audience interaction, it still evolves. The portraits of the participants, taken by Justine Kurland, are central to the exhibition.

Alex—The project is called Tour Without End, and as you describe this ongoing archive, I wonder: is it ever done? And I’m also wondering what it looks like to an audience who is born now and experiences it in 30 years?

Laura—I had always envisioned it as something ongoing. What I have noticed with all my work is, as they age, the context of how we see the work shifts. Like when you look at Warhol Factory film, many of us can still connect with those characters even if we didn’t live in New York in the 60s, yet the politics of the time shift the meaning.

At any rate—the larger issues these characters are working through will ring true for the next generation just as much as the situations faced by the 60s generation ring true for us.

Alex—What interests me is that feeling of being part of something that is special but hasn’t been discovered yet. I read about places like Gracie Mansion gallery in the early 80s, and even though I was never there, I identify with the spirit of that place. Is that what you’re trying to capture?

Laura—Yeah, when you think about, say, like the beginning of hip hop or punk scenes in the 70s or early 80s in New York. They seem like these quintessential moments, but some of it involves really empty rooms with like one performer and ten people in the audience. That’s how careers start—and it’s how artists develop their work. I love seeing how performers will give their all even with a tiny audience.

That is something that is really inspirational to me—it doesn’t have to be for a stadium. There is just as much power with seven people in the crowd because performers just live to perform.

Alex—I know that improvisation is a part of the work as well. Can you talk about that?

Laura—I’ve always worked with tightly scripted narratives before Tour Without End. On the one hand, I wanted to challenge myself to use improvisation to work with something unscripted. The other element to that was I wanted to be open and allow the collaborators to bring their own ideas to the forefront. If you’re working with someone like Kate Valk, who is a brilliant theater director and performer, then it only makes sense to allow her to connect with and engage with the material. In a way, allow her to steer a scene or improvise with her dialogue. By having the performers work in real spaces, reacting to real events, it brings out something that is more true than a documentary. Within fiction, reality gets intensified.

It also allowed for a lot of openness, and humor, and intensity of emotions that I hadn’t expected. As a director it was a really fascinating process. I feel really lucky that I was able to work with such brilliant performers. Brontez Purnell is like the chorus for this film with some really outrageous comments. There’s just a rawness to the project that I don’t think I’ve had in other works.

Alex—How was Creative Capital helpful through the life of the project?

Laura—When I received the Creative Capital Award for Tour Without End, I had started shooting. Creative Capital helped me to figure out how to be more organized to function as a production studio, which is what I really needed. There were so many participants in this project, and so much juggling of spaces. It could have been a logistical nightmare really. I needed that help to get a more professional approach to dealing with my studio practice.

It allowed me to open up and think about what the possibilities could be. I hadn’t imagined leaving New York for the project—mainly because of budgetary issues. But I was able to take the cast and crew down to the Republican convention with that grant money—and because I was thinking more ambitiously and logistically about what I could do with my performers. It’s hard to imagine what this project would have been without that trip.

Read more about and see Laura Parnes’ Tour Without End installation at Pioneer Works, on view through November 28.