Go backBack to selection

“My Work Has Always Inhabited That Liminal Space Between Desire and Compulsion”: Five Questions for Michelle Handelman On Her New Installation at signs and symbols


In its final week at Manhattan gallery signs and symbols is artist and filmmaker Michelle Handelman’s installation, LOVER HATER CUNTY INTELLECTUAL, a kind of remix of last year’s large-scale SFMOMA installation Hustlers & Empire for the smaller and more intimate studio space. The previous exhibition was centered around three archetypal characters — “real and imagined hustlers” drawn from three seminal works: Iceberg Slim’s Pimp (1967), Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984) and Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit (1968). This new exhibition focuses solely on a character inspired by Duras and the semi-autobiographical protagonist of her novel and performed by queer Latinx artist and activist Viva Ruiz.

An excerpt from the show’s gallery notes:

A mingling and suspension of perspective, of time and location. Statements present themselves with equal verity and affect. The Lover is a deconstruction of dialogic texts and characters. The dialogic is a structure of flux — one that describes the constant push and pull of elements, it exists in between such opposites of the real and make-believe, it keeps them always in shift, never determined, but always interconnected. The Lover performs elements from the portraits that inspired her character. She is a concoction born of storytelling, the truth of which does not matter – or matters immensely. LOVER HATER CUNTY INTELLECTUAL extracts existential questions of survival and belonging. Looking at unjust systems of social and economic control that are just as relevant today, Handelman and Ruiz interweave their own personal stories of defiance, underground survival, sex work and abuse to construct a queer feminist framework in which to look at ways of overcoming oppression in our current socio-political climate.

Handelman’s installation is up at signs and symbols until May 26. On May 25th at 4:00 PM the gallery will host a conversation between Handelman and writer Emily Colucci. Colucci is a writer, curator and co-founder of Filthy Dreams, a blog analyzing art and culture through a queer lens. She is the recipient of a 2016 Creative Capital|Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for Filthy Dreams, and has contributed to VICE Magazine, POZ Magazine, Flaunt Magazine, Muse Magazine, and more.

As Handelman related recently in our pages, she first appeared in Filmmaker when her 1995 documentary Bloodsisters was on the festival circuit, and then has been an occasional writer for us over the years, most recently interviewing Charles Atlas about his installation at The Kitchen. Below, I ask her about her journey from feature-length filmmaking to gallery installation, how she adapted a large-scale work to a much smaller space, and about her new project, Delirium, inspired by the “queer spectatorship” ideas of film theorist Patricia McCormack.

Filmmaker: When you first appeared in the pages of Filmmaker in the mid-’90s, you were on the festival circuit with your documentary, BloodSisters. As you wrote for us last year in your article, “Letter from an Unknown Filmmaker,” your work began a journey from single-channel work to large-scale gallery installations. As you said in the piece, you have always “explored the complicated terrain of sexuality and queerness.” But in terms of speaking about form, what were the specific motivations that led you away from the pure film world towards these gallery and more hybrid spaces to explore these themes?

Handelman: Quite honestly, I got bored with the traditional structure of the movie theater. And I had no interest in speaking to a passive audience. I wanted something back. I wanted the viewer to have to work for it. For me, it’s always been about using cinema as a theater of provocation, and while I was doing that with the content of my films, at some point I knew I had to do that with the form. I’ve always been interested in how our relationships to space — the way we occupy space, and navigate that space — reveal so much about ourselves.

My work has always inhabited that liminal space between desire and compulsion, and so I wanted to create a visceral experience of cinema that explored the power dynamics of looking. There’s this quote by Goethe that I always go back to, “Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.” My work wants to be stared at, and it stares back at you. In fact, it dares people to stare at. You could say I have a very sadomasochistic relationship between myself, my work, and the viewer. The relations of power are always shifting. I occupy. I hold the viewer captive. You want to leave, but you can’t. And that physical and psychological space interests me to no end — why do we deny and fear the things we desire.  

So I found myself creating these moving image installations that forced the viewer to leave their neat and safe position given to them by traditional cinema, and become participant voyeurs, navigating the uncomfortable and complex spaces of screen desire with more than one vantage point, and more than one object of desire. Providing an environment with multiple screens means that no two viewers are ever watching the exact same thing at the same time, and this directly relates to the ideas that we’re all experiencing our own realities even when we’re occupying the same space. It forces the viewer to make a choice. And many people find that uncomfortable. It’s a loop without end. Which is how I view life.

Filmmaker: And then in terms of practical concerns, how have you had to change or adapt the way you’ve worked as an artist in order to realize the kinds of pieces you are working on now?

Handelman: The biggest shift came for me in 2007 when I began working with my cinematographer Ed David. That one move changed everything. Ed was able to create the type of images that previously I had only been able to dream about. Prior to working with Ed, I was shooting all of my own work, and while I’m a control freak when it comes to framing and mise-en-scene, I have no technical chops when it comes to camera operation and lighting. The magic he weaves with light and lenses is phenomenal. His talent and easy-going demeanor allowed us to build a working relationship based on trust and shared vision. The first project we did together, Dorian, A Cinematic Perfume (2009), was the piece that won me the Guggenheim Fellowship. My work just soared after we started working together. Ed and I are both masters at making $50,000 look like $1,000,000!

Also, around that same time, I started to spend less time in front of the camera and focus more on being a director. I always called myself the “reluctant” performance artist, as I was terrified by performing in front of a live audience but loved performing on camera. During the 1980s/1990s when I lived in San Francisco I performed in three films by Lynn Hershman-Leeson, and often performed in my short experimental films. When I moved to New York City in the late 1990s, I made a a series of performance videos which were just me in the studio alone with the camera. The camera became the subject as I interacted with the lens, acknowledging the lens as a membrane between lived space and screen space, between the real and the digital. This practice was completely hermetic. It could only exist in the privacy of the artists’ studio.  But then in 2004, I began shooting the first in my series of projects that adapted historic works of literature and film, creating This Delicate Monster (2004) based on Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal , and for the first time I started working with a small cast of performers. From there I slowly started to remove myself from the performance and focus purely on directing, writing, and design, although I still have my Hitchcock moments from time to time.

Filmmaker: Your new work, LOVER HATER CUNTY INTELLECTUAL is adapted from your large-scale SFMOMA piece of last year. How did you go about this process of adaptation between two very different spaces, and what specific intent did you bring to the installation at signs and symbols?

Handelman: Well, working with large-scale projection demands certain physical and architectural requirements. The first thing I do when it comes to spatial adaptation is look at the space, then envision the best way to present the material in collaboration with the architecture. And when I say “best” I mean how can I do something impactful, both physically and psychologically, how can I transform the space completely? Clearly one can’t do the same type of exhibition in a 200 sq. ft. space, which is approximately the size of signs and symbols, as one can do in a 3,000 sq. ft. space, which is what we had at SFMOMA. So the question becomes, how much information can the space hold, how does the information get delivered, and how can this container be a catalyst for a cinematic experience that’s uniquely its own? Signs and symbols is a very intimate space, and I knew If I wanted to hold my viewer captive there that I needed to adjust the actual filmic content. Many of the three-dimensional objects that were on display at SFMOMA became embedded in the wallpaper at signs and symbols, and the moving-image works are all new edits specifically remixed for this space.

There are three central characters in Hustlers & Empires whose identities represent race, religion and gender in conversation with our current climate of cultural and political absolutism. When Mitra Korasheh, owner of signs and symbols, approached me about doing an exhibition of Hustlers & Empires, I knew that if I scaled down the entire piece to fit the space, that I would be losing the power of the proxemics of these intertextual stories as they played out across multiple screens. You need to leave space for the viewer to be a participant. So I decided to focus on one of the characters, and begin a new series that deconstructs Hustlers & Empires. I chose the character of the LOVER HATER CUNTY INTELLECTUAL which is loosely based on the writings of french writer and filmmaker, Marguerite Duras, because of all the characters this one felt the most personal to me. The piece is made up of a series of monologues I wrote in collaboration with the Duras’s texts and conversations I had with Viva Ruiz (one of the performers in the project) about how identity is formed in relation and resistance to sexual oppression and repression. The intention was to deliver very uncomfortable issues with an intimacy that could engage the viewer and elicit empathy.

As a human who finds herself being categorized, and treated as a “woman,” how I define and refuse that is very important to me. I see this as a contribution to the current #MeToo conversation, particularly how it relates to patriarchal control of the media. Viva Ruiz, the performer who plays the LOVER HATER CUNTY INTELLECTUAL is one of the most important activist voices out there right now talking about issues of race and gender, particularly with her project Thank God For Abortion, #TGFA. I mean just look at the last few days…Georgia, Alabama, Texas… anyone who wants a say over what can and cannot be done to their uterus needs to speak up now!

Filmmaker: This work is described as being about “transgression as a mode of survival,” and it references a number of historical figures. What are your own thoughts on transgression as a mode of survival in this particular historical moment? What today can be learned — or contrasted with — the mechanisms employed by the subjects explored in your pieces? What does it mean for art to be transgressive today as opposed to, say, when you were on the circuit with BloodSisters?

Handelman: It’s interesting, because when I made BloodSisters in the mid-1990s the identity politics of the 1980s was reaching its zenith, and here we are 25 years later and identity politics is out front again. Late-stage capitalism has turned identity into a commodity. It’s one of the things I discuss in the monologues. It has raped us of our identity. Every day it forces the marginalized to fight not only for food, shelter, survival, but to simply retain some shred of their own identity. All of the characters in my pieces — and the performers themselves, as they are all playing a fictionalized version of themselves — know that the system is rigged against them. Everyone understands that. But they’re trying to get outside it in some way where they can still own their identity, own their bodies. But when identity is a commodity, that infers a buyer. Our identities are being marketed back at ourselves. This opens up a whole other conversation about social media and thinking we are using it to amplify our voices when really it has made us implicit in our own erasure. So getting back to identity politics…

I see identity politics as both an obstacle and a shared dream. The dream is using the strength of the marginalized in relation to one another to gain empowerment, but the obstacle is more closed doors. Back in the early ’90s when I was making BloodSisters I got so much shit for being bi, and I mean shit from others in the gay community. It took me a long time to earn the trust of many of my subjects, which is typical of any doc maker, but particular to this scene. I was being challenged as a bi woman, as to whether or not I had a “right” to make this film. The issues of representation and who can tell what stories, was as much alive then as it is now.

And this came up again while working on “Hustlers & Empires.”  Shannon Funchess (who plays the Iceberg Slim character) and Viva, both had concerns about me being a white filmmaker directing them. There were many conversations, and rehearsals often turned into these lengthy conversations about race and representation. These were important and meaningful conversations, but fear was also in that room. No one wanted to be in a project that their peers might call out as “racist.” Not least of all me. So the conversation, the politic, can sometimes halt the action, even when it’s intersectional. And isn’t that what we’re striving for –intersectional inclusivity? I know I am, always have been. We should all be involved in each other’s stories. If not, how else do we engender empathy for one another, and without empathy there can be no love or forward movement.

Filmmaker: Finally, you recently received a Creative Capital grant to create a new work that draws to some degree on the work of theorist Patricia McCormack — particularly her queer ideas of film spectatorship. Can you tell us a bit more about this project, and how you’ll approach the incorporation of film theory into the work itself?

Handelman: When I read Patricia McCormack’s book, Cinesexuality, I felt this direct correlation between her ideas on spectatorship and the physical pleasure of cinema as being “inherently queer” and what I’ve been trying to do with my installations. I want to use this text as a jumping off point to let the experience of viewing, and not the subject, provide basis for meaning. The project is called Delirium. It will be a multichannel installation with live performance that uses both single camera and 360˚ viewing strategies. I guess in many ways this project is an extension of Hustlers & Empires, as it roots itself in resistance to capitalist ideals. It envisions transgression as a mode of transcendence, pushing against and pointing out the limits of consciousness.

The installation will be structured, then unstructured using what MacCormack refers to as a psychic model of “tension and release.” The disruptive images on screen will act as counterpoints to one another, while the live performers act as counterpoints to the audience as they move among the screens and bodies. The 360˚ video will be shot both on locations and in the venue space, so that the performers who appear to be confronting the viewer, are actually contained within the 360˚ view. Or are they? It’s my first time working with 360˚ video so I’m going for a full on visual and aural assault.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham