Auto Italia interview Barbara Hammer and Stuart Comer, 2012 [Part 1].
This interview was conducted after the conclusion of the Tate’s Hammer season – in which Auto Italia participated, presenting Kate Cooper, Leslie Kulesh and Jess Weisner’s performative screening It’s Like Staring Someone Out Who’s Not Even Looking at You as part of Programme 15: The Scopophiliac Audience.
Barbara Hammer is a pioneer of lesbian and queer cinema. One of the first filmmakers to openly address and document lesbian sexuality, Hammer’s prolific output has made her a pivotal figure in avant-garde and experimental filmmaking. Stuart Comer is the curator of film at Tate Modern and worked closely with Barbara to curate the recent season The Fearless Frame.
This interview was conducted by Kate Cooper and Richard John Jones with questions compiled from submissions by Theo Cook, Leslie Kulesh, Calo Giametta and Jess Wiesner.
Here we present the first section of the two-part interview.
[Barbara Hammer, Audience, 1982 © Barbara Hammer]
Auto Italia: Barbara, you mentioned that you felt different about the work when you weren’t able to introduce it. What is the difference for you personally between being there to create a space for the film and also knowing that the film does exist without you.
Barbara Hammer: To start off I must say that I had the privilege to be at most of the screenings. That was very special for me as I could not only look at the films as an ‘observer’ of sorts, but also hear and feel the audience reactions. I didn’t see the goddess programme – which was something I wanted to go to as I rarely see those films. I can only imagine what that programme looked like and hear responses from other people. I am more equivocal about those films as the goddess research I undertook only lasted a few years and ultimately I rejected that direction in my work. But I don’t know… what is the energy in the room with any person in the audience if the film was projected with the maker in the room? I think it’s a bigger question than just me.
Stuart Comer: Barbara doesn’t do anything lightly and anything she takes on she really commits to. I don’t think of her exclusively as a filmmaker, I also think of her as a performer and a teacher; three things that really come together in the screenings when she’s present.
Barbara just walks right through barriers. She really wants to connect with the audience and has a deep drive to connect with people more generally – whether that’s through the films or direct contact with the audience, or both.
The films speak for themselves – I should think fifty years from now anyone who sees Dyketactics for the first time will still be moved by it. There’s something very primal about it – it is literally the beginning of a certain type of lesbian cinema –I think the film’s innovation will remain clear.
[Barbara Hammer, Changing the Shape of Film, 1979 © Barbara Hammer]
AI: What institutional brick walls have you come up against in getting your work shown? I was also wondering if you have ever been seriously “cockblocked” and are there any funny stories? I don’t know if you are familiar with “cockblocking” but I like the term because it implies that you make love to your audience and work with your audience in a way that very few filmmakers do.
B: I’d never heard the word before but of course I knew what it meant right away. You know, the thing about that is you never know when you are cockblocked. Whether it is by a committee that decides surreptitiously whether they will or will not show your work (It could be a closeted cockblock!) But I’m sure I’ve been blocked many times. Last October I had a gallery screening at FIAC in Paris where the KOW gallery from Berlin represents some of my work. They set up a really beautiful space with three of my 1970s films playing on LED screens and people were responding to it. Then these two men came round whom I found out later were the judges. There was this prize that if you won you got a show at the Palais De Tokyo. One judge was tall and the other short and they came in and didn’t realise I was the filmmaker and was present. The shorter one said “lets go and see this space” or “let’s see Barbara Hammer’s work”, something like that, and the taller one said “oh no, she’s a lesbian and we are not going to show that kind of work”. He did not come into the space. Later, the other came in later and was very interested in the new installation about oil spills that I was showing him on my computer.
The taller one knew my name and knew my work and knew that it was “radical” or “feminist” or “70s Women’s Art”; some tag like that and so there is a pre-judgment there already. The idea that you don’t need to look at work because you think that you already know what it is. The gallerists themselves chose me because they thought I was an example of democracy at work. They thought that I was making ’out‘ lesbian work which was exercising my democratic principle to be part of society. I thought wow – no one has ever said that about my work and I think it’s totally true!
S: I’m now in my early forties, and my generation was the first, really, that was taught feminist art history as a core part of the curriculum at the undergrad level, as part of a general shift in art history that started many years earlier. The fact that people like me are now in positions in museums and extending that critique into our work and our programmes is just part of the process. There have been so many important lesbian artists, over many generations, but somehow it still feels like institutions have not provided enough of a platform or context for their work. On the heels of important exhibitions like WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, it felt like the right time to do a retrospective of Barbara Hammer’s work right now. Many people seemed curious about the Tate screenings. The response was unbelievably favourable—from the audience members that I spoke to anyway—and I hope Barbara’s season will have a strong ripple effect.
B: As for funny stories about cockblocking… I’m not sure. There was a screening of Double Strength, which is the film of a lesbian relationship with images of women in the nude on a trapeze. The projectionist turned off the projector. I had to talk to him about freedom of expression before he would turn it back on.
There was also this screening of Multiple Orgasms at a women’s film conference in Toronto and they had censorship in the province. I don’t know if they still do but they did in the 1980s. The censor told me that she would have to confiscate my film if I put it on the projector. I couldn’t afford to lose that print and go into battle over it. So instead I held the print in my arms and in the 6 minutes that it would take to screen the film, I told the erotic stories that the cinematographer had told me. These were the stories that had helped me masturbate to climax because the concept of the film is that we don’t know what our own orgasms look like. That was a great performance and I would really like to do that again. It was really fun and I really had to think on my feet. That is what I love, I love to be challenged and figure out a way to turn the situation round. I’m not always successful but I like to have that challenge.
AI: I think that relates to our question earlier about whether the film was complete without you there – an example of how you have to problem solve if the films can’t be shown.
B: Yes, but on the other hand when we ship the prints they’re gone. I have such a limited lifespan and when you work so hard you want the work to last longer than 80 years. I want the work to last for 500 years or more.
[Barbara Hammer, Double Strength, 1978 © Barbara Hammer]
AI: I was thinking about the films you made during the 80s – how you chose not to appear in them at this point. I was interested about this idea of representation. The idea of producing images and ‘representative’ film in today’s context where people are, more than ever, withdrawing from representation. I was wondering how you might take that into the future.
B: That’s a very complex question. At first, I was just wild about representation because there simply hadn’t been any of lesbians or specific to female bodily functions like menstruation, menopause, ageing. That’s why I made so many films in the ‘70s, one right after another, because of all this invisibility. Then it was, as I mentioned, a strategic move, which people have mixed opinions about, to take women out of my films. This was to get my work recognised as fine art. My films primarily had just been viewed by community members who weren’t necessarily artists or versed in avant-garde films. I took women out of my films, some of the films, not all of them, in the 80s and that was successful as these new films were appreciated (Bent Time, Optic Nerve, Endangered) and did get me on the map in a new way.
Also, when I did the work in the 70s it was criticised for being essentialist. It was hard to work with that criticism in my face. Finally by the time I did No No Nookie TV in 1987 I was able to talk about whether lesbian representation was within the frame of the moving image or is it framed? In other words is it framed like in a poor trial, where someone tries to frame you for something you didn’t do? That came at a good moment to think about how I could make a lesbian film without putting an image in the screen so I made a film using text as image.
Then in the 90s there was a return of identity politics and it was very cool to bring out representation and talk about it again but in a post-modern way. Now, I would like to do something about the old body, the aged body. This is something that would be representational. I’m called towards that because it hasn’t been done. Ok – there are two old lesbians making love in Nitrate Kisses, but that isn’t enough. So that idea is in my mind.
S: There a lot of people in the UK working in this area now, rethinking histories of early feminist work and identity politics, for instance your series, Bodies Assembling [3 December-11 December 2011, Auto Italia South East], which was trying to rethink or resituate Cinenova’s collection and work from the ‘70s within the context of more recent practice and discourse. I was interested to situate Barbara’s work within this discussion that has been evolving recently in London amongst a number of artists, curators and spaces.
But Barbara is very bold about addressing her body as a sexual object and that’s something that has been absent from a lot of the discussions in London. I feel like a lot of the recent projects here have somewhat de-sexualised the discourse. It has focused more on bodies as economic and political properties than as physical entities, and I think both conversations are important.
For me, it was really nice to be able to connect Barbara’s work with the discourse that Auto Italia were establishing. I’m curious about what I see as a return to an interest in the haptic and in touch, which is so crucial to Barbara’s work. I think it’s one of the key issues we’re all grappling with right now as things become more and more virtual online. I was glad your screening involved virtual images and was coming to grips with the gap between digital avatars on screen and people performing live actions in the audience.
AI: It just struck me that maybe there’s a transition in Barbara’s work from being autobiographical – for example the work in the ‘70s being very much about her and her situation to moving into an auto-ethnographic approach – taking a distance from the position she took in the ‘70s but still making work about herself.
S: I wanted to call Barbara’s retrospective ‘The Fearless Frame’ because she is fearless, she’s unbelievably confident in her skin and never hesitates to take risks. She’s made incredible efforts to constantly push herself both by locating new boundaries that she can cross and by trying to critically assess what it means to cross them.
AI: After the Scopophiliac screening you mentioned over email something about different audiences and people not necessarily taking risks about where they would go to see work – where they would put their own bodies for example – I wondered if you’d like to talk a little more about that. You sort of set us an assignment that we would both go to places that were new territories for us and report back…
B: I’d forgotten that I said that, but it sounds like me!
AI: If it sounds like that’s familiar then that’s sort of the same thing. It’s about taking risks and finding yourself in places that you didn’t know before.
B: Well yes – then have you done any? Report back!
AI: Well I felt like the whole of your screening series we went to was unfamiliar territory for me! I’d never watched a lot of lesbian cinema, I haven’t watched much pornography – so I was really interested in some of this discussion about the CGI women in the work we presented being quite shocking because I feel like the images you’re making could be seen as shocking, that these images that Kate Cooper and Leslie Kulesh and some of the other artists were talking about seem alienating, negative or weird and by presenting them they were trying to understand that and work through it. Maybe in a similar way to some of the films you were making like Multiple Orgasm – actually trying to understand how to represent things, or represent what is maybe un-representable. In the instance of CGI women, it is this fake, weird computer world that might not actually relate to anything or be part of this ‘representational continuum’.
B: I’m really thrilled that you put yourself in a new situation – you finished the assignment!
AI: I took a close friend who wasn’t familiar with your work to a lot of your screenings and I think he became your biggest fan! It’s interesting because I would say that he is not your usual audience but was really interested in your methodology as a filmmaker and was fascinated by that and it was really interesting for me to hear his take on your films – not as a lesbian, not as a woman, not as an artist per se but as someone who interested in producing moving image or in “filmmaking” as a whole idea.
B: Yes, and I thought this is a perfect example to draw the conversation into a circle because I think that my being present at each screening, in this case, made that cinema open to him – it made it provocative, it challenged and it took it from the realm of representation – lesbian cinema – to cinema. Because anyone could see, if they were listening to me, that that’s where my interests lie today, I can’t say I’d say that in 1970, but today. And that’s another example of the filmmaker being present and so, in this case, making the work available to people who might decide not to go see it.
[Barbara Hammer, Sync Touch, 1981 © Barbara Hammer]
S: One of my agendas in general is to try and open up this kind of work to wider audiences; it deserves to be seen. When I had gone to Barbara’s screenings in the past, the vast majority of the audience was gay women. At the Tate screenings, I would say lesbians made up just over half of the audience, so I hope we managed to open the discussion about her work to other communities and other perspectives.
One of Tate’s core ambitions is to connect people to art and to each other. This is a goal that Barbara shares, I think, and she accomplishes it such an immediate and personal way. I’m still curious what it means to have had some of the conversations that took place during her screenings in the context of an art museum. For the final screening, Barbara and Florrie’s presence onstage made their private relationship a subject for public consideration in such a remarkable way. Although many people feel awkward or uncomfortable in such situations, Barbara manages to get people beyond that threshold of resistance and inhibition. This takes the terms of the discussion well beyond the abstract, and it’s important to consider what this can accomplish in a public forum or in a museum like Tate.
AI: But I wonder in terms of collaborative filmmaking or collaborations in your approaches starting your filmmaking career again whether you would work more with others or would you enjoy the possibilities through new technology of being as individual as possible.
B: Well I think that because of where I am now in 2012 I can never answer that question way back in the ‘70s – but where I am now I would work collaboratively, but still keeping to my vision. Right before you called I had a young student over here who’s helping me do some Photoshop work and you know it’s awfully nice to share and to see what somebody else likes and to learn – two heads are better than one.