Exposed Intentions Meet Transformative Inventions: Maya Deren and Barbara Hammer

From within every scriptural economy of a given symbolic order there sometimes emerges a cry that disquiets. The effect of this, like the appearance of a rogue footprint on Robinson Crusoe’s island, can lead to profound consequences; disturbing or exciting, depending on your point of view.

It is in light of this that I can relate to the feelings that Barbara Hammer recalls she had when she first saw Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” (1943). Hammer spoke of her subsequent excitement at a recent screening of her new film, “Maya Deren’s Sink” (2011) that marked the opening of a season of her films at Tate Modern this month. Here she is speaking at MOMA about the making of the same film:

I can similarly recall my own experiences of my first encounter with “Meshes of the Afternoon.” Before I had even known it was made by a woman I felt exhorted by a feeling of possibilities, that the tools of cinema could produce multiple transformations from within the symbolic order that it nonetheless upholds.

In “Meshes,” distinct and recognizable symbols have been utilised and manipulated that propel us towards being willfully seduced. The music has the quality of a snake charmer’s but as our gaze is conjured out of its sleeping hole it is at once struck by various lapses, cuts, unexpected juxtapositions and breaks (enhanced by the strikes in the soundtrack). The film creates numerous disruptions in the flow of language that in other circumstances stealthily and seamlessly produces the familiar images from which we make associations and judgments. A record spins silently and the telephone is off the hook- ‘I’m sorry it has not been possible to connect your call.’

The film is restless, but it is still possible to make out, in the film’s most elevated moments, enunciations that are detached from formal statements, that may wound or pleasure our senses (or both)- It is an elusive language-within-language that communicates with places in the body that do not respond to the language of reason nor possess a distinct language of their own. The experience for the spectator therefore corresponds to the experience of the filmmaker as Deren saw it, not merely an endless process of production but “an act of discovery,” that combines a creative act with things accidental or unknown.

In her book, Stillness in Motion in the Seventeenth Century Theatre (2003), PA Skantze distinguishes immediate perceptions of the world, as something wild, from comprehensive ideas that seek to stabilise those perceptions, closing the circle of knowledge in the process. These experiences do require some meeting place, a “material site,”[1] in order for this process to be realised and to prevent our sensations from languishing in the space (what Michel De Certeau called ‘the frontier,’ a kind of ‘void’[2]) that exists between them. Tools (like the film camera) therefore have an important role in preparing the ground and forging the relationship between what De Certeau calls our “natural” and “cultural” selves, our immediate and individualised emotions and our structured and organised bodies, which we are constantly engaged in negotiating with. Following this, Skantze appropriately asks, “When the apprehender full of the physical feel of a discovery finds herself no longer alone, how does she tell what has changed? How does she show…?” (Skantze 2003: 5)

Barbara Hammer’s own film, “X” (1973) characterizes the process of feeling such a new discovery from within the process of its articulation. Hammer herself describes the film as “A baroque ritualistic naming chant that points again and again with image and sound to make a self-determined statement out of despair.” During a panel discussion at Tate after the screening of the film last week. Hammer explained how “X” was made at a time in her life when she was only just making a transition from heterosexuality to homosexuality. The film captures this moment of becoming quite remarkably. It’s intoxicating kaleidoscope of images combined with repetitive chants are a constant affirmation of the artist’s deliberate self from within a new found uncertainty, “This is my exhibitionism… these are the children I’m glad I don’t have…” The film is partly funny and partly disquieting and charms the viewer through a humility of expression.

Like Deren’s, “Meshes…” the film never fully settles, but there is more at stake in Hammer’s “X,” than a witty play-within-a play of language that reveals its fabrications. A more appropriate equivalent may be Deren’s later film “At Land” (1944), which Deren described as reversing the dynamic of the Odyssey. The female protagonist, “Instead of taking the long voyage of search for adventure, finds instead that the universe itself has usurped the dynamic action which was once the prerogative of human will and confronts her with a volatile and relentless metamorphosis in which her personal identity is the sole constancy.”[3]

However, whereas Deren may consider the identity of her female protagonist a “sole constancy,” of an otherwise changing universe, what Hammer’s film illustrates is that even this identity is subject to and constituted by a “relentless metamorphosis” that usurps the idea of predictability. What constitutes our own ideas is at once a necessary promise and a threat.

[1] From Mitch Rose, [last accessed 21/ 08/ 11]

[2] De Certeau, M; The Practice of Everyday Life, Uni of California Press, California and London, 1984 pp. 128-129

[3] Maya Deren; Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality, in Daedalus, Vol. 89, No. 1, Winter, 1960


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