The Visual Underground rises again
Not long ago, The Visual Underground was one of the premiere film experiences in town, screening bizarre short films accompanied by bands and art, creating a full-fledged multimedia experience while exposing its audience to material there’s no way they would otherwise see. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and a couple of years ago founders Gavin Allen and John-Ryan Shea pulled the plug, moving to L.A. to pursue their filmmaking dreams. But TVU has risen from the dead once before, and will do so again at Friday night at the Casbah, presenting a SpookyVue Zombie Prom complete with films, bands, and an undead evening that must be seen to be believed. Founder Gavin Allen spoke with CityBeat about what to expect when the dead shall walk the earth.
You guys used to put shows on all the time, but it’s been a while, correct?
Yeah. It got really difficult. We were putting on a pretty substantial monthly show here in San Diego, but John-Ryan Shea and I moved to Los Angeles, and it just became remarkably difficult, while we were working on new endeavors, new jobs, trying to get down to San Diego. It wasn’t as simple as just doing a show. It was always a day-and-a-half or two days of load-in and prep work.
For the uninitiated, can you give us a brief history of The Visual Underground?
John-Ryan Shea and I were both in SDSU’s film program. We took an unpaid PA gig up at the Sundance Film Festival–we were working for a festival called NoDance that was run by Forest Whitaker, who couldn’t have been a nicer guy. We met there, and as always happens with young upstart film students, everybody’s tossing around ideas. You know, ‘wouldn’t this be cool, wouldn’t that be great.’ You add even the lower-alcohol-content-percentage they have in Utah, and it builds upon itself and steamrolls. We had a lot of good ideas, but what we wanted to do, really, was have a showcase at a local bar once a month, where we could just showcase our own films, and our friends’ films, and music videos. You know, have people come in and play music. Then we met the filmmakers of the Ramones documentary, End of the Century, and they let us show their film before it had been released on the West Coast. We showed it at the Ken Club, and it was packed, and we decided this was something we really wanted to do. We moved to the Whistle Stop, where we were for three years, and we started adding more elements. We were adding bands and artists and projection, and it took on a life of its own. Sam over at the Whistle Stop said, ‘you guys need a bigger venue.’ So we started doing it at the Casbah, for about a year. And then, again, it just took on a huge life of its own, and became really difficult to facilitate once a month.
It sounds like it was one of those things where you had to be as big or bigger each month as the month before.
Exactly. You can’t take any steps back. To be quite honest with you, most of the people there wouldn’t have noticed, but we would have. I know it sounds very cheesy and cliché, but we had something of an artist’s integrity. Regardless of how it started from its alcoholic underpinnings, we did want to keep some sort of semblance of a standard for ourselves. So, the last show of our original run was a SpookyVue, in 2007. It was a huge event, and it went really well. It was a great way to wrap up.
But you’re back from the dead.
Yes! In December, 2009, Tim Mays got in touch and asked if we wanted to do a reunion show. We said absolutely, and we did it, and it was really well-received. So we were asked back to do a Halloween show. And this is actually our first Friday that we’ve ever had, so we’re kind of hoping for great things.
What’s it like to come back to this, after a year or two? Is it like putting on an old pair of shoes that you haven’t worn in a while?
Yeah, and those shoes are still comfortable, but they need to be broken in. I’ll be quite honest with you, I get a lot of anxiety about it. As soon as we decide what we’re going to do, I start getting that same sort of anxiety, only it’s doubled because, obviously, we lose a lot of old crowd. But it’s always really exciting to see some of your old friends who come out, because they’re excited about the show. We get a pretty decent amount of love from the artistic community, too. It’s really nice to get back into that. I really miss the opportunity to hang out with so many different artists and musicians and filmmakers in San Diego.
So, with all that said, what’s the show going to be like this year?
Well, we’re doing our SpookyVue, for Halloween, and our theme this year is Zombie Prom. I think we decided to go with it because they’re both so hackneyed and overplayed that to take both of them and put them together, we’re hoping it’s two negatives make a positive. We’re trying to come up with a theme that people can get behind, it’s easy to understand. So we’re doing our full Halloween show. It’s going to be a nice mix of macabre and twisted, dark short films and videos, and animations.
And there’s music, too, right? ,
We have a couple of incredible bands. There’s the Creepy Creeps. They put on one of the greatest stage spectacles. The have dancing girls, they wear incredible costumes, and they taunt the crowd. And Gary Shuffler is a local musician who has done a million different tribute bands. Like Ziggy Shuffledust, and he’s done covers of Queen, Guns n’ Roses, Bauhaus. He’s put together a new band, just for this night. It’s going to be Lords of the New Removed Church. I’m extremely excited to see that. The thing about both of these bands is that they bring a tremendous amount of energy and crowd interaction to it. They both really hit that niche that we’re looking for. We don’t want anything that’s passive–we don’t do anything with The Visual Underground that’s passive. We do an art gallery, as well, and they’re building a nice installation that’s going to have several artists working with it. It’s going to be a post-apocalyptic gallery, with little surprises, little peekaboo art pieces and installations, a multitude of different types of art. It’s not going to be just one thing. You’re not just going to see painting. You’re not just going to see photography. There’s going to be all kinds of mixed media, fabrics, print, design. It’s going to be really interesting to see these five very different artists come together.
What about the movies? What will we see?
We’re still working on a few things, getting clearances, which can be kind of difficult, especially in the digital age. That’s one of the things that’s really amazing about doing this again. When I used to do the Visual Underground, I was getting anywhere from three to 10 short films in the mail every week. I still have thousands of short films out in the garage. But that’s not the way anything’s produced anymore. Everything’s electronic. We’re gonna show a couple of shorts like Marshmallow Murder, kind of a twisted day in the lift of a marshmallow. I know it sounds kind of plebian, but it actually takes a dastardly turn. Zombies in Plain English, because a lot of people don’t understand the difference between zombies and different types of the undead. It’s a nice little handbook on how to deal with them. And a local filmmaker named Dominic Valliente, another guy I knew in college, put together a short film called the The Baukschow Vampire. It is completely inappropriate and horribly ghastly. A young kid gets bit by a vampire, let’s call him a flamboyant vampire, and he decides he can’t feed off of the homeless because they taste awful. So he takes his own road. I don’t want to spill too much, but it’s definitely a fantastic film by a local filmmaker. And that’s another thing that we like to accentuate–bringing in local acts. We’re hoping to show Transfer’s new video, and we’re going to a video that myself and Jeremy Glaholt, another Visual Underground founder, shot for a band called Sea of Cortez. It should be a good time, with a pretty broad scope of things for people to check out.
So, how will this stand up next to previous events?
It won’t necessarily be different, but it’ll be more engaging. There’s going to be quite a few surprises, as always. When people come in, they know that they’re going to be entertained, but they’re not sure by what. Our theme song isn’t hyperbolic when it says it’s the best show in the world. Let’s leave it at that.