Barbara Hammer

by Silvestre M. Bare

EXHIBITION REVIEW: Barbara Hammer: Evidentiary Bodies, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Oct 7, 2017 – Jan 28, 2018.

"My retrospective brings in all the different branches of my work, from performance to photography to installations to journal keeping to writing, and of course to 16mm film, super 8 film, digital film and video. That’s the language: a diverse one that can move in any direction according to the idea or emotional motivation." —Barbara Hammer, 2017

In a short piece for Film Quarterly in 1998, the pioneering lesbian feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer—just having turned 60—described her turn to film as a “late bloomer” at age 30. After trying her hand at various occupations, she decided to be an artist, and turned to filmmaking, remarking that “the discipline included aesthetics as well as philosophical inquiry.” Sitting in her first seminar, day after day, she grew irate at the lack of representation of women in the films of Vertov, Pudovkin, and co., not to mention the almost all-male roster of filmmakers. Then:

"Finally, toward the end of the film course, there appeared on screen the black-and-white 16mm films of Maya Deren. Something was radically different. The screen filled with images that were created from a different sensibility, an aesthetic I intuitively understood. For this first time, a women’s cinema filled the screen in this dark, cavernous lecture hall. According to this “history of cinema,” the screen had been black from a woman’s point of view. I knew that I had a lifetime’s work ahead of me."

It is now clear, after a fifty-year career, that Hammer’s work has left a seismic mark on the history of cinema, video art, and (more recently) performance. She has not only aided in the crucial re-structuring of that “Introduction to Cinema History” syllabus, but has brought new aesthetic positions, experimental methodologies, political imaginaries, and sexual subjectivities to the screen. She opened countless possibilities for young filmmakers by undoing engrained and bigoted taboos contributing to the previously nonexistent/perverse representation of women, lesbian intimacy and love, and feminist politics in experimental film—most importantly from the filmic perspective of the radical lesbian feminist herself. This complementary axis, between experimental “avant-garde” filmmaking and lesbian feminist politics are brought together in Hammer’s movies, indicating what is perhaps, her most indelible legacy.

Her film Dyketactics (1974), referred to by Hammer as “the first lesbian film made by a lesbian,” ushered in this career. Almost two decades later, her first feature film, Nitrate Kisses (1992) brought this sensibility to a wider audience. The film is famous for featuring a remarkably beautiful portrayal of two sixty/seventy-year-old women having sex. Hammer described that the reason people liked it so much is because it gave them hope, and it still does. As Holly Willis put it in an earlier interview with Hammer in Film Quarterly (1994), Nitrate Kisses also addresses Hammer’s deep interest in poststructuralist reading of history: this film particularly employs nonlinearity and a “refusal to speak for everyone.”

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Barbara Hammer, Double Strength (still), 1978, 16mm film transferred to digital video. Courtesy of the artist and KOW, Berlin.

While a thorough engagement with Hammer’s numerous and seminal films is integral to any coherent understanding of American queer, feminist, and experimental filmmaking, in this short piece here I would like to describe several elements and gestures activated/brought to the fore in her recent retrospective Barbara Hammer: Evidentiary Bodies at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, curated by Staci Bu Shea and Carmel Curtis. Important to underline, however, is that her work’s experimentalism should not be contrasted with/to her queer feminist subjectivity or vice versa, as has been done in the past (to the vexation of Hammer). Rather, her variegated, but interwoven, aesthetic, political, and intimate concerns should be read in concert, just as she performs them: the personal is the political is the aesthetic, as it were. Instead of historicizing and analyzing Hammer’s oeuvre in total (as the contributions in the recent publication by the Leslie-Lohman do phenomenally well), I would instead like to briefly revel in her indelible legacy—splish and splash in the waves produced by her influential work. As many experimental women filmmakers are FINALLY being given prime screen time and necessary critical/theoretical attention, we should be careful to not forego specificity and attention for the sake of anthologizing, or institutionalizing/reifying for that matter. (See Metrograph’s recent series Tell Me: Women Filmmakers, Women’s Stories which does not make this mistake by giving each film and filmmaker its space and context; it included, among others, and in no particular order, films by Hammer, Agnès Varda, Lourdes Portillo, Delphine Seyrig, Chantal Akerman, Su Frederich, Peggy Ahwesh, Chick Strand, Christine Choy).

Criminally late, New York City was lucky enough this past Autumn and Winter to have a “city-wide” retrospective of Hammer’s work in film, performance (its photographic documentation), and visual art objects produced throughout the last fifty years which have not been extensively shown until the exhibition in discussion. Working in between media—coming up in the first moments of the so-called “post-medium” or “artist-in-general” generations—Hammer’s films are of imperative significance, perhaps now in 2018 more than ever as performances of identity and subjectivity are more politically significant and potent, but simultaneously more precarious given democratic disintegration and a (transnational) ultra-right-wing wave. While she has had other surveys and film programs at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Jeu de Paume (Paris), the Tate Modern (London), among others, this tour de force retrospective was accompanied by film programs around town (including the IFC), a screening of her Sisters! (1973) at Metrograph, performances, readings, and the major publication referenced above (University of Chicago Press).

In a recent conversation with Alexandra Juhasz in The Brooklyn Rail, Hammer begins by saying that though important experimental work like hers (and Juhasz’s) is just now being recognized, her aesthetic has not changed in decades. Hammer remarks that she has continued “making moving images on the screen and bringing the perception of the audience to the screen through their own body and skin.” (Twenty years ago Juhasz interviewed Hammer, and seventeen other women filmmakers for her documentary book and film Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video. It is available online at snagfilms.com and includes interviews with Carolee Schneemann, Pearl Bowser, Julia Reichert, Margaret Caples, Juanita Mohammed, Eve Oishi, and others).

As I watched Hammer’s Pond and Waterfall (1982) at the Leslie-Lohman, the interplay and interdependence between filmic body and spectatorial body that she describes above was made all the clearer. Accompanying the 14-minute film was a heap of stethoscopes that the viewer was invited to use and provide their own “soundtrack” to the film. Responding to the critique of essentialism in feminist filmmaking (and feminist art in general) of the 70s, Hammer brilliantly subverted the problem of the (male) gaze and the representation of the female body by inviting the spectators’ own body to enter the film. A collapsing of what has been pigeon-holed as theory-based feminist practice (following the critical writings of Laura Mulvey for example), and what has been criticized as “essentialist” work that (re)presents the female body (artwork by Judy Chicago might be the canonical example), Hammer shows to have no truck with compartmentalized aesthetic/critical boundaries.

Perhaps even more “direct,” in terms of the inviting and involving of the spectator’s (physical) senses, is 8 in 8 (1994, two-channel installation). For this “expanded” film (for lack of a better word, though we might rightfully call it an installation which includes film) presented on two different televisions at the entrance to the gallery, viewers are invited to feel one of two faux breasts, and to search for “nodes”—clearly invoking the importance of self-checking for cancer, and alluding to Hammer’s twelve-year fight with (ovarian) cancer. Hammer: “I wanted to make a piece where women—and men—had to touch a breast to turn on the television set. In the meantime, they would also get practice for a self-exam.” After one of the films is activated, the viewer, wearing short headphones, is pulled intimately close to the television screen, and is confronted with one of eight women describing their struggles with cancer. Invoked through the stories is this struggle’s intrinsic embeddedness into other battles outside of the single body: with the patriarchy; with the oppression of women through their reproductive labor (see Silvia Federici’s seminal “Wages Against Housework” [1975]); with the sterile bureaucracy of the medical system; and with public taboos around about women’s health (and mortality in general). Interweaving many filmic impulses and tendencies of the past and present—testimonial performance, autobiography, “slow” cinema, found footage, etc.—Hammer presents the eight women and their personal testimonies with no interjection or “directorial” framing other than their selection. It is crucial that each film is activated by stumbling upon a lump: i.e. by coming across a physical form/object that engenders narrative and identity via the spectatorial reception of the filmic image: again, the body and the image. There is a collapse of the intimately private nature of battling cancer (and the naked body), with the profoundly public sensibility of speaking/performing (via the filmed and disseminated narrative) in a gallery/virtual space. Speaking on the “taboo” of mortality in the art—and greater public—contexts, Hammer remarks: “It’s a subject I feel we’re afraid to talk about, much as we used to be afraid to talk about the female body and menstruation and lesbian lovemaking. I wanted the viewer to recognize that they too, at some point, are going to be involved with or have a decaying body.” Elsewhere, Hammer asks, since gender is clearly constructed, why not ask how death is constructed as well?

Barbara Hammer, installation view, Barbara Hammer: Evidentiary Bodies, Leslie-Lohman Center for Gay and Lesbian Art, Oct 7, 2017 – Jan 28, 2018. Photograph by the author.

Hammer has described (in the Juhasz film mentioned above) that she always had one foot in two different camps: the lesbian/feminist and the experimental film spheres. Navigating this divide—a feigned contradiction that is now thankfully (at least partially) ignored and delegitimized, thanks in large part to practitioners like Hammer—all the films and video works presented in the exhibition/film programs use the nature of experimental filmmaking to examine lesbian sensibilities, identity, and subjectivity, and likewise utilize the personal natures of sexuality and gender to create an experimental aesthetic. Her Superdyke (1975) and Women I Love (1976), for examples, were some of the first films to portray lesbian love-making—a starkly different presentation than that of male directors sexualizing women (almost exclusively) for the male viewer. Even earlier, Menses (1974) engaged the taboo of discussing menstruation.

Evidentiary Bodies is named after her most recent performance in New York in which Hammer, in the words of the Leslie-Lohman, “calls attention to our interdependency with material and immaterial surroundings […] that inform states of being and a sense of self.” Utilizing the various mediums and practices described here, it is important to note that the installation and execution of the works themselves demonstrate an experimental approach to presenting film, video, and performance: a television set covered in candy and cookies glued to its surface (T.V. Tart [1988]); a wall of photographs historicizing Hammer’s performances of the last four decades; erotic movies produced via haptic experimentation with the filmic form. All in all, the exhibition is a springboard for diving into Hammer’s work, and demonstrates clearly that Hammer continues to inspire and motivate as much as ever, and thankfully shows no sign of ceasing to experiment, produce, and “agitate.”