Courtesy of TheNewYorker.com | By Masha Gessen | Photo by Elinor Carucci for The New Yorker | Originally Published 02.24.2019 | Posted 04.01.2019
The pioneering filmmaker talks about her career, her quest to die with dignity, and why being a lesbian is so much fun.
“I’m glad you made it at the last minute,” Barbara Hammer said when I arrived at the West Village apartment where she lives with her spouse, the human-rights activist Florrie Burke. Hammer is dying. At seventy-nine, she has lived with cancer for thirteen years and has exhausted all available treatment options. She has spoken publicly, repeatedly, about her impending death, both as an artist reflecting on her creative life and as an activist for allowing terminally ill patients to take charge of the dying process.
Hammer is a pioneering visual artist known primarily for her films, most of which deal with lesbians, personal histories, and the body. Her four-minute film “Dyketactics,” from 1974, is a classic of lesbian hippie joy; her first feature, “Nitrate Kisses,” from 1992, was a visual and sensual exploration of hidden lesbian histories. Most of Hammer’s work is nonlinear, based on striking connections that she draws among disparate facts, images, movements, and sounds. Hammer appears in many of her own movies: she speaks, dances, and asks a lot of questions. With retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and the Tate Modern, in London, among other venues, she is probably the first artist to have achieved mainstream acclaim for a lifetime of work done as a lesbian, largely about lesbians.
I asked Hammer if she would sit for an “exit interview,” and she found the idea delightful. We spent two mornings together, in February. Because both the disease and the drugs that she is taking for pain are affecting her ability to use language, Hammer at times asked Burke to step in when she couldn’t find the words to describe images she could see clearly in her mind. The arrangement made it easier to talk about the events, ideas, and work to which Burke has been a witness, though earlier decades of Hammer’s life were harder for her to describe. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Let’s start by talking about your activism for death with dignity. How did that start?
hammer: When I became aware that I really was dying, and it was going to be soon. How could I die in a way that would alleviate pain and allow me to say goodbye to people that I want to, and make sure all my artifacts are in order? With the assistance of a physician, I could be able to take the pills that will put me out of my suffering and pain. People do their best, they are working with me in palliative care, but it can take thirty minutes to an hour to get the interventions that alleviate the suffering. And the suffering is pretty awful. I can’t say I’m not yelling, wanting to jump out the window sometimes. In New York State, it is illegal for somebody to assist me in dying.
burke: We’ve always been believers in choice. We have a good friend who advocated for it in Washington, D.C., for two years, and she actually was the first person who could use it there. She died in August. She also had ovarian cancer. We’re hoping people will get onboard and push New York to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act, so that people have a choice. [In 2018, the New York State Assembly considered a right-to-die law that didn’t make it through committee, but activists continue to work toward legalizing aid in dying; the bill has been introduced again.]
hammer: We looked into further possibilities. We have family in Oregon.
burke: And California.
hammer: But you have to live there for two years before you establish residency, and have doctors in agreement. Also, you don’t have your circle of friends and family.
burke: And we looked into the Switzerland idea, but that seemed even more isolating.
hammer: More isolating and expensive. Then you start thinking, Oh, my God, I could give my nephew that money to go to school with—can’t I suffer a few more weeks?
How long have you been in palliative care?
hammer: A long time, since May. But, even then, I was able to work. I did the lecture “The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety).” Did it three times [at Temple University, at Yale, and at the Whitney Museum, in New York City], always improving it and always noting that my abilities are declining slowly. Also, an exhibition that I’m in required writing—I could go out and do the shooting, but a couple of weeks later, when we got to the language, I couldn’t do it. My assistant was very helpful. The wonderful thing about dying is the interesting processes. I find it fascinating as an artist and as a writer. Your ability to talk in the world is changing. And you still remember what you used to be able to do. I can’t read, but I can still listen to Florrie read to me. I can still listen to the radio. There are things that I can delight in. Just to see the changes is what I always wanted. What is it like to die? Why don’t we know? I try to take notes on it. It is harder to write now. I don’t really feel like going into so many details when pain hits hard, though I kind of feel like I should. I mean, what am I? An investigator, an archeologist.
So much of your work has been about two things: about investigating the body—the sexual body—and also trying to tell your own story in different ways, through looking for your roots: as a lesbian, as somebody whose family came from Ukraine, as an artist. In “Tender Fictions,” you start by saying that you read artists’ autobiographies to figure out how to be an artist.
I read these books on Gauguin and other extraordinary male artists, identifying with them as artists at kind of the extreme edges: they leave their family, they go to another country, they would live without much money, suffer, and do these fantastic works. That was my role model. I didn’t have any women. At that point, I hadn’t taken a film class, so I really didn’t know some women I could have looked up. But then I started taking film classes at Sonoma State and driving my motor scooter there and studying with William Morehouse, who started the art program at the San Francisco Art Institute.
I would take over a room and just paint in the whole room by putting glass and paper all the way around the room. One day, I brought Morehouse in. He recognized me—this is all you want, as a young artist, is to be recognized. He had long talks with me then. “It may be very hard to be an artist. You might have to make twenty works in one year. Do you really want to do this?,” he asked. “Yes, I still want to do it.” “You may not be recognized for twenty years.” “That’s where I’m going.”
You’ve said that you heard the word “lesbian” for the first time at the age of thirty. This would have been around 1970, at the height of lesbian activists’ battle for recognition among mainstream feminists.
hammer: I was living in a house in the woods, in Northern California. I listened to KPFA [the listener-supported Berkeley radio station], and I heard a critique of the Miss America contest. When my husband and his friend came back, I said, “Guess what, I became a feminist.”
From listening to KPFA.
hammer: My husband got very upset, very grouchy, and Ralph, who is my friend and his friend, was thrilled: “Oh, great, Barbara, terrific.” It made a big mark on me.
The neighbor across the street was afraid of me playing with his kids. He said, “I think you might be queer.” I said, “What does that mean?” And he said, “Well, I know you never wear a skirt, but it’s just the way that there is some behavior that does make me uncomfortable and makes me feel as if you might be interested in my children.” Everybody’s stories probably are quite grotesque, but that’s just one of them.
But it sounds like it was a very joyful discovery—you’ve said that you were a lesbian adolescent in your thirties.
hammer: I got out of the marriage in about a year. I took with me my little Volkswagen and a tape recorder, and put it in my car along with a crazy dress. Then I started living in Berkeley and somebody gave me a Super-8 camera and I made a lot of films. I would do something crazy. I would hitchhike up and down College Avenue and then I would tape-record people inside the car, what they thought of me, what it was like living there. I would get to the end of the street, get out, come back the other way interviewing people. I went to Gay Pride and walked around interviewing people about what an orgasm felt like. And, you know, I would find some who would participate. But the audio didn’t come out, because it was so noisy at the festival. You could call it eccentric. You have an idea—you try it. Those are the processes that I followed at that time. I would write my name and address and put them in a balloon for people to find. Because otherwise I’d be lost in the world.
You and Florrie have been together for thirty-one years. So you weren’t that young when you got together.
burke: I was in my mid-forties. She was late forties.
How did you meet?
burke: The West Coast Women’s Music Festival, in Yosemite.
You were naked when you met?
burke: Yes. And we were with other people and I was shy. I was shy until I got with Hammer—and then you can’t be.
hammer: That was at a new place in life, where I finally decided I did not want to have more relationships. I wanted to have one. I wanted to find out what it’s like to take one person and go all the way. And that’s what I’ve been able to do thanks to both of us putting up with each other.
burke: And that’s what I didn’t want at the time.
You didn’t want a monogamous relationship, or a lifelong one?
burke: I didn’t want a long term. I said, “I just want to have a fling, and I hear you’re a great one for that,” because she had a big reputation of three months, six months. And people said, “Don’t go out with her—she’ll break your heart. She’ll dump you in a few months.” Here we are.
hammer: I knew there would be hardships. There would be things I’d have to change and I couldn’t be who I was always and I had to learn how to love in ways that I hadn’t before. It’s been a long process. We both have been through cancer. We both have seen each other through, Florrie with the largest commitment to a long period. Thirty years of being with me. You can imagine the struggles a person can have.
I went through a year and a half of Florrie in extreme pain. It was very hard. And I just didn’t know if I could do it.
You didn’t know if you could take care of her?
hammer: Yes. And, of course, she would probably like to just beat it out of here and be somewhere else. How could she not? You know the restriction, maybe you’ve been in that . . .
burke: The caregiving, the constancy of it.
hammer: You lose yourself.
burke: In 2015, I had spine surgery, and, as soon as I got through my rehab and was really good and strong, I said, “O.K., now, we can get back to doing what we always do,” which was a very active life. And then Barbara got this horrendous diagnosis that her tumors had metastasized to her lungs. And so we started down that path again, of chemo and treatment, and that went on until she started palliative care.
She’s had a hundred chemo treatments over twelve years and immunotherapy and surgeries. Everything that you could do was done.
hammer: It really has been a lot. But so much pleasure, so much travel, so much exploring. A few times of working together that never really worked out.
burke: We didn’t do it so well.
hammer: We both are powerhouses.
burke: Control freaks.
hammer: Have different ideas about the way a film should work—even if Florrie hasn’t made a film.
But you still tried it more than once?
hammer: Yes. We did [a film about] women who drove around the world looking for breast cancer. “The Nancy Drew Stories.” We wrote it, we got together a crew—and we didn’t get the funding. And then—
burke: —Deaf people with H.I.V. and aids. That’s being finished now. Barbara got a grant from the Wexner Center to finish five unfinished works. She wasn’t well enough to finish them. And she had an idea: What if I choose a filmmaker that I think would be appropriate for each of the five? Can they have the money to finish the work? And they went for it. The date is this summer to finish. One was the one about deaf people with aids, and, yes, I worked on that with you. That was fun. We didn’t have struggles over that.
hammer: Another one of the unfinished films was shot in 1975, in Guatemala. I rode a motorcycle down there, a BMW, all by myself. I wanted to understand the way the indigenous Indians used their clothing. I couldn’t figure out how to make this of interest, until I thought, Oh, I’ll look more at the way that—can you help me?
burke: I think you were looking at modernization and you wanted to go back . . .
burke: . . . to those markets and see . . .
burke: . . . how everything is now mass-produced and is no longer . . .
hammer: Yes. Yes.
burke: . . . hand-woven.