Left: Cover of Barbara Hammer’s HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life (2010). Right: Barbara Hammer, Sync Touch, 1981, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 12 minutes.


Barbara Hammer is an experimental filmmaker whose groundbreaking work includes Dyketatics (1974) and Nitrate Kisses (1992). A retrospective of her films will play at MoMA from September 15 through October 11, with a Modern Monday presentation, on October 4, of her little-known work in performance, installation, and photography. Additionally, there are screenings at the museum of her films on June 19 and 23 for the series “Maya Deren and Her Legacy: Experimental Films by Women.” Her autobiography, HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, was recently published by The Feminist Press.

AFTER RECUPERATING FROM CHEMOTHERAPY, I began to put my archive in order. I was shocked to find this single sheet of typewritten paper with the title “What I want to be famous for.” I must have written it in the early 1980s before I moved to New York but knowing what I really wanted in life. According to it, I wanted to be recognized as a poet of images, I wanted to have an influence on the world, I wanted to make work that inspired others, and I wanted to be recognized for creative work that was unique and had never been done before. It’s full of grandiose ideas for a young woman who was probably thirty at the time.

When I found it, I cringed. I was asking so much. Now, I work with Creative Capital, and I’m trained in strategic planning. I see I was planning my future without really knowing that this was a discipline and that art was a business—that we artists must wear several hats. I’ve learned now that there’s nothing to be ashamed about in asking for wages for your work. Really, the exploitation of artists in this society is shocking. And for the amount of time and energy that we burn, our returns are so small and often neglected, especially in experimental film. I think we should unionize and we should have standard fees or withdraw art from our society unless we are paid for it.

When I was growing up in California, neither of my parents was particularly religious, and my mother was an atheist. I have always felt freedom. A freedom of physicality, a physical way of moving in the world. Going around the world on a Lambretta scooter when I was twenty-one, then with a man, and later coming out and going to Africa with a woman, driving BMWs across the United States, going by myself alone down to Guatemala on another trip, hitchhiking, leaving my marriage at one point, finding my way in the world as a physical presence. I am always trying to use or show a personal sense of sensation in films. I don’t mean sensationalism; I mean a kinesthetic sense of knowing the world through its haptic qualities.

MoMA curator Sally Berger began to interview me about my knowledge of Maya Deren nearly a year ago. Suddenly Maya was active in my mind again. Her “vertical cinema” is what always struck me as a powerful approach to film. What she is speaking about is layering her emotive feelings and intellect within a time frame that moves not horizontally but up and down. I think also of Gertrude Stein, who writes about simultaneous time: where we can experience a multiplicity of images and feelings at the same time. For example, if you are a world traveler, you can immediately place yourself on different street scenes all over the world, but they’re really not instantaneous; they are linear. By compounding them and making your edit, you are approaching time vertically. This is what I do with layering in my work. The layering of the images, in A Horse Is Not a Metaphor, might manifest in four to six layers of film images including text. And that makes the moment so much richer in meaning and permits more emotional interplay.

— As told to John Arthur Peetz