- Artistic Presence
Barbara Hammer made a big entrance. Sporting a jumpsuit, boots, spiked-hair and an impish grin, she walked into our classroom at San Francisco State University full of energy and ready to shake things up. Her enthusiasm was a challenge. It was a time when universities found funds in their budgets for visiting artists, and as such, Barbara Hammer taught me some valuable lessons.
While we students gathered on the sidewalk to smoke cigarettes and discuss alternative forms of representation, Barbara was in the sound lab working on her new film. The performative aspect of her presence was supported by not just a substantial, but prodigious, body of work. Many years later I realized how critical it is for women filmmakers to make their own work a priority. They do not have the luxury of creating from on-high and sending their films out to a world waiting with open arms. Women must build their audiences. Barbara Hammer is exemplary in that respect. She shows up, she gets her work done, and gets it out.
Recently I taught a film production class at San Francisco State University. Gone are the days of visiting artists; in their place is corporate-sponsored student I.D. cards and market-driven course catalogues. As a tonic for the business takeover of education, I had decided to show a few experimental films by Barbara Hammer. After all, she had been both a student and teacher at that very institution. It never occurred to me that out of the 8,700 titles held at the university, none would list her name.
That is not to say there were no experimental titles in the collection: I knew there were. I had seen the films by Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Bruce [End Page 95] Baillie, Michael Snow, and Paul Sharits—men whose work had long belonged to the experimental film canon. The absence of work by Barbara Hammer, as well as Chick Strand and Carolee Schneemann, distorts the reality of who is making experimental work, how that work is being made, and for what purpose.
Nevertheless, Barbara Hammer has maintained a successful presence in the filmmaking community through sheer devotion to the medium. She travels with her films, gives lectures, forms small screenings, attends festivals, and helps foster pockets of film culture. This personal connection to her work, along with a grassroots approach to building an audience, constitutes some of what distinguishes her from other filmmakers.
It is important to remember that the works of independent filmmakers exist in distinction to corporate film products, whose vitality depends on massive marketing power. Each year there are fewer independently owned theaters in which to exhibit alternative work, and the value of artists as participants in culture is daily demeaned. This distinction is one Barbara Hammer is well aware of. Her film Endangered (1988) highlights the slow disappearance of both alternative filmmaking and the presence of the artist as provocateur of culture. It is a film that responds to the slow squeeze of the NEA, and the ever increasing corporate “sponsorship” of both art and education.
Paradoxically, recent years have seen the lauding of “independent film.” While the attention may bode well for some, it is important to keep in mind that a particular model of independent film has emerged: feature length, narrative film with commercial potential. Artists of all disciplines have been lured into the limelight, including painter Julian Schnable and photographer Cindy Sherman. With the risk of commercial narrative film supplanting alternative art forms, it is worth bearing in mind the industry’s overriding characteristic: commercial features function as money-making products. Short experimental work, the type that Barbara Hammer has been making for twenty-five years, rarely sees a profit.
Yet nothing challenged my ideas about film as much as the experimental work I viewed as a student. One of those “small” films that stayed with me is Barbara [End Page 96] Hammer’s Pond...