The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety) | Live from the Whitney

The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety) | Live from the Whitney

thank you dear friends for being here tonight it does my heart good and you don't know this museum this is a museum that three weeks ago I called and I said Sasha you know there's a few people on Facebook would like to see this performance that I've been doing would you be able to give me a date there was October 10th you know I only had time to rewrite my script which it's just what I needed because this is the fourth iteration first it was performed spontaneously at Temple University in Philadelphia when I received award I didn't know that I would be well enough to go and I was so tense the lecture then it was performed at Tyler School of Art also in Philadelphia and then a few weeks ago was at Yale so I'm very happy to consider this the final iteration here at the Whitney and thanks to Sasha and the whole Education Department of this lovely Museum Isabel Dao and max Chester in particular so here we go the art of dying palliative art making in an age that we're living in the age of anxiety there is a general fear of talking about death in the Western world it is as if by not mentioning and discussing it it would go away we do ourselves a disservice to not engage in ruminations of this most powerful life force for aren't we alive until our last breath and isn't this a rite of passage we wish to address in our art in our seminars and in our museum exhibitions by hesitating to face the last phase of life we give a message to hush up and avoid and platitudes then come out like you'll get better you're tough you'll beat it you know you look good today instead of discussing terminal disease we in the art world all of us artists curators administrators art lovers alike are avoiding one of the most potent subjects we can address I'm happy to see that there is a recent change in our few organizations that are planning seminars on health illness death and dying right now and artists are coming out with transparency finally as they break the fear of coming out as being ill and you can think of what the ramifications of that are for an artist guess what the art of dying is the same as the art of living poof we got that over with if we can all relax now right the pain of living in these times as we all know of inhumanity requiring the resistance marching demonstrating can be relieved by making art relief from pain through palliative art making can save us discomfort from living with this injustice and violence that we see every day but it does not treat the basis for the pain we can change the underlying cause of pain disrespect racism sexist classism ageism physicalism on and on with brave strong art we know the pleasure that comes from the creative process whether it's defiance of restrictive social mores or deliverance through ecstatic brushin our art can make a difference I hope that what is important to you stands out most clearly as it has for me when life is measured in months instead of years I hope you will make your work from the place of needing to create without paying heed to the sugar-coated traps of success promised by the art world I hope you will not use the guise of name dropping or the focus on getting to know those in power to distract from your personal creativity the art of living the art of making here are the precepts than ways of working that I have found most helpful these are the principles and considerations that have guided me through 50 years of practice I hope they can be useful to you so be open open to your intuition and pleasure yourself in the joy of making there is no way to make plans prepare control everything is contingent there's no solidity to count on except what you claim everything has a qualifier when you have an idea follow it with gusto and pleasure having as much fun as possible all the way so there I was in graduate school San Francisco State 1972 and I gathered a group of people who would like to go they were all women to the country with me for a weekend to witches land self-proclaimed witches land up in Napa County it was fall the leaves were falling the foliage was beautiful and I asked the women to perform or else I directed self-direction four months would you like go out and dance or hug this tree why not kiss the tree oh yes I know it's from Berkeley okay we had a ball all weekend we performed with shot and at that time you know I what did I made I'd made a three-minute film before that and so I thought I've got a hundred minutes now no I only had 60 minutes I have an hours that's enough to make a feature right so I thought okay the weekend's over let's all go back home we had a good time so we went back and I went into the editing room at San Francisco State and locked myself in to spend the night cutting and let me tell you the footage was there but I was so bored I fell asleep so I cut a hundred more 60 minutes I don't know I keep saying 160 minutes into two minutes I cut for the action but there was so much beautiful footage I thought I've got to show that so I started layering it so that my movie scope was holding four pieces of film going through at one time and of course you couldn't see it very smoothly but I could get an idea of what I would get and it went to the lab then sight unseen I had great pleasure in making Dyke tactics 1974 if I give it to you now [Applause] thank you sometimes there isn't spontaneity there's intention the reason is that tactics was misunderstood back in the early 70s he was seen sometimes by some people is pornographic and I wanted to set the record straight this was not my intention was to make a film to arouse although if you were that was fine but it was not my intention so I had no idea of what to do it first and then I realized that I needed to make work that would be clear that this you would understand that this work was made from the sense of touch that my experience of the world for instance seeing this floor the smoothness on it the scratches on it I actually am feeling it in my body while I'm looking at it you identified it as one of four major kinds of intelligence it's called sensation not sensation you know like a rock show although we could have that today too but sensation that you feel in your body and that's the way I primarily experience the world there's intuition as well there's some intelligence in there's joy of feeling but an emotion emotional intelligence so I began to study the sense of touch and I was shocked to find that there was only one book in the library by Ashley Montagu on touching and in reading that I found out that I wasn't too surprised that the clitoris makes up most of the area in our brain of our sense of touch along with the primary fingers and the penis in other areas of the body but it makes up a huge area that I don't think we're conscious of and that we spent enough time thinking about and I wanted my cinema to bring this sense of Who I am the sensational into your bodies as you watch the screen so I made a film called sink touch synchronous touch where I looked at four different ways of experiencing this idea a synchronous sound of course but of course not on the lips but around the lips and on the face a child's plane because aren't we first of all very tactile as children before we learn to not touch in several other ways a French lesson becomes extremely tactile and this became the film sink touch and I want you to become aware of your physical body through watching this film of course we just have four clips and they're short so don't be down on yourself if you don't have the experience all I invite you back another time let's roll sink touch the outer environment even in sleep the greatest sense in our body is our sense of touch it is probably the chief sense in the processes of sleeping and waking it gives us our knowledge of depth thickness and form of depth thickness and form we feel we love and hate through the touch corpuscles of our skin la longue the feminists the long feminists the complex a complete el rey de la uni la tête okay latet oak or lentil eight lentil at la razón la razón association physique from some few ounces Sansa's young and salsa Y salsa dance at young fizzy fizzy Koz Maceo arrows emotion of the muslim a Ramos on dawns in Tokyo New Sun stone include Luca will occur Alex presume some swell ill expression sans well it's over creamy so right we may sometimes there's pain in creating and it's not something to avoid I know that some a few of my most successful films have come when I've either cried at the editing bench or I found myself menstruating outside of my period time I knew I had something powerful when I had this emotional body reaction to what I was making David one of ovitch made fragile deeply dark installations of rage and dying as seen recently during the retrospective here at the Whitney and at the gallery PP o w can we assume that he found some relief by making these extraordinary tracks ignored by our aids blind Society and complicit government I think I can say that he did find energy and passion to make this work that drew directly from his pain of living with AIDS and aren't all artists dealing with mortality with every brush stroke every frame of film then we can say aren't all people living with mortality no matter what their profession or life choice the question becomes one of awareness is the artist perhaps unconsciously at first trying to fight inevitable death by stacking up the artworks hiding the forgone erasure of the body ensuring a mark on cultural history or a swaging daily anxiety from the consciousness that life will end working with the extraordinary collection of dr. James Sibley Watson's moving x-rays of the human body I was profoundly moved by the beauty of the interior organs the skeleton structure and the bodily fluids knowing that these images were gathered by a dangerous method the people were being exposed to x-rays while they were being filmed I felt pain for those whose lives may have been shortened at the same time that I felt beauty for the interior of the body Sanctus is 19 minutes and we'll watch a few clips of this 1990 16 millimeter film now you it was so fortuitous when I found in the 50 other Eastman house that last shot it hadn't been used in as far as I know in any of Sibley Watson's films and so it was to me like he was kissing me and saying yes you should use you should rework my footage when I saw that the end there speaking of the end everyone has a right to die when she wishes thank you we don't have the right to choose our earth but why don't we have the right to choose our death and determine the time of it should we wish to this especially applies to people like me with terminal cancer I have lived a good good good good good long life I just know that you know that but now I have reached a period of living with increased diminished capabilities due to a cancer that can't be cured and for which I have had every treatment possible I am in palliative care and preparing for the end I feel fortunate that I have the awareness of this approaching death allowing me to make plans say goodbyes and settle affairs but I'm angry not about my impending death although there have been times when I have been angry about that of course but that the government has determined that I must linger through probable unconsciousness pain or in a deep drug to state preventing me from being aware I prefer a conscious death a death I can be proud of a dignified death a death where I have a chance to early say goodbye to friends and family a death where I'm able to save my spouse the agony of watching me suffer or ally in a coma for days I tell you now that this is my life and should be my death I should be able to ask a physician to assist me in my death it is I who should determine my ultimate demise not a government distant and remote to whom I owe no allegiance I should have the right to die with a physicians help as I stood by years ago watching my father die in prison by a life-preserving intubation tube from which he could not speak and from which he would never return without I was luckily asked by an empathetic nurse if she could increase the morphine this was a rare opportunity and one most of us facing death in this society will not have I asked all of you to take this into consideration and to support the right to die with dignity movement and the passage of the New York let's legislation of the death and dignity Act these are some clips from vital signs that I made in 2009 a nine minute film and the clips you know are condensed to a few minutes vital signs [Applause] say something something fell off the ventilator and it's starting to make those sounds 5:52 5:52 [Applause] cancer can break the illusion of life without end in one of the precepts that I've followed in my practice has been to break the pattern of work not to repeat myself as my films have gone on or my painting or installations but always to challenge myself and try to make something new for me it's a truism that you're supposed to live every day as if it's your last how do any of us know what our last day is like and there's no way to do that and you don't even know what it will look like and perhaps you wouldn't want to be living that day every day if you did that a silly truism what we can do is create from a sense of discovery every day that we are given to live once you start working in a certain mode it'd be easy to follow those patterns all your creative life you know I say move beyond that I say take a take a piece of film and tear it or bury it in the hot Summer Sun let it you know fade and mulch and then bring it up in the winter and wash it off and see what you have what a surprise what a discovery what pleasure that can give you to see something new that you've never seen before try toner or bleach look at the fragility of film as much as our heartbeat this is mode from which to make radical life-affirming art so I've never seen the film on what it was like to go through chemotherapy and by now I've had a hundred chemo treatments for he counted them but back in 2006 when the cancer was discovered I had endometrioid chemotherapy it went directly into your stomach and then I used to do yoga on the on the dead in the hospital to try to move the chemical around cuz you know I wanted to do the best I could to achieve success with the treatment well you know I got almost 13 years that's not bad but I had never seen a film on what chemotherapy is like and what it does to the body and so I made this film called a horse it's not a metaphor it's 30 minutes 2009 and again we'll just look at a few clips you I think it's really important when you're in the studio to be honest with yourself honestly people speak of cancer using truisms and what they've heard others say you can't beat it you're strong I'm here to tell you that this disease has its own timed progression and personal strength may be of some deterrence but not much and who beats cancer more egregious comments aligned cancer with war you see it in the mistaken analogies in obituaries every day they say she fought a good battle you know or cancer or you know she outlasted the war for a long time cancer is not a battle it's not a war and I am NOT fighting I am living with cancer and have been living with cancer and I'm grateful have to have done this by living fully there was a particular year of undergoing chemotherapy that was pretty difficult and had a lot of side effects and I undertook what I considered to be my last visual project a film and an installation called evidentiary bodies being sick leaves you without much disguise and in a way that's really helpful in the studio when you're being honest and I had my assistant angel favorite come over every day in film well not every day one day a week because what I could manage and we would perform sort of what I intuitively wanted to show what my illness felt like to whoever wanted to see it eventually and we could usually just do one idea at a time and then the rest of the week as I was resting and regaining strength I would ruminate on what I'd want to do the following week so this went on for quite a good time and I had a lot of footage at the end which became a real labor to edit because I never looked back at it as I was moving through the shooting well the accumulation ended finally ended it ended in an HD 3 channel film that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last February but the projection didn't hold the intimacy for me that I wanted and you'll see it today like it was shown in Berlin but I've been honoured with a promise to have it during an exhibition of all my work that has dealt with mortality and aging and illness at the Wexner Center for the Arts next summer so there it'll be seen as three screens and you will be on a small bench with just a few other people in the intimate setting and you can stay as long as you want to watch the film it'll be on the loop and to enter into that dark intimate space you pass through x-ray screens of the chest three or four of them on which are projected cat scans of my body and luckily these cat scans came in all kinds of beautiful colors I think it was for UCLA was trying to determine why these I had like 13 choices from the CD they gave me you know why these color I thought well it must be a code for that particular school and they were making these so they could travel with the patient so this is the way I want it to be shown my favorite way but then not many people will get to see it so I wanted to give you the opportunity tonight and people in the future to see this film and the person the wonderful friend of the cellist an architect an artist Norman Scott Johnson is here who did the soundtrack with his beautiful cello on the film evidentiary bodies [Applause] like a conscious death there's also the conscious archive be aware that someone you never met will one day look at your projects your posters your objects not having any idea where they came from or what they mean take the time now to catalog no I never knew that was funny I'm really glad it's funny note the dates and times and places because this will give that person some context in the years to come consciously saving collecting storing away needn't be fancy or difficult just consistent I'm shy to say that I didn't follow archival practices for storage but I just used a plain old cardboard box and put the things in it until later when I had to organize but at least it was saved even if roughly and the time spent that that then didn't impede my creative activity being conscious too of the importance of the choices made what to save and what to discard for example I had a digital printing project all the notes of the sizes the papers I use and the printer I used were saved the quickly printed Xerox references that showed all the different pieces I could do and the week I had at this residency were saved the emails with the assistant about our discussion what we could do the limitations and processes were saved the images themselves aren't piles of CDs begging for migration to digital files but they're saved if I had not taken the time to save my projects I would not be able to be the proud artist who has her paper archive in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library at Yale I just got to visit a few weeks ago and actually see the lovely room that you get to look at the boxes in with a Noguchi courtyard and sculpture quite marvel out the window it's a gorgeous architectural phenomenon and I am so happy to have the papers there um the artwork the databases of my drawings my paintings my collages photographs and installations in films for my gallery's company here in New York and ko W in Berlin is almost finished in one of the Yale boxes was a stuffed duffel bag of outfits I used to wear outfits at film shows I mean you know everything's an outfit right so I got a little bit depressed during this archiving process that did go on for a couple years because I wasn't being creative just looking at old work you know and I know what was wrong and then I figured out I wasn't being creative so it's kind of hard to let all those 50 boxes or more go out the door and so when this duffel bag was going to go I said wait a minute and I held it back and had 40 come over for art direction and LU Bank come to film me and I put on twelve of my favorite outfits with my precious films um well cameras and light neither's and all the paraphernalia that goes with filmmaking and I was able to have a lot of fun wearing the super Dyke t-shirt one more time and the cultural workers jump suit and strike crazy poses resulting in 12 digital images and for you a 45 second Jeff [Applause] one thing I found out was by having a disease people are more important than my work really this was mind-blowing to me and maybe the Andy Warhol who shows coming up here because I saw the catalog of his work in how incessant he was seven days a week I was only five so but I found that you know it's really not only my family and my friends it's also the people I meet every day it's the cashiers the people running the check-in counter the check-ins the strangers on the street and of course your most significant others and to be able to be grateful publicly and to tell you is really important to me that I have dedicated friends at the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences in Hollywood who are restoring and preserving and conserving all of my 16 millimeter film that is such an honor and to more than helpful folks right here not a few blocks away at Electronic Arts intermix Lorie Zapf hey Rebecca yes Rebecca Clayman Karl Mike cool I know them so well why am i reading them and John derringer there'd like there every day on the phone with me if I need something I am also fortunate that my niece Lane Brettschneider has taken over my legacy work with DVD distribution but most important I couldn't be here today without the loving support and care of my partner my spouse for thirty years thirty years oh I didn't know Florrie Burke yeah she has guided me loved me and now as caregiving and that's not a small role and art legacy management to a long list of supportive roles thank you for I am filled with gratitude every day gratitude that I've been able to create for 50 years gratitude for the friends colleagues and those of you all of you that are here I know so many of you um who have supported my work and you have throughout this long time of art-making I'm happy to have introduced students and friends to the wild world of experimental film god bless you I am grateful that I can give back by supporting two annual grants the queer filmmaking award for a student at San Francisco State University and the Barbara hammer lesbian experimental filmmaking grant through queer art and before we enter the final stage of this event I want to remind you to vote now usually a QA follows a lecture but instead tonight we're going to have an A and Q yes so that means you answer and I query yes and so I've noticed your bright face throughout my lecture I'd like you to tell me what film image is staying with you and what your feelings are about it the image of being pulled out of your control and kind of on the ground felt like there was some struggle in it and some inevitability in it that it was some combination of something happening to you and something that you were doing thank you for seeing the complexity in that image now I wonder what you're thinking about the experience of death and what I've been saying about it what are you thinking about your death whoa now I'm going to a friend here I'm not trying to embarrass somebody I don't know just somebody who's really a good friend no Barbara make up your own question then it's interesting yeah mortalities actually been a big topic this year um because I did a bunch of work with David thinking about David and I yeah I I i feel like i think i've also made certain choices to kind of retract there's something about aging aging and wanting to kind of withhold and hold on to my personal resources and so I don't know if death is my primary thought but I feel held by certain kind of reflections and elders thank you and angel favorite is here who did the shooting for evidentiary bodies angel how did it look to you tonight now going into the hinterlands here Oh Susie Duvall creative capital wonderful organization where the artists are able to give back we don't just take the money and run we give back I tried to give you today and I think when I was interviewed by creative capital recently oh well hi Alex so I had the idea then that I should give a lecture on dying and actually that was quite a while ago a year – and this is actually the result of it so how are you going to use this kind of information and thought process that I've shared with your wonderful organization thanks Barbara well I've been sitting here and really thinking what a gift this is to so many what a gift this really is for many because I think you're right we have such a hard time dealing with inevitable I mean it is one thing that we know for certain they're all going to get there and and I I'm inspired by the Grace and intelligence and emotional being that you've taken on that you've taken this on and saying I'm gonna own this and I think we have been talking thanks to you about what we should be doing and helping and I think initially we really thought about some of the practical aspects that we want artists to think around their legacy but it is really beyond that it is actually the whole being when we think about coming to terms with that and what does that mean and the individual approach that anybody would like to take to it so thank you for helping us think that through and I hope that some part of that we can actually use that within whatever we share within and I have to say that you have been one of our most generous of artists and pingback and paying forward would you have learned and the way that you're setting up your grand so this as well we hope will continue to pay forward to others thank you thank you so much thank you and I want to say hello to all the people that are watching online and hello Bloomington Indiana and Carmel Curtis and her gang hello Brussels and London and friends of mine there I'm very happy that you're able to join us today and I just have a few more people I want to search out and yeah this is a longtime friend we have been through it together haven't we yes this is my friend Jack waters who's going to tell us whatever he wants to he got a free ride home well Barbara I have to say and I've said this to you before that it's no coincidence that knew your last name is hammer and I don't think I'm the only one who refers to you as simply the hammer what could be better Shelly silver right in the front row watching me with the saddest of face was this a difficult lecture to sit through because I'm on the other end I don't really know quite honestly yes yes it was it is an extraordinary gift because I think you're right that we don't think about these things we push it out of our brain my father died this year and I think what I took from that was this feeling of carrying him with me also for better and for worse but also this feeling of letting go and I think that I I refused to let go of you but I want to let go of me when the time comes yes to let go of me to let go yeah so yeah thank you so much Florie oh no she says can't does someone have the right to say oh no to me I won't hear of it thirty years thirty years my name is hammer okay into the light babe into the light oh we got the light question I think [Laughter] people people are it see me as a performer tonight but you know me as a person who sometimes performs at home but what would you say is the most difficult thing about me whoa this is for the record and the most wonderful you're a Taurus and you're really stubborn and bullheaded the wonderful part is this was extraordinary and yes it was very hard and I so admire you in your strength and your willingness to be open to all these wonderful people and to share what's very very personal because it needs to be shared I love you with all my heart and I love all of you and please join us in the foyer for a glass of Prosecco [Applause] you I love you and you and you [Applause]

4 thoughts on “The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety) | Live from the Whitney

  1. What an amazing share. ..I’m in tears from the profound place of grace, giving and withholding too. I hadn’t known of you before and I am crying because I wish I had had an opportunity to smile in your eyes. I carry your words and heart with me! Om shanti OM

  2. Sending nitrate kisses to Barbara Hammer on another plane. Thank you for making such an indelible, thrilling mark on this world – for women's and lesbian representation, for artists, for the weird and the queer and the experimental. May we all be as fearless as you.

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