There are so many different reasons that I start to make a film. With Carolee, Barbara and Gunvor, I never really started to make “a film,” but rather the film began to make itself, in a very different and somehow extraordinary kind of way. Beginning around 2015, I decided that I wanted, dare I say needed, to spend more time with a few dear friends who had had a profound impact on me as a filmmaker. I had never thought of Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer and Gunvor Nelson as mentors per se, but they had each taught me, over the course of three decades, something about the nature of living as an artist in a deep and meaningful way, one that could guide, encourage, and challenge me through my life. I realized that I simply wanted to spend more time with these singularly important women, and so I began to make that happen.
In the summer of 2015, I traveled to Sweden with my 16mm Bolex camera to spend a few days with my former teacher, Swedish filmmaker Gunvor Nelson. Gunvor had been one of the preeminent avant-garde filmmakers in the Bay Area for many years, but in the mid 1990s she decided to stop teaching, devote herself to making her own art full time, and return to Sweden. The government of Kristinehamn, the small town where she had grown up, would provide her with a studio and living quarters at an affordable rate. Some years later, the Swedish Endowment for the Arts offered her a life-time grant that would provide enough support for her to focus entirely on her art practice. I spent several days with Gunvor, now in her late 80s, in her home in the village of Kristinehamn. Throughout our time together in her garden, by a lake or walking in a field with ancient Swedish statues, I shot film and talked with her about her own process. At one point, as I was photographing some beautiful flowers, she asked me why I was ignoring the branches with the already dying blooms, which, she reminded me, were far more sculptural and interesting. This suggestion from Gunvor, remind me of her film Time Being (1991), the most wrought, candid film on the act of dying that I have ever seen. “Dying” is a verb, it is alive, it is part of the cycle of life. In this film, Gunvor stared intently at her mother, a woman whose body had been devastated by the challenges of her last days on this earth. In three astute shots, Gunvor looked with honesty rather than awe at a woman whose spirit had somehow flown away but whose body still demanded a share of our time and our space. Through the film, Gunvor’s mother remained “there” and “here” in the ways that only cinema can do.
Barbara Hammer and I met in San Francisco in the late 1980s during a time when that city was affordable enough to become a mecca for alternative, underground, experimental filmmaking. Barbara taught me the fine, solitary craft of optical printing in a weekend workshop, thus beginning a thirty-year artist friendship that has followed us across the country to New York City where we both have lived for the past two decades. On Barbara’s 70th birthday in 2009, I decided to give her a photo session during which I would shoot one roll of film with her. As often as we would see each other at screenings or over meals in the city, it took me five years to schedule a date for our photo shoot. By the time we were actually able to find time when we were both in town and not too busy doing our work, Barbara had lived through several years of cancer. We made a date to meet at her home in the West Village. She believed that I would see her at her best on a Tuesday, the day of the week in which she would be most energetic after her chemotherapy treatments. That afternoon, I “directed” Barbara to run along a fence as fast as she could toward the camera. Little did she or I know that I had calibrated the f/stops on my camera to reveal the shadow from the fence across her body, creating a fabulous series of exhilarating stripes in the resulting image. Almost a year later, I returned to Barbara’s studio to film her during another Chemo period with her own cameras and her mobile furniture. As we both stood together holding our Bolexes, I thought about her film Sanctus (1989) which she was making when we first met in San Francisco. In Barbara’s prescient words, this film “makes the invisible, visible, revealing the skeletal structure of the human body as it protects the hidden fragility of interior organ systems.”
Carolee Schneeman and I met in 1991 in San Francisco when she was in town as a visiting artist in the film program at the San Francisco Art Institute where I had recently completed my MFA. Carolee invited me to her class to talk about my recently completed film The House of Science: A Museum of False Facts. As research for writing this essay, I decided to look up how this early film of mine is described on the internet. To my surprise, IMDb calls it “a provocative film essay on women's perspectives on their bodies in a ‘man's world.’” Clearly, my discovery of Carolee’s 1965 Fuses had rocked my world, given me an internal permission to dive deep in my own exploration of my body in space, in the world and in front of the camera. In Fuses, there is, in Carolee’s words, “no objectification or fetishization of the woman." Continuing this now long-standing conversation with Carolee about our lives and our work has been a profoundly important and inspiring part of my life. Over the last couple of years in particular, we have spent a great deal of time in her home talking and filming together. On one of my summer visits, I shot film with Carolee and then took a swim in the pond right outside her house in the woods. That night, the two of us stayed up particularly late talking. Finally, I got ready to go to bed in the guest bedroom. Just as we both parted to go to sleep, Carolee informed me that the bed in which I would be sleeping was the actual bed where she had shot Fuses. It gives me shivers just thinking about it.
Making Carolee, Barbara and Gunvor was a gift, one that continues to give over and over again as I screen the film, beginning with our premiere at the Museum of Modern Art to festivals in this country and internationally in Germany, Ecuador, Spain, and Brazil. It is a testimonial to the friendship that these women have offered to me, and that their work has offered to the world.