Barbara Hammer in Conversation with Carmel Curtis

Q&A

Barbara Hammer 

Barbara Hammer

Q&A

BY

Carmel Curtis

The pioneering experimental filmmaker joined Metrograph on December 17, 2017, for an extensive conversation.

Since the late 1960s, pioneering experimental filmmaker and artist Barbara Hammer has made films exploring lesbian subjectivity and sexuality, politics and representation, and visceral manifestations of pleasure and discomfort, using the camera as an extension of her body to see, touch, explore, and often laugh.

In collaboration with the Academy Film Archive, and coinciding with a comprehensive exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art entitled ”Barbara Hammer: Evidentiary Bodies,” Metrograph presented a program of shorts on December 17, 2017, highlighting Hammer’s use of play as a form of disobedience and resistance to institutionalized normalities, including Play or ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes’ (1970), A Gay Day (1973), Sisters! (1974), Menses (1974), Superdyke (1975), Parisian Blinds (1984), Barbara Ward Will Never Die (1968), and Two Bad Daughters (1988).

Barbara Hammer
Barbara Hammer

THE VARIOUS PIECES THAT WE SAW TODAY LOOK AT PLAY AND MISCHIEF IN VARIOUS WAYS. SOME OF THE PLAY/MISCHIEF, OF COURSE, THAT WE SEE IN MENSES AND SUPERDYKE, THAT ARE FUNNY AND FANTASTIC, AND THEN SOME OF THE PLAY/MISCHIEF THAT WE SEE IN THE EXPERIMENTATION OF THE MEDIUM OF FILM AND VIDEO ITSELF, AND YOU KNOW, JUST THE BREAKING OF THE RULES IN GENERAL, I THINK. CAN YOU START US OFF BY TALKING A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW YOU HAVE ALWAYS BROKEN THE RULES, SO MUCH?

Gosh. How far back do I go?

YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF BREAKING THE RULES.

Oh, gosh, I was really awful. Everybody was afraid of polio. And I think I wanted attention, which I always do. I told my mother, ”I can’t move my neck.“ And I did this for hours and hours until she was ready to take me to the doctor. And then I let her know that I was acting. And that was, like, breaking a rule.

That‘s a child trying to have power over an adult, a parent. Oh my god... Sorority. I was in a sorority at UCLA, and did they have rules, oh my god. I became the house mouse. And nobody knew who the house mouse was. And I would take somebody else’s typewriter, every week, and I would write some secret that the girls had. I was trying to ferment grape juice in my bed, my bunk bed. I’d covered it, and had a hot lamp on it to try to get alcohol. But meanwhile, the house mouse posted these signs around town, the dorm that we were in. And I was never discovered. Now I’m a little bit reserved. At 78, I think I...

ARE YOU SURE?

Well, I did ask the gallery owner of Recess Gallery if I could bring in a coffin into her gallery, and die there. Yeah. And then my lover put an X on that.

THAT‘S RESERVED.

Yeah. I don’t know, I guess trying to deal with what mortality is going to be like, and how to make an act of it, you know? Yeah. It might be a private act. Maybe my first!

IN THIS LAST ONE—WELL, IN ALL OF THEM—THERE’S THAT DYNAMIC BETWEEN THE PUBLIC AND THE PRIVATE, AND HOW PLAY AND SUBVERSION PLAY A PART IN THOSE TWO SPACES. CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MAKING A MOVIE—THE VERY SOLO PROCESS OF EDITING AND PUTTING TOGETHER A MOVIE, IN COMPARISON TO THE COMMUNITY THAT WE SEE IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA?

Well, two different kinds of processes there. Like with Superdyke, that was a performance. We gathered the women together, and we went out, we made our signs, and we performed through the city. One thing led to another. I think it was shot in a day and a half, or two days, you know? And there wasn’t much editing to do, except for to tell the story, so to speak. If you go to something like the very first film that we saw, that’s me when I’m married, and in a basement, the house that we built in the woods, influenced by the hippies, and going to the hippie farms they’d been. They‘d left Haight-Ashbury because of all the dope that was going on there, and they went out to the woods to smoke. And this guy, a painter, Bill Wheeler, gave over his land. I used to go there and hang out, and listen to the people talk about Gurdjieff, and I noticed that the kids weren’t having any education, so I started trying to teach them.

But there’s no editing in that film either. It’s me projecting, with a slide projector, with filters, with a movie projector onto a tissue paper screen. I’d have all these projectors going, and I’d be back behind the screen, with my Super 8 camera, trying to film. I’d film what looked good. One camera would run out, or a slide projector would stop, I‘d have to stop, run back, and start everything again.

We were building our houses in the woods, and we’re dancing wildly, and trying to move from our middle class. My ex-husband was a working-class guy, trying to move and break that form, and be free. I don’t see any editing in there, very little intercutting. Paula [Levine] and I, when we made Two Bad Daughters, we made it in this psychiatrist’s house. Oh my god, that really ended her friendship with the psychiatrist’s wife.

He felt if any of his clients had seen us playing at the piano, with the Man Ray motif, that would really throw them into a tantrum, or a trauma, or you know, do something irrepairable to their psyche. He was a powerful patriarch, and that‘s one of the reasons why we were being so bad, and trying to be badass, you know? Just trying to kick open some fuckin‘ space. Because everything was so controlled, and it still is. The only way we behave in society… nobody wants to do anything different.

I was at a party last night, we finally got talking about sex, and things livened up. Instead of being, ”nice, nice, nice,” you know? So that’s what gives us life. Something new and vital. And I think we all need to crack open a bit, and loosen up, and find another part of ourselves. That’s kind of like philosophy, rather than editing.

“I WAS AT A PARTY LAST NIGHT, AND WE FINALLY GOT TALKING ABOUT SEX, AND THINGS LIVENED UP . . . I THINK WE ALL NEED TO CRACK OPEN A BIT, AND LOOSEN UP, AND FIND ANOTHER PART OF OURSELVES.”

MAYBE WE DON’T HAVE TO THINK OF EDITING IN TERMS OF A TRADITIONAL FORM OF EDITING, BUT THESE EXPERIMENTATIONS THAT YOU’RE USING, THAT YOU'RE DOING WITH ALL THE SLIDE PROJECTORS, AND THE MANIPULATION OF THE FILM, PERHAPS THERE’S AN EDITING OF THE MEDIUM ITSELF THAT IS MAYBE NOT WHAT WE THINK OF, WHEN WE THINK OF TRADITIONAL EDITING, BUT IS STILL A CONSTRUCTION OF MAKING YOUR ART. IN THINKING ABOUT THE BOOK THAT YOU’LL BE SIGNING OUTSIDE MOMENTARILY, CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE SENSE OF COMMUNITY, AND THE SPACES THAT YOU WERE INTERACTING WITH WHEN YOU WERE SHOOTING SOME OF THESE PHOTOGRAPHS? AND HOW, PERHAPS, THAT PLAYS INTO THIS SENSE OF FUCKING THINGS UP, AND BREAKING THINGS OPEN?

I am just thrilled with this book. I really have to thank Capricious and Company Gallery for producing it. Because these were negatives, one thousand negatives that I shot in the ’70s, that have never been shown. I never even looked at ‘em. All I did was write on the contact sheet where they were shot, and who might have been in them. Andrew Durbin was involved as well, and Anika Sabin, and Sophie Mörner, and we all went through and selected. These were never shot with the idea of printing them and showing them. They were my lovers. They were play-acting in Hornby Island, with a woman I was having an affair with. We met a young girl, we crawled out of a cave as if we were birthing ourselves. I mean, you know, ’70s... [Laughs] Never forget.

Then there’s performance work in there, and the wonderful aerial motivity work of Terry Sendgraff, who used the trapezes. And these are printed on vellum, as if they were film, because they’re transparent, translucent. And so you have three images, let’s say, of women on trapezes, and you can see through—one would be magenta, one would be orange, the last one might be gray—you can see through them as if I had layered in a film. And so this is throughout the book, I think, in three or four places. And I would just take my camera with me everywhere. If I didn’t have a movie camera, then I had my Nikon, or Olympus, or whatever I was using, and I’m sure I printed a few of them. I went down to Guatemala with my BMW, by myself. My Bolex on the back, and that‘s the motorcycle shot, where I‘m in my leather suit.

I mean, it was such a wonderful decade. It was so full, and it was full of argument. And heartbreak. I mean, I caused a few. But I also had my own. I was, like, the fourth lover of this one fairly well-known poet in the Bay Area, poet/writer. And we’re sitting in the bar, Scott’s, one night. And she’s not looking at me, she would just keep watching the door to see if one of her other lovers comes in. And that’s when I decided, I’m taking off for Guatemala. [Laughs]

That first film, A Gay Day, it was really hard to read. So this is the first time we’ve seen it projected. The original has been lost, and we were making this print from a print. So you don’t have much contrast. But I was against gay marriage. And I don’t even know if you can read that in the film. Could you...? Oh, okay. Good. Because you did have that open marriage book, there, right? With the title, and...? Okay. It’s obvious. [Laughs] I won’t worry about that anymore, thank you. But we’ll try to do another print with more contrast in it.

CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT SOME OF THE PROCESS OF THE RESTORATION WORK THAT’S BEEN GOING ON FOR A NUMBER OF THESE FILMS? YOU SAID THAT A NUMBER OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS, YOU HAVEN’T SEEN, THAT WERE FEATURED IN THE BOOK. BUT A NUMBER OF THESE FILMS YOU HAVE NOT SEEN FOR YEARS AS WELL, IS THAT RIGHT?

I’ve been working with Mark Toscano at the Academy for the Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Film Archive, and they have all my films now, and they‘re really great. They’ve given them to Metrograph to show today, and they’re restoring a lot of them. We got an Avant-Garde Masters Grant with EAI, and the Academy both applying. Fifteen or so films?

ONE OF THE LARGEST NFPF GRANTS EVER, I THINK, TO A SINGLE PERSON.

Is that right? Wow. So we still have an audience. We’re only, like, halfway through the list. And the Academy, on their own, without even that grant, is going to restore all my films. That is amazing. Thank you, Academy! I wish we could send that to Mark. he‘s so great.

Like, he’s sending me two films in the new year. Double Strength, and Truth Is the Daughter of Time, another very early ’70s film. And I‘m going to look at them, and then I talk about if it should have more color to it, bring up the brightness, this is too red—whatever. And then he goes back, and he really wants to make the print just the way the artist made it. And even now, when I say, ”Oh, there‘s these editing mistakes... So when you make the digital file, would you please cut out that flash frame?“ We argue. He says, ”You made it that way. This is history. We should keep it.“ You know? I go, ”But now, I’m alive, and I see the problem with it.“ [Laughs] So, I win on the digital. He wins on the film.

HOW YOU THINK ABOUT THE VERY VARIED USE OF MUSIC?

Well, thinking about the silent films, I think that the film rhythm brings its own sense of sound to us. With Multiple Orgasm, which we didn’t show today, it‘s a silent film, and you have eight orgasms. Five of the face, contracting, and four of the vulva contracting. I wanted the audience to listen to their own breath. In Pond and Waterfall, another silent film that‘s at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, you wear a headset, and then you take a stethoscope to listen to your own body. Because our body is 80 percent fluid, and we’re watching rain come down, making a pond. We go down the pond into the ocean, after we go over a waterfall, of course. And then a huge wave comes, and the cycle repeats, as water evaporates up in the sky.

So you listen to your own cycle of water. It’s not always the traditional sound that I‘m thinking about. In Superdyke, I just wanted something as crazy and light as the film was. So Margaret Moore actually would make up those music sounds, and I would say, ”Yes, that’d work.“ No No Nooky T.V., where the computer talks, the first computers only spoke in a male voice.

So the film opens, ”I have a male voice. You would not think to give women a voice. But women will eventually have a voice. So there.“ And then the film begins with kind of a pixelated sound made by a digital machinery. Or in Dyketactics, I got the use of a Moog synthesizer at Mills College, which works with avant garde music all the time, and they showed me how to turn knobs, and how to record what I was doing. And then they left me there all day. And that's how I got the soundtrack for Dyketactics, by playing. Really, play is crucial to making these inroads into a new kind of language. Even now with being the #MeToo generation that we all are, intergenerationally, we could use play. I don‘t know how yet. But I leave it to you. Because we don‘t want this to become burdened to the point where there will be this backlash that everybody seems to be talking about right now. There must be some way of raising our arms, smelling our armpits, kicking, using bodily gestures, something like Pussy Riot did on the alter. Some way to bring back some kind of zest, and…I don‘t want to say comedy. It‘s not a comedic affair. But some kind of... What‘s a good adjective...

MISCHIEF...?

Yes. Serious mischief.

SERIOUS MISCHIEF.

Serious mischief, thank you. We did it together, see? That‘s why you work in collaboration.

“REALLY, PLAY IS CRUCIAL TO MAKING THESE INROADS INTO A NEW KIND OF LANGUAGE. EVEN NOW WITH BEING THE #METOO GENERATION THAT WE ALL ARE, INTERGENERATIONALLY, WE COULD USE PLAY.”

TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE FILM A GAY DAY, AND WHAT WAS THE RECEPTION TO IT?

What I was thinking about at the time was… So, I was straight. And then I came out, and for the first time in my life, I was attractive to other people. It was to women. Because to men, I hadn‘t been. I had been, I don‘t know what, too assertive or whatever. I wasn‘t that attractive, and I hadn‘t been hit on. But suddenly I was being hit on. Now how could I say no? You know?

HOW COULD YOU SAY NO?

And be in a monogamous relationship, when it was a revolutionary time, when we were just finding out what was it like for a woman to smile at you, and mean something with that smile, beyond ”I like you. I want you.“ You know, that was amazing. And I really did not want to be in a monogamous relationship. It was all personal.

You look at today, I have a spouse of 30 years, and I‘m totally loyal, and monogamous. So it‘s really the cultural time that I think we were talking about, although I have friends here in the audience that, you know, are multi-playful in all kinds of sexual practices. So it continues. How was it received? It wasn‘t shown much. It‘s rarely rented... You know, it‘s hard for me to answer that.

DO YOU REMEMBER WHERE IT WAS SHOWN AT ALL?

It might have been shown at the Cinematheque in San Francisco, because that‘s usually where I showed work. Maybe at Frameline Film Festival. I can say one story, when I was coming out. All my films were heterosexual at that time, I met with a group of lesbians in a home, and I showed them my films with a Super 8 projector, and they‘re films that you’ve seen like The Baptism, where my ex-husband and I, and neighbors, are nude and baptizing each other in a pond with antlers—very California. And... [Laughs] the women left. There were only two lesbians left afterwards—they walked out on me. And I didn‘t understand it. And I said to these two who stayed, ”Why did they leave?“ And they said, ”They don‘t want to see men‘s bodies on the screen.“ And I said, ”Well why did you stay?“ And they had a girl child, and a boy child. And so they did not feel that kind of separatism, and antagonism. But so there wasn‘t a... There was a fixity. There wasn‘t an openness to bringing in your past history, into the newly formed lesbian communities.

And with Dyketactics, I put Alix Dobkin‘s music on the soundtrack, without asking her. Because—yeah. I didn‘t know that you asked. [Laughs] You know? I wasn‘t trying to break a rule then, I just was ignorant, and young, and thought, ”Oh, there‘s a 33’ out there, why can‘t I take ‘Women Loving Women‘ from Lavender Women, and put it on my soundtrack for my film with, ”Every Woman Can Be a Lesbian‘”—it worked beautifully. And then somebody at school said, when I showed it during Film Finals, "Well, you know, you don‘t have credit for Alix Dobkin on it. You know, what did she say about this?" So I called her up, and she said, “Can you promise me that no men will see this film?" And you know, I had already shown it at Film Finals. I said, ”No, I can‘t.“ And she said, ”Well, you can‘t use my music.“ And so separatism was alive and well at that time, and that‘s when I went to Mills and made the—the new soundtrack, the electronic...

But Alix Dobkin and I both lived in Woodstock for a while. We had a little cabin up there, Florrie and I. And I‘d run into her in town, and I noticed she was with some grandchildren who were boys. And I asked her again, and she said, “Oh, sure.“ [Laughs] You know? [laughter] So, you know, flexibility. Time. So now I made Dyketactics Times Two, which is rarely shown. People really don‘t know about it. So you have the Moog synthesizer track with the images, and then you have the very same images with the Alix Dobkin track. And you see the film in a totally different way. And this came from Shirley Clarke, my predecessor by far in her work in the ‘50s, and Bridges-Go-Round—the Museum of Modern Art has it in their collection—where she shoots the bridges of New York, all different kinds of color filters, beautiful film, superimposition [screened with two different soundtracks]. And you don‘t believe you‘re seeing the very same footage. Because the sound—for the sound question woman—really influences how we relate. So in a way, you know, thinking back to Brakhage and his silent films, how that rhythm, making the soundtrack may be the purest form of sound, for experimental film.

What a nice audience... Yeah. This is a large theater. Wow... I hope you guys didn‘t suffer too much. This is a lot of early work. You know what I mean? I mean, it really is. I kept thinking, ”Come on.“ There was no title to the first film—Play or ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes’—and I kept thinking, "Please end. Please end. Please end." I mean, it‘s, you know, fun for the filmmaker, because it took me back to my basement, and playing around, and you know, that period of my life. But for an audience, you know... Yeah. It‘s a little hard.

I THINK THAT IT’S ADMIRABLE TO BE SHOWN AN EXAMPLE OF JUST TRYING SOMETHING, AND THAT’S SOMETHING THAT YOU DO SO MUCH, YOU JUST GIVE IT A TRY.

Well, I gave you a try, and look what you‘ve done. Look at that exhibit at Leslie-Lohman. You and Staci Bu Shea... I don‘t know. You‘ve brought out a world of mind that I had in the closet. All my paintings, my photography, installations that have rarely been seen. Even the films you selected are not the well-known ones. And the performance work... I just really want to thank you for being inventive and courageous and creative as a curator. It's really been wonderful to work with you. •

Carmel Curtis works as an archivist in the Moving Image Archive of Indiana University; is a board member of Screen Slate; and is a proud member of XFR Collective (pronounced “transfer collective”), a volunteer run group that works to increase community access to at-risk audiovisual media.

Menses
Menses