Inhabiting the Space Between

A response to ‘Three Films by Vivienne Dick’,
a LUX Scotland screening in association
with Glasgow University, 12 January 2015

by Eilidh Ratcliffe

“I suppose the sea is indeterminate.
It is the unconscious, meditative.
It is also about possibilities, I think”.
Vivienne Dick (2014) [1]

Vivienne Dick is an artist and filmmaker who occupies the space between, both as a literal and figurative outsider. Her work over the past 30 years has examined the possibility of such a position as a potent and powerful symbol of defiance.

Pat Place in Staten Island (1977, dir. Vivienne Dick)

In Dick’s first Super 8 short, Staten Island (1977), a silvery figure emerges from the Hudson River, seeking refuge on the edge of the city amongst a landscape of rubble and ruin. The film can be read as a mirror to Dick’s own arrival to a then transforming New York City; economically deprived by the decimation of its industrial base, yet buzzing with the creative possibility afforded by such low rents and vacant lots.

Much like Pat Place’s androgynous figure in the film, it was in this decaying city that Dick found a place amongst a growing cohort of punk performers, artists and musicians with whom she went on to collaborate. Characters such as Lydia Lunch, James Nairn, Eric Mitchell, Adele Bertei and Ikue Mori existed on the periphery, establishing their own mode of survival in the abandoned lofts and apartments of downtown New York City. It was this community and its creative energy that played a critical role in Dick’s filmmaking practice from the late 1970s onwards.

She went on to complete another four films in her New York series, before moving to the UK in 1982. In London, she continued to make films and became an active member of the London Filmmakers Co-op. Eventually travelling back to her home country, she now lives and works in Dublin, Ireland.

At LUX Scotland’s recent screening, ‘Three Films by Vivienne Dick‘ [2], the artist presented Staten Island (1977) from New York; Visibility Moderate (1982), shot on her return to Ireland; and her most recent work, The Irreducible Difference of the Other (2014). Played in chronological succession, the programme offered critical markers in the progression of Dick’s practice, foregrounding recurrent notions of indeterminacy as a state or space for oppositional action. Whether it be Pat Place’s arrival on to the shores of Staten Island, the glamorous Margaret Ann Irinsky’s stand-in American tourist in Visibility Moderate (1982), or the allegorical figures of Antonin Artaud and Anna Akhmatova in her latest work, the very presence of these characters positioned on the edge, or periphery, signals their power to reveal, expose or disrupt in some manner, the current state-of-play into which they enter.

All three works resist easy categorization and are reflective of Dick’s working method, where the film’s structure is never planned or fixed during the process of production. Instead, as she noted during the post-screening interview, it is during the edit that she locates and develops meaning through the construction of the work. Perhaps the most striking juxtaposition in Visibility Moderate (1982) is delivered at the end of the film, where Dick cuts from a warbling religious singer delivering a sermon on the Virgin Mary, to political prisoner Maureen Gibson, direct to camera, recounting her intimate physical humiliation at the hands of the prison guards. Here female oppression is served both puritanically and politically in a simple, yet powerful sequence.

Maureen Gibson in Visibility Moderate (1982, dir. Vivienne Dick)

The free structuring of sound and picture creates an urgency and immediacy to the viewing experience, as though the work comes into being as each new image is juxtaposed with the next. As the writer Vera Dika suggests, Dick’s use of Super 8 throughout her career builds upon this very state of raw immediacy, both audio and image often rendered unclear or unstable, as the medium crackles and strains through its process of recording and display: “It underlines the film image, and the film sound, as fledgling, barely there, returning from its near extinction, and now coming again into being”.[3]

Dick’s most recent and expansive work to date, The Irreducible Difference of the Other (2014), places instability and uncertainty at the very heart of the film’s thematic concerns. Leaping between intimate encounters, allegorical images and moments of collective resistance (documentary scenes of the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and protests against the Iraq war feature throughout), the personal and political appear to collide, raising questions about the place of the individual in a world so dominated by war, terror and consumption.

Actress Olwen Fouéré provides the centre of the film, embodying the figures of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and playwright Antonin Artaud. Much like Pat Place on Staten Island, these figures appear alone in the landscape. The industrial rubble of Dick’s New York films is transformed into the damp forests and the rugged shores of the Irish coastline in her later work. But where Place was emerging onto the earth, repurposing its abandoned remnants as tools for her survival, here, these characters appear alienated by the land in which they find themselves. Artaud nervously clutches his briefcase to his chest, hiding out in the woods; perhaps his final refuge from the world which surrounds him. Similarly, the final shot of the film sees the figure of Akhmatova returning to the sea, leaving behind the current order, in search of new possibility.

Olwen Fouéré in The Irreducible Difference of the Other (2014, dir. Vivienne Dick)

If the subversive and reactionary energies of the punk movement have been subsumed by Late Capitalism, where will the new moment of opposition arise? Dick offers hope in the form of collective action, in the occupation of public spaces, the tented cities and the mass marches. In the defiant individuals now brought together, no longer underground, but forcefully present and seen in the spaces they inhabit.

Nearly 40 years into her artistic career, Dick still remains one of the most strikingly dissident voices in film, reimagining the male paradigm of segregation, destruction and imposed order, through a practice that seeks to embrace indeterminacy, difference and subversion as powerful tools for our survival.

Further reading and details about Vivienne Dick’s work can be found in Maeve Connolly’s commissioned essay for LUX, her essay on the cultural landscape of Dick’s early films and Jim Hoberman’s reviews for the Village Voice in 1979 and 1981.

[1] Interview with Vivienne Dick, http://isisgallerymagazine.org/vivienne-dick.

[2] The screening programme was developed in collaboration between LUX Scotland and Dr Dominic Patterson at Glasgow University.

[3] Vera Dika, The (moving) pictures generation; The cinematic impulse in downtown New York art and film (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), e-book p.59.

Eilidh Ratcliffe is currently studying an MLitt in Curatorial Practice, established jointly between Glasgow School of Art & Glasgow University. Alongside her study, she also works as a Programme Assistant for LUX Scotland. Previously she has worked in TV, film and advertising in London. She now lives and works in Glasgow.

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