Berkeley, 1972. The artist Lynn Hershman had just graduated with an MFA from San Francisco State University and was exhibiting wax figures in a museum. To go with the sculptures, she’d made a mixtape of breathing and speaking sounds. The museum wouldn’t hear it, literally wouldn’t hear it. Audio had no place there. They were wrong, but that’s not the point. When you hear this story you understand everything about Hershman at once. She was a woman artist trying to make herself heard; she was shut up. She has spent the rest of her career making noise. Not only she, but Judy Chicago, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke—all the unsung feminist heroes and female artists who star in her just-premiered, forty-years-in-the-making film, !Women Art Revolution: A Secret History.
Hershman’s documentary breaks the silence of the museums. It’s rousing and rattling, scrapped together from 400 hours of mostly handheld footage and scored by Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein. After debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, it’s going on to the Sundance, the Berlinale, and in March 2011, the MoMA in New York. That’ll be a sweet irony. And then she will begin filming part three of her dormant sci-fi trilogy, a movie called Killer App—because that is literally what it’s about. It will star none other than Tilda Swinton. Also, Marilyn Manson. The more baffled you look by this news, the more Hershman—a robust, curious-eyed woman with heaps of henna-red hair and crinkled Issey Miyake—laughs, and laughs, and laughs. Four decades in and she still gets off on screwing convention. In a proper sit-down with Dazed, this weirdly wonderful artist talks about the making of her documentary, the making of female art history, and the history yet to be made.
Dazed Digital: When you began filming the female art scene, did you know you were making a movie?
Lynn Hershman: I was just documenting that time. I wasn’t a filmmaker, I didn’t know anything about it, but I wanted to get a record of what was happening
DD: Did you have a sense that you were going to effect change?
Lynn Hershman: No, because the movement didn’t have a name at all. We were just figuring out a way to do our work and to survive. You know, it was during the time of the free speech movement, and people were trying to get outside of the system in order to change things.
DD: What do the artists who are portrayed in the film think of it?
Lynn Hershman: Nobody’s seen it. The first time anybody saw it was at the premiere [at TIFF], when the Guerrilla Girls [who are in the film saw it]. The other people who have seen it are the historians, because I wanted to make sure it was accurate. Not the artists yet. I showed some rough cuts to friends and everybody had their own kind of prejudice. Somebody said I had to shoot a conference in Belgium. Somebody said I had to go somewhere else. Everybody had their own thing they wanted to stress. Now we’re doing a site called RAW WAR [a web repository for information about feminist art history, to be launched early 2011] so anything that’s missing, they can put it up there.
DD: Imagine a documentary called !Men Art Revolution, how funny that would be—so funny it’s sad. The history of womens’ art, not the making of it, but the showing of it, is so brief. Do you object to the idea of quote-unquote womens’ art? The same way we have womens’ studies?
Lynn Hershman: A lot of people in the 60s and 70s did think there was a particular kind of art that was womens’ art. And we did need that kind of politicization in order to effect change. I would be really happy if we dropped that term. If we were really equal, we would all just be artists.
DD: It’s the same with actresses and actors. We’re all just actors.
Lynn Hershman: Exactly.
DD: What about the argument that came up in the film, that 50% of an exhibition should be women artists? True, but only if women make up 50% of working artists. You don’t want women artists to be in a show just because they’re women. Then again, sometimes you have to force open the door. It comes down to whether you believe in affirmative action, or not.
Lynn Hershman: I think in the early days it was really important to force it. People should be conscious and aware that they really need to look at the constraints. For example, here at TIFF, to put on a retrospective of 100 essential films [a list voted on by last year’s festival-goers]. They have one woman [director] out of a hundred—that’s really shocking. There are so many good artists in Canada, and so many good women artists. They exist. It just takes research, and not even that much research. They’re here.
DD: Who are your favourite artists working today?
Lynn Hershman: I like Janine Antoni’s work. I like [filmmaker] Kathryn Bigelow. There’s a South African artist who recently had a show at the MoMa, Marlene Dumas, and her work is good.
DD: Where do you hope !Women Art Revolution will be seen: festivals? Public access television? Movie theatres?
Lynn Hershman: [I want it to be] in theatres. I don’t want to happen to this film what happened to women artists. You know, this sales agent told me there were no famous people in it. But that is the point—these women should have been famous and they were not. That’s what this film is about.