By Giulia Rho
March 8, 2021
Club Des Femmes
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Ways of Seeing with Barbara Hammer
“I am overwhelmed by simplicity. There is so much to see”, recites an ageing Barbara Hammer from her diary. An entry that dates back to 1998, when the filmmaker was conducting a one-month residency in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with only the dunes and the ocean to keep her company. “I feel compelled to do absolutely nothing. There is nothing to do”, she recounts, as the camera shows us the artist taking a shower outside, in the nude, at ease with her backdrop of sun-scorched sand grass. These moments appear suspended in time, at once very distant from me and very close, like memories of my own from my college years in Boston and weekend escapes to the coast. I find myself wondering how Barbara Hammer could extract these images from my mind, as they soar away from me into the past.
Lynne Sachs, who directed Barbara to read selected excerpts from the diary out loud for her film A Month in Single Frames (2019), edits together the artist’s unused footage with oneiric lyricism, giving us brilliant frames of pure light, extreme closeups of flowers and time lapses of clouds journeying through the expansive American sky. Fractals of colors artificially created by Barbara with rainbow gel flags overlap and fade out into the hues of the scarce vegetation, and the changing sunlight on the dunes. Barbara’s own shadow appears now and then, stretched along the beach, reflected in her own artmaking, a self-inscription that travels to us, in this moment in time, and reminds us of the woman behind the camera, the body around the voiceover. The communion of human and natural, of feminine bodies and flora is a long-standing trope in Barbara Hammer’s filmmaking, appearing since her early shorts Dyketactics (1974) and Menses (1974). Naked women frolic and fuck unperturbed by the open space surrounding them. I often think of them as a Flower Child Eve, who upon eating the forbidden fruit and realising she is naked, instead of covering herself with leaves, shrugs it off, and revels in her own skin.
Bugs, strands of grass and little toys populate A Month of Single Frames, inhabiting it like a doll house, an artificial space that seems to encompass “the expanse called life” as a terminally ill Hammer looks back to it. Like in the most famous still from this film: a little glass contains the whole ocean.
Back when the film was released in 2019, none of us could have imagined the emotional resonance a film about the smallness of life would hold just a year later. And yet, this Thoreauvian Cape Cod, this meditation on the passing of time and the beauty of everyday, now insistently reminds me of my Instagram feed, which, during several lockdowns, has filled with little pleasures and stolen moments of domesticity. The arrangement of fruits in a colourful bowl when the light hits just right, a pet that appears to be smiling at the camera, the corner of a white building slashing the blue sky, can now all bring tears to my eyes. As part of my PhD practice, I spend most days researching images of the banality of beauty, captured by a past generation of feminist filmmakers of which Hammer was part. I survey their movies like a detective, waiting for hints of these lives gone by, and I continually find my own. The re-evaluation of the mundane preached by Thoreau and Whitman and exemplified by the American avant-garde has returned in our habit of documenting days that follow one another in a blur and posting the most fleeting joys online.
The attempt of recounting an experience of solitude through connection reiterates Lynne Sachs’ strategy of making a film with and for Barbara Hammer, repurposing the artist’s unused footage. “You are alone. I am here with you in this film. There are others here with us. We are all together”, Lynne writes, over the image of a stick drawing invisible lines in the sand. I detest that everything reminds me of the pandemic, of the present moment, rather than taking me away from it. But I love the invitation Barbara and Lynne’s collaboration extends to look at the simple and habitual like the richest treasure: “everything waits expectantly to be discovered”.
If A Month of Single Frames dwells on the natural world, Vever (2019) by Deborah Stratman revisits another trope in Barbara Hammer’s repertoire: travel. The original footage was shot in 1975 by Barbara in Guatemala, at the end of a motorcycle trip that got her away from the Bay Area, heartbreak and a troubled affair. “I needed to get away and drive”, she tells Stratman over the phone; a tremor in her voice betrays her old age. The film is bursting with energy and color, the market streets are busy, and the soundtrack of drums and flutes urges us to search the crowd expectantly, as if Barbara herself was about to appear straddling her BMW motorcycle like the heroine in an action movie. Instead, a text runs over the screen, a testimony of defeat, and failure of the artist to capture reality. We discover from the voice over that Hammer never printed the film herself because she had no “political content or personal context” to justify spending what little money she had. What motivated her to shoot this film in the first place? “I left without an intention, except to drive”, she recounts. Once the film ran out, she simply turned around and went back to San Francisco, as if the camera was the navigator.
Tribal etchings appear in answer to these doubts. The music now assumes a magical or religious tone and the human world succumbs to the jungle. It is almost an invocation, a response to the inability to master art that the text on the screen has been telling us about. In fact, the music sounds familiar. I wonder if I’m getting hypnotized, or if a memory inside me is stirring. Where have I heard it? Before I can find an answer, images from the market return. Except now it’s the end of the day, it is quieter. Over the phone, Barbara hurriedly tells Stratman that she needs to go. The screen is already black. She truly has gone, too far for us to reach her. And yet the quote we are left with reads: “great Gods cannot ride little horses”, a Haitian proverb that immediately reminds me of a picture I saw of Barbara sitting on her bike, a beautiful, powerful butch iconography. And she doesn’t feel so far anymore.
I barely have the time to smile to myself when Maya Deren’s name appears in the credits. The music that sounded so familiar is quoted from Meshes in the Afternoon, coincidentally the film that Hammer credits in her biography Hammer! (2015)as her major inspiration for becoming a filmmaker. And so, all the pieces of the film fall into place: the tribal designs, the Haitian references, the meditations on art and power. They are from Maya Deren’s own practice, and especially her religious beliefs. Barbara might have embarked on her journey to South America alone and hurting, but Stratman’s film retrospectively gives her companionship. Vever connects three generations of women and offers them to us. As we’ve learnt in Sachs’ film, we are alone together.
In voodoo tradition, which Deren studied and practiced, everything is connected unpredictably and non-hierarchically. These divine linkages are evoked through drawings like the ones that appear in the film, in fact homonymously called ‘vevers’. Once again, I can’t help thinking about our contemporary summoning practice. How we engage in invocations of another that we cannot see, who isn’t sharing our space and yet we believe to be present, at the other end of our technology. Vever opens with a loud dialing tone, a wait, before Hammer picks up the call and Stratman asks: “can you hear me okay?”. How familiar this ritual of connection has become to us all, endlessly trapped in Zoom waiting rooms repeating vocabulary from a séance. “Just barely”, replies Hammer, as the film shows her hand receiving a bowl of soup from an Indigenous woman. She is there, physically preserved in the film, in the company of Maya Deren’s words and music. And I wonder if the whole film isn’t an invocation of them, for their art to reach us today. I spend so much time with them and artists like them for my PhD that I have come to consider them friends. They aren’t, after all, that much further in time and space than my real-life friends, isolated together as we are.
Watching these films on the occasion of International Women’s Day I am left hopeful of the connections we are able to draw. Like the intricate and vibrant designs the women in Vever weave in their tapestries and clothes, so we are tethered to one another across location and generation. Surely our political practice has evolved and expanded, but we still have so much in common with the women who have come before us. I often think of philosopher Luce Irigaray’s reminder that “we already have a history” (Sexes and Genealogies, 19), and her warning against being led to believe that the past is rags rather than riches. We need to cultivate our genealogy, reworking the old in order to create something new, much like Sachs and Stratman do in their collaboration with Hammer. The possibilities to easily access their movies on MUBI is an opportunity to witness such history and interact with it. Our contemporary digital feminism can help make invisible bodies and stories visible and part of a larger discourse, like a whole ocean in a glass of water.