Vivienne Dick was born in County Donegal in 1950 and settled in New York City in the 1970s. She is, according to the Irish Times, ‘one of the most important film-makers Ireland has produced’, having come to prominence as a leading light of the American ‘no wave’ scene before returning to her home country. Earlier this year, a major exhibition of Dick’s films, 93% Stardust, went on display at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, running in tandem with Weekend Plans, a photography exhibition by Dick’s long-time friend, Nan Goldin. It featured a selection of early work, as well as newer films such as The Irreducible Difference of the Other, Red Moon Rising, and Augenblick. I met Dick in Simon’s Place Café, Dublin, on a rainy afternoon in mid-October, shortly after the show had ended. It had struck a chord in the city. Halfway through our conversation, a man who had been sitting at a table opposite us got up to leave. He came over and tapped Dick on the shoulder: ‘That was a great show. You’re Vivienne Dick, aren’t you? Fantastic. Long overdue.’
You grew up in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. What kind of film did you engage with at that time?
I was a student at UCD between 1967 and 1970, and was a member of the Film Club there. In that film club we saw more alternative type of work, selected by whoever was running the club. I remember seeing films by Bergman and Godard: Weekend, for example. I remember quirky films from the sixties like Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. In Killybegs, where I grew up, there was an independent cinema which showed quite an eclectic bunch of films, like Suspiria by Argento, films selected by the cinema owner.
Did censorship have much of an impact on film at that time in Ireland?
We were all aware of censorship in literature and film. There was not much world cinema or independent cinema. I remember when Antonioni’s Blow-Up turned up in Dublin. I lived in Paris for a bit after that—the city of cinema. I remember being very impressed with Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul, that had just come out. And I saw Warhol films in London around that time.
You’ve lived in Paris, England, Germany, India—
Yeah, I lived in Aix-en-Provence after I left college for a year, and then I was in Paris, I lived in Germany for a year—I moved around a bit. And then I decided to go to New York, to America.
What influence did that travel have?
Basically, there wasn’t much happening here for me, being a woman. The only career open to me would have been teaching at a secondary school or something, and I just didn’t feel quite up to that. Although I did end up teaching film eventually, and teaching English as a second language was always a fall-back job for me. I did many, many jobs just to get by. Aix-en-Provence was full of international students and so I was introduced to all sorts of stuff that I hadn’t known about in Ireland: music-wise, drug-wise (laughs). And then I met somebody in France who was into contemporary art. We went to visit art galleries together, and hitchhiked to Berlin. And he was very interested in music also. I am a big fan of Robert Wyatt. It was around this time I began to listen to a lot of experimental music—Steve Reich, for example, and jazz.
Was it around this time that you decided to move to New York?
I’m not really sure why I decided to go to New York. Certainly, there was no point in staying here, anyway. It was kind of like, wanting to stretch your wings, wanting to see other places. I remember meeting an Irish gallery owner in London, and I remember him saying to me that [New York] was a great city for women, which confirmed what I had anticipated, and I was not disappointed.
Can you speak a little about how you started making films there?
Well, I was interested in photography, and I had a camera. Before going to New York, I’d worked on a boat between Sweden and Germany, selling duty-free butter, and with the money I bought the camera. In New York I met a photographer who’d been to a school for visual arts, and I was looking at what he was doing, school-trained work. He taught me how to use the darkroom correctly. And then I gravitated towards the Lower East Side. It was a cheap place to live, and it was a very interesting time back then. It was the end of the hippy era, there were a lot of—there still are a lot of—Ukrainians and Poles there. And then it was the beginning of the punk thing as well. I found Millennium Film Workshop by chance on 4th Street and that was the first time I used a Super 8 camera. This was around 1976. But then a short time after that, I met a bunch of people—Scott and Beth B, Eric Mitchell, James Nares—at some gathering in someone’s apartment, who were talking about making Super 8 films, and using their friends as actors. This was the moment I decided I wanted to make films. I remember it really well. It was my birthday. At that time, I was hanging out in CBGB and listening to all this music; something really interesting was happening with the music and this energy became part of the filmmaking.
Did you sense a kind of conflict between the ethos of places like Millennium and Anthology [Film Archives], and the kind of film you were interested in, were interested in making?
Well, I certainly used to go to Anthology to view films. I’d never seen all this experimental American cinema before. It was quite an eye-opener because I realised, ‘God, I could make films too!’ They weren’t big budget productions, they were actually kind of domestic. That was the stuff I was interested in. There was not a big difference in the ethos of places like Millennium and Anthology really. Although I enjoyed seeing the work there at that time, I felt apart from both places. I was not trying to fit into this world.
You started off screening your films in bars and clubs, is that right? Places like Max’s Kansas City?
Yes, because those were the places we frequented. We thought maybe we could show our films in between bands. Anyway, many of the people in the films were in bands: were musicians, or singers, or whatever. So there was an interest for them in seeing those films.
How did it effect viewers’ engagement with the films, showing them in bars instead of galleries?
It was a much livelier audience. We kind of turned our noses up a bit at places like Anthology, which were very purist in a way, in terms of: no smoking, no talking, hard seats, respect for the film. That’s fine, but it was a bit over the top. So music venues were much more fun; you could just go and get a drink in the middle of a film. It was more relaxed.
In terms of the intersection between music and film, as you say, your films are peopled with a cast of musicians, and you played music for a while?
In Lydia Lunch’s band, yeah. I played the keyboard. I played violin as well, on The Contortions’ album. I loved The Contortions, so I was thrilled to be on their album.
Yes, I was interested to hear you talking about them in conversation last month at IMMA, about the ‘release’ of hearing their music for the first time. What were the aesthetic points of connection between the music and film of the time?
I always see my films as connected to music in relation to rhythm and pacing. Perhaps, like, if you think about The Contortions, and other bands who were around, they were quite dissonant in the way they organised their sound; there’s a rhythm there but it’s another kind of rhythm. In some ways I think this carries over into the way I edit film, or conceive of time, moving from one reality to another in an abrupt way. As I said earlier, the energy of the music was important as well.
How do you feel now about the various labels that have been applied to your early work: avant-garde, punk, no wave, etc.?
It’s just a label. It’s no big deal. I suppose when you say ‘no wave’, it does refer to a certain time period, an association with music. The ‘no wave’ do have certain things in common—working mostly with non-actors, for example, who happen to be musicians, and using Super 8 as a medium. In my work, there are elements of documentary, and there are elements of fiction as well as performance, and, along with that, there is also a kind of dream-world—an imaginary world, or even a surrealist world perhaps.
It’s such a well-documented period in New York, in literature. In Kim Gordon’s biography, she speaks about New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s as being ‘in crumbling shape […] before Soho and the art scene exploded, and [it] turned itself into a kind of moated kingdom’. Were you conscious, at the time, of the ephemerality of New York as a kind of artistic haven?
Yeah, it’s kind of interesting because people gravitate to New York from all classes, and from all parts of America: the Midwest, Detroit. James Chance from The Contortions was from the Midwest somewhere. Also, a lot of students turned up from art colleges who wanted to be artists but ended up turning to making music. People were making films, playing in bands, writing for magazines, painting. For example, James Nares was in a band, he was a filmmaker and a painter.
So it was a ‘melting pot’ so to speak?
Yeah, it was a melting pot—apart from there not being many black people on the scene, something which changed somewhat when hip hop appeared downtown in the early eighties. People felt emboldened to try their hands at whatever. Everyone influenced and supported each other. I found it amazing, because in Ireland, I was used to hearing people say, ‘Who do you think you are? What qualifies you for this position?’ None of that was ever said to anybody [in New York]. You just presented whatever you were doing. I never felt so liberated as I did there. I was very aware that I wasn’t trained as a filmmaker. And I didn’t give a damn! The musicians weren’t trained either. And they were making fantastic music. I think I found my own voice, in my own way. Had I gone to film school, and been taught the ‘right’ way to make a film, it would have squashed anything that was there. I don’t think I would have made the same films somehow.
Was your early work a conscious reaction against a more structural school of film?
Yeah well, I mean, structural film was the dominant independent work at that time. And our work was completely opposite. We were interested in working with elements of narrative and with people. I have great respect for structuralist work but at the time a number of us were not interested in making such films—it was not consciously a reaction—it was more being interested in something else and not being concerned if it was ‘acceptable’ or not. It was exactly the same with the music of the time. Film critics picked up on our work very early on—people like Amy Taubin and Jim Hoberman. Later Scott MacDonald interviewed me and wrote an article in October which caused some mutterings: ‘What’s she doing in that magazine?’ (Laughs).
How has your process changed over time? How has your sensibility developed in terms of the visual element of your films, your use of sound?
The sound has got much more complex. I’m using better technology. I tend to move the camera less, and that’s a technical thing as well, because these new digital cameras, you can’t move them so easily—especially DSLR. But I do much prefer a small camera. I really like the everyday.
That reminds me, I wanted to ask you about something you’d spoken about in that early interview you mentioned, the one with Scott MacDonald: the economic imperative of filming on Super 8, its accessibility. How do you think filmmaking has been affected by the advent of the smartphone? (I’m thinking of films like Sean Baker’s 2015 Tangerine, shot entirely on iPhones).
I haven’t seen enough of these films, I have to catch up. In a way, anyone can make a film, in terms of the money. It’s so easy now, the recordings are so good. At the same time though, you have to know what you’re doing. It’s really about being discriminate with what you see, and being discriminate with what you hear. There are all kinds of sounds there, but, you know, you have to select, you have to edit. But anyone with any desire to do it can surely do it, the technology is absolutely there. It’s all open. It’s like painting. Above all you have to have a passion to say something as well—that is the most important of all.
In terms of the composition of your films, is the work primarily scripted or improvised? Has that changed over time?
I don’t work with a traditional script. I do a lot of research and I am very selective with text usually. I tend to get nervous when I see a film that’s just a lot of dialogue. Some people like it, but it can make me want to sleep. Too much text can weigh the whole thing down. It is a question of balance.
That speaks to something Chris Clarke draws attention to in a review of the IMMA show for Art Monthly; he describes Red Moon Rising as ‘polyphonic collage that seems to exist beyond—or before—language’. Was it a challenge to film?
It was a challenge to find the right way since I never know the plan or outcome at the start. That does not mean I don’t prepare though. I do like to keep an element of experimentation going on. Regarding language, words are very imperfect. We can’t express everything in words. [Antonin] Artaud wrote about his struggle with language, about the possibility of language; how thoughts are always slipping away. His job in the theatre was to wake people up, wake their senses up. We get so bogged down with what we perceive as real. We’re so influenced by what is laid out for us through our smartphones, our TV; that version of reality impregnates us, colonises us. Red Moon Rising is about embodiment and paring back to a pre-linguistic level—at least, that was the intention.
93% Stardust included a reading cabinet filled with books connected with your work: Auden and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland, Patti Smith’s poetry, Thomas More’s Utopia. How would you define the relationship between the literature you read, and the work you produce?
The connection between the books in the cabinet and the work may be quite tangential, like everything in life which influences us. The little traces of influence that we are conscious of are often the most important. One of the books which influenced the last film, Augenblick, was Harari’s book, Homo Deus. He’s talking about what the future might be. It’s extraordinary really, when you think about it, that we think things will always be like this, when they won’t be. I find it extraordinary to feel like I am part of a moment in time. I am interested in getting that across in my work. We have always felt we owned or had the right to control everything. This is changing and we have to get used to it. The other issue is difference and gender—this sense of entitlement that men have had for centuries. The difficult part is that women believed it too. When I was teaching film, the majority of young girls writing scripts would choose to have a male protagonist. Why? Because they did not feel woman was an important subject. Gender studies ought to be part of the school curriculum. The reason it is not is because men feel too ashamed of the history—and this is the same for black people or people of other races.
You’ve spoken about coming of age in the intellectual milieu of second wave feminism, and having been influenced by writers like Kate Millett and Monique Wittig. Your more recent work engages with the fluidity of gender (in The Irreducible Difference of the Other, for example, Olwen Fouéré is cast as both Artaud and Anna Akhmatova). How has your thinking on, your engagement with gender developed over the course of your artistic career?
Well, in New York, quite a few of the women that I hung out with were gay. They were like, ‘queer’, but that word didn’t exist then. People like Pat Place for example. They were women that I thought just seemed to be doing what they wanted to do. There was no big pressure on you to get a boyfriend. It wasn’t a need or a necessity. I grew up in a culture where you were considered not quite whole unless you had a boyfriend. We were kind of brainwashed. Some people can never be alone, like friends of mine who need to have some man there—which is fine if that’s what they want. They don’t feel they can be alone. I mean I’ve nothing against it, to have a partner is superb. But you have to be able to be alone as well.
This might come at a tangent, but to consider the political underpinnings of your work, at the end of the Augenblick, the character Jean Jacques Rousseau tells us, ‘Oh man, be humane; it is your highest duty.’ What is the ‘highest duty’ of a filmmaker?
The highest duty is always to be as honest as you can about how you see the world. I think it’s very important for women to express their position, and to try and make sense of it.
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