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Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame

The queen of queer cinema talks about her nitrate kisses and synched touches, and how Maya Deren's sink made her question the role of objects in a filmmaker's life

Barbara Hammer is a pioneer of queer cinema whose career spans 30 years and encompasses over 80 works including her ground-breaking documentary Nitrate Kisses (1992). This February, The Tate Modern celebrates Hammer’s unique and formidable contribution to aesthetic culture and lesbian filmmaking with a month long retrospective; ‘Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame’.

The film is also about encounters between filmmakers of different generations and their differing treatment of the same subject matter. This is something I am very interested in

While the Tate’s survey of Hammer’s work will include screenings of early, rarely seen Super-8 films, an evening of free expanded cinema performances in the Turbine Hall, and special events featuring artists and speakers from across Europe and North America, the season will be launched with a premiere of her new short film, Maya Deren’s Sink (2011). Dazed spoke to Hammer about her latest film, and her renewed interest in defining the space of contact, and shared knowledge, between generations of women filmmakers.

Dazed Digital: Maya Deren has left an indelible mark on cinematic history – she’s one of the most influential American, avant garde filmmakers of the twentieth century. Can you explain the title of Maya Deren’s Sink and your reasons for making this film?
Barbara Hammer:
When I was a student, I remember watching Deren’s film Meshes of the Afternoon. Deren was the only filmmaker to be actively pursuing a different kind of cinema which was from the perspective of a woman. Her use of image and language conveyed something about what it was to be a woman that I had never seen before. One day, I was at the New York anthology film archive and somebody said “Maya Deren’s sink is here”. It was covered in dust and it still had all the tubing attached.

It turns out that the woman living in Deren’s house in Los Angeles, which featured heavily in Meshes of the Afternoon, was renovating the bathroom and had realised the strange significance of this object. I had already started to think about Deren’s home and through the discovery of the sink I began to question the role of objects in a filmmaker’s life and the spaces she inhabits, which are incredibly important to the way she works.

DD: So the sink is an embodied connection with Deren?
Barbara Hammer:
Yes. Or, rather, I call the film a kind of ghosting of Deren through the space she inhabited. I project those architectural details synonymous with her film and reconfigure them in the space today, re-enacting and re-shaping elements of her work.

DD: Deren sought to inspire radical transformations in film, but your work seems to do this in a particularly sensuous way. Do you think that the preoccupation with vision over the other senses is something that is being more frequently challenged today?
Barbara Hammer:
No. This is still the norm. Yet, the sense of touch, as Montagu writes, is so important. Think about the tiny hairs on our skin, and our experience of physical space. Air moves through it…My film Sync Touch (1981) specifically explores this sensate knowledge of the world. This idea of sensation extends to the material qualities of my films and is especially implicated in my exploration of mortality and ageing. In Sanctus (1990), the surface of the film responds to changes through my images of radiography – a kind of spectating of the body – treating the film with breach in order to look at the film itself, coming under attack, being destroyed.

DD: Your recent collaboration with the young filmmaker Gina Carducci on Generations (2010) crystallises your concerns with ageing, cinema as an ageing entity, and your connection with other generations of female filmmakers.
Barbara Hammer:
What I want to say is that age is ok, and that I have a responsibility as an artist to share my thoughts and experiences. In Generations, bits of the film flake off and we see it decaying like skin, but these images are not meant to be tragic, they are affirmative!

The film is also about encounters between filmmakers of different generations and their differing treatment of the same subject matter. This is something I am very interested in; I’m also involved in a mentoring programme in New York called ‘Queer Mentors’. Gina will also be at the retrospective and I’m looking forward to talking with her again, as well as discussing my films with audiences throughout my month in London.

Text by Davina Quinlivan

'Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame' is at the Tate Modern, Starr Auditorium until 26 February, 2012