“Punk Was a Great Liberating Thing for Women”: Filmmaker Vivienne Dick on No Wave and Making Art in ’70s New York

In the late 1970s through the 1980s, New York City’s Lower East Side was home to a diverse group of artists, musicians, and filmmakers. Born from the punk scene of the mid-‘70s, the no wave movement rejected the boundaries of tradition, embracing a brash, lo-fi, guerrilla aesthetic that confronted audiences with satire and shocking images. Movies were made on the streets, and underground clubs screened films alongside bands fronted by artists like James Chance and Lydia Lunch.

Irish feminist filmmaker Vivienne Dick was one of the artists who helped define the no wave film scene, influencing the shape of contemporary American independent cinema. In 1982, Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote:

In her movies elements of urban documentary, confessional-psychodrama, ironic spectacle, and home-movie “dailiness” are fused. Each of Dick’s five films is a jagged, sometimes fragmentary assemblage in which the camera appears to be as much participant as observer. Set mainly on New York’s Lower East Side and populated largely by flamboyant bohemian types, Dick’s movies are further distinguished by their open-ended rawness and ironic ashcan lyricism. Media quotations (particularly from network TV and rock ‘n’ roll) are frequently used to underscore her concern with social conditioning and sexual politics.

Dick, who is name-checked as a feminist inspiration in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic,” is still making films. She’s currently working on a “meditative” work focused on an uncanny landscape, tentatively called Red Moon Rising. The Museum of the Moving Image is hosting Dick at a screening this weekend, Downtown New York Film: The 1970s and 1980s. She’ll be introducing a few of her essential early films, Guerillere Talks and Beauty Becomes the Beast.

Flavorwire spoke to Dick by phone about making art in ‘70s New York City and being a woman in the no wave scene.

Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979, 45 mins.) , courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image
Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979, 45 mins.) , courtesy of The Museum of the Moving Image

Flavorwire: How would you personally define the no wave movement for someone hearing about it for the first time? What did it mean to you?

Vivienne Dick: It’s defined in time by a period in New York City in the late ‘70s into the very early ‘80s. The no wave movement originally refers to music — a certain kind of music that was being made by some of the bands that initially were called “art bands,” but it’s more a kind of experimental sound. So, it’s not really like punk music, although it’s taking place alongside punk music. The sound has references to jazz and to experimental improvisation, and perhaps minimal music that was being made by La Monte Young, Steve Reich, those people. Often the people making this music had art school backgrounds. Quite a lot of people who had art school backgrounds and moved to New York were very fired up and inspired by punk music and the energy in the clubs, and had the desire to make sounds, to work with sounds — like Rhys Chatham, Sonic Youth, all these bands, their backgrounds were art in college. Quite a few of the people in [the bands] DNA and Mars. The band that I was listening to and particularly paying attention to were The Contortions. They were a funky kind of sound. James Brown type of stuff. James Brown was not fashionable at the time. James Chance [of The Contortions] would walk around with a beat box, blasting James Brown music. Of course, Teenage Jesus, with Lydia Lunch, was another band.

One of my favorites.

Their whole persona, theatrics if you like, was so intense and so fierce. She was so young at the time. She was about 19 when I met her. And I had never seen anything like her before. I was fascinated. The songs were all terribly short, like a minute long and really fierce. Very minimalist. She was influenced by Suicide. They were her inspiration. So in a way, Suicide are the grandparents of all this no wave sound. The films, then, that whole term for no wave, that was applied to films only later. Even the term no wave, I don’t know exactly where it came from. There are different people who have theories on that.

Was there a sense at the time that you were doing something that would be remembered, something big?

In a way no, but in another way, yes. Because I know, for me, I was venturing out to make something without any training. But at the same time, I was very aware I hadn’t been to film school. I was very conscious of that. I had this feeling it’s just as well I didn’t go to film school, because I’m more free that way. I felt like I could speak with this medium now without anyone telling me how it should be done or what the right way to do it was. I felt in such an environment, which it was there at the time, that you really could launch out and try things with support from the community around you. That was definitely the case. It was definitely the case for me, as well, coming from Ireland and having lived in France and Britain, that here in New York I was in a place where a lot of women, creative women, were doing a lot of interesting stuff. And that was the first time ever in my life to be in that environment. That was amazing for me. I saw women around me, people like Meredith Monk doing her amazing music and theater, Lydia [Lunch] and other musicians, women making music. Not just singing in a band, but organizing the band, setting up the band, playing all the instruments. That was so inspiring.

Who were your mentors at the time?

All those people. There were also an incredible number of interesting dancers around me, because I did explore all those worlds before I started making films. I used to go and see whatever I could. There were certain filmmakers whose work I particularly liked that I saw at Anthology Archives. I had never seen films that just seemed to be like nothing but people mooching around and messing around in a kitchen. That was amazing to me. I enjoyed it.

Why did you come to New York?

It’s really strange. I think I came to New York looking for something. Looking for a place to be where I could breathe, where I felt I could be and kind of develop. Because it wasn’t happening in Ireland, for sure. I was getting interested in photography. You had to have a job with a photographer before you could get into any training with photography. I tried both. It just seemed like there were guys that were doing it. I was impatient, and I had expectations — and New York really lived up to it. You follow your nose sometimes in life. You’re not sure why you make decisions. It was certainly the right one for me. And I lucked out moving there during that period.

What was the Lower East Side like back then?

The LES was much scruffier, with cheap rents. I mean, the rents were really, really low then, because as you know, New York was really broke. I found the neighborhood there very friendly, and it had very interesting different communities around. It was the tail end of the hippie thing. All the Poles, Ukrainians, and others were there. This new thing that was starting down at CBGB, that was all nearby. I discovered more and more things going on. And my whole life was centered on Downtown Manhattan. I was always walking somewhere. There was always something happening.

What was your living situation like? Did you live with friends? Did you have a studio that you worked in?

No. I initially shared an apartment on Avenue A, and then I moved into my own place, very small, like one of those railroad apartments where you have a room and a half and the bath is in the kitchen. I built a loft in the tiny little room, and I absolutely loved it. It had two windows and those cranky radiators. I could go up a little stairway outside onto the roof. I just adored it. And then a friend of mine moved in next door, and we shared the toilet. It was that kind of place. It might sound very primitive and everything, but we didn’t feel poor. Really, we kind of relished being poor. We didn’t need it. We’d go out and work in a restaurant at lunchtime, and I’d have enough money to pay the rent and get by. It was time rich. You could do things, you could see things. If you’re going to create something, you have to have time — free time. And if you’re living in a culture that you’ve got to work every hour of the day just to pay the bills, what’s that like? Who wants that?

Guerillere Talks (1978, 28 mins.), courtesy of The Museum of the Moving Image
Guerillere Talks (1978, 28 mins.), courtesy of The Museum of the Moving Image

How did you end up being friends with people like Lydia Lunch and Pat Place? You were just hanging out and watching their shows?

That’s right. Hanging out and being attracted to a certain kind of music. And you’d go along to them playing all the time. And then getting to know them bit by bit. I remember when I started making films, one of the early ones was called Guerillere Talks, it was a series of short portraits of different women, and Lydia was one of them. That’s when I met her. I asked her, would she be interested in doing this with me, because it was very much a collaboration. She could do or say what she wanted. I wasn’t directing her as such. That was the beginning of a very interesting friendship. We did quite a few films together. She came to Ireland a few times, and we did some work here. I was in a band that she had for a while in New York. That was really fun also.

Had you picked up a camera before you came to New York?

Just a still camera.

Did you carry your camera everywhere?

Not really, but whenever I was filming I had it with me, because a lot of the filming would take place out in the street, and you’re just using available light, and it’s very simple. No one seemed to mind either; you just filmed right there and then.

What was the creative climate of New York City like compared to Ireland? You said there really wasn’t much going on in Ireland.

Not really, no. At the time. It’s a really different place now. But at the time it was very inward looking and repressed. The Catholic Church had a lot of influence. There was a lot of unemployment. All the creative people were guys, it seemed. Not many women were standing out. But that did change in England, with the punk thing. There were some really interesting women bands like The Slits, The Raincoats, and other people like Siouxsie Sioux. Punk was a great liberating thing for women.

With your films like She Had Her Gun All Ready, I get the sense that this is a group of friends hanging out, smoking, drinking, listening to music, and then suddenly you just turned the camera on. That spontaneity is wonderful. What was the process of making movies like? Did you work out scripts? Did you rehearse?

Up to a point. There would be some lines. In that film there was a very sketchy kind of script. There’s not much dialogue in it anyway. There were choices made, though, with voiceover. That really horrific story that was in the voiceover [about serial killer Ed Gein], I heard her tell that story, and asked her if I could record it and use it in the film. They [Pat Place and Lydia Lunch] were great to work with, because they look so amazing, for starters. There’s quite a lot of tension in that, though. It’s not really sitting down and relaxing.

It was kind of like, “I want to make this film, and will you be in it, and come to my room at this hour.” I’d have the things set up, and I’d have something that’s very intense that I want to get across, but I would find it very difficult to get across, and very difficult to talk about — that was at the time. I’m venturing out to do something that I’m not really quite sure what I’m doing, but I have to do it. It’s quite intuitive in that way. Very real. Sometimes you make things, and you’re not really sure why you’re making them. I had a lot of freedom in the editing of those things as well, because the shape of them is very unconventional. It’s a mixture of fiction, documentary, and performance.