Aug 26, 2015
Post-Punk Videographer (((unartig))) Shares His Most Memorable Concerts to Shoot, Spanning Decades and Continents
The YouTube channel credited to “unARTigNYC” hosts over 5,000 videos of music performance, from brief snippets to full concerts, with over 10 million collective views between them. That brain-melting archive reaches back to the German club circuit of the late 80s and early 90s, capturing legends of alternative music alongside total weirdos, mostly lost to history. The number of videos grows weekly, now capturing known and deeply unknown bands of the moment, playing for a few dozen people in the Brooklyn clubs of 2015. The channel’s run by a single, tireless videographer. He’s a nice German dude in his 40s, a 9-to-5 white collar professional who dodges personal recognition for his collection and only ever refers to himself publicly as “(((unartig)))”. (Keeping his anonymity intact, he wasn’t interested in sitting for an editorial photo shoot, either.)
He videotaped his first show, a Sisters of Mercy concert at a festival in Bremen, Germany in 1992, by bribing a door man to let in a large cooler filled with video equipment. Then, he meant it to be a money-making venture, with tapes sold at record fairs and advertised in ads in the back of print music magazines as part of an early 90s bootleg culture. That lasted about a year and a half until one morning, the police came knocking. “They weren’t particularly happy with the things I did,” he says. “I was really young and really stupid.” Though he does take the rare shoot-for-hire job, the vast majority of the videos he posts are done out of love, or at least obsession.
“This,” he says, “is what keeps me sane.”
That “(((unartig)))” name carries a double-meaning. It translates directly from German as something like “naughty,” alluding to the cop-summoning illegality of his start. Read as almost-English, it’s an explicit denial that what he does is its own artf orm as opposed to documenting the art of others. After spending the whole of the 1990s taping and booking German shows, he met his future wife on a New York vacation in 2001, at CBGBs. He moved here for good in 2006, just as the mid-decade music scene in northern Brooklyn was fully exploding. Now, he’s a frequent presence at Brooklyn venues specializing in dark, cutting edge music, though you might not have noticed him from stage-side at Saint Vitus or The Acheron, giving side eye to a sea of LED screens blocking the view. (“You should be invisible filming. You shouldn’t be the spectacle of the night.”)
I asked (((unartig))) to pick a handful of videos from his vast archive, and then picked a few favorites of my own to discuss (my questions in bold, below). Spending decades behind the lens has given him a wide view on Brooklyn’s music culture, as it’s undergone a decade of truly massive growth and change.
Nitzer Ebb: Hamburg, Germany; 1987
“That was a friend, [Oliver Mueller]. He started taping in the mid-80s, and got all the major underground bands at the time. I became friends with him in the mid-90s, at a place called Cella in Northern Germany, where he was running a bar called Cella Loche. He saw me walking in one day with a camera and I was shooting the local shows there because it was fun and interesting. And then he told me that he used to tapes shows. “Oh, really? Do you have any, can I see them?” Eventually they all ended up in my lab, all his master tapes are with me now.
I would say there was definitely a community [of tapers], though it wasn’t so much a community as there was actually people trying to make a buck off of it, selling it at record fairs and these things. There was a good network of people doing this stuff, globally, not just locally. But the record industry kind of came down hard on this, which is understandable. I mean, I get it.”
Ministry: Hamburg, Germany; 1992
“At the time, cameras were a little bit bigger than these days, but still I bought my first camera based on size. I basically picked the smallest and the flattest thing that I could find. You could shove it down your crotch and hang a lot of clothing over it, and hope for them not to get too close to your best parts. But I was working at a hospital at the time so I just figured, ‘Hey I’ll do a fake cast on my arm and put the camera here on my inner arm.’ It totally worked, security waived me right through.
I was just a little worried that security staff would see me afterwards, while I was inside without a cast. I took it off immediately, because the shit was hot and uncomfortable. I’m absolutely certain someone that somebody after the show found it and went, ‘What the fuck happened here?’ ”
At The Drive-In: Celle, Germany; 1999
“I started promoting shows in 1996, I think? There was this group of people that were squatting this building and trying to make it legal, they were talking to the city about it, they wanted to make a youth culture center thing. They didn’t get the building that they were squatting but they got a different building. So I went there, I showed up with a camera. There weren’t that many people interested in this kind of music, so you get embraced pretty quickly. All of a sudden I was part of the band booking group.
I had connections through the punk and hardcore network already and knew certain bookers. This is how At the Drive In ended up in our lap. This was the first time they were ever in Europe, and the Poland leg of the tour fell through. The booker calls me and says, ‘Hey can you help these guys out?’ We were like, ‘Yeah we can help you out but we can’t put it up in our youth center because the costs are too high and nobody’s gonna show up. If you are cool with us just giving the band a place to stay for the night and we have them play a free show in this tiny bar which fits 30 people? ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’
Not 30 people showed up to the show but 130, or 180. And this place has big glass windows, so at times you can see all the people on the sidewalk watching from outside.”
Matt & Kim: Brooklyn Diner; 2006
“When I moved here early in 2006, there was such a vibrant, wild, infrastructure of warehouse shows and basement things, and all sorts of shenanigans, empty lots. And I have to give shout out to the main man Todd P, because what he did for music here is unrivaled I think. The network that he created and built, which still kind of lasts to this very day in a different shape and form is just unreal. I didn’t go to a single show that got shut down, and I think I can say that I was at a lot of them. Nobody cared at the time. There was no spotlight on Brooklyn, you could basically do whatever you wanted. There was no high rises by the waterfront, there was nothing. There was nobody walking on the street, it was deserted. It was a DIY wonderland, basically.
I would defend Matt & Kim against any criticism to the bloody bone, for the rest of my life. But does the music do this much for me? No it doesn’t. It’s everything about it. It’s the energy at the shows, it’s where the shows happened. Would I go see them at Terminal 5? No. I’m sorry, this is not personal or whatever, I’m just not interested in it. I was interested in a wild, sweaty environment that felt lawless, without rules, where you could just be who you wanted to be, basically.”
Black Dice: Market Hotel; 2009
“I think [Market Hotel] was kind of a cornerstone where things took a turn towards more organized structures, and not being so loose about being up to code and all these things. This is also a thing that I’ve been criticizing from the very beginning. If you operate in an illegal environment, I’m not even calling it semi-illegal, because from an official standpoint everything that happened in the mid-2000s and early 2000s was absolutely illegal from an official city point of view. If you create a very fragile environment, the beautiful flower you’ve grown and nurtured, you need to protect it better. You can’t invite Vice Media to come to your shows with their six cameras and broadcast to the world how cool it is.”
This video has a different, more psychedelic style than the other stuff in your archive. Why is there such a difference?
“I was rolling with the flow of the music so to speak. I did this for two and a half years and most of the shoots I did probably didn’t turn out so well. But there were moments, certain moments. I wasn’t trying to shoot a show in a sense that afterwards you could post the whole thing online and everybody could enjoy it. That wasn’t really my goal. I just wanted one special moment of the show to be captured, on an emotional level, what the music did to me. I want that to be on the screen somehow.
Mostly I just failed. Mis-er-a-bly. Now going back to these old tapes, I’m like, ‘Oh My God! What did I do?’ ”
Erykah Badu: Damon Dash’s basement in Tribeca, 2 AM; 2010
I was pretty good friends with Matt [Mehlan] from the band Skeletons, who founded the old Silent Barn, and I am still pretty good friends with him. He sent out an email early in the week. ‘Hey, Skeletons is playing with Erykah Badu, so if anybody wants to come, just hit me up.’
This whole connection was sort of weird. Ariel [Panero] was doing shows out of this place called Less Artists more Condos, in the city. Apparently at one point Damon Dash showed up with a camera crew with a bunch of cameras, like this hip hop mogul showing interest in this DIY culture. Ariel starts booking shows in Damon Dash’ basement, and then Damon Dash has the connection to Erykah Badu.
So we showed up at 8, the first band went on at 9, the second at 10, and then it was time for Erykah Badu. Only there was no Erykah Badu. And I’m not shitting you, it was so hot in that basement. I’m like 6’3”, if I reached out my arm I could have touched the ceiling and it was dripping on me. It was disgusting. There were dudes who passed out and had to be carried upstairs from the basement. It was unreal. And then comes Erykah Badu at 2 AM. A lot of people had already left, because they thought she bailed or whatever. But she came in with a hot tea in her hand, wearing a headdress. It was ridiculous, but it was the single greatest New York City music moment.
Pharmakon: Pitchfork Northside Festival showcase*, Saint Vitus; 2014
* (((unartig))) has recorded a few showcases during our own Northside Festival over the past few years, so I wanted to see what he thought of one.
Having been present for the first wave of European industrial and noise music, what do you make of the new generation picking up this influences in Brooklyn today?
“Yeah, I’m cynical. I always appreciate good new music, whether or not it is completely original or whether it’s just a good interpretation of something that was once original, often makes very little difference to me. If it’s a good show, if there’s energy, I’m basically good with that. With this particular thing that you picked here…I don’t know. Quite honestly I don’t get it at all.”
Zola Jesus: Manhattan Avenue, in front of Saint Vitus; 2015
“This was on the night when this big blizzard was supposed to happen and they shut down the subway at 11 PM. The only event that was happening was Vitus with the Zola Jesus show. I said to my wife fuck it, I don’t want to be home, I want to be out in the snow and I want adventure tonight. I went, and it snowed a little bit, it was cold as shit for sure. It was like maybe 50 to 80 people at the show that was officially sold out. Nobody showed up because everybody was scared of this blizzard.
She played for 40 minutes or whatever, and then just left the stage and said “Everybody follow me.” So that’s what we do, we all follow her and she went outside and took her horn player, who was so cold, so freezing, and he was trying to play but it was all like “Skrooooonk!,” so he had to start over again. It was a real special moment because she just rolled with the circumstances. One of the best Saint Vitus moments, ever.”
Lightning Bolt: last set ever at Death by Audio; 2014
“Personally, I have nothing against Vice, I do not think that Vice is evil or that Vice destroys culture here. As I pointed out earlier, culture destroys itself. Culture invites entities like Vice. We’re not even talking about Death by Audio. I love those guys, I have the utmost respect for them. But if you ask me about my opinion, it was not a DIY space. It was a small business, like Vitus is a small business. Vitus might have more licenses than Death by Audio had, but at the end of the day, it paid for your life, and if it pays for your life, it’s not DIY. DIY means do it yourself without help of professionals. You may not look like a pro to the average person walking in, but you act like a pro.
It’s a very emotional thing for them, and I totally get it. But, this is how things go, you sometimes lose your apartment because the landlord jacks up the rent. If you have no plan B? Tough shit. I’m not trying to be a dick. I know it sucks, and I would have hated as much on Vice being involved in this as they did. But I just can’t share the hate because from a rational angle, I don’t think it’s justified.
I’m just mentioning all this, because this is not the reason I put the 30 minute loop of “Fuck Vice” on this. The reason for that is personal, actually. I shot the first show at Death by Audio, and I thought it was just right to shoot the last show, and in between all those years, I shot so many shows there. I was always welcome. I wasn’t so welcome during the last few shows. Because [venue founder] Matt Conboy had his own cameras and wanted to shoot a documentary, so he had a gazillion pro cameras in there. When he saw me, because Edan [Wilber, venue founder] just invited me, Matt comes to me and is like, ‘Hmm, you’re shooting video tonight…yeah I don’t really know.’
So, what are you trying to say? I can’t shoot?
‘Maybe you can just post a song?’
I’m not a disrespectful guy. I was kind of put off by it, but I respect. So I picked a song, and picked a bunch of footage of Edan crowd surfing, and I looped it [for the full set time]. And sure enough, it worked. This video was online for a few minutes and I get an unfriendly email from Matt explaining to me what we had agreed on, and how this is not what we had agreed on.
I asked him, ‘Matt, did you actually watch the video? This video is exactly what we agreed upon. I posted one song, a little bit of crowd surfing, and a loop of ‘Fuck You Vice.’ Well, then he apologized of course. But I’m sorry Matt. I just did this to fuck with you and I’m so glad it worked.”
Jane’s Addiction, CBGB Festival, Times Square; 2014
“That is probably, as far as I am concerned, the finest video I ever shot. It was location, it was the whole environment. The angle I had was perfect, everything worked out very nicely. I was mobile enough, I was in the press pit. It just, to me, looks perfect. I couldn’t have imagined to shoot this in any better way, not to toot my own horn. But after this show I really felt like, if you want to take my camera from me, just let me take the tape that’s in it. Take it, I’m good! I can’t do better than this. I have reached what I was always after—the perfect moment.”
But you’re still doing it?
“Yes, of course. I’m addicted. I love music.”
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