When I was doing that I wasn’t thinking of Lacan

Stills from True Centre Is Always New (2007) Courtesy of the Artist


A Conversation with Vivienne Dick

Vivienne Dick is a filmmaker whose work is often described as underground, alienated, feminist, and legendary.  Her films have shown at The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, Tate Britain, the Edinburgh and Berlin Film Festivals, and are in the collections of Moma, Anthology Archives, and the Irish Film Archives.  She currently lives in her native Ireland but Dick began making films when she lived in New York City between 1977 and 1982. She has maintained a conversation with the city throughout her career, most recently in the short Molecular Moments (2005).  A compilation DVD Between Truth and Fiction: The Films of Vivienne Dick is published by Lux and The Crawford Art Gallery (2009).

A two-day retrospective of Dick’s work was held at Artist Space in October 2010 (organized by Treasa O’Brien, Ed Halter, and Thomas Beard). During a discussion with the audience about a mirror-shot in one of her super-8 classics She Had Her Gun Already (1978) Dick laughed and said, “when I was doing that I wasn’t thinking of Lacan.”  Kerrie Welsh spoke with Dick about her body of work and what she is thinking about now.

Would you tell me about what you’re working on now?  Wikipedia says you’re making a new feminist classic called “I ain’t feelin’ it?

I am making another film and it probably will be a feminist film.  I can’t really talk about it because it’s too early yet, but I definitely want to return to how I made work in the past – relying a lot on intuition and being prepared to take some risks with the material, the direction the work goes in and how it is all put together. I’m interested in looking at what it means to be a woman in the world today.  There’s a huge imbalance in the world and although people are aware of it, we’re kind of not aware of it at the same time.  It’ s something in your face that we can see, but nobody pays too much attention to it.

Are there things you’re reading or watching now that are influencing you?

I pay a lot of attention to current affairs and politics.  I sometimes wonder why in our culture we accept the fact of war — that it’s kind of a normal thing for there to be a war.  It seems to me that there’s something very unwell about that situation. There’s a book called Pure War, which is a conversation between Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer which is interesting. I find Virilio and Lotringer’s take on where we’re going to be very pessimistic. It’s not that I don’t find what they are saying interesting but I just don’t buy this extreme negativity  which seems to me to be a very male, modernist, masculine thing. Gender never comes into the equation – or race for that matter – because there are plenty of other cultures out there with a much healthier take on what kind of world we could make for ourselves. The Western world we live in is an extremely masculine culture that seems to be heading in an unhealthy direction. Do we really have to go down that road?  You could say it’s always been like that, but I don’t see why we have to accept that it should continue forever.  It is a narrative which needs challenging.  People in the past have challenged it and we need to continue that. We live in these so-called democracies and all around the edges of them there are people being brutalized.

I know Maeve Connolly is writing about your work in terms of globalization and anti-colonial practice.  I wanted to ask you about race in your films, there’s a shot in Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979) that pans from people of color on the street to endless rows of bags of little white baby dolls…

In the New York I was living in then it was almost like an apartheid.  It has not changed much really. I think the whole issue of race in America is still very undigested.  It is an old trauma that has not been worked through.  I’ve just finished reading The Long Song by Andrea Levy.   It’s set in Jamaica in the 1830s and it’s from the point of view of a black slave. It made me really want to learn more about that history.  In fact there’s quite a lot of Irish connections to slavery on both sides – the oppressor side and on the other side – because quite a lot of Irish people were indentured – they had to work as slaves for years.

Looking back at your career, have there been pivotal moments when your perspectives or methods have shifted?

I made a three-screen installation, and that was something completely different that I’d never done before.  It was very much influenced by Luce Irigaray and set in Ireland.  I was interested in signs or remnants of what she would call “the Female Divine” in the landscape. There’s a very rich mythology in Ireland.  Mountains called The Paps of Anu – after a goddess, and other mountains or caves where female entities reside and which have become monstrous over time – “ The Devil’s Mother’ and that sort of thing, and of course, the sheela-na-gig. Basically I grew up in a culture where God could only be male. Yet the landscape and the mythology is saying something else. Irigaray’s argument is that there is a connection between the barring of women from officiating in most religions and their almost total exclusion from social decision making.  Ultimately she is interested in the possibility of a renewal of male-female based on the creation of a sexed culture and a female divine.

Guerrillere Talks takes its title from Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres, right?

Definitely, we’d been reading that book and were very impressed by it — picking up on her energy.

Wittig is famous for her 1978 statement “I am a lesbian not a woman.”  Was that on the radar when you were making the film?

That may well have been her position, ok. The people I was hanging out with– many of them were lesbian but not separatist.  It sort of didn’t matter one way or the other and there was something very refreshing and inspiring about this queer culture, or what came to be called queer.  Bev Zalcock wrote an essay in the booklet that comes with the DVD.

Guerrillere Talks is often compared to Warhol’s screen tests, but it is also reminiscent of early feminist documentaries with women telling their own stories.  Had you seen that kind of film?

I guess I had seen some films like that.  I certainly had seen some of Warhol’s work.

Ed Halter described your landscape film Rothach (1985) as shocking after the rest of your work.   When he asked about it you said, “maybe because I was pregnant at the time.”

I was 5 months pregnant when I made that film and it’s got a funny kind of energy to it. The only way I can make films is to dive in: it’s kind of like going for it and not really knowing where you’re going to end up.  For many years I thought there’s something wrong with the way I’m making films — I really shouldn’t be making films like this at all. I tried to make films that I thought would be more amenable to  a television audience,  like New York Conversations is a more traditional documentary, more polished.

But it also seems very personal somehow. It’s similar in structure to Guerrillere Talks and some of the shots are reminiscent of Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979). There’s a particular shot in Beauty Becomes the Beast that Hoberman describes as “the chilling but comic verite of Christmas Eve Shoppers aimlessly pawing through 14th street toy bins.” In New York Conversations it’s the holidays in the city again, except instead of baby-dolls in bags it’s a table filled with electric hands waving at tourists, right after the scene with the pregnant lab technician who says “this is where I work… we make babies here.”  I definitely wanted to hear more about it.

I think if a film is going to be powerful you have to take a lot of risks with it and this one wasn’t taking too many risks.  One of these scenes, with the gay man wearing those glasses, I don’t know how people take that scene. He seems almost apologetic for being gay, but that’s how he was and he wanted to wear the glasses. Perhaps I should’ve asked him to take them off.

But there’s something very emotionally intense and strange about that disguise because it’s odd to listen to personal revelations when you can’t see someone’s eyes.

That’s true he was wearing the glasses to hide behind them, also he was making a joke in a way. But it looked kind of macabre, kind of weird.

How do you see things right now in terms of feminism?

I get the impression that there’s a whole new generation coming along, a renewed interest in feminism.  For a decade or more it was almost a dirty word. There’s a revival taking place all over Ireland and England, young people getting together, meeting in pubs, reading and having discussions — talking about feminism. There’s clearly something happening.

Do you have thoughts about being described as a woman filmmaker as opposed to a filmmaker?

That’s what the whole thing is about: defining where women are in the world, making work about that, and supporting other women.  That’s the whole rational of my work.  That’s the beginning of it, I would say, the fact that I’m a woman and that I’m making films.  That’s very important to me… it’s speaking from a female perspective.  So anyway, I’m very excited to be setting out to make some new work.

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About Kerrie Welsh

Kerrie Welsh is an experimental filmmaker whose work has been presented in galleries, festivals, and international conferences. She teaches in Tisch School of the Arts’ Undergraduate Film & Television program.
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