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Women, Art, and Revolution: An Interview with B. Ruby Rich

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Women, Art, and Revolution: An Interview with B. Ruby Rich

In Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution, stalwart feminist film critic B. Ruby Rich says, “A lot of us who survived those fights, bloodied but relatively unscarred, are kind of like the old C.I.A. and KGB agents that get together for reunions. Who else knows what we’ve been fighting over? Who else is interested in these issues that have really been consigned to a sort of historic scrap pile that people really don’t seem that interested in anymore?” The subject of that hit documentary is its subtitle, A Secret History. At the opening of the film in NYC, I had a chance to speak with Rich so that she could unearth that buried past even further and explain why understanding that moment is particularly relevant now.

So this is a documentary on feminist art, but also the women’s movement. But you’re one of the most renowned feminist film critics. So I’ll start out by asking you about the connection between feminist art and the women’s movement, and also feminist film, during the high time of the feminist movement, the ’70s and early ’80s.

So this triangular relationship that you’d assume would be there? It wasn’t there very much. It was a pretty weak triangle. They tended to be three different routes that women took and there was a kind of shadowing of one upon the other, but there wasn’t much connection. You’d think that there’d be, for instance, a strong connection between the feminist art movement and the feminist film movement. But, in fact, if I think about it, the only people who really crossed over were Carolee Schneemann, who did see herself as very much a feminist, and was very happy to finally have an allegiance to make after so very long of being treated badly by the boys in the art world, and Yvonne Rainer, whose work was shown in some of those very early film festivals, who was just beginning to make film but was coming out of the performance art world. She, at that time, didn’t even really consider herself a feminist. She was coming much more out of that world of the performance art left, in terms of anti-Vietnam organizing in politics and dance.

So I would say that there was spirit that united all of them, there was a spirit of what I would call the post-war movement in American culture, after Vietnam and before all of the Reagan wars that then followed. That was a moment when the United States was the most demilitarized that it has probably ever been, and there was a kind of flourishing of culture. So there was an intoxication. And I think the fact that there was a women’s movement empowered women in all of these different zones. Some women crossed over, you could say through the journals, Chrysalis on the West Coast and Heresies on the East Coast. And people were writing about feminist film, people were writing about women’s art, and it was assumed to be implicitly feminist because, in order to make it, they were coming up against these very masculinist codes and structures and traditions within those worlds of film and of art. For example, in the early 1970s, the first women’s film festivals were mounted, and even there, there was a split between the women cinephiles, we were excited that there had ever been women directors in the world, and going into archives and making international connections and discoveries….

So the early women’s film festivals were less contemporary and more historic?

Yeah. For me, one of the ways that I came into that kind of feminist scene was being part of collective in Chicago in the early ’70s that organized a women’s film festival. And Laura Mulvey was part of that because her then husband Peter Woolen was teaching in Chicago. She was a faculty wife, she hadn’t yet written anything. This was 1972/1973, and she had written one article on an artist called Alan Jones and she was beginning work on her famous “Visual Pleasure” piece, but she hadn’t written it yet! And she was in Chicago, and she and I were working on this film festival together. And that’s when she told me about this new young woman filmmaker we should try to find named Chantal Akerman. She also knew that Yvonne Rainer had just started making films. And this was very exciting—this was brand new information because there were so few women filmmakers. When you say, “it wasn’t contemporary,” it could not have been contemporary because there weren’t enough women making films. And the women that were still around, who we invited, were mostly older women who had fought like hell to make their films and who are now mostly not remembered.

Like who?

Nelly Kaplan who was French but actually Argentine/Parisian, who made some very important films back then but who hasn’t been remembered. There were women, interestingly, in what was then the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe had the most women filmmakers because they had all kinds of government money into establishing culture to rival the west.

Oh, I’ve never seen those screened.

No, you wouldn’t have. I remember showing one of those Eastern European woman’s films to Gene Siskel on a 16mm projector in my loft in Chicago.

And what’d he think?

He loved it. Well, the way I got this women’s film festival financed was through him. He brought me to the Tribune and said you have to start a film festival and the Tribune should fund it. And it wasn’t the editorial side that financed it, but the marketing side, to try to change the image of the Chicago Tribune.

Well, take it where you can get it.

I know! It was a very different moment. It was a moment when you literally were making something out of nothing. There wasn’t a tradition, there wasn’t a sense of a history, it was just then being uncovered and claimed and then built.

The feminist part of that festival, where women were really talking about the women’s movement and feminism, was all on video. They were dragging around these heavy portapacks. It was the dark ages of video; it was pre-camcorder, pre-VHS, pre-digital, pre-everything. And they were dragging around these heavy machines and holding workshops, teaching women how to make videos about their lives. And that was where the really strong feminist impulse in those festivals came from, in these workshops where women could learn to make images without spending all this money to make a film.

Did that result in one documentary or many documentaries, the actual work from the workshops?

It did. It resulted in a lot of work that was very local, that was very particular to that moment. Somewhere there’s work that is worth saving.

Wow, what a great archivist project.

Yeah, it truly is. And people used to talk then about what a woman’s aesthetic or a feminist aesthetic could be if women could make film and videos. And they never foresaw films made by women being distributed in movie theaters like they are now, like Lynn’s film is now, or someone like Miranda July. This was a one-time event at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and it was phenomenal. For years afterwards I met women who said it changed their lives: women who had left their marriages, women who had decided to go back to school, women who changed their profession. It had a profound effect at that moment on a certain generation of women in Chicago. In a way that nothing could have that effect now, because there are so many choices in options and traditions and sensibilities.

There’s a lot of power in imagination, in that act of imagining what could be. So, jumping forward, now that we’re past that moment, do you see same kind of energy being focused somewhere, or even being capable of being harnessed like that? Because even though there is a Miranda July and other films made by women, there’s still a long way to go.

There is a very long way to go. I think it’s hard now, because even though many spaces have been opened up, and it seems to a lot of people as if it’s a level playing field, the numbers indicate that it obviously is not. You just have to go around to galleries and museums and film festivals and see what the numbers are. You see that it’s not as changed as people would think.

And I think a lot of the problem is that there isn’t a movement, we’re assumed to be in what’s considered a post-movement moment. Just as people talk about being in a post-race moment, which also isn’t true, this isn’t true. I think that what’s difficult is that—once again—it comes down to the individual. And women feel that they succeed on their own, and that it’s their own fault if they don’t succeed. And that’s a terrible situation—and that’s the old situation.

So we’re sort of right back where we were?

Right back, in terms of attitude. Not right back in terms of options. I think there are, in fact, a lot more options, but not to the extent of any kind of equity. And with drawback is that it’s very, very hard if not impossible for women to make common cause. If you look at the media, they always talk about the difference between this generation and that generation. Yet, when I talk to young women it doesn’t seem that way. I think that there’s a greater recognition of differences than a commonality.

It’s been remarkable to see at the opening night of this film at IFC, in the audience, a collection of various women artists and filmmakers who were all part of this movement in different ways, and they all seem to know each other! Even though they’re working in different disciplines. And you have a really interesting quote in this film about how when women who were part of this movement get together it’s like a meeting of the…

Oh, like the KGB and the C.I.A.?

Right. That who else is going to know about this secret war that’s been fought. Do you find that that’s true here, at these screenings?

Oh yeah, sure. I find that true even when I go to film festivals, with critics who had different points of view, with different filmmakers. At least we know who each other are. There’s a certain history that’s kept alive by that.

There’s a key point in the film when Ana Mendieta dies—apparently murdered by her artist husband.

Going to Carl Andre’s trial for her murder was like going to a wedding with the aisle down the middle dividing the bride’s family and the groom’s family. One side of the courtroom was empty, because he told the art world not to go, and they didn’t because they were afraid of what might happen. And the other side was all filled with women artists, feminists…people who didn’t have that power. And I’ll never forget Nancy Spero standing up for Anna. Nancy Spero and I were on a committee that got Anna a retrospective that Marcia Tucker gave her at the New Museum after her death. Barbara Kruger came almost every day to that trial, and told off Carl Andre to his face. And the woman who was then the editor-in-chief of Art Forum, Ida Panicelli—they were the only three women with important places in the art world who testified on behalf of Anna after her death.

Do you think it didn’t just divide the art world, it divided the art world into people with power and people without power, except for those three exceptions?

Well, it reflected that, I don’t think it did it. It reflected it, it made that absolutely clear. Unfortunately, as I say in the film, even the Guerrilla Girls were divided, and they never did a poster. Because a number of the Guerilla Girls dated back to the 1960s NY art world and had alliances with Carl Andre.

Did that division show something that was always there and that this just illustrated or…

I think it showed something that was always there and is still there, and just isn’t noticed. For me it was very disillusioning about the art world.

Can you describe what it is exactly that it’s showing?

It showed that the sense of a feminist kinship system within the art world was very weak and, when put to the test, was very easily fractured. And that women with divided sensibilities stayed on the side of Carl Andre, or stayed quiet.

Divided sensibilities?

Between the older, powerful art world and the feminist art world. Anyway, what I would say is really important about the film is that it truly recaptures an era when all of these positions were being worked out, and being fought over. But all the positions weren’t as mutually exclusive as people felt back then. People were fighting over the details, but the broad strokes were absolutely coinciding from the West Coast to the East Coast, through Chicago where I was that time. It was all about reputation, respect, being able to make a living because someone was buying your work or hiring you, being able to be an artist because someone was admitting you to art school even though you were a woman, being able to be remembered in the future because someone was putting you in the history books, putting you in the art journals, featuring you in the biennales. All of that was not happening until this movement, and it all happens today—to the extent that it does—because of that movement and those disparate players.

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution opens today in Los Angeles and Seattle. For more information, click here.