Barbara Hammer by Amanda Borg
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Amanda is a Norwegian performance artist and writer currently based in London where she is working on a MA in Queer History. She is part of the art collective RED and her work mainly focuses on themes of mysticism, suppressed histories, pain, trauma, bodies, queerness and anger.
The American filmmaker Barbara Hammer has made over eighty films and other visual work that have inspired a generation of queer, feminist, and avant-garde artists and filmmakers. Her early films include Dyketactics (1974) and Superdyke (1975), which depict groups of lesbians moving through various spaces, interacting with the world around them and each other. While sometimes disruptive and frenetic, the glee of the participants and the intimacy they share with each other is striking. Many young queer people (myself included) crave the sense of belonging to greater networks of friendship and desire, both interpersonally and as part of an extensive history of resistance. Such resistance can take many forms, but in Hammer’s early films it can be found in the materiality of the bodies portrayed and in their relationship to each other. This way of being is tender, joyful, messy, and lonely, while way too intertwined, all at once - just as life ought to be.
Hammer is widely known as a lesbian experimental filmmaker and considered a pioneer of queer cinema. The aspect of her work that has really resonated with me is the way in which her films act as an endeavour through which one can come to terms with one’s own political subjectivisation. In her 2010 autobiography Hammer explicitly focuses on the way that her films have been a way to make art out of sex and life. Born and raised in Hollywood, California, Hammer became familiar with the film industry from an early age. She recalls her mother thinking that she was so precocious and cute, she dreamt that her daughter might one day grow up to be a famous child-actor like Shirley Temple. This aspiration quickly fell through after meeting with an agent who believed that Hammer needed professional training and elocution classes that her family could not afford. This experience taught her that she could simply do what she wanted with her life. Hammer joined a feminist group and through conversations with another member discovered she was a lesbian and left her husband. A year after, in 1975 Hammer eventually took off with a super-8 Camera and didn’t look back.
This instance of self-realisation and mobility is at the core of her work. In AVAILABLE SPACE (1979), a film made for performance, Hammer materialises a dream she had of ‘space, of freeing the rectangular film screen to a more liberated form, of escaping the confines of the frame, the domestic house.’ This attempt to change the ‘static, hierarchical’ nature of the standard film projection and the way it is imposed on the audience in a darkened and distanced space such as the theatre demonstrates the way Hammer’s work can break down the boundaries between the content of her work and its viewers. By doing this, she questions the boundaries of what lesbian avant-garde can look like and be. It is not just an aesthetic, but a way of caring for and loving other women, be it in the form of an interpersonal relationship or a wider network of intimacies. There are countless scenes and images in her work that display this love and devotion with such an intensity that it almost becomes difficult to imagine it existing outside of itself. When trying to reconcile this close to utopic representation of a queer past with my sometimes less than ideal queer present, I often feel like it is a hopeless task.
However, I choose to view my fascination with and love of her work as a desire to partake in something that is larger than myself. Both in the form of a communitarian way of life and an aesthetic movement, rather than simply a way of reproducing this lesbian communal space rooted in the past. This very much enables it to become a source of comfort. Hammer’s early films frequently utilizes natural imagery to be associated with the nude lesbian bodies of her subjects. While this gender essentialism is inherently lacking as a full representation of lesbianism (something that Hammer has retrospectively acknowledged and engaged with), the connection between embodiment and nature resonates with our contemporary understanding of the concept dyke camp. In her article Notes On Dyke Camp, Mikaela Clements describes it as the ‘love of the ultra-natural, of nature built up and reclaimed, of clothes that could be extensions of the body, of desire made obsessive, of lesbian gestures or mannerisms maximized by a thousand’. While this concept is most commonly ascribed to tendencies within contemporary pop-culture, often through Instagram and Twitter accounts documenting celebrity outfits and very nice hands, I think that Hammer’s work truly captures what I find appealing about it. Her films present an uncompromised way of being and erotic intuition derived from the materiality of her surroundings and relationships.
When trying to come to terms with my own gender and sexual identity, both in my personal life and artistic practice, Hammer’s work and the lesbian avant-garde function as a way of positioning your self-expression within a wider community of support and care has been incredibly significant. It allows me to feel that I can be part of a lesbian culture that belongs to me and can be shaped by my own lived experience rather than trying to fit into or reject the societal expectations of what lesbianism can be and look like. This lesbian avant-garde has also truly allowed me to embrace and identify with the word dyke, which was a term that used to scare me because throughout my life I have mostly only experience it being used in a derogatory way by other people. However, now it is something that I now find incredibly validating and comforting and is my favourite way of referring to myself.
In her recently published ‘exit interview’ with Masha Gessen in the New Yorker, Hammer describes her job as ‘anything that [I] made up and decided to do […] often about filmmaking, but sometimes it would be painting or making an installation or doing a performance.’ As Hammer is now facing terminal cancer, much of her newer work has focused on her impending death, both as a reflection on her creative life and to highlight the importance of bodily autonomy and a dignified process of dying. In her interview with Gessen, Hammer says she hopes her work makes ‘being a lesbian look so fun’. She’s also created an annual annual award and grant for lesbian experimental artists in order to encourage the centring of ‘the lesbian’ in art and as an important part of the queer community. The lesbian avant-garde has been, and still very much is, one way of achieving this.
Hammer’s films do not only provide a form of retrospective of the emergence of this aesthetic and community, but also a certain hopefulness aimed towards the lesbian avant-garde being a way of life. Seeing her work through the lens of dyke camp further enables a contemporary embodiment and sense of togetherness with the lesbian subjects of her films. These rowdy, disruptive, and happy women of the past can be a source of inspiration - we are able to move far beyond what even they perhaps thought would be possible. By seeing Hammer’s films within the narrative of her own life displays a history of refusal. Her work is a celebration of refusing heteronormative constraints and power dynamics, the male-gaze, and the attempted to dismissal of lesbian desire. This moment of lesbian experimental aesthetic, which existed outside a mainstream filmic culture, promises something more than the representation of a possibly utopic queer past. It demonstrates the transgressive potential of lesbian embodiment, networks, and communities.
[Editor’s Note: Hammer passed away on 16 March 2019, a few days after we published this essay, leaving behind a body of work that has forever changed our queer community.]
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.