Five questions for Sally Williams
Guy Somerset · 09 May 2017
The director of Doc Edge film Ken Dewey – This is a Test on her journey from orangutans with NHNZ to happenings with a pioneering performance artist.
Ken Dewey – This is a Test, 8.15pm, Thursday 11 May, and 2.45pm, Saturday 13 May, Roxy Cinema, Wellington, with director Sally Williams in attendance on both days for a post-screening Q&A; and 2.30pm, Tuesday 30 May, and 6pm, Thursday 1 June, Q Theatre, Auckland, with editor Justin Redding in attendance on both days for a post-screening Q&A. Part of Doc Edge, Wednesday 10 – Sunday 21 May, Wellington, and Wednesday 24 May – Monday 5 June, Auckland.
How did you get from filming orangutans in Borneo for NHNZ to making a documentary about Ken Dewey? The potted history, please.
Deploying potted history: It involves horse manure. Way back in 2000 when I was a recent science grad working at the New Zealand Dairy Board (now Fonterra), I saw an old friend across Lambton Quay and went over to say gidday – this encounter led me to a job shovelling horse manure in New Jersey ... and that encounter led to a life-changing friendship with an 80-year-old woman called Betty. Ten years later, after working at NHNZ and making friends with orangutans, I went back to take care of Betty – she was 90 years old and still riding horses, so when I say “take care of” what I mean is mostly “attempt to facilitate her awesomeness”. I convinced Betty to let me make a film about her. It was a private film because Betty was a private person. But this film became the gateway to my visibility as a filmmaker on the east coast of the United States and it has been all go since then.
How and when did you first become aware of Dewey?
I first became aware of Dewey when I was hanging out with Betty. We would ride over neighbouring farms and she'd tell me stories about her friends who lived there – including the Dewey family. This area of New Jersey was full of traditional (some might say conservative) American success stories often deeply rooted in pharmaceuticals and the like. To hear a story about a ground-breaking avant-garde artist who was at the forefront of negotiating a new future for art in society... well, it made the manure shovelling all the more worth it.
What about Dewey and his story appealed to you? Stupid question – what wouldn't ...
Right – what wouldn't appeal? One of the first stories I heard about Dewey was about his memorial service in 1972 (not too much of a spoiler alert because we open the film with footage from this event). Yoko Ono, John Lennon and a bus load of iconic New York artists came out to the farm in New Jersey where Dewey had grown up and they all performed artistic works to honour Dewey’s life. From poets to writers, performance artists, musicians, politicians and bureaucrats – Dewey's life had become what he liked to term a “crossing”. He was fascinated by the power of collaboration – bringing together disparate disciplines both inside and outside the art world and helping them cross over. When he worked in Scandinavia, he was bringing musicians, theatre actors, dancers, television, radio together to see what would happen. It was a way of both challenging the status quo and also trying to find a new language for a new time. That really appealed to me because I feel like 50 years later we are looking for that again. Dewey was exploring new art forms (happenings and expanded cinema) to help people question their reality. He kind of raged against the machine in this very curious way and that really fascinated me.
How did Dewey's friends and family that appear in the film react when you came a-calling about him after all these years?
Dewey's friends were super supportive and excited about the film. The phrase “I am so glad you are doing this” came up a lot. Many of them were really hard to pin down because they are themselves iconic artists. Don McLean, the folk singer; Carolee Schneemann, the powerful performance artist; Terry Riley, the legendary minimalist composer; and John Giorno, the poet – these are busy as ever and really need to protect their time to get their creative work done. So I had to get creative myself to hunt them down. To get to McLean, I ditched trying to reach him through a manager and found an article that said what town he lived in and addressed a hand written note to Don McLean, some small town, America...and it got to him. Riley was super busy and initially had to say no to being filmed – at which point I wrote a rather hallucinogenic email that cited “15 reasons why the stars align and Terry changes his mind”. I had nothing to lose and he seemed to appreciate my desperation and did change his mind.
If you could go back and be at one of Dewey’s happenings, which would it be and why?
Woah ... eeek. ALL OF THEM! I might only be able to whittle down to two. One indoor and one outdoor. City Scale in San Francisco in 1963 is a favourite quite literally because of its scale and scope. Dewey and his friends basically transformed San Francisco into a stage with events occurring around the city that involved cars with coloured headlights, a soprano singing in a piano shop, a 30ft weather balloon bouncing around Potrero Hill. Dewey drove the audience around in trucks and they experienced this new reality that in turn helped them see their existing reality differently. In the film, it is referred to as a very early form of flashmob ... I'd say Dewey's ‘flashmob’ was more evolved than the ones we have today. The other event would be In Memory of Big Ed in Edinburgh, Scotland, which was so effective at upsetting the status quo it ended in a court case that changed history. The curious thing about that event was – as you hear in the film – the audience in attendance were confused and enraged by the performance itself not so much the nude woman who was pushed across the stage on a BBC lighting trolley. The nudity is what caught the headlines and the court case – but what interests me most is Dewey basically going into the lions’ den with the most respected theatre critics and actors of the time and saying, “Hey, what do you really know about theatre?” Dewey never dictated an answer with his work and sometimes it can be really uncomfortable for an audience not to be told what to think ... so I would have loved to be at one of these happenings to feel the discomfort as a large group of people try to recalibrate their world in real time. We largely avoid telling people what to think in this film so maybe it is our own little mini time machine.
Director Sally Williams. Image: Doc NYC
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