we're just like you

Spamwalk Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

We're Just Like You (also known locally by the acronym WJLY) was a "media arts collective" founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1976. Founding members were Michael Binder, Steve Cosgrove, Mike Enright, Fran Slater, and Fred Wild. There was a floating confraternity of friends living with us (or at least partying with us) who were also essential to our pieces; important players were dancer Sandy Dunn, baker Bill Pritz, photographer Mike Fogarty, and guitarist Bob Cotter. Initally we lived together in a house on Eden Avenue near the campus of the University of Cincinnati. Most of us worked at a local beer garden (owned by a Kundalini yoga ashram) called Mecklenburg Gardens. Later we moved to a 10,000 square foot loft downtown, where we threw tremendous parties for four or five hundred people at a time featuring bands, kegs, mountains of food (we were excellent at food prep), and 16mm movies.

We took out a loan (difficult at the time; starving artists don't have credit histories) for $12,000. With the money we bought equipment: a motorized Bolex 16mm camera with a 400-ft magazine and several lenses, a Nagra IV deck, a Tascam 3340 4-track deck, an editing block with a mag reader, lights, mics, and finally, a Sony Portapak deck and camera.

It was fortunate that we bought the Portapak — our equipment expenditures meant that we didn't have a dime left over to actually make a 16mm movie. At one point we were able to scrape up some additional cash for a short, a portfolio reel of our work in various media. I'm not sure that it was actually shown to anyone.

the Sony PortaPak sytsemAt Portapak video, however, we excelled. The Sony Portapak system was one of the first truly portable consumer video cameras available in the United States (Bob Crane had one in AutoFocus). The media was 1/2 inch reel-to-reel video tape, the same type of tape seen in the VHS format but without the enclosing cartridge. Unlike later camcorders, the deck wasn't built into the camera but carried separately in a small heavy box with a lid. Enormously heavy batteries could drive the deck and camera for about an hour.

You could put the deck into a sort of shoulder-bag and shoot with it hanging over your shoulder. The camera was attached to the box with a thick cable which came in varying lengths (we had a very long one). The shoulder-bag technique never worked very well in practice, however, since the image tended to break up when the deck was in the vertical postion. Also the weight of the deck threw the shooter off-balance and caused intense pain. So we often ended up being restricted by the long cable, or shot with someone holding the deck horizontally and walking around behind the cameraman. (To see this technique in action, look near the end of the third part of Spamwalk, posted above.)

Spamwalk (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3) is very much a part of the video art aesthetic of its time. On one level it is a lampoon of the performance/process pieces WJLY — in our self-appointed role as agents provocateurs of the Cincinnati scene — were seeing on a regular basis at artist forums hosted by the Contemporary Arts Center. Yet on another level Spamwalk is one of those pieces: a methodical, leisurely exploration of a process with its own rigorous rules and a formal visual component.

We were very influenced by Ant Farm, especially Media Burn and The Eternal Frame, their fake Kennedy assasination piece. We loved Andy Warhol movies. We listened to Patti Smith and the Ramones constantly. Other major pieces were Destruction of Media Object, Fearstuff, and the Alternate Pieta series. We also shot a lot of concert footage of The Ed Davis Band, which was created for the Third Variation of the Alternate Pieta. Ed Davis later opened for The Patti Smith Group at Bogart’s, a Cincinnati rock venue. We taped that, too, with Patti's bleary consent. Many of the videos were shown at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, and perhaps some early video art festivals.

3rd Variation on the Alternate Pieta by We're Just Like YouIn addition to the video, WJLY did performance pieces, at first small-scale. The First Variation on the Alternate Pieta was actually a photo shoot that became a sort of play; the Second Variation was done at a friend's party. The Third Variation was a major piece with over thirty cast members, commissioned for the University of Cincinnati's Winter Art Melt in 1976 (or maybe '77). We used most of the money to construct the Media Ziggaraut, a huge pyramidal structure with sturdy ramps that was used in the climax of the ceremony. We made designs and costumes, wrote a script, choreographed the ceremony, and performed it over two nights. There were at least three Portapaks covering the performance; a master edit was made and probably still survives (though the degree of deterioration of the media — all the Sony-brand tapes in particular — is frightening).

The last major work staged by WJLY was commissioned by the CAC and performed there in 1978: Dinner Without Will at Dot and Bill's Media Grill. Various nude figures, wrapped only in strategically-placed surgical gauze, were tied to chairs and scattered through a restaurant set populated by the audience. Waiters sold beer, wine, and snacks; an elegantly dressed pianist (Fran, drawing in the loft) played "Around the World in Eighty Days" continously for several hours at a huge Bosendorfer grand (Cecil Taylor played it the following evening). Video monitors throughout the set showed pre-recorded footage of other bound figures attempting to eat. Finally, The Ed Davis Band played a set, and then repeated it. Again, this was recorded with multiple Portapaks, though I'm not sure any comprehensive edit was ever attempted. By then the entire enterprise was starting to disintegrate.

Fred Wild and Mike Binder at the
International House of Pancakes

Eden House, birthplace of WJLY

Interior view, back end of the WJLY loft

First Variation on the Alternate Pieta

Publicity photo, L to R: Michael Binder, Fred Wild,
Steve Cosgrove, Fran Slater, Mike Enright