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

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

Your use of old-school rock songs and nostalgic images, like the music and Coney Island setting in She Had Her Gun All Ready, reminds me of the way someone like David Lynch uses them to subvert American ideals. Can you talk a little bit more about this?

I’m not sure if it’s really about subverting. I really love all that music. And we weren’t just listening to punk music or contemporary at the time. Were were also listening to a lot of music from the ‘60s and ‘50s. It was about rediscovering music and also, for me, coming from Ireland, hearing music that had been very popular in the American ‘60s, but I hadn’t known of. For example, in She Had Her Gun All Ready, there was a song that had once been a #1 or something by Question Mark & the Mysterians, “96 Tears.” I just found the words to that song really fascinating, because the song is about somebody putting a woman up on a pedestal, and saying, “Some day, we’ll be together for a little while, and then I’ll put you down there.” It’s so sick in some ways. That’s how relationships can be.

I would say that the film is all about relationships, and I continue to be interested in that subject. It’s still the subject of my films, because I’m fascinated that relationships between men and women are very perverse in our culture, and it has to do with women not having the same subjectivity as men in our culture. The way things are now doesn’t mean they have to be like that forever. I’m also interested in looking into stuff from the past. I studied archeology many years ago in Ireland, and I’m interested in a world where… [in] the world we live in, only God can be male, but in prehistory that clearly wasn’t the case. It’s not so much about God, but God is a stand-in, in a way, for what you are reaching toward.

I was going to ask you to expound on the way you explore feminine identities and roles, which you’ve sort of done. How have your goals in portraying women changed between the ’70s and now?

Since that time when I was in New York, I’ve continued to be interested in what it means to be a woman in the world. One of the philosophers who writes about men and women in the world is Luce Irigaray.

Her language is so poetic. She would say that the issue of sexual difference is the issue of our time. And there’s not many people saying that. The world is becoming so overtly misogynistic. Everywhere — like the women involved in gaming, for example.

It’s awful, isn’t it?

It is so awful. Someone’s afraid of something here, you know what I mean? It’s also, female sexuality is kept under wraps so much as well. How this situation can be changed, I don’t know. All I can do is make a film, and I want that to be the subject of the film, but not in a kind of diatribe, ranting way, more in a kind of… using humor, really making something exciting to look at. That’s the kind of work I want to do now and I am doing now.

With no wave, was there a sense that this was a community of artists, or was there a division between male and female artists?

There’s always a little divide. There were different subgroups within the whole scene. There were people based over by the Tribeca area and Soho — they were more into hanging out in the kitchen, coming from more of a middle-class background, but wanting to get into CBGB. There were a lot of women and men doing interesting things that I only got to hear about later, including filmmakers. There’s a really interesting filmmaker called Henry Hills who was over in Tribeca, interested in the improv music scene, and was working with Christian Marclay and John Zorn. I wish I had known those people at the time. There were different scenes going on.

What about artists of color? What about black women, for example?

There weren’t very many on the ground, to be honest, but we did know a few. Felice Rosser would have been a big person on the scene at the time. She’s a musician, she still plays in a band, and she’s in some of my films. But the very early days of hip hop — like early, early, early, when groups first came Downtown and were playing in a basement club in the LES somewhere — we were there in the very beginning. I know Charlie Ahearn, a filmmaker in Lower Manhattan, was one of the few people to venture up to the South Bronx and discover the scene. And then groups started playing in this small place on a regular basis. Then they moved over to The Roxy, and that was the scene every Saturday night. I would go there religiously. I loved all that music, all the breakdancing, and all that stuff.

What kinds of clubs were screening your work? Did you show films at the New Cinema storefront theater on St. Mark’s?

Yes, definitely. As for clubs, it would be Max’s Kansas City, Tier 3, which was a pub and a club at the time, the Mudd Club, maybe — can’t really remember if I showed too much in the Mudd Club, but they did have screenings — and the New Cinema.

Were the crowds as interested in film as they were in the music and partying?

Yes, they were, which was amazing. We would project our own films, and they were very delicate. They were Super 8, and we had no copies. Usually the films would be screened between the sets, and you just had to be ready for the reaction from the audience, because if they didn’t like it, they’d certainly let you know.

How did people usually respond in public places when you were shooting films? I love the Greek diner scene in She Had Her Gun, with that little kid nervously bringing Pat Place a drink, and the woman putting her lipstick on, preparing to be filmed — which you kept in the movie.

At that time in New York you could do that with little cameras. Americans were always comfortable being photographed. I think things have changed a bit now. You know, filming children and all those things. You can’t do it anymore. There was a kind of relaxed environment. When we made those films, DVDs hadn’t been invented, and we put in just music that was around — any old music, without thinking about it. I had no idea that the films would be shown years later. I was making the films for the moment. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to be a filmmaker or anything like that. I was just doing these films because I had to do them. I had something I wanted to do, and I was inspired by all the other people around me doing what seemed very mysterious and very magical, and I wanted to be part of that. I think sometimes if you’re making a work and thinking about box office or whatever, it’s going to shape the work you do, and you’re going to make it for the box office. I’m not interested in that.

Why did you choose to stick with the Super 8 format for so long while others were moving onto 16mm? Was cost a big factor?

It’s a little different when you’re working with 16mm, and I always liked the sound when you’re working with Super 8, that sync sound. The unexpected sound that you can catch when you’re filming… things can happen, and it’s going to be in the soundtrack, and there’s something incredibly immediate, and sometimes synchronous, about the sound. Sometimes they’re in the soundtrack, and you think I put them in, but no, it was actually there. It adds to the story. There’s an element of chance about it that I like. The sound for 16mm is much more controlled, so it’s much cleaner and restrained.

Your style with the Super 8 offers a tension, too. Watching your images, especially when you’re out in these public places filming, like the lipstick scene in She Had Her Gun, we wonder how you will react. Will you keep the camera going, will you take the scene out? And thinking about you working in that format, and how hard that must have been to juggle those decisions…

Yeah, that would be a little bit of documentary footage. I’m always interested in the parts where people are thinking that this isn’t the bit that is going to be filmed.

Right, I think it’s so perfect. I always loved that part in that film.

I’ve read about your interest in Antonin Artaud — who I absolutely love. I’m interested what the link between your work and Artaud’s is.

Artaud comes into the last film I made, which is called The Irreducible Difference of the Other. A very wonderful actress Olwen Fouéré plays Artaud in this film.

I love that you had a woman play Artaud.

Artaud’s like a prophet or something. He’s a poet, he’s a prophet. He came to Ireland once, visited the Aran Islands. I was living over in Galway. Olwen, who is this actress, did a performance centered on his visit to Ireland. What happened was, he had a psychotic breakdown up in the Islands. A number of things happened, which resulted in him being sent back to France, deported. And from then on he was in a mental hospital, just before he died. That was a very important visit for him, coming to Ireland.

Artaud is interested in embodiment, in getting beyond language. At the same time, he’s always contradictory, escaping from the body is one of his things as well. I used some lines from his writing, and there’s Olwen playing him, almost non-verbally. One of the lines comes from To Have Done With the Judgment of God and says something like: “There are many different worlds, and we don’t have to inhabit the world we’re living in now.” We really have to hold hope that we can affect change in the world. We mustn’t leave it up to the people who hold power at the moment. We can effect change. This change comes from our own imaginations and our own desire. Certainly being a woman living in this world all these years, I’m now 65, there’s room for change, believe you me. And Artaud used to talk about that a lot.

Courtesy of Vivienne Dick
Courtesy of Vivienne Dick

Do you think no wave has had a recent resurgence in popularity? Are people looking more at those films?

I do feel that. There’s been a lot of books that have come out lately. You can’t keep it down. It keeps erupting again. The music, too. It keeps erupting again. It seems to be connected with people wanting to get back to a space and a place where they can create freely. I think the world that we’re living in now has become so homogenous, full of terror and fear, and I think there’s a lot of danger there, the way the world is going — a slick, capitalist, Western world. Civil rights are being eroded, and always with the argument that, “Oh, we have to do this to protect you, because there’s all this danger from this, this, and this.” I just think for us, it’s incredibly important to combat that and withstand that. And the only way that can be is through being able to create in a very individual way. And I think [French philosopher Gilles] Deleuze said that as well. People have to have breathing space to create. And it mustn’t all be controlled by the likes of Google and Facebook, and all these huge corporations. Artistic expression has to be controlled by the individual, and there has to be room for all kinds. It’s always been co-opted and bought by the market, but we really have to fight against that. And maybe that’s the reason why there’s an interest in this area. Because it wasn’t centered on the market.

What was it like, then, for somebody like you? You had no idea you were going to be a filmmaker, and then you wind up with major museums showing your work. Was it surreal?

A little bit, yeah, it was. You just go with it, really. It’s good, it’s all good. I’ve never made a lot of money from my work. It’s not like an artist whose work is marketable — a very tiny number of artists actually make a bit of money — but it’s not really like that with films. I think it’s that kind of energy that people are interested in. Because people were making that music, they knew it wasn’t going to sell. They knew it, and they said it, but they were making it anyway, because they wanted to make it. And I think that’s what people are interested in.