Barbara Hammer

New York, NY, USA

Projection Pleasures

Film projection, for me, has always been rewarding when I take control and move the projection off the static screen. I choose film because it moves, because it represents a life of change, i.e., my life. I never agreed with the makers of the Pathé film camera and projector that defined projection as rectangular. I played along with the game as I had a lot to say and so I produced, directed, shot and edited film after film. In between times I found a way to make myself happy adding movement to content. I can imagine a camera/projector that takes in images and spills them out in a multiple of graphic configurations that could be manipulated by twisting a dial. Let’s say I’m projecting a moving CT scan of a brain in a circle format and now I’m slicing through space with a sideways triangle much like a head of an arrow. Cézanne would be happy! Am I making myself clear? In this age of mechanical and digital wizardry we are not confined or regulated to the set pattern of the historic rectangle for our creative projections.

In 1979 I made a revolving tabletop, which I immediately dubbed “Active Annie” in contrast to the kitchenware “Lazy Susan” that I had grown up with at 1950s dinner tables. On the Active Annie I put a 16mm projector. A hole cut in the middle of the boards allowed the projector power cord to go under the table helping to avoid the entanglement of cords that could occur as I moved it. Yes! Not only did I want my projector to move independently, but also, I wanted the whole table to move. Thus I could swing the projector around while moving the table through space. The images in this new project I called Available Space (1979) are a woman trying to break out of the rectangular frame! I’ve always felt a great need to communicate, be it ideas, philosophies, ideologies or my love for the physical world in all its colourful abstractions. But I don’t make effects for their own sake. In Available Space that woman trying to push the frame into something beyond the rectangle that has enclosed her representation clearly indicates a woman in a man’s world pushing for change.

Similar images are repeated in nine different scenarios and projected on nine different architectural spaces within the theatre, gallery or museum. One scene shows a woman sitting in the window frame of an abandoned house strongly pushing against the top and bottom trying to move it. This might be projected onto the window of the projector booth itself, as I did at the theatre at Jeu de Paume, Paris during the final night of my retrospective in June 2012. There are other scenes projected on the ceiling, the floor, and on the backs of theatre seats (the audience in the case of the Jeu de Paume screening was asked to not sit down but stand around the seats). The projections were on any available space and the audience is encouraged to move to see the image. At the Hamburger Bahnhof in collaboration with the 2009 Berlinale and at the Tate Modern in 2012 at the Turbine Hall in London I performed Changing the Shape of Film where I slashed and jumped through a screen after projecting on available spaces.

Just recently, in May 2014, I made an installation with performance using multiple projections and projectors at The Marie Walsh Sharpe Space program in Brooklyn, New York, entitled What You Are Not Supposed To Look At. The audience enters through a projector-illuminated 5’x 5’ house I’ve constructed of x-rays into a room where I carry a portable projector around showing a woman measuring the space with her body. Two other projectors are mounted on rotary projection tables and all three are synched with the same image. I create the projection with my moving body as I project on photographs, sculpture, collage as well as architectural details. When I approach a large collage of cut-out x-rays on a Mylar screen the light shatters and jumps and I start moving with the light until the projection experience is all encompassing as reflected light spills throughout the space.

If we can move the audience from a passive to an empowered active position, we have supported the agency of the individual who hopefully will take more responsibility in and for the world we all inhabit. As crises of war continue, fracking challenges our water supplies and the continual need for energy resources that disturb the natural environment threaten generations to come, we are in need of a collective body of folks who make their needs known and take responsibility to get their desires met.

Somebody needs to “light a fire” and get the audience moving. A cinema that moves people around the room can begin this activation. Move the audience out of their seats! Make an active cinema! On this topic, I wrote the following in my book HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life:

“Active cinema is a cinema where the audience is engaged physically, involved with a sense of their bodies as they watch the screen. In passive cinema the audience is a spectator to the whims and fancies of the director. It’s as if a dreamlike somnambulance takes over, and the spectator leans back and lets herself be carried away with the moving frames of a cinema storybook that enfolds and entraps the responsible viewer by drugging the sense of self.
. . . Active cinema is not trance cinema. Active cinema repeatedly points to itself as cinema not to a story, drama, or dream. Active cinema is not an escape. It is its own experience.”

Have I succeeded in my projection experiments? As with teaching, there is really no way to tell. I don’t know how many art and cinema lovers, my audience, have become activists, but they have told me that they leave the performance, the film, the projection energised, enervated, and in touch with their bodies in some new way.

July 2014

© copyright caboose 2014

Barbara Hammer is a visual artist primarily working in film and video. Her work reveals and celebrates marginalised peoples whose stories have not been told. Her cinema is multi-levelled and engages an audience viscerally and intellectually with the goal of activating them to make social change. She has been honoured with four retrospectives in the last three years, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Tate Modern in London, Jeu de Paume in Paris and the Toronto International Film Festival.
 HAMMER! Making Movies out of Sex and Life, her book of memoirs and personal film theory, is published by The Feminist Press, City University of New York. She is represented by the gallery KOW-Berlin in Europe. She is most well known for making the first explicit lesbian film, Dyketactics (1974), and for her trilogy of documentary film essays on queer history: Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fictions (1995) and History Lessons (2000).
 Her recent films, A Horse Is Not A Metaphor (2009), Generations (2010) and Maya Deren’s Sink (2011) were awarded Teddy Awards for Best Short Film at the Berlin International Film Festival. Lover Other: The Story of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (2010) also was honoured with a Teddy Award, and Resisting Paradise (2001) was showcased on the Sundance Channel. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013 for a documentary on Elizabeth Bishop. She teaches at the European Graduate School in Saas-fee, Switzerland and lives and works in New York City. More information about her work can be found at her personal web site.

The author performing Available Space for the first time at A Space, Toronto, 1979. Photo: unknown.
Barbara Hammer’s installation What You Are Not Supposed To Look At, The Marie Walsh Sharpe Space program in Brooklyn, New York, May/July 2014. Photo by L.A. Hyder.
The author during What You Are Not Supposed To Look At. Photo by L.A. Hyder.
Barbara Hammer performing Changing the Shape of Film at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum as part of Forum Expanded, Berlinale, February 2009. Photo by Gerd Mittelberg.
Changing the Shape of Film. Photo by Gerd Mittelberg.
Changing the Shape of Film. Photo by Gerd Mittelberg.