Vivienne Dick: stifled in Ireland, celebrated in New York

The influential Irish film-maker brings her new film to the Darklight festival. She talks about her long career, and leaving Ireland for the buzz of the 1970s No Wave scene

'A mouthful of a title," is how the film-maker Vivienne Dick describes her latest work, which will screen at the Darklight festival in Dublin on Saturday. It's called The Irreducible Difference of the Other .

Dick is so soft-spoken, I have to put my ear close to the recording of our conversation when typing it up. She’s an efficient talker, her sentences cut and spliced with great economy.

"I grew up in Ireland in the 1950s," she says. "Went to college here in the 1960s. It was a different place. You were sitting in a group of people, say in a pub, in those days, and it was just the guys who were talking. You were very much like an outsider within a group. You didn't have a voice. You felt stifled.

“I left Ireland. A couple of years later I went to New York. It was completely different. It was an instinct, and a lucky chance. I was probably drawn there with a sense that somehow I would be able to breathe more easily there. Of course, things have changed so much here. I couldn’t live here then.”


If this sounds clipped, it’s not. She talks slowly and lightly. Dick is one of the most important film-makers Ireland has produced, and, like most of our foremost female artists – on the spectrum of Fouéré, Maher and Shaw – she keeps to herself, and lets the work speak for itself.

In Dick’s latest film, Olwen Fouéré takes on the persona of Antonin Artaud, the French playwright. “I suppose you could describe it as some kind of a documentary, but it’s a little bit unusual in the way that it’s made,” says Dick. “There are sudden jumps to different situations, different places, different times. It’s about what it means to be human. We know from our history that things change. There’s always new empires, new ways of understanding the world. And I really like that idea. Because I suppose where I’m coming from is a feminist position, and an understanding that, in this world, there’s a huge imbalance between male and female, and that’s a very important question. That informs all of my work.”

Dick has been reading a lot about war lately. “It’s also about relationship and what relationship has meant over the centuries. Because it seems to me, reading philosophy, that relationship has been seen as dominating the other. It’s how countries treat other countries if they’re a bit weaker. They just want to dominate them.”

The birth of No Wave
Rewind. Downtown Manhattan in the late 1970s offered a buzzing avant-garde arts scene that perhaps has not since been replicated. What became known as No Wave across music, film, performance art and more, pulled the rug out from under the taut New Wave scene and was probably more punk than punk itself. Lydia Lunch, Suicide, DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, Mars, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks was the soundtrack.

Before gigs, experimental Super 8 films would roll in the venues. Dick was hooked. She lived in a railroad apartment, one and a half rooms, with a stairway leading up to a flat roof. “New York was in a bad way, in a bad recession. It meant that living there didn’t cost much money. You could get a job where you worked part time and get by very well. Plus, it was full of people who were there to be involved in the arts, theatre, dance, music. So it was very exciting.”

Three small classics

When she picked up a camera in 1976, she was about to throw a pebble in a pool that caused still-expanding ripples. Two years later, Dick debuted three films that would almost define No Wave experimental film. Two were less than half an hour long – Guerillere Talks and She Had Her Gun All Ready . Staten Island was less than five minutes long. Watching them now, it's difficult to transport oneself back to a place and time where this approach was so new, since experimental film and video that echoes No Wave has become so prevalent.

"I was open to everything," she says. "It felt like I was at university, all the stuff I was learning. I was going to see independent cinema. I had never seen anything like that before – individuals making short films that didn't cost much money. They looked fantastic to me. And they gave me the desire to make films. Not just that – just seeing a lot of women doing things, involved in theatre, Meredith Monk, people like that. Dancers. That's where I met Nan Goldin, the photographer. She was just starting out then. And lots of musicians as well peopled my early films – they were who I was hanging out with, because I didn't work with actors."

Lydia Lunch became a frequent subject in her films. She and her peers had no idea that what they were creating would subsequently be a “genre”. But they knew something was going on. “You were certainly aware that something interesting was happening right in this place. You could feel it. A real energy. You wanted to be there.”

No one is as surprised as Dick that those early pieces of work are still “dancing along”, as she puts it. Moma, the Pompidou Centre, Museo Reina Sofia Madrid and the Whitney in New York have all shown her work. Tate Modern held a retrospective of her films in 2010. “They have a rawness to them that still stands. I never dreamt in my wildest dreams they’d still be showing those films 35 years later.”

Gender politics
On feminism and gender politics, her speech flows more loosely. "We seem to focus on things like inequality of pay and stuff like that, which is very surface. The issue goes back a long time. Someone like Plato, for example, sees the uterus as a hole or a dark cave. There's a misogyny there that we've been brought up with and brainwashed by.

“It’s only in this century that we have the vote or any kind of rights as citizens. But I suppose, when I think about gender and imbalances, you can add on to that anyone that’s considered other. You can include people of race, sexual orientation. Asylum seekers are frozen here in Ireland for the last 14 years. They are kind of ‘non-people’. Why are we treating them like that? What have we done to our Travellers? It’s not just the male-female thing, it’s how we treat the other.”

Her instinct to make something new is generally “a trigger that sets you off. It could be a person, or it could be a place, or it could be a piece of music. It could be a colour. Everyone has their own way of working. You have to be very true to that . . . because if you try to bend yourself into another shape, and produce another kind of work that someone else is expecting you to do, it won’t be very good. Even though you might be doing something and you mightn’t be getting any response to it, or people are a little mystified by it,” she concludes, softly.

The Irreducible Difference of the Other will be screened on Saturday at noon at Cinemobile, Smithfield, Dublin, as part of a programme of new Irish experimental documentaries, followed by a discussion with the directors.


The Act of Killing
The director's cut of Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated documentary about the slaughter in 1960s Indonesia will be screened, followed by a virtual Q&A with Oppenheimer. Friday, 6.30pm, Light House Cinema, €10.

Oculus Rift Bedamned! Make your own VR headset
Raging that Facebook bought Oculus? Been trying to embrace virtual reality since The Lawnmower Man? Then this DIY virtual reality class is for you. Sunday, noon, Block T, €15.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Live
A symposium on black metal theory featuring the director of the documentary of the same name. Ben Russell, Prof Nicole Masciandaro, Dr Paul J Ennis and black metal theorist Edia Connole. 6pm, Sunday, Generator, €6.