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Vivienne Dick

By Maeve Connolly

1. New York and No Wave Film Culture

Vivienne Dick's first films were made in New York in the late 1970s, within the context of the No Wave super-8 film movement that centred around the Lower East Side.

Super-8 was the favoured format for No Wave filmmakers such as Beth and Scott B, James Nares and Eric Mitchell, offering an accessible form of sync-sound recording and echoing the low-fi, anti-aesthetic of punk music. Dick was also influenced by 1960s underground film culture and several of her early works were first screened in bars such as Max's Kansas City, between bands, rather than within established spaces for experimental and avant-garde cinema. Dick's first completed work, Guérillière Talks (1978) features many of the female stars of the scene and takes its title from Monique Wittig's feminist novel Les Guérillières. Structured as a series of separate documents, the film explores the personas created by women such as poet-performer Lydia Lunch and musician Pat Place. While the formal structure of the film is not typical of Dick's later works, Guérillière Talks initiates an investigation of performativity and identity that is extended in subsequent films set in and around New York

In the trash melodrama She Had Her Gun All Ready! (1978), both Pat Place and Lydia Lunch reappear, as an androgynous voyeur and nihilistic femme fatale, caught in a destructive relationship. The opening section, tinted in vivid shades of red and turquoise captures the growing frustration of the two characters and, as the narrative gathers pace, both become engaged in forms of surveillance - Lunch flicks through a series of TV channels, coming to rest on a BW image of her nemesis. The next sequence features various references to the gruesome story of serial killer Ed Gein, recounted by Lunch in a childlike, sing-song voiceover. A close up of the increasingly fraught Place confronting her own reflection in the mirror, suggests a final fragmentation of identity. The film then abruptly shifts gear, as the two characters exit the apartment and begin to track each other through the city streets, exchanging a series of looks before finally meeting again on the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island.

Dick's next film, Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979), is very directly concerned with popular cultural representations of violence, referencing aspects of Taxi Driver in its representation of a childlike, but evidently streetwise, central character played by Lunch. The narrative incorporates a series of temporally ambiguous flashbacks, featuring Lunch as a child, and hinting at a history of abuse and repression. The action moves fluidly between the Lower East Side and a remote, almost dreamlike, seaside location, accompanied by a soundtrack of confessional 1960s pop songs. In the final section, these two worlds seem to collide - so that the various versions of Lunch appear to co-exist within the same space, suggesting the convergence of past and present identities.

2. Post-Modernism and Globalisation

In the majority of Dick's New York films, meaning is produced through a collage of elements drawn from retro and contemporary culture, including billboards, pop and punk music, fashion, TV news and advertising.

This celebration of Americana, signalled by the use of landmarks such as the Coney Island fairground and the Twin Towers, is paralleled by shots of the city's vacant lots and crumbling tenements - and frequent references to sexual violence, murder and exploitation. In all of these narratives, New York is figured as both an iconic site of popular and oppositional cultural production, and a space in which fragments from formerly distinct eras converge. This aspect of No Wave film was noted by contemporary critics as emblematic of an emergent 'post-modernism'- mirroring developments in popular cinema during the 1980s. But Dick's work during this period is not simply concerned with post-modern aesthetics, and it extends to an exploration of the social and economic forces shaping urban experience in New York. In particular, Dick's representation of the city was increasingly shaped by her perspective as an Irish migrant, and her dislocation from Ireland during a period of rapid social change associated with globalisation.

Globalisation first emerges as a focus of investigation in Liberty's Booty (1980), a film that is ostensibly concerned with prostitution. The open scene features a transsexual (dressed as a school girl) and a bizarre stuffed figure, complete with genitals, a stuffed womb and several embryos. It is followed by a low-tech animated title sequence, in which the Statue of Liberty is first transformed into Wonder Woman and then into a gun-toting soldier. This is followed by a more mundane images of everyday life in a New York brothel (anticipating aspects of Lizzie Borden's Working Girls). The male clients are evidently actors but the film also seems to feature some real-life testimony from women engaged in prostitution, highlighting their anxieties concerning their future and current status as commodities.

In the central section, the examination of prostitution give way to a broader interrogation of power relations, articulated through a montage of images of 'Liberty'. The Liberty figure appears in street murals that memorialise victims of prostitution, and in the interior of a McDonalds restaurant where a group of women meet. In this latter scene, the history of a vicious labour dispute at a branch of McDonalds in Dublin is introduced, and recounted in an Irish-accented voiceover. A montage of scenes set in Ireland follows, with much of the imagery drawn from news coverage of the 1979 visit by Pope John Paul II. This section of the film might seem to establish an obvious opposition between dissolute urban America and 'Holy Catholic Ireland', but this opposition is undercut by the emphasis on the mass media in both the content and delivery of the Pope's sermon. The Pope's visit was intended to demonstrate the enduring power of the church in Ireland, but it is now generally seen to have marked a final (and futile) attempt to halt the transformation of Irish society. While its fragmentary structure resists easy interpretation, Liberty's Booty suggests an awareness of the significance of this moment, and provides an intriguing insight into the relationship between diverse, but converging, cultures.

3. Migrant Identities and Metropolitan Communities

Visibility Moderate: A Tourist Film (1981) offers a more in-depth exploration of migrant identity, combined with an investigation of the connection between power and vision.

The title is taken from a weather report but it also describes the prospects for avant-garde filmmaking in Ireland in the early 1980s (on the eve of the establishment of the first Irish Film Board). The film traces an Irish-American woman's tour of Irish landmarks, such as the Blarney Stone and the Ring of Kerry, apparently echoing elements of John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952). The journey is, however, punctuated by a montage of TV ads and several comic interludes in which the glamorous urban tourist imagines herself as a 'Celt' running through a mystical rural landscape.

Visibility Moderate is by no means exclusively concerned with cultural tourism, and the journey to Ireland is book-ended by images of the Twin Towers. In the opening shot, the camera pans from the spectacular view across New York city back to the central character, who is slicing a pineapple (a graphic symbol of global trade). This alignment between spectacle and power becomes more overt in the second part of the film as the tourist leaves the rural landscape for Dublin and Belfast and encounters street protests against the H Block prisons in the North of Ireland. The journey ends in an interview with the political prisoner Maureen Gibson, who delivers an account of the ritual humiliations enacted by prison authorities against Republican women. Gibson's image is inter-cut with computerised titles detailing her history and her experience of the Diplock court system. This sequence is filmed straight to camera, in the manner of a press conference, but it is also reminiscent of Dick's earlier interview film Guérillière Talks. The tourist's eventual return to the Twin Towers, in the final moments, seems to hint at a possible, albeit oblique, connection between the architectures of state surveillance and globalised capital.

Following the completion of Visibility Moderate, Dick left New York for Ireland, and subsequently London. She continued to explore aspects of Irish history and landscape in films such as Like Dawn to Dust (1983) and Rothach (1985) but retained an engagement with the international networks that she had established outside Ireland. In London Suite: Getting Sucked In (1989), made on 16mm with funding from Channel 4, she extends her exploration of migrant identity beyond Ireland and the US. Again, the dominant image is architectural, and the film is organised around a London tower block. As is typical of earlier works, documentary elements are interspersed with staged scenes, including a series of interviews with migrants living and working in London. The city is represented as a focal point for artists and filmmakers, in keeping with Dick's investment in metropolitan subcultures and networks. But the focus on living conditions and the struggle to make ends meet, documented in various ways, also hints at the precariousness of these cultures. New York Conversations (1991), produced on video for a broadcast context, explores similar territory but is more directly concerned with the experiences of women. Structured around a series of interviews, this work moves fluidly between public and private spaces, interspersing fragments of overheard city sound with more intimate exchanges.

4. Fragmented Narratives and Gallery Installation

A Skinny Little Man Attacked Daddy (1994) - the title of which references a childhood nightmare - documents a return journey to Dick's family home in Donegal, still occupied by siblings, nephews and nieces. Within this world, Dick sometimes seems to function as a detached observer, more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. But this position is not one of evasion and as a filmmaker she has confronted, and documented, every aspect of family life - refusing to excise even the most difficult memories of illness and loss.

While A Skinny Little Man Attacked Daddy makes extensive use of voiceover narration, it does not articulate an explicitly authoritative account of the past. A sense of fragmentation is introduced through the juxtaposition of several different forms of commentary, including ambiguous imagery of the landscape and onscreen handwritten comments. This exploration of multiplicity is extended further in a three-screen video, Excluded by the Nature of Things (2002), developed for gallery installation. This work foregrounds the senses of smell, touch, hearing, but is principally concerned with the spatial arrangement of visual and acoustic components. The soundtrack is presented on six speakers and encompasses a complex layering of predominantly natural elements, such as the noise of driving rain on the camera lens and windowpanes.

Excluded by the Nature of Things focuses on the tension between Irish Catholicism and earlier forms of spirituality, which are rooted in the experience of place. But it is also seems to consciously draw together themes and images from earlier works. The scenes of pilgrimage at Croagh Patrick, for example, clearly evoke the 'Irish-American' segments in Liberty's Booty and Visibility Moderate, while the inclusion of fragments of animation suggests a nod towards the cut-up aesthetic of the No Wave films. In addition, Excluded features a Gothic female presence - a mysterious woman dressed in black - recalling various performances by Lydia Lunch.

Within Excluded by the Nature of Things, Dick's feminist critique finds clear expression in the interplay between two performers (one male, one female), as they move across the three screens. These figures first appear to the left and right of the main screen - each approaches the camera, retreats, approaches again and then jumps off-screen - suggesting the need for (and also the possibility of) an interstitial or 'third' space, between genders. The staging of this exploration within the physical space of a gallery suggests a new departure in Vivienne Dick's practice - and the extension of a project of self-exploration that remains informed by the experience of many different places, and many different notions of community, identity and history.

Maeve Connolly is a writer and a lecturer in film and visual culture at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dublin.

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