PRINT Summer 2019



Barbara Hammer, California, 1979. Photo: Maria Brännström.

OF THE MORE THAN EIGHTY moving-image works that Barbara Hammer created, her 1974 film Dyketactics remains her most iconic. A four-minute paean to lesbian sexuality, Dyketactics publicly announced Hammer’s blossoming sexual identity after the end of her heterosexual marriage and testified to the visionary power of a woman with a movie camera. The film is a revolutionary call for recognition, a how-to guide to sensuality, and a reflection of the utopian spirit that animated a generation of women in search of sexual pleasure and empowerment beyond heterosexuality. It is also one of the most joyful battle hymns ever recorded, pulsating with its author’s tactile, DIY approach: Handpainted credits bracket haptic images of women caressing each other’s bodies and discovering themselves anew. The film still feels as sweet as a kiss and as potent as a Molotov cocktail. No wonder my students continue to heed its call.

Dyketactics was not quite the first, and certainly wasn’t the last, film Hammer made about lesbian sexuality. Indeed, no one in the history of cinema has so delighted in, or devoted more frames to, its orgasmic pleasures. Front and center in these explorations was Hammer herself, who appeared before her camera with various lovers, in various states of undress, and at various ages. And while her range as a filmmaker went far beyond the subject of her identity, Hammer, who died of ovarian cancer just two months shy of her eightieth birthday, never stopped using her camera to explore her own body—which appeared sprightly and indomitable over a half century of cinema.

Hammer was fearless about representing intimacy. She discovered cinematic inspiration in the experimental home movies of Stan Brakhage, as well as in Maya Deren’s rhythmic explorations of femininity. Training her camera on some of the same subjects—the body, lovemaking, ritual—Hammer achieved startlingly distinct results. How different scenes of domesticity appear when populated solely by women in love! Instead of the menacing knives and shattered mirrors that rupture Deren’s melodramatic trance film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Hammer’s work offers daffodils blooming in the dishwasher, leaves of lettuce unfolding like labia, and women tossing off their caftans to frolic on tapestries streaked with light. Hammer captured autonomous women seizing not only the means of production, but also the fetishistic signifiers of heretofore masculine rebellion: leather jackets, motorcycles on the open road. I may not be a lesbian, but when I watch these exultant heroines, I, too, become flushed with excitement. With the right gang of girls, anything might still be possible.

In her search to uncover repressed lesbian representations, Hammer invented an alternative history of cinema. From early films that situate the revolutionary power of sapphic eros in the collective struggles of the women’s movement to celluloid poems that superimpose the multiply orgasmic female body on ancient geologic formations, Hammer’s somatic odes always engage with the past, often as a means to claim eternal value. Yet in addition to their perennial relevance, I see a sense of urgency specific to Hammer’s time in her brave recordings of women communing naked on the sun-drenched hills of the Bay Area and marching triumphantly with freshly cropped hair and placards. Even before the great losses of the AIDS crisis, and amid her own temporary dismissal by the art establishment (her early sexual manifestos were myopically accused of being “essentialist” before being recovered by queer and feminist scholars), Hammer recognized that these women would become the forgotten lovers and warriors of the 1970s if she didn’t intervene.

Like all great poets of the body, Hammer was as attuned to the flesh’s excitability as she was to its vulnerability.

Like all great poets of the body, Hammer was as attuned to the flesh’s excitability as she was to its vulnerability. Our physical precarity is perhaps most apparent in Hammer’s explorations of medical-imaging technologies, with their capacity to make a deindividualized spectacle of the sick person. In the exquisite Sanctus (1990), Hammer countered the clinical gaze of the moving images she appropriated—X-ray footage shot by Dr. James Sibley Watson—by rephotographing and coloring shots of the human skeleton in motion and then setting them to a score by composer Neil Rolnick. The resulting meditation on mortality sanctifies the “evidentiary bodies” of the subjects Watson had unwittingly exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. The first time I saw it, as a speaker on a women’s experimental-cinema panel at the 2008 MoMA PS1 iteration of the traveling exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” Hammer’s danseurs macabres evoked the dying body of my own mother, then ravaged by pancreatic cancer. The last time I screened it, I thought of the inevitable fragility of Hammer’s own body as she struggled, under laws forbidding physician-assisted death, to meet her corporeal demise on her own terms. Until the end, Barbara Hammer offered tactics on how to be—in love, in death, and in spirit.

Ara Osterweil is a painter and writer, and an associate professor of cultural studies at Mcgill University in Montreal.