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

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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

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

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.

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

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.