In an exclusive interview, Polari Magazine talks to the visionary director Barbara Hammer about queer cinema, marriage equality, and the importance of real diversity in life and art.
Screening at this year’s Fringe! festival is Barbara Hammer’s 1992 Nitrate Kisses, an exploration of marginalised members of the LGBT community since the first World War. To celebrate the revisitation of this work 20 years after it was first screened Polari Magazine had the privilege of interviewing its director, whose 45 year career as a queer artist is simply remarkable. Her work is innovative and important, redefining the expectation of what cinema can achieve intellectually and experientially with a view to “engage audiences viscerally with the goal of activating them to make social change”.
We spoke to Barbara Hammer about the identity of her work and the notion of queer art.
Would you say there is a correlation between the way you experiment with your medium and your subject matter? That is to say, is there something inherently queer about the way you work? And if so, how does that inform your relationship with your subject matter?
Yes there is absolutely always a relationship between the image and the feeling, the queerness, the desire to show the world the way I experience it.
You developed an aesthetic in your early career as a film maker to create a new cinematic relationship between the audience and the film that went beyond sight and sound, but was tactile also. How has that aesthetic developed over your career?
It has continued and has never been far out of sight. I am usually moving when I am filming and in that case the hairs on my arms and my body are identifying the space I am moving through. I think this bodily sensitivity of knowing the world through your skin first and foremost is very queer.
Available Space (1979) ASpace Toronto
Your work often centres on themes which have at times been considered avant-garde or inappropriate by the general public. Do you ever find yourself having to break social and personal boundaries to create your films? If so, how do you push past them?
Many times I must push past social boundaries, but that was the impetus in becoming an artist in a first place. I just didn’t feel like being a kernel of corn on a cob, looking and acting like everyone else. There is little opportunity for real diversity in our western world and by that I don’t mean diversity of race, preference, etc. I mean the acceptance of action, of people who act and live and breath, dress and undress outside the norm. I would like to live in a society that has the flexibility of a balloon, that pulses and contracts, that blows and shifts, that can soar when set free.
Your documentaries set out to shed light on those who have been marginalised or invisible within society. Are there other people you would like to give voice to in future work?
The poet Elizabeth Bishop, the victims of human trafficking, the young, eager voices of budding women artists, queer performers, and earnest men who want to change, the voices I hear of audience members after a screening.
Equal marriage is becoming one of the defining crusades of the modern queer rights movement. Do you think there is a danger that the quest for a hetero-normative equality has made queer art potentially less interesting?
You hit it on the nail and you are not even a “hammer”! We finally have the foundation of a culture, we have traced our histories, let us not make marriage and human rights erase us into a vast homogenization of the human race.
Nitrate Kisses (1992)
How does it feel to watch Nitrate Kisses now after two decades since its first screening? Has your relationship to the film changed?
I love that film. I saw it a few nights ago in Toronto and it has stood the test of time. I think it should go into the Congressional Library preserved films. I am that proud of it and of the dedicated work that went into making it.
Do you think the lives you documented in Nitrate Kisses are today any less marginalised than they were 20 years ago?
Yes, don’t you? But let’s not forget where we live and the privileges we have by birthright (for the most of us).
Maya Deren is an important influence. Modern technology has had a tremendous impact on our ability to document and archive our personal histories, but the digital medium can often allow individuals to become alienated and communities fragmented. In what ways do you think art, and film specifically, can address that potential divide?
The theatrical experience will always be a social one. Sitting in a space with others is a very different experience than watching a film on a computer. Laughter, coughs, boos, noises of distraction can signify queerness. While in front of a computer screen, who hears you but your mother, lover, or dog?
Maya Deren’s Sink (2011)
Maya Deren’s Sink is a fascinating concept. The projection of film onto inanimate and animate objects has been a feature of your work for many years – each object distorts the film and the way it is viewed. Would you say all film is a distortion of reality?
Of course but then I would have to ask what is reality? Maybe we shouldn’t divide but consider all projections reality wether we are using a film projector or our own limited mind.
If you were to chose a significant object from your own personal archive to project onto, what would it be?
That’s a fun question. I am in the process of pairing down, simplifying, passing on my archive to others, so I don’t have a lot of objects. Maybe it would still be projecting film on a television both screen and the set itself as I did in No No Nooky T.V.
You have been creating a personal archive for many years. What form does it take and how do you intend to preserve it?
One aspect of the archive is a series of boxes that contain a year, a decade’s worth of paper material I’ve received, made, sent and sometimes found. This archive will be passed on soon to an institution and they will be in charge of preservation.
Untitled (Dyketactics Revisited) (2005) Liz Rosenfeld
How do you feel about the re-interpretations of Dyketactics, Scott Berry’s Fagtactics and Liz Rosenfeld’s Untitled (Dyketatics Revisited)?
I am honored that Scott and Liz would be moved to chime in to the Dyketactics parade. Both films illuminate for me and bring to the fore aspects of Dyketactics. In Scott’s work it is the humor and audacity and in Liz’s film it is the sensuousness and the audacity. Long live Dyketactics and may there be more iterations!
What shape do you think the future of queer cinema should/will take?
A morphing shape that goes in and out of focus.
Your work deals in high concepts that challenge and excite. What would you say the purpose of queer art should be?
I can answer this question only for myself and I say “thrill me”, “make me wonder”, “educate and perplex me” but be sure you are having fun.
Tickets for the festival are now on sale. Free events and workshops are ticketed so book in advance to avoid disappointment. Go to the Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest website and reserve your tickets now.