Artist and filmmaker, Barbara Hammer, has made close to eighty (yes, that's 8-0) film and video pieces since 1972. She says that her work is about "revealing, showing, expressing, uncovering that which has not been seen before." Working mostly within a non-linear, metaphorical, vertically-structured methodology, she has created an extraordinary body of work, groundbreaking in its bold imperative to break taboos with her subject matter and in the ways in which a viewer interacts, physically and emotionally, with the images she projects on the screen. In the 1970s, Hammer came out at a time when it was "a political act to work and speak as a lesbian artist in the dominant art world, and to speak as an avant-garde artist to a lesbian and gay audience."
Each decade since then has marked a new direction in her work since she never ceases to explore and delve deeply into the innermost reserves of her being to talk about sexuality, womanhood, illness, aging and mortality. Her pieces are unflinching and raw in their immediacy, yet always carefully structured, aesthetically rich and rigorous in their use of the tools of modern media. To sustain this creative impulse over a lifetime is truly remarkable. What is also truly remarkable is that after just recently surviving ovarian cancer, this month Hammer celebrates her 70th birthday. This year will be one of celebration with several international retrospectives in the works and the forthcoming publication of her book, simply called HAMMER.
A couple of days before her birthday, I visited her in her studio in New York's West Village to talk about this dynamic compulsion to constantly be in a state of creativity and what keeps her inspired:
Still in Motion (SIM): You’re going to be celebrating a significant birthday in a couple of days. And the last few years have been an exceedingly intense time, as well, filled with lots of profound transitions. As an artist, a creator, how does this period of your life differ from any other time in your career? You share a lot about what you’ve been through recently in your new film, A Horse Is Not a Metaphor; what compelled you to document your illness and survival?
Barbara Hammer (BH): After four decades of work, I developed ovarian cancer. Upon its discovery, I went through surgery and eighteen rounds of intensive chemotherapy, very aggressive treatment. I’ve been in remission for two and a half years. I never thought I was going to make a film of my experience, never ever. When people would ask me about it, I would say no. I went deep inside myself during that time and hung out very quietly and waited for a recovery. Then, as I got better, I did feel like I wanted to give people hope because ovarian cancer is pretty severe. I was also able to get women who own ranches to lend me their horses to ride—I love to ride. You know, the C-word helps you get things sometimes [laughs]. You get on the airplane first, that kind of thing.
But now, I’ve been in remission for two and a half years, the film has been out for about a year and life has come back to normal. At first I was just so happy to be alive; I still am. I just noticed every little thing, like irises pushing through the soil in early spring; those things meant a great deal to me because it helped me to push through, too. Now I find myself wrapping up because once you get a life-threatening illness. . .
SIM: “Wrapping up” in what sense?
BH: I’m finishing a book; I’m handing it in on Friday. I just got all the stills together to burn a DVD today, and tomorrow I’ll go through some details in the manuscript and I’ve been working on the captions for the stills for a couple of weeks. So, I’m really eager to turn this year’s work, nine months of work, over to the editor [Amy Scholder at The Feminist Press at CUNY] and take a breather, ride a horse, get outside.
Also, after I got cancer, I worked with my assistant to get my film archive in order. I found that I was missing elements of one film, Bent Time . I wrote a grant proposal and New York Women in Film is paying a lab to restore it. I just got an email before you came in the door that the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] is buying it, along with A Horse Is Not a Metaphor and Lover Other . They’ll also be giving me a retrospective next year.
SIM: You’re having a series of retrospectives next year.
BH: Right now, it’ll be the MoMA, which will be in conjunction with the kickoff of the book, and then it’ll go to the Tate Modern in London and then the Reina Sofia in Madrid. There’s also a possibility that the Irish Film Institute will do something, as well; I’ve heard they’re interested.
SIM: So you’ll have a very well-deserved year of celebration.
BH: Yes, a year of travel and celebration. So, I’m getting my archives in order and I also have a large paper archive [pointing to many boxes lined up against a wall of her studio] to get organized by decade, or by film. Now, I need to sell them to a university; there’s one that’s very interested in 1970s work. My archive goes back to the 60s. I kept everything all the way through. I didn’t know that it was valuable but there’s interest. Universities, oddly, don’t purchase film collections, so far. The artist gifts them to the institution. The archive will be compiled and moved out when it feels like the right moment.
Every time there’s a completion, there are new beginnings. I don’t know what mine will be. The trouble is, I always have a new film. I have a film I’m working on now with a young woman called Generations: Two Bolex Dykes. We’re waiting on a grant for that. We just did a shoot last Wednesday, so we finished all our shooting. She hand develops and cross processes the work so it looks very do-it-yourself. We still have some sound to collect and then we both will be editing over the summer. The idea is based on Shirley Clarke’s Bridges Go Round, a film she made in 1958 about the bridges of New York City, a beautiful film. There’s a jazz track and also a classical track. When you watch the film, the images are repeated but the sound is different; you feel like you’ve seen two different films or two different versions. You can’t remember that you ever saw a certain shot before, and yet you have.
We’re going further with that by taking all of our visual elements and all our sound elements. She'll get the packet and I'll get the packet. It’s a mentoring kind of a project but we’re going to reverse stereotypes since she’ll edit in film and I’ll edit digitally; we’ll have the exact same material and then her work and mine will be joined, displaying two different versions.
SIM: How does she perceive herself as a working artist versus your own perception of yourself as a working artist? Are there generational differences that you can discern, different approaches or sensibilities?
BH: I think in the case of Gina Carducci, I wanted to inspire her to make work because she hasn’t made a film for five years. Here was a talented person not using her talent. Like many women and men who come out of college and are used to the structure of that environment—due dates, assignments, etc.—once you’re out in the working world, you can lose your way. She works at a film lab so she’s working with film all day long. It’s hard to generate enthusiasm for her own work. But she’s so enthused now. She lives, drinks and breathes this film. I have to say, “Down, girl!.” I wanted to jumpstart her. The letting go will be in the editing process where we each do our own work. If we continued to work together through the editing process, there would be a concern that at the end, she would not make a film again. I don’t really think so in this case. At some point, the person who’s mentoring wants the one being mentored to recognize her own development and then there’s a letting go. This is the reason for this kind of editing structure. She’ll gain so much authority. The other leg up for her will be making the film with me. She’ll get it shown at the Museum of Modern Art and it’s only her second film. Her first film is great; she showed it at the Venice Film Festival [Stone Welcome Mat, 2003].
The bottom line is that I can’t generalize about a generation; I can only talk about this one person that I chose to work with to pass on my skills. She’s a technician so she’s very measured in her approach to film and I’m not a technician; in fact, one might say I’m the opposite of that. I work very spontaneously. We both mentored one another in those differences. That’s the great thing about collaborating. You get to be more than yourself.
SIM: What kind of characteristics does it take to be a working artist over the course of a lifetime?
BH: Belief in yourself: that you’re worth it, that you’ve got something to say and that it’s important to say it.
SIM: Does that belief ebb and flow? Is it fairly consistent? Do you have a choice in the matter?
BH: For me, it wasn’t so much a choice as much as it was a compulsion. I was driven to make work. I felt like I had a lot to say, especially after I came out. In my film history classes there was absolutely no women's cinema, let alone lesbian cinema. I spent a whole semester watching films at least three hours a week in this class and then we finally saw the films of Maya Deren [born, Eleanora Derenkosky]. Then I knew, for sure, I was a filmmaker. There was a whole blank screen to be filled.
I guess after a while I thought, if I kept making work, it wouldn’t be ignored. Stan Brakhage was my model; he made a hundred films. Like him, I have a discipline and a commitment. I don’t think you can make discoveries in your work unless you’re at it every day—discoveries in writing or interviewing techniques, whatever you’re doing. I have chosen to make this my life’s work. It never came up, an option to do something else.
SIM: Tell me more about how someone like Deren inspired and informed your own work.
BH: She was not only the director of her own films, she was in the films. Her presence in her films exhibited a kind of creative imagination I'd never seen before. You knew that an image of a person clad in black with a mirror had come from her own aesthetic decision or dream or vision. It gave me, and many others, the strength to believe in my own vision and put it out there, not do a traditional narrative or a traditional documentary, but to work in film as poetry. That’s what she writes about.
Also, there’s Man With a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov (1929). That inspired me because of the spontaneity, because the camera was a protagonist. Somehow the camera’s always been my friend. In fact, in one of my films, Synch Touch from 1981, I take it to bed with me. People film me with my camera in bed. Even when I took women out of the cinema and I was the woman behind the camera, you feel the camera as it’s swimming underwater in Pond and Waterfall ; you feel the presence of the gathering of that light by this machine. When I use the optical printer, I try not to hide the fact that I’m using a printer; I show the frameline; you hear the click of the printer in Optic Nerves .
SIM: Sensuality and an immediacy are markers of all your work. You’re very fluid in terms of form, as well, allowing the material to dictate the way in which you tell a certain story. A lot of your work strives for a three-dimensionality, a physical heft and weight to it, which is accomplished in many of your pieces. You also pay a lot of attention to sound and music, which create really rich counterpoints to your visuals.
BH: I did some experiments by leaving the sound completely off. In the instance of Multiple Orgasm , you see eight orgasms on the screen [four vaginal, four facial]. I left it silent because I wanted people to hear their neighbors in the theater breathing. But everybody held his or her breath [laughs]. So that didn’t work. Another film in which I experimented with this silence was Pond and Waterfall, which I just mentioned, an underwater film. I wanted people to be aware of how much water they have coursing through their veins and their blood. So I brought stethoscopes and had members of the audience wear them and listen to their own blood flow. That was their soundtrack. I also chucked that because everybody was spending so much time looking for some area on their body to listen to, they missed the film. So those films both remain silent experiences for the viewer, as much silence as there can be, anyway.
I like to work with composers. Meredith Monk is someone I work with a lot. Neil Rolnick is another one, as is Helen Thorington. There’s also Pamela Z. I’ve been lucky to have been involved with a number of composers who bring their talent to the film. I specialize in visual imagery; they specialize in aural imagery.
I’ve also collaborated with other filmmakers from time to time but only for three or four films. But sound collaboration is something I’ll always be interested in. For me, filmmaking is a very singular process, a very internal process.
SIM: How has your relationship with audience changed over the course of your career? Have there been certain times when your work seemed to resonate more forcefully than at other times due to what was happening in the modern culture?
BH: In the late 60s and through most of the 70s, I didn’t know there were places to show films like museums or cinemathèques. I showed my films at women’s centers, dyke coffee houses, bars, community buildings, anyplace where there could be a projector installed and a wall to project images upon. One day, Terry Cannon called me from the Los Angeles Filmforum and invited me out of my community in San Francisco to come down to L.A. I went down and was given a check at the end of the screening, imagine. I showed my lesbian films to a mixed audience, most of whom I don’t think were gay. People enjoyed them. I got paid for it. There was a program, an announcement in the Los Angeles Times. I saw a whole world open up.
Audiences have changed. They’re more sophisticated now. There’s still a small group who really like experimental films. But people also like to peg you. Audiences get stuck in their ways just as much as any of us can. I made a dozen documentaries during the 90s, essay documentaries for the most part; some are more traditional, as in cases when I was working in a country other than the US, or in a language other than English. When I returned to experimental film with A Horse Is Not a Metaphor, I think most people who knew my name thought I had made a straightforward film on what it’s like to have cancer. They wouldn’t know the depth of imagery I’ve used, the layering I use for the emotional development of the piece through verticality. Maya Deren talks about this poetic way of working, how a poem carries emotion versus how a story does; the images follow one another in a narrative. This poetic way of working is when images build upon one another. Mine builds in Horse through superimposition. So this is a way that I can let audiences know there’s been a change in the way I’m approaching current work. It behooves all of us to mix it up a bit and be more open to different ways in which an artist might work.
SIM: Thankfully, there are curators and programmers out there that will help to push that agenda a bit, although they’re few and far between. The stakes are pretty high for artists now and being creative in the work is not enough anymore, somehow. The creativity has to extend to how you supplant that work into the larger community. One might say that audiences now are too sophisticated, quick to have certain expectations, spoiled for choice.
BH: I never chose to make big budget films, which perhaps might be an expectation after a certain point in one’s career. I never chose to make films that would be shown commercially. I don’t think about meeting anyone else’s expectations. It would be fine if I did but it’s just not my predilection to do so. We are definitely more sophisticated—we have the Internet, YouTube where you can see, literally, anything, anytime; we can download programs whenever we want. But still, experimental cinema doesn’t have its place in the world that it should have. It should be just as strong as documentary film.
SIM: Why do you think it isn’t?
BH: Because young people aren’t exposed to it. How many eighth graders see the work of Maya Deren? I’ve taken my films, not the sexual films, but the underwater films, for instance, and shown them to kids that age. They all got it, of course. I think that’s the reason why we shut down and just learn that there’s "Howdy Doody"—well, that’s dating me, but—you know, "Sesame Street" and whatever else is on now.
SIM: Well, kids are always being talked at; they’re still not listened to in any kind of conscientious way by adults. They aren’t really allowed to take in things without some kind of mitigating filter. What you also have in your work, to a large degree, is a lot of joy and humor which is very childlike, no matter the subject matter or how it’s treated. That resonates deeply with anyone of any age. You can’t fake that kind of thing. It’s very effective in breaking silences, breaking societal rigidity or its denial to acknowledge a whole population of people.
BH: I think that by playing you can definitely change people’s minds. But it’s not like that was a conscious decision on my part to use humor for that affect or to think of play as a political strategy. It is, but I wasn’t conscious of it. I just think it’s more fun; I mean if you can find a way to enjoy, especially if you’re not getting paid for what you’re doing as many of us artists are not, well, we have to find our own pleasure. Pleasure can be in the making of work or the discovery of a creative impulse; concomitantly, you get to share that pleasure with others. Maybe they will enjoy more, too. Minds are changed through laughter, maybe more so than strict political treatises. That’s not always the case. There’s some humor in Nitrate Kisses  but it’s also a very serious film.
SIM: What’s happening in experimental work now that excites you?
BH: I’ve been seeing a lot of this throw-away kind of art, in terms of visual art. I go to galleries a lot and I see this way of being hugely creative in putting things together out of refuse, found objects or cut up pieces of velvet thrown on the floor. There’s a feeling that anything can be art right now. It’s a period where a certain kind of art like “abstract expressionism” or “geometric art” or “feminist art” is not dominating the field. In other words, everybody is out there working. There’s a rebellion against the wealth of the 80s and 90s before the recession. So that if you make something out of ice cream sticks and Kleenex, it’s a good way to show a creative piece made by a creative mind out of the simplest materials. I think it’s an attempt to shake up the curators and collectors and the big auction houses that have raised the prices so high. Those things become a truer sign of the times. And, in turn, they are curated, gathered, purchased. It’s all cyclical.
SIM: It’s so hard to stem the tide of the consumer culture in which we live. Set in motion several decades ago, it really shows no signs of faltering, although the economic times now dictate a more conservative and responsible approach to how we spend our money. But it is relentless, nonetheless. It still seems that if one’s work is not commodified in some way, somehow you’ve missed the boat. There’s an intense fear of obscurity.
BH: It’s hard when there are just so many celebrities that are allowed an extraordinary amount of attention. But I tend to ignore most or all of that kind of thing; I don’t know who the movie stars are. I’m sort of a cultural nerd. I don’t really pay much attention. But that’s not the case in terms of “rich” culture, just the “junk” culture that’s around. Sometimes the celebrity is well-deserved but the big deal about famous people doesn’t affect me much. I want to talk about somebody who’s really pushing art and is having a show opening. Carrie Moyer is a painter I respect very much. Sadie Benning has a show up right now at the Whitney, which I’ve heard is very good. There’s Derek Jarman.
[She gets up and grabs a bunch of DVDs stacked on a desk.] What do I have here? I showed my work at the London Film Archive. They’re not allowed to pay you money for your work, but they asked me what I wanted from their collection and they gave me these. Chris Welsby does beautiful landscape work in his experimental films. Here’s [Abbas] Kiarostami from Iran; François Ozon, a very sensual filmmaker and I love the French language; Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, one of my favorite films ever; Still Life by Jia Zhang-ke which is a brilliant film; Looking for Langston by Isaac Julien, another great filmmaker from England. Oh, this is one of my favorites, Woman in the Dunes by [Hioshi] Teshigahara—it’s an incredibly sensuous film, skin against the sand, the black and white cinematography, the sand constantly coming down, always falling; there can be just one image in a film that inspires you and then you love that film. Oh, this is great, too; have you seen Pasolini’s Salò? That really shocked me when I saw it. I love it. I love taking taboos and breaking them and he was a master. He had people eating in the toilet and shitting at the table publicly. It just makes us think how we’ve proscribed ourselves culturally in a very strict way. None of us are free.
Taboos are there to be broken—why were they formed and who formed them and how many centuries old are they? Where are we now? Why can’t we talk about menstruation? We are now, but for a long time we weren’t. Menopause, cancer, all of the things that are the “fear” words, you know? Old ladies making love? They’re not sexual anymore. There’s nothing that’s sacred as far as I’m concerned, that shouldn’t be looked at, shouldn’t be explored.
SIM: For your forthcoming book, what themes emerged for you as you were writing it and structuring it? You have this opportunity to write your own “tome” if you will, instead of having somebody else do it.
BH: It has been a great opportunity. Essentially, the book is by decade. It’s the easiest way, really, because each decade, I took a different direction in my work. In the 70s it was a time of coming out, both physically and with my films. I wanted to put lesbians on the screen for the 20th century and into the 21st, so there were a whole group of films that did break taboos from that period. In the 80s, I wanted to be known as an artist because I was only known as a lesbian filmmaker. That wasn’t the way I defined myself; I defined myself as an artist. So I took women out of my cinema and kept working on films that exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art until I got my own show. There was also the thrill of working with an optical printer. I tried to become a painter before I became a filmmaker but I decided I could use every frame as if it were a painting. With the optical printer, I was able to paint the film as I did in Optic Nerves , a film about my grandmother in a nursing home. John Hanhardt saw it. I was teaching in Chicago and I sent him a print. He called me up, told me it was brilliant and that he wanted to put me in the [Whitney] Biennial. That put me on the map as a film artist.
From there, we moved into identity politics in the 90s and I felt I had already been there way before then. I was doing that in the 70s. But I returned to it with more of a “cultural studies” theoretical bent and brought theory into my practice, developing an intellectually rich cinema, as well as this hallmark of sensuality that I’d done in the 70s. Now, in the 2000s, I’m looking at mortality; I’m looking at death and that shouldn’t be something that we’re afraid of talking about.
SIM: That’s the taboo of all taboos, seemingly, beyond anything else.
BH: I’m reading David Rieff’s book on Susan Sontag and her fear of death. [Rieff is Sontag’s son; the book is called Swimming in a Sea of Death.] It’s quite extraordinary because she was such an intellectual and faced so many things and had such a difficult time coming to terms with her own demise. That’s been in my films since ’89 or ’90 where I danced with a skeleton looking it right in the face [Vital Signs, 1991]. But that’s quite different than having an illness and seeing your own bones deteriorate because the chemotherapy is destroying them. We know death through life, our vitality and the appreciation of it, being conscious of that vitality. All that is coming together in the work that I’ve made and am making now.
The book has newly-written intros to each of those periods, followed by reprints of articles I’ve written. There will also be the first thirty pages of a novel I wrote in 1970. So it’s a diverse collection touching on many things, sexuality, film form and structure, the politics of abstraction. It’s more of a compilation, not so much a memoir that I sat down to write except for these introductions for each section. It was an interesting process; I liked it. It’s tedious right now because I’m checking facts and dates, getting permissions from photographers, trying to track them down. I’m also working with an amazing editor. Amy comes over and looks at photos with me. They’re too close to me. We’re doing fifty photos for the book. So we’ll look at the 70s, for instance, and she’ll pick out the ones she thinks we should use. Later, I’ll look those choices over and realize her choices were exactly right. It’s too hard for me to see. I really respect her eye. My partner [Florrie Burke] helps me with the writing sometimes since she’s so good with the English language and grammar and Amy does the fine corrections. So that’s where we are. When I get the galleys back, we’ll do the whole process again. It’s a lot of work. I always wanted to have a book; I always wanted to be in the library.
SIM: I look forward to seeing and reading the finished product of all your hard work. Thank you so much.