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Between Bodies

March 16, 2019: Barbara Hammer died today. On this sad occasion we’re reposting this article from our Fall, 2018 edition — a conversation this extraordinary filmmaker at Temple University with Elisabeth Subrin, Sarah Drury, and a number of attending students. It’s a talk that covers her early years as an artist, her process for making work, and, finally, her thoughts on illness and end of life.


On May 2, 2018, legendary filmmaker Barbara Hammer was honored at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she was awarded its Department of Film and Media Arts Annual Tribute Award, selected by the film and media arts (FMA) faculty and presented at the Temple Diamond Screen Film Festival for students. Various works of Hammer’s were screened during the day, followed by a conversation with Hammer and associate professors of film and media arts Elisabeth Subrin and Sarah Drury and a Q&A with Temple students. On November 4th, Hammer will receive the Stan Brakhage Visionary Filmmaker Award at The Denver Film Society and a retrospective of her works screens at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum on November 9th, 10th, 17th and December 5th, 2018.

The following edited version of their conversation, beginning with Drury’s introduction, is printed here with their kind permission.

It is my pleasure and honor to introduce Barbara Hammer, recipient of the Film and Media Arts Tribute Award.

There is no way to underestimate the profound contributions Barbara Hammer has made to American independent and avant-garde film and visual art over the past five decades. From her early, irreverent 16mm experimental films, to her experimental essay films exploring minor and marginalized women’s and queer histories, to her exhaustive output as a visual artist, Barbara’s work is a canon of its own. 

Back in the late 1970s, when I was in a lesbian group in college in New York City, we had a screening of 16mm shorts by Barbara Hammer: Dyketactics, Superdyke, Sisters! I didn’t identify as a media maker at the time, but I was imprinted by the playful and yet profoundly serious performance of a vision—utopian, experimental, exuberant, unapologetic. She pioneered some of the first images of lesbians seeing ourselves, our sexuality and relationships, our mythologies; an alternative “gaze” in parallel to a mainstream world in which we were invisible.

This project was both a cultural and formal exploration. Placing the camera in the intimate space between bodies, she uses the camera as a form of touch, a different kind of gaze that subverts cinematic distance and objectivity. Her films have continued to experiment with evolving form, technologies and concepts, from 16mm hand painting and stop-motion to digital graphics and animation, to concepts of different embodiment and cyborg visions. Hammer fearlessly takes on taboo subject matter: sex and sexuality, lesbian desire, S&M sexual practices, menstruation, vaginas, menopause, the sexuality of aging bodies, cancer. Often using her own body in both film and performance, there is a both fierceness and humor, critical and playful at the same time. As Rachel Churner writes in a recent Artforum article, “Hammer’s work reminds us that visibility is a political act. She likes to get close, and at times, this means showing naked bodies of all ages…. She draws us close simply by talking to the people around her. She is as relaxed with a microphone as she is with a camera in hand…. It is exuberant, confessional, immediate, sensual, fluid.” Her essay films seek to recover lost histories, extending the political act of “making visible” to the undocumented lives of those who lived alternative genders and sexualities at great personal cost.

There is no more well-known and prolific lesbian artist in North America, and her insistence on the visibility and legibility of queer women’s voices and desires has had a profound impact on generations of women and queer filmmakers. Barbara Hammer has generated new centers of focus, in defiance of marginalization. However, in recent years, there has been a long overdue explosion of interest in her work from the broader art world, including shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the recent retrospective at Leslie-Lohman [Museum] in New York and others, and being featured on the cover of the April 2018 issue of Artforum.

We are so privileged to recognize Barbara Hammer with the Film and Media Arts Tribute Award, and profoundly moved that she and Florrie Burke have traveled to be with us here today. Thank you to Jeff Rush, Catherine Pancake, Rea Tajiri and Elisabeth Subrin, who have worked to make this wonderful event happen. — Sarah Drury

Elisabeth Subrin: As Sarah just said, you are so exceedingly prolific and work across so many forms and genres. I’m interested in the transition from your early experimental films to your longer essay films, which use a lot of historical and biographical material, as well as the genesis for your most recent installation, which is so intimate and political about your medical condition.

Hammer: The essay documentary allowed me to go into research, deeply, which I love. It brought out the academic part of me—the intellect—that a lot of the pure creative process didn’t allow me to show. That’s really been a joy, as well as to have the steadfastness of a relationship that made everything so solid that I knew I could return to the studio day after day, with a long-term commitment to my work, as well as my love.

So, my latest film, what started it? I want to do something new in every film, and it’s the first time I’ve used three screens—that’s the formal aspect. I didn’t even know how to do three screens in Final Cut 7—I had to bring in somebody who showed me how to make a really wide timeline. Before that, what were the images? I had a particularly bad year with the chemo—I had a bloody nose, no hair again, I was pretty gaunt, but I had these creative ideas. So, one day a week, I would hire my assistant, their real name is Angel Favorite, and Angel would come in with their Canon camera, and I would perform in my studio in front of a black screen, often projecting on my own body hand-painted images of a CAT scan or a series of dissolves of stills from Sanctus, which I made back in 1990, of a chest X-ray because now the cancer is in my chest. One time, the black screen, which was cloth, fell on my head, and I wrapped it around myself, and it reminded me of Hannah Wilke and her wonderful photographs. She died of breast cancer, so I named this series of photographs, as I often take photographs from my films, after Hannah Wilke.

But there were so many things. I told Angel that I wanted a CAT scan projected on my bald head. Poor Angel has to climb this ladder—there’s no other assistant, and I don’t even know what Angel’s filming. So, they’ve got a handheld projector up there, and their Canon hanging from a tripod, and I’m sitting there meditating with a CAT scan on my head. That’s just one image. So, this early work led to a performance, which led to photographs, and then finally to Evidentiary Bodies, a retrospective, and the three-screen film is now an installation that the Wexner Center [in Columbus, Ohio] will show in July. And what’s political about it? To get to the three screens you have to walk through four hanging screens of found chest X-rays, and you hear the sound of X-rays moving you into this intimate space where only three people can sit. And you have the CAT scan on the head, but here [points to one side of her head] you have the CAT scan with video-colored lines going through it, and here [points to the other side] the same. So, it’s quite formal and balanced in that way, yet full of experimental techniques or processes. And it’s slow because my cancer has been slow. I’ve been under treatment for 12 years—100 chemos, which doesn’t even account for the radiation and other immunotherapy techniques that were tried. So, you know, I’ve had a good life in those 12 years, and you look back at all 79 of them, and wow… wow! Life has been grand, and to be here with you and share it is a real pleasure, and I wish that you work from your heart, too, and find the formal, too, and then your political message will be heard.

Subrin: Fearlessness. When you were a student in your first film class, and you were the only woman in the class, you showed your work, in front of all men, probably all straight men—to an all-male faculty. You must have been scared shitless.

Hammer: I was. I wouldn’t even sit down in the theater. San Francisco State [had a] very large theater, and I was in the back standing below the projection booth, and I thought, you know, I’ve never seen a lesbian film, they’ve never seen a lesbian film, what’s going to happen? So, I was ready to go out dancing. But [my colleagues] ran up and congratulated me. Right then, I knew, that’s it, I’m a filmmaker, I can make films, I can go forward.

Now, to make that film—I don’t know if it was bravery. Coming out with a woman was not even brave, it meant not denying how I felt. We were sitting at One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, fittingly, in San Francisco, and [Marie’s] knee was touching mine. This was the first time I felt desire for a woman. I thought, “I can ignore this, or I can act on it.” Well… [audience laughs].

So, that initial… I wouldn’t call it fear, but recognition, allowed me to go on. After Marie and I got together that summer, I was heading for London, on my own, without her. I thought, maybe I did have a touch of homophobia. Maybe I was afraid. She joined me not much later. Of course, the problem with youth hostels was those single beds. Well, we managed! Anyway, you see, I want to tell personal stories, and they do become political.

But today, what’s to fear—death? That’s what I get to face now. That’s pretty damn interesting. Because you know, the two most important things in our life—we’re born and we die. Do we get to know either of them? My desire is to have medical aid in dying. The [New York] legislature is meeting today and tomorrow, and they met last week in Albany to hear stories about those of us who are terminally ill and would like doctor assistance when we go. I can choose my time; I don’t have to go into a coma for five days and have Florrie and my friends suffering during that time. I can be cognizant, knowing that I don’t have much time left, and take the pills, the injection, whatever it is. Say goodbye on my own terms, like I’ve made films on my own terms. But the government will not allow this, and that’s why we are meeting in front of the legislature. What’s my fear? That this will come out on social media. I haven’t really come out in the media about my condition because I don’t want a whole bunch of sympathy. “We know you’re strong,” “You can battle in the war on cancer.” Cancer is not a war. It is an illness. I am not battling. I am living with cancer. And the term “war” needs to be kept for what we are doing with drone attacks in Syria, in Afghanistan and who knows what’s next.

Drury: We look to you to face things that we can’t face. What is that about not being able to face things? Here we are, mired in taboos, and very confused about the media in the current moment. I feel our situation today, our constant immersion in the media, prompts a simple question that you raised: How do we work and create from the heart? What does it mean to work from the heart here and now, in this moment?

Hammer: I have an idea. We all have hearts, so look in your heart right now and tell me what film you’d like to work on. [Points the mic at a student in the audience]

First Temple Student: This is kind of spur of the moment, but this [haircut] is new—about 24 hours old. I decided earlier in the semester to get a buzzcut and donate the 22 inches of hair I had on my head to Locks of Love.

Hammer: Locks of Love is for when people lose their hair and a wig is made of natural hair. Is that correct?

First Temple Student: Yes, ma’am. And there are certain specifications. You couldn’t have a certain amount of your hair dyed or have a certain amount gray. I knew that I met all of those specifications, and I knew that it would be special for someone to have a complete wig.

Hammer: Did you film it?

First Temple Student: I did. I had my friend take a minute-and-a-half long video while I was getting my hair completely shorn away. I definitely think that this has inspired me to do something with that.

Hammer: So, we have a documentary being made. A personal documentary with political content. What are you thinking from your heart? [Points mic at another student]

Second Temple Student: I actually just sent a long text. My dad was, from my perspective, psychologically and emotionally abusive in our family for a long time. So today, I sent him a text. It took me an hour to compose. I wanted to not devote any more time to him at all, and I ended up spending an hour, but the text was a goodbye thing.

Hammer: How old are you?

Second Temple Student: 20.

Hammer: One hour out of 20 [years]…

Second Temple Student: It’s sort of just acknowledging that he, where his mind is, has entered this sort of cyclical way of thinking when he’s delivered information that is true to ourselves and our family—my mom, myself and my sister—and if it’s antithetical to how he wants the family to be then he just can’t hear it. So, I sent him a text.

Hammer: And you have a copy of it?

Second Temple Student: Yes.

Hammer: And you could…

Second Temple Student: Read it?

Hammer: Yes.

Second Temple Student: I could read it right now.

Hammer: For your film. Don’t give the film away. And what will your next step be with this film? [Asks the next student] This is a group endeavor!

Second Temple Student: What would I do?

Hammer: What would he [the previous student] do? He’s written the text, and he’s sent it. Abusive dad.

Third Temple Student: I would go deeper into how important that text was. I would go deeper into how that was making you feel, and I would make it a self-recovery kind of film.

Hammer: In your class, you could all write down what Jose should do, and then he has 15 different ideas. It’s a great way to go.

Subrin: We’ve got this whole amazing audience of amazing students, and I have a feeling that some of them have a question.

Fourth Temple Student: There’s a constant theme that I notice in all of your work: It’s almost like you rip apart nature and bodies, and you bring them back together. I forget which film it was, but there was a plant and you kept on pulling it apart, and I don’t know if you reversed it so it was coming back—but what does that mean for you to take apart and bring back together? I feel like it’s a very biological thing, especially when talking about cancer, bodies and sexuality.

Hammer: That was the artichoke sequence in Women I Love and, you know, back then, I wasn’t thinking about cancer. I was trying to reveal the sensuality of this woman who is 11 years my senior and who was an artist herself, who was very shy, and who told me from the beginning, “You will be famous, and I won’t.” She deserved to be famous. When she died a few years ago, I called and got her granddaughter. They destroyed all her artwork. The film we made together, Moon Goddess, I was looking for a print of it that maybe wasn’t faded. We couldn’t find one—that had been thrown out, too. Her sensuality was incredible, so in pulling apart the artichoke, the many petals of the genitals, one found the hole…. It was kind of literal.

I’m kind of embarrassed now, but that’s really why I moved to New York. My work was being criticized as being biological, in that I was combining nature and woman and saying that woman was biological only—not that she had a mind, not that she was constructed. I mean, really, this was before I heard the word “constructionism,” before I heard the world “essentialism,” and yet my films were being put down. So, I thought, maybe this is about fear and tackling your adversaries. I’ll move to New York. I’ll go to galleries where I don’t understand the work, and I’ll go back again to understand it, and I’ll capture the cultural milieu that’s critiquing me because the academics and the critics are in New York. It really proved out to be a good move. Lately, people like Greg Youmans have written about my work in that period as being performative, not about essentialism. So, that put a whole new light on things. So, don’t give up when you’re criticized. If you want to make a film about silence and just say your name, that would be a beautiful film. We can all imagine you, from that name. Everything we live and breathe has a possibility, and to reference that one little shot in our trip when you have the bull by the horn—grab the bull by the horn, and don’t take any bullshit!

Fifth Temple Student: I’m a queer woman who is growing up and in a very committed relationship, so I wanted your perspective on age and sexuality and how that goes into your work. How do you think that your age and your sexuality have influenced your work, and how has being in a relationship over the years also helped to shape your filmmaking?

Subrin: Barbara, can you share the dedication that’s in your book?

Hammer: Yes, I wish I had it here. It’s dedicated to Florrie.

Subrin: I’m not going to remember it, but it’s basically, “You are the arms that I rush home to, you are the voice that I go toward, somewhere in the—”

Hammer: “Backyard of my mind.”

Subrin: —“There is a poet singing—”

Hammer: “Her voice is for you.” And to all the young filmmakers today who are beginning their work: Carry forth, take risks and enjoy! Everything is pleasurable—if it’s not, walk away.

Sixth Temple Student: You seem so incredibly generous, and I was wondering if that generosity was conscious in your art or unconscious. It just seems like there are people who have a tremendous amount of adversity and difficulty to overcome, and yet they are still incredibly generous, and there are people who don’t who aren’t generous. Where does that generosity come from? Are you conscious of it?

Hammer: My generosity… I love attention, if you didn’t know by now, and so in giving I get back, and I get a focus back. Right now, I’m really trying to be generous with my lover of 30 years [Florrie Burke]. When you are dying, a lot of your time is taken up. Not only with medicalization, with all the visits, and all the therapy, and all the nurses, but also with tying up your work. So, if you’ve made 90 works, where are they going, what happens to the documentation of them, what about the slides, what about the photographs? What gallery has what? These are the things that have eaten up my life and Florrie’s in the last months. I want that to finish this week, and my generosity will not only be to Florrie, it will also be to us. Because I want us to play, to have fun, to explore, to be curious together of new sights, new movies, without a camera in hand. This will be liberation.

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