Thursday, 4 March 2010

Vivienne Dick

From The Pictures #3

“I feel like we have to do a whole lot of these films, because this is, I want this to be my show. I want… I want everything I say to keep. Like my whole life now is trying to just talk, I just want to talk and get up on a stage and just talk and that’s my show. I want to take photographs too. I want people to take all these chances…”

Beate Nilsen, Guerillere Talks

As a filmmaker, Vivienne Dick is a child of the 60s underground. She took a chance on New York, like many before and since, relocating from her native Ireland in the late ‘70s. There exposed to the underground canon – Marie Menken, Maya Deren, Jack Smith – she found her vocation as a filmmaker, merging the legacy of the old guard with the emergent post-punk No Wave scene, a legendarily intense subculture of anarchists, perverts and revolutionaries that may have been New York’s last wail of defiance and innovation with any scale, the Last Scene.

Her films of the time stand as the epitome of the underground to that point. The bedroom settings, the drawl, the streets, the grain. Vivienne took these aesthetic qualities and made them her own, fashioning new statements from them about women, power, globalisation and identity. Her films are intrinsically political but in the most personal of ways. Both the filmmaker and her subjects care a great deal, are interested and interesting and want to share their positions.

Her first film Guerillere Talks (1978) laid out a manifesto for what was to come. Composed of seven screen test reels, each consisting of one Super 8 cartridge and featuring the likes of Anya Phillips, Ikue Mori, Pat Place and Lydia Lunch (then aged 19/20), the film gives each woman the space to breathe, act, perform, point a camera, smoke a cigarette, talk. Lydia prowls some urban wasteground, alternately speaking into a microphone – “it’s just no fun being a kid anymore!” – and hanging it between her legs as her cock. Beate Nilsen talks dreamily and a little sadly about her ideas and plans for future shows. All of Vivienne’s films are a lot about talking and about performance, communication of intimacies.

She stayed in New York and stayed with Super 8 for another four years, making a series of underground classics. She Had Her Gun All Ready (1978) is a claustrophobic trip through the city streets, following Lydia Lunch as she in turn stalks Pat Place. The relationship between the two women remains unexplained but frought with paranoia and power struggles, climaxing on a frantically shot rollercoaster ride, Vivienne’s camera sat one seat in front of Lydia, the image so shaken it too becomes a ride. Writing about the scene in The Village Voice, J Hoberman commented that he couldn’t remember the last time he saw a shot that was so fun and captured the spontanaeity of the medium so well. Maybe the final scene in Richard Linklater’s Slacker (a film that belongs in the same canon, surely influenced by the same people as Vivienne if not by Vivienne herself), that sees a group of friends jump and skip their way to the edge of a cliff and then throw their super 8 camera off the precipice. The two moments definitely share some intentions.

Beauty Becomes The Beast (1979) again stars Lydia Lunch in a psychodrama setup, thrown between different ages of her life, and Liberty’s Booty (1980) explored life in a brothel, returning to the Guerillere Talks style verite. In the older film we take the part of Vivienne’s camera, and the subjects are talking directly to us. In Liberty’s Booty, again we are the camera, but this time it’s more like we’re part of the group, a friend in the room immersed in the conversation and surroundings, searching through the details of the scene – ornaments, records, notes to self. Vivienne Dick films have real presence.

Liberty’s Booty also features scenes shot in Ireland, to whose shores Vivienne would return, first to make a satirical film about tourism, Visibility: Moderate (1981), then to live, leaving the New York scene but not the underground. Chris Kraus said that the underground no longer exists as a scene or place but instead is in the minds and attitudes of people who don’t know each other. The modern underground is a psychic collaborative project, communicating in images and responses sent out to be decoded by strangers. Vivienne did not leave the underground when she left New York, it remained with her.

Her Irish films of the mid-80s say a lot about a filmmaker living between places, reconciling them where she can and in doing so presenting a fresh perspective on her home country. She began using video and 16mm as well as Super 8 in films like Trailer (1983). Rothatch (1985) was made in an almost pastoral setting, but moves to expose the artifice and construction of the countryside. Like Dawn To Dusk (1983) takes place in a rural landscape, through which the alien figure of Lydia Lunch walks, NYC styled, a past time encroaching. Images: Ireland (1988), a compilation of footage of events and life in early ‘80s Ireland is Vivienne’s Jonas Mekas diary film – someone else who moved to New York and there discovered he is a filmmaker.

In the late ‘80s Vivienne took a chance on another move, to London, and made more films. London Suite (1989) has echoes of Guerillere Talks, being a collection of interviews with and stories told by friends in the city, while New York Conversations (1992) went further by returning to New York and recording meetings with old friends and collaborators after a decade away, exploring the changed rapport as much as the city. It’s easy to be nostalgaic for a scene, especially if you weren’t there at the time, but Vivienne’s work in Ireland and London showed that in the way we see and think of it today - all films and interviews - No Wave was as much Vivienne Dick as Vivienne Dick was No Wave.

Vivienne returned to Ireland in the 90s, teaching and raising a family and filmmaking. In 2002 she realised a film project displayed on multiple screens, Excluded By The Nature Of Things, which shows alternated poetic seasonal images as well as actors and animations and relationships. She followed this with more shorts, Saccade (2004) and Molecular Moments (2005), filmed again in New York. Chances previously taken and new corners turned, it will be exciting to see where she goes next.

For some time, Vivienne’s films have been largely unavailable – a library DVD was available through the Lux, but that was all. I first saw Vivienne’s films while at university, took them to heart, and had sought them unsuccessfully since – it meant contacting Vivienne herself and arranging a screening at our night to see some of them again. A new Lux DVD compiling 5 of Vivienne’s films (including A Skinny Little Man Attacked Daddy (1994), her portrait of her family, as well as earlier and later works) has just been released though, and we can hope for more screenings in future (we’d like more DVDs too please, Lux). The more that people see her films the more Vivienne Dick’s underground cinema will have high risk children of its own.

THE PICTURES: How did you first get started as a filmmaker? What made you want to pick up a camera?

VIVIENNE DICK: I started by wanting to take photos and bought a Pentax camera when I was working in Germany many years ago. Making films did not enter into the realms of possibility until I moved to NYC and started seeing independent film at Anthology Archives, and also saw how everyone around me was doing something creative - many with little experience or 'skill'.

TP: Were there any filmmakers that were an early influence on you?

VD: Yes, plenty - Maya Deren, Marie Menken, Jack Smith, Bruce Baillie, Storm de Hirsch, Ken Jacobs.. it was a revelation to see some of these films .. and in Ireland and France before that I had seen Godard, Warhol, Bergman and 'Fear Eats the Soul' by Fassbinder...

TP: How easy was it to survive as a filmmaker in the beginning, like in terms of finances, getting by? Do you feel like that's easier or more difficult these days?

VD: It was easy because I was working with Super 8. It was just a question of posting it off to the lab in New Jersey. I don't think it can be harder today - the technology has so much improved.. maybe the hard bit is going and doing it. It's a risk and you have to go for it. I think if you worry about what people might think about your work this can become a block.

TP: A lot of film movements, or things which are later labelled movements, come out of a sense of collective, of collaborative groups of people (the obvious example being the London Filmmakers Co-op, but more subtle groups that work on more subtle levels too maybe). Would you say this is true, or was true of yourself?

VD: yes I do think that. My work did not come out of a void.. I was fortunate to be in NY at the time I was there - that is the late seventies - when there was so much experimentation and play and creativity. That environment made it so much easier for me. Had I stayed on in London (or Dublin or Paris ), I would most likely not have made anything.

TP: Watching your films, there's a strong element of personal politics to them. How important do you think things like filmmaking are in affecting politics, zeitgeists? Would you say that underground film, taken as a broad project, has any of these aims, or that you do yourself?

VD: I think if you are making a film - no matter what kind - narrative or otherwise - if it is to have any power it has to be about something you are passionate about. Maybe the key thing about my work - or most of it - is that it is resolutely describing a world from a female perspective.

TP: In terms of your process, and the way your films have that definitely very personal, diary like aspect to them, is that something that you do constantly, filming all the time and then putting a piece together when you feel you have the right elements, or do you usually have a plan in mind and film specifically to that plan?

VD: It can happen both ways. Usually I have some idea or theme in mind. I don't film all the time.. in my case teaching has got in the way in recent years.. maybe I will have to change something. I needed a job for family reasons for a while.

TP: Would you say your filmmaking style and process has changed over time? I'm afraid I'm speaking from a position of slight ignorance here, as aside from the clips on the Lux site, your films aren't so easy to track down - though i see there's a new DVD which i'll look forward to seeing when payday comes... It does sound from the descriptions though that there are a lot of common ties maybe...

VD: I have become a better editor. I made an installation for 3 screens and one for 2. That was fun. And also working out how to get it in sync using a computer and two video cards. A lot of possibilities there.

TP: Similar question, your early films were very much about urban spaces, and then became more about rural spaces when you moved back to Ireland in the early 80s - now maybe there's more a mix of the two? (again, feel free to correct me if this is way off). i find this interesting as someone who was born by the sea, lived in the suburbs for a long time (with many excursions into the north east english countryside) and now lives in London, the urban spaces here i find much more interesting than i ever did the rural ones, but it does feel like it might not always be that way. How do you think, as a filmmaker, changes in surroundings have affected your work?

VD: I am usually influenced by where I am living and the films and contents change accordingly. I know what you mean about the rural city thing. I think the world is changing in that people in rural areas are far less cut off from current culture etc because of tv, internet and cheap air travel. It is not really the same of course as living in the city and I feel very comfortable in the city. In the end it is important wherever you are to be able to give yourself space, to be able to focus. There are always distractions which get in the way. To be honest I have always been torn between the two.. I grew up in a small place so I am comfortable in the West of Ireland.

TP: This is kind of a long meandering two part question, I'm sorry... I wanted to ask something about returning to New York too (New York Conversations) and how films in themselves, especially more personal ones, are about remembering and returning, since it's often remarked on how different New York is now compared to how it used to be. There are levels to this too - like, for someone like a reader of this zine, there's a good chance they've never been to that New York and would watch films from that period, or even further back, Warhol films maybe, and there'd be an element of nostalgia for a time they'd never been to. Is recording times and places in this way a concern of yours, something you set out to do? Do you consciously place importance on that time capsule, memory aspect of filmmaking?

VD: Yes and no. When I was filming in NYC in the seventies / eighties I was not thinking of making something for the future. I was situated right there and what was going on around me was very interesting to me and in retrospect there is all this documentary aspect to the material. I have always liked to mix documentary and fiction - and performance.

TP: And lastly...what are you up to at the moment? Is there anything on the horizon we should look out for?

VD: Well I have a retrospective on in a gallery in Cork - but it finishes on the 7th November. Also we are having an event to celebrate the show and its connections to New York etc. We are having Pat Place ( guitarist with the Contortions and Bush Tetras ) and Cynthia Sley ( singer songwriter Bush Tetras) coming to play and we will be showing a video of an early performance by The Contortions as well as a film by James Nares and Scott and Beth B etc Its up on the Crawford Gallery ( Cork) website. This is happening on Nov 5th at the gallery 8-11. The only other thing is the book/dvd which the Lux have. Five films on it and selling for £20.

Vivienne Dick at The Lux - essays, DVD etc.

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