Under the Whitney fellowship in New York City, Bigelow would be exposed to some of the most dynamic minds in the art world. She counts Susan Sontag, Richard Serra, and Robert Rauschenberg among her professors. She struck up a friendship with composer Philip Glass, who was then a cabdriver, and the two began renovating and flipping lofts together. She worked for the legendary performance artist Vito Acconci, which is also when she discovered her taste for filmmaking.
“Somehow I commandeered a camera, got a crew of friends together, and shot something,” she told Interview magazine in 1989. “I was very interested in the idea of violence being seductive. Again, it was all from an analytical standpoint. I ran out of money and got a scholarship for graduate school at Columbia. Milos Forman was the co-chairman of the film division, and we had a lot of access. Peter Wollen was one of the teachers. He was great. He’s illuminating. Until I met him I was just looking at light reflected on a screen. After that it was more like a window.”
Bigelow made a short film called “Set-Up” in 1978 for her master’s thesis at Columbia (it’s now housed in the Museum of Modern Art’s cinema library). The 20-minute movie examines cinematic violence, with two actors actually beating up each other while Sylvere Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky, two prominent semioticians, discuss the images in voiceover.
Many have said the theme portends well to Bigelow’s later filmmaking choices.