by Ruairí McCann
The singular cinema of Vivienne Dick emerged from, and is occupied by, a remarkable union of specificity and multiplicity of place. Born in 1950, she was raised on the periphery of a peripheral nation, in Ireland’s northwestern counties of Donegal and Sligo. With adolescence came a strong wanderlust, which took her first to University College Dublin, where she studied archaeology and French, and then after graduation, abroad. She spent the 70s on the go, travelling across India and Mexico, living in London and Paris. During this time, a brewing interest in politics and art came to a head with her arrival in New York in 1975.
A meeting with the singer and musician Lydia Lunch outside the legendary punk club CBGB, where she encounter No Wave bands like LL’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, drew her into the city’s then extraordinarily rich, underground art scene. A fervent atmosphere of go-for-broke creation fuelled by a combination of the city’s heterogeneity and its then low cost of living. From ’75 to ’81, she would be involved in a panoply of creative endeavours, from her own photography and printmaking to a stint playing keys for the short-lived but potent experimental band Beirut Slump, fronted by Bobby Berkowitz and Lydia Lunch, to acting as a model for close friend and photographer Nan Goldin. She features in her breakthrough slideshow and book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985-86) with the portrait ‘Vivienne in the green dress, NYC’. A photograph born out of an indivisible combination of play and committed artistry, as revealed in a sequence of the Bette Gordon film, Empty Suitcases (1980).
Dick would find her own vocation in cinema. An interest in the artform developed while living in Paris but bore fruit in New York, where her involvement in the Millennium Film Workshop from 1976, and her acquaintance with underground filmmakers like Jamie Nares, Eric Mitchell and Scott and Beth B., spurred her to take up the camera. Specifically, Super 8, as she was attracted to the format’s low cost, lightweight ease and, despite its cheapness and relative to the crudities of early video, its high quality image. She made a series of six films over the following five years, including the ecstatic feminist portraiture of Guerillère Talks (1978), the noir-inflected She Had Her Gun All Ready (1978) and the gothic exploration of sex work, misogyny and armageddon, Liberty’s Booty (1979).
These early films were a synthesis, in her own, inimitable style, of many of the modes and tendencies surrounding the format and American experimental cinema in general in the preceding two decades. From the post-punk ‘No Wave’ movement—not just its cinema but its music, with figures like Lydia Lunch and Pat Place (guitarist for Contortions and then Bush Tetras) acting as her muses, stars and co-conspirators—to the ‘walker’ and diary film and cinema as a form of pointed political critique. In her work, you can detect a kinship with Stan Brakhage’s own, more abstract Super 8 work and an influence in the casual avant-pageantry of the Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith collaborations and the Kuchars.
To quote J. Hoberman in his piece “A Context for Vivienne Dick”, published in a 1982 issue of October:
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
Inspired by encounters with other maverick Irish filmmakers, like Bob Quinn and Pat Murphy, and their work, Dick left New York in 1981 for Dublin, where she made films and taught one of Ireland’s first film production courses in the College of Commerce, Rathmines. However, this switch from cinema as self-funded and ad-hoc endeavour in New York to making more publicly-funded work in Dublin did not last long. In 1984, with government support for experimental cinema drying up, she disembarked again for London. Over the next few years, she would continue to make films in Ireland but with a base and funding support from across the way.
A permanent return arrived in late 1999, where she taught film for many years in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, before moving back to Dublin, where she’s based now. This other career as an educator, and as curator, has co-existed with her continued and changing practice as a filmmaker. In the last three decades she has switched from Super 8 to video to digital and to works that reflect more specifically on Irish identity and her family, such as masterpieces Visibility: Moderate (1981) and A Skinny Little Man Attacked Daddy (1994). In response to my comment that her latest works are more abstract explorations, influenced by mystic and animist ideas, Dick stated
I think what I am trying to touch on in these more recent shorts (The Irreducible Difference of the Other (2013), Red Moon Rising (2015) and Augenblick (2017)) is altogether more grounded – issues to do with otherness, the idea of reciprocity (over dominance) as a way of relating to (an)other, climate change, the digital age and deep time… which we are all talking about now in reference to global warming, but I am also interested in narratives we believe in and how the framework we are tethered to now (consumerism and capitalism as an ideology) is deeply destructive to everyone, and along with patriarchy will need to change if we are to survive.
Her new film, New York Our Time (2020), represents both another significant transformation and a serious retrospective. It’s her longest film to date, at 76 minutes, and more direct than her earlier, jagged palimpsests. Though it possesses the same rhizomatic point of view and approach that runs through her entire corpus.
The film follows Dick during a trip to New York where she visits old haunts and friends, including Alexis Adler, Nan Goldin, musician Felice Rosser, artist and former B.C. Studio manager Victoria Galves, Pat Place, Bush Tetras vocalist Cynthia Sley and Lydia Lunch, among others. Dick cross-hatches these interviews, discussing their early and present-day experiences of New York, their art and passions along with their trials and tribulations, with an abundance of archival footage and wordless, enigmatic images of the city caught in an uncertain balance. The result is a beautiful film composed of the past, present and future. An exegesis of the city as a hive of experiences, forged and found, and art as a way of life.
In August of last year, Dick was kind enough to speak to me over Zoom about her new film and her past work and experiences.
Ruairí McCann: In many ways, it is quite an unusual film for you. I believe it is the longest film you have made so far, is that correct?
Vivienne Dick: Yeah it is.
And it’s more interview-led than I would usually associate with your work.
Yes, it is interview-led, you’re right. It has different other textures, moods and things in it as well.
Could you talk about when the ideas for this film started?
I was aware of Reel Art (an Arts Council of Ireland fund for artist-led, experimental documentaries) for quite a while, and I’d thought about applying for it. I wondered what kind of documentary I would make. And for a good while I was teaching in Galway and I realized I could never make a film, like a feature length film, while I was teaching. When I stopped teaching I [had time to] think about it, and in fact someone else had wanted to make a film on the same idea, bringing me into it and having all my friends. So, I thought, ‘well I think maybe I should make it myself’ because I think I would quite like to do it myself. I asked Still Films (Nicky Gogan and Paul Rowley) if they would help me to produce it. I knew them from Darklight [Film Festival] and also Paul was based in Brooklyn which would be a good help.
I had a lot of access to archives, photographs and music. I was able to get quite a selection of music for the film. Mainly just through people who would have remembered me from that time. It made it easier though it was still a lot of work. I had been back to New York over the years and I knew that quite a lot of the people I had known were still there, some of them even in the very same apartments that they were living in when I was there forty years previously. They went for it and then I had to make it, you know. It was quite a challenge, to set out [to] make a feature-length work, and I thought of filming myself but then I thought it would just be too much. I was able to get Declan Quinn to shoot it, which was a great choice because he is very experienced. He knows me well, he knows me from that time, and he knows quite a lot of the people in there that he met through me actually, from way back. So, he was able to get into it. And the crew was very small.
I was wondering because I usually associate your work with you being behind the camera, this sort of one person film crew. What was that big change like, working with a cinematographer?
It wasn’t that big a change, because I had made three [films with a crew]. Especially the last two shorts I made prior to this film, I had shot it myself but some of it was shot, maybe one third, with a cinematographer and the rest myself. In fact, the last short I did [Augenblick], I had a woman called Taina Galis shoot the film. She was from London.
So, I sort of got some experience working with the crew and the pitfalls of that, [as well as] the good things. Mainly, it’s concerned with planning. You have to have everything planned, more or less. Otherwise it will make it very hard logistically.
I could imagine you need a lot of trust with the people you are working with.
It’s nice when that happens, when you get the trust, and you get everyone working together. It’s such a nice feeling. And anyway, with a lot of films I do there is a lot of collaboration going on. There’s always trust there with the people I’m shooting because often they’re not actors. And anyway, it’s often been the case where I’m working with a small camera that people don’t take you seriously, you know, you’re just messing around with your camera. They don’t know what you’re doing. That can be beneficial too, cause I like to get that kind of feel to the film, that it is just messing around.
Years ago, in New York when I saw quite a lot of American independent film, I was very impressed with some of the work I saw that was just like that. People playing around with the camera, making little films in their kitchen. That really grabbed me. I found it exciting, Ken Jacobs working with Jack Smith, that sort of footage.
That hand-crafted, homemade kind of feel is still in the film because the rhythm of it is very casual in a very wonderful way. I feel like a lot of documentaries about art scenes or retrospective documentaries constantly bombard you with information and very grandiose statements. This feels more tethered to you as you are visiting different people. I think the moment that really struck me in this way is when you are with Alexis Adler, and it looks like she is napping, and you’re just sitting there just reading, waiting for her to wake up. It is something that another filmmaker would just cut. But it’s this very wonderful moment. So, I was wondering how much planning then went into the interviews themselves.
You are a bit nervous at the beginning with what you’re doing. I was kind of a little stiffer and it was a bit more formal, and then Declan was saying to me, ‘you sure now this is what you want?’ It takes a day or so to get into the feel of the thing because with every work you’re so wired up about, ‘Is everything going to work?’ or just people are nervous to start with. As things went along we got into the mood of it.
He just kept shooting in between the interviews. We had planned to do that though, to shoot some stuff wandering around, and the best apartment for that was her place because it is quite big. You could move around it. Some of the apartments… like Felice’s place was so tiny, you couldn’t really move much. So, it wasn’t that we weren’t aware that the camera was on but it wasn’t like, ‘OK, we are gonna shoot this now and this will be in the film’, it was just that the camera was running. And when we saw it afterwards, we decided to put it in the film.
Aside from the logistics of the cinematography, I imagine that you know that certain people are going to want to talk about certain things and others not. Like, it makes me think of Victoria Galves, who seems to be very happy to talk about those memories and these very funny anecdotes, and then someone like Nan Goldin, there seems to be a lot of pain there, associated with that past and so, you get more of her present. Was that something that got sorted out in the edit or did you have to prepare with the interviewees.
Well, we spent almost a full day with her, so we got a lot of material with Nan. It was just picking out bits that might fit in and not having everyone talking about the same thing. There would have been topics that I said we might talk about, some anecdotes about what it was like in New York in the late 70s perhaps, or what it’s like now or about getting older. What are the things that you are intimate with? Nan is very involved with the opioid crisis and being an activist, that part came into it [before shooting] because she is so involved with that now.
It’s like a sandwich of time; a slice of time from when I was living there, and a sense of New York now, which is quite different. I was trying to find what was different about New York then and now. I wanted to look at that, try to pick out those things and also the constant thing which was always there. Even when we were there was the issue of housing, which is very pertinent today, for young people. It’s so expensive.
I wanted the film to be a kind of meditation on time a little bit as well. Our time of our lives. I have always, always, got a sense of time being short, like our time on the planet is short. And the life of the city, time in the city, because New York has such a varied history and so many different periods. It’s kind of interesting as well to bring in the next generation, the children of the people I was interviewing, who in the film are the age we were at that time. I thought it was important, this sense of continuity and I was interested in what might be their concerns. I thought some of them expressed that very well.
It’s very generous how you expand beyond your own generation. There are the stories we hear about certain interviewees, their ancestors, and their experience of immigrating to the States. And then the younger people. I found the scene with the skater kid very touching. I was wondering how you met her.
She’s the daughter of one of the women who was at the party. There’s a party scene, or at least a dinner. I thought of having a scene where people would come together. Not everyone was able to come who was interviewed but many of them did. One of the women there, that’s her daughter. They were from the Lower East Side but moved uptown. She felt at home down there in the Lower East Side because it was where she grew up.
I found it touching to hear her talking about her space, public and private, but it also feels like there’s an element of anxiety with all the interviews with the young people. You’re like that when you are in your twenties or teens but also, one of the major themes of the film is gentrification. The changes in bureaucracy and rental prices in the city. I like how you expressed that visually as well. There are the scenes of yellow tinted modern landscape, that are more alien looking than the archival footage of the very rundown, 70s New York. I was wondering, was that a very purposeful contrast?
Yeah, it was like corporate New York. It’s also like postmodern buildings, you know, some of them are very hard and reflective, and very alien. And yeah, I deliberately shot upwards so you didn’t have any people in it, just the buildings. Some of the older buildings, and some of the new ones, are very baroque. There’s little elements with a Babylonian and Egyptian look about them, you know. That’s what I find fascinating about New York. It’s such an array of different architecture styles. New York is still full of the 19th century look of buildings and old bridges and the rivets and the rattly trains. It still has all that feel about it, as well as these hypermodern, science fiction type buildings. I suppose I was, especially at the very end of the film, thinking ‘what is the future? What sort of future are we heading towards?’ And with not having people in it, that it’s all becoming so digital. Those last shots could have been Beijing or could have been any city in the future. So, I wanted to have this sense, not just of those two periods of time but a whole span. That’s what I was trying to do with those pictures. And the music is quite interesting, I think. The new music that was composed [by Martin Wheeler].
This ‘all time’ in a single stretch, seeing new New York and old New York, it made me think of writing about psychogeography and the flâneur. Walk through one street or one block and if you look hard enough in the right places you can see this history there. Did you read anything of that genre of writing, about the social history of cities, before this project?
I was actually reading a bit. I’ve read Jane Jacobs’ book about the city [The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)] I read some of Lucy Sante’s stuff [that] she’s written on New York. It’s this sense of ‘when I was in New York at this time, so and so was just living just round the corner and he didn’t know. I found out that somebody really interesting was living just a block away.’ That was fascinating to me as well. that people pass through these places. All these lives, so many interesting people you might meet. I love that. You get the same in London too, the same thing there. The history out there in the street. A little restaurant down the road where Dickens used to have his lunch, you know that kind of thing.
I can see that in your film as well, when you talk about meeting Lydia Lunch, and Victoria Galves talking about being at CBGB for the first time. The kind of a coincidence that you can only get in a city and where there is a public life. Rather than the isolation of this world we are living in right now. Do you share some of those fears about social media or about this increasing widespread isolation?
Yeah, I think we just have to wake up to it and take steps to do something about it. When you become aware of it then it’s a choice. You know you have to pull back from it and you can make another life yourself and do other things. Here in Dublin, I’ve got a few friends around that I see fairly often. We make it our business to get together so that we have conversations, listen to music and have something to drink.
When I was researching for this interview, I had this dispiriting thought where many of the cities you’ve lived in, from London, Paris, Dublin to Galway, are all in the same bind now, of rents and house prices going up. It’s becoming impossible to live in the city. Do you feel now, living in Dublin, that you have a similar relationship to it as you had in New York, in terms of living out publicly, having this rich social life, or do you think that’s harder now.
I was living in the country in Galway, and it was always a question of driving to see or do anything. It was a bit frustrating because there wasn’t such a great deal going on. I mean I was there for 14 years, a good long time. So, I’ve quite enjoyed being back [in Dublin] but of course the last two years, there’s just been nothing going on. Normally there would be, but it’s just slowly beginning to wake up. It is very low key at the moment. There are some things opening up. There’s galleries and things, but it’s not quite the way it was. In some ways I kind of like it being more quiet, but yeah it’s OK. Everyone has learnt to live in a more withdrawn way, that’s what I think.
I don’t know who’s going to the cinema now, and that’s sad. I’d love to see the film in the cinema because it’s so much better than seeing it on a little screen. It hasn’t been taken to many festivals. Covid was probably one of the reasons but also I don’t have those connections, as I realise now that’s how it is with those festivals. But I did show it in Manhattan, on 12th street in a very well-known cinema called Cinema Village. I wasn’t there because I couldn’t go, we were not allowed, but a lot of people came to it. And they thought it was a different cut than what I had sent them—I had sent them a link—because it’s so different in the cinema. It just is. You see far more; you hear far more.
That’s definitely true. A couple years back, you had that Delirious Rhythms programme you curated for aemi (a Dublin-based initiative that supports and regularly exhibits moving image works by artists and experimental filmmakers).
Oh, did you see that!
I saw the whole thing in…
It went to Belfast, didn’t it?
Belfast, yeah. It came to Sligo as well.
Not only are audiences getting smaller in bigger cities, like Dublin, but also there’s the lack of opportunities to see the kind of work you make, outside of Dublin, in smaller places around the world. So, I was wondering, since you started in such a self-made way, showing your films in bars and places like that. Do you see a parallel between that and your situation now when you can show films online or via an initiative like aemi? Do you feel like a freer filmmaker now or then?
Well, I don’t really like the online thing that much. I do like MUBI. You get great things that you wouldn’t have such a chance so often to see. New York Our Time is going to be shown in various places around the country, which is great. Like the film club circuit. And some people are going to show them in England as well, and someone is going to do it in America. It will get shown but it’s just going to be, drip drip. It will be slow. It’s fine. It is great there are organisations like aemi now in Ireland who are funded by the Arts Council and get to use a screen at the IFI.
I have always wanted to make films my own way and Arts Council Funding allows you to do just that and I have always been happy the way my films have been shown — AD. from VD: for example just recently at Jeu de Paume in Paris. It is a little bit different with a film like New York Our Time, which is feature length. It is now I realise the importance of being supported by a distribution company or some kind of promoter as otherwise the film will not get very far. It is odd I can only see this now. If I wish to make a longer film on a different scale I will need to bear that in mind.
Do you still have much contact with filmmakers you used to work with? People like Bette Gordon or the Bs. They don’t feature in the film.
Beth, yes. I’ve been talking to her lately. Abigail Child. I don’t talk to them that much, but I have some contact. And yeah, Bette Gordon, and Sara Driver. Jim Jarmusch is quite remote in some ways but I do know him.
I recently saw the Lizzie Borden film, Born in Flames (1983).
Oh yes, Born in Flames has a lot of the same people that I filmed with. I think Pat Place is in it and Adele Bertei, and Pat Murphy is in it.
And Felice Rosser.
I was wondering what your thoughts are on that film, and Lizzie Borden’s films in general. And also I’m curious what your relationship is to the work of Pat Murphy. She made Maeve in 1981, the same year you made Visibility: Moderate. They’re very different films in many ways but they’re similar in that they involve women filmmakers returning home to Ireland.
I met Pat at that time when she was in New York. She did the Whitney program there, that was when I met her first. We’ve been in touch since and we’re good friends actually, myself and Pat. She lives quite near me. I was there up in Belfast when Maeve was being shot and hanging around when Anne Devlin (1984) was being shot.
I didn’t know that.
She did a programme of films a good while back called From Beyond the Pale and she showed some of my films there.
Do you have any sort of connection with the New York film scene today, because there’s a sequence in the film when you’re talking to Cynthia Sley and Pat Place and Cynthia’s son, Austin Sley appears. He’s in this very good film called Empty Metal (2018). Have you seen it?
No, and I haven’t unfortunately. It’s just when you’re not there, you know. But he’s mainly involved with music as far as I know, but yeah he is doing film. That’s interesting. He was a little bit shy. I didn’t have a lot of time. I had three weeks there [in total]. The first week was talking to people and planning, and then only two weeks of shooting. It was a very short time to make a film. I just had to kind of hope everything would fall into place and people were available. Just getting people there on the day can be hard, if you don’t have any more days you can get really stuck for time.
To keep on the topic of music for a second, you were in Beirut Slump.
One of Lydia Lunch’s bands.
Have you heard the music?
I have yeah, and I’ve always been curious because there’s very few recordings, either studio or live.
Yeah, there’s very few recordings. We only recorded about four, five, six songs, something like that. We only played out twice, I think, twice or three times.
And what was the experience of being in that band like, because bands like Bush Tetras and Contortions were very spiky and funk driven, but it feels like Beirut Slump was something very different. Your playing on keys contributed to this more droney style, so I was wondering what were the ideas going into the band.
I think it started out from Bobby’s singing. He wrote the songs. It just came together. I was just invited along to a rehearsal and most of the experience of being in that band was just going to rehearsals and spending a few hours playing something, trying things out. The song would be ready and we would make up the backing to go with it, polish it up a bit and then we would gossip for a bit then play again. It was very relaxed really, and fun, because I learned piano and violin at school but you were always on your own playing. I was in an orchestra for a while, a short while, so I really enjoyed playing with other people. I find it a very enjoyable experience and so it was great fun to play out as well, but it wasn’t particularly a band that was popular.
The band still has a reputation, and the music is very good.
Well, I think it has stood the test of time. I quite like the music, but I wouldn’t call it popular.
And do you still play any sort of music at all now?
I have a keyboard upstairs, here in the house, but I don’t play it a lot. I keep thinking that I’d love to get back into playing it again, you know. I listen to a lot of music. I’m still in touch with the people who were in that band.
I think we’re coming up to the end of our time, but I’ll just ask about Lydia Lunch in the film. She has a very unusual presence. She’s there at the very beginning, her past self, and then you get her at the end. Was that the footage of her being interviewed or was that absence something you planned from the start?
She’s done hundreds of those kinds of interviews, and I just thought she wouldn’t be interested in that anyways. I preferred to do something that was more like a performance. We discussed all of this in advance. Make it more like a performance but also, It’s a standalone thing almost. It doesn’t fit with any of the rest of the thing. It’s almost surprising at the end, but I think it’s important because it kind of connects the history of America, or the politics of America, with the outer world. People live in America, they live their lives, but they don’t realise what’s happening outside in some places. To keep the engine going, these awful things are happening in other countries, and it’s been like that for decades you know. Ever since America became a big power, it’s interfered in other countries. And then it’s not just what happens outside of America but in America itself, there’s apartheid between black and white. Most of the population of the people in prison are black and of course we know all about Black Lives Matter now, but that’s always been going on. It’s been a dreadful history and a lot of white people now are only just realising how racist it’s been always, always.
I like how at a late juncture; it brings in a whole other area of political thought. She references the Middle Eastern conflicts, for example, and I like how it sits next to Nan Goldin and her oxycontin protest at Guggenheim. I saw Liberty’s Booty again just a few days ago. What struck me while watching it, is that its main theme, so to speak, is sex work but then there’s suddenly this section about nuclear warfare. You’ve always been very good at making a constellation of different political thoughts, of tying them together.
Most people when they make documentaries, they have one subject and they stick with that. I tend to hop around different subjects. That mightn’t work with some people, but it works perfectly for me.
Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He sits on the board of the Spilt Milk Music & Arts Festival and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]