Transitions: Barbara in the eighties: an interview
by Mike Hoolboom
BS: I never thought of myself as an artist because I don’t have that kind of background. The only work I made was very personal, and I never thought about it much beyond giving it to the people I’d made it for. I made things for anniversaries and birthdays. I made books for my parents which used photos and texts in ways that are pretty similar to the way I work now. But because it was for the family I never... I just liked doing it.
The first film I made was with my father’s 16mm camera. My husband at the time didn’t have any home movies and barely any photographs from his growing-up, so I wanted to make him this home movie, to create a past for him. But I never thought of it as filmmaking or art or anything. He was a football player, and I would watch the games and sit through these boring half-time shows. So I came up with some ideas to make them better and wrote a script and approached a television station, which bought it. I couldn’t believe it. But when they aired it, they showed the usual visuals, which made the whole thing boring again. I decided to go to Ryerson Polytechnical to learn how to make films so I could tell people more clearly what I wanted them to do. But once I was there, I didn’t think at all about industrial film, I just started making stuff in a way I would later learn to call “experimental.” It was the way I worked, the way I think. I didn’t want film to be just a recording mechanism, simply translating literature or theatre.
MH: And when you left school...
BS: I was committed to film on some level but left without the confidence to make work. I was a non-person there; no one ever looked at my stuff. So when I left I just went back into myself. I think it was good in a way. I turned to super-8 instead of 16mm because I didn’t take myself seriously as a "filmmaker." I went back to teaching high school. I made little super-8 films which often involved my son and my husband because they were around. I made my own motorcycle film à la Kenneth Anger, and a karate film—small editing exercises which were never shown.
marriage ended and I moved to
MH: Tell me about Opus 40 (18 min 1979).
BS: The arts centre where I taught had a goal of using
the arts to help students think creatively, and to involve them in an artmaking
that made sense with their living. One of these projects brought us into the
foundry. There were two main employers in Sackville—the foundry and the
university. Often at school the foundry kids seemed divided from their family
life. So we went to the foundry altogether as a school. There were two parts to
the foundry— an old one and a new one. The old one made moulds out of earth
liked coming into the foundry and wanted to ask the men about repetition and,
finally, to make a film about it. I was thinking about habit, ritual, the sun
rising daily. Both the building and the work it contained were very
repetitious. So I made a plan on paper and interviewed the men. Opus 40 isn’t my fortieth film; it’s a
reference to their forty-hour work week. It starts out as if it’s going to be a
documentary. The camera moves into the factory cinéma-vérité style, and you
hear a voice asking, “How long have you been working at the foundry? Which area
do you prefer?” And then the film begins to perform its own form of repetition,
the image divides and divides again. Then the interviewer asks, “How do you
handle the repetition?” But there’s no answer on the soundtrack. You don’t hear
the voice-over again until the end. The film cuts to an image split in half,
with the workers on the top and black on the bottom. I thought of the black
part like a bass rhythm in music. My plan was to show a single man working in
both parts of the image, top and bottom, only shot at different times. It would
be the same gestures, only making different moulds. So it wouldn’t be a strict
repetition, but almost. This was all done in-camera. I'd borrowed a
What you hear is the sound recordings of the foundry slowly giving way to the sound of the projector. Then I took the split image and shot it off the wall to create further repetitions in the image, and this move is followed on the soundtrack where the sound is channelled through an echo machine where it’s made to double on itself. The image becomes more fraught as if all the days of their working were happening at once. Then I repeat the question, “How do you handle the repetition?” And the man answers, “What do you mean?” [laughs] It’s so wonderful. He says, “I come in every day. I have so many moulds to make and I do this task.” He’s been here for twenty-five years, and for him the work doesn’t have the negative labels we might attach to it. Gertrude Stein wrote that the history of each of us comes out in our repeating. Repetition can become deadening when you don’t notice all the small differences in it. I thought the workers might complain, but they didn’t.
Opus was invited to a MayWorks screening which annually celebrates labour in art. All of the films in the program were documentaries complaining about working conditions. Except mine, which was experimental. Some people were angry, saying, “How dare you make a film that accepts this? Why aestheticize this experience?” I didn’t take the opportunity of filming to help change conditions at the foundry. Whether a film could really change them or not is another issue. I felt if we could come back to being connected with our labour, we would be more human. The film is an experience of repetition and not finally about their work. The film is not about something, it is something.
Opus came out of notions of repetition that were more intellectual than lived. In Transitions (10 min 1982), I wanted to make something more personal. I always felt there was a time-lag between events and their recording, that events in film were inevitably a re-creation. Film suits memory very well: its making is always a going back. But I wanted to make something that wasn’t over before I made it. I wondered if I could make a film about the present, a perceptual documentary perhaps. I would recognize things I saw as “right” and film them—the evidence of wind on snow banks, or water, or hay, for instance. But, again, I didn’t want to shoot it like Nature Beautiful. No capitals. You write in your journal, you collect bits of film, you talk to people and at some point it comes together enough to think: oh, this is a film. I was thinking about a state of transition which is characterized by the fact that nothing is singular or clear. I felt there should be a lot of motion, that the film should never rest so you couldn’t make easy orientations. I wanted to layer images for the same reason, so you can’t just make out a single moment—the way your mind works. When you’re agitated, the past, present and future, if there are such divisions, are going on at the same time. So I had these fragments and some ideas about how to treat them. But I needed something to unify the material. So I made a narrative ground. I shot a woman in white on a bed, who’s sleepless and agitated. There’s other images of her as well—walking on a river bank with a guy, someone touching her face, her in a restaurant, sitting in a chair with her knees up. But I worried that the central image of her in bed would overdetermine the other images, that they would be read as her dreams or something like that.
MH: There’s a very brief shot of her walking with a man and all of a sudden the whole film aligns itself around this image. There’s been a relationship, but now she’s alone and can’t sleep. Obviously they’ve broken up. Why? She’s having nightmares; something about her past. And I wondered at how little it takes to make a story, and how much it takes to conjure something else.
BS: Transitions came out of waking up afraid every day. Terrified. That’s what occasioned the film. I wondered why we had to get up, to face every fucking day. Some societies create this feeling of disorientation and fear and confusion as part of an initiation rite which provides passage from one state to another. For me, it was something else. The soundtrack consists of two voices whispering. The difference between the two is that one is talking about personal things taken from my journal, while the other is quoting from a physics text. The journal stuff talked about the face of my mother. One day I just realized how long I’d spent looking into her face so I wrote about...
MH: How much of her life was in her face?
BS: How much of her face was in my life. [laughs] Later, the same voice describes a conversation where my mother says, “He’s your husband. Do what he says—it won’t hurt you to meet his parents.”
MH: This track is a lot more buried than the other one. I’ve never heard any of this stuff after seeing the film a dozen times or more.
BS: I was more concerned with having a personal tone than having details spelled out. A friend of mine felt the film was about the space women occupy between mother and husband—neither is tenable. She described the film in terms of a power relation I hadn’t thought of. The woman in the film wants to live in the present without the expectations of the future or the visitations of the past. To be awake to life, not back in the womb or sleepwalking. Sometimes the voice carries minute descriptions of physical activities—walking, for instance—to try to get the mind to focus completely on the sensations of the present. The last line asks, “Do we have to be aware of every moment?” In all my work, I feel it’s too dishonest to provide a resolution—as if I have the answers. So she stays on the edge of the bed. The film whites out and leaves us with the question and her with the choice.
MH: I felt the two voices come together in the line that asks, “What more frightening thing could there be than there is a present moment?” I understood this as the possibility of an infinite present, that the next instant I could think or do something that might continue for the rest of my life, that the images we make constitute a place of perfect memory, where we can return to these consequences, where we can learn to travel in time.
BS: Yes, the clearest memories I have are in photographs. This film, like Opus 40, is also about repetition. What’s memory if not the order of our repetition? Or history? Or identity?
MH: Let’s talk about A Trilogy (43 min 1985).
BS: It’s framed by a woman at the edge of a pool. It opens with her about to dive in and closes with her dive. The second shot of the film runs eight continuous minutes and shows a man running along a dirt road. The road is tree-lined and narrow, so it’s as if he’s traversing this passageway. The camera tracks alongside him. A male voice-over recites fragments from a story: “Duration didn’t come into it.” Or just: “Time. Water.” Things like that. There’s suggestions of death. I actually asked him to talk about what it would feel like to drown and cut his response into fragments. A scrolling text follows which lists historical events. Then there are six kitchen scenes that show a couple in the morning before they go off to work. You hear bits of dialogue about whether the repairman is coming, or who’s driving whom to work. Then a baby carriage is introduced, and a baby which each of them take turns feeding. Meanwhile, news reports relate an airplane crash at sea. A second text follows. This time instead of a list, it takes the form of a narrative which relates the initiation rites of an African tribe. In order to prepare him for adulthood, a boy is circumcised while the villagers mourn him as if he had died. He is cast out and goes through this harrowing experience, then is re-named and told about the existence of the Tree of Knowledge. The next section follows a young boy running up Silbery Hill in England, which is a Neolithic mound, a fertility symbol. Like Transitions, this section is pictured in layers—images seen in superimposition. So we see the boy on the hills rolling through images of water, and volcanoes erupting and a pregnant woman—archetypal images. This sequence culminates in the cutting of the umbilical cord.
MH: Doesn’t it suggest that each separation replays this initial loss of the mother?
BS: It’s cyclical. We’ve been listening to letters from the mother to the boy which lead us to the cord’s cutting and then we hear the boy’s voice for the first time. He’s talking about his choices for the next year, his subjects at school. I thought it would be too utopian to show him being free. He comes into his own, but he does so inside a system. The world is organized into subjects of knowledge— geography, history, math. A third scrolling text follows with a list of questions. Then the three stories—the man running, the couple in the kitchen, and the little boy—all find their endings. The man runs up a hill, and the camera stops and lets him move towards the horizon. The couple are always seen in the morning, but today is Sunday, so for the first time they’re not getting ready for work. You can see the backyard, and she takes the baby in her arms and goes out of doors. The boy runs up the hill and rolls down without the intervention of the other image layers. The woman dives into the water and the film ends. Over the closing credits a piano is practising scales, continually missing and beginning again.
MH: The film brings different people together with experiences that they’ve either forgotten or never learned how to remember. It seems especially directed towards the males in the film who are always running, unable to look back and take account of what’s passed.
BS: I was thinking of the “running”as “living”—for which we can’t “know” the beginning or end. Five years after I finished the film, I read The Mermaid and the Minotaur. The author posits that the male world of work and enterprise is based on two things. First, to create a world distinct from the mother who provides our first experience of ourselves when we’re powerless. We escape this lack of power by latching onto the “not-woman”—the man. The father doesn’t remind us of this period of helplessness. The male world of work is founded on signing, on creating identity, and an important aspect of that is to control women, to exert power over them. Second, the world of enterprise is part of our denial of death. Even when women enter that world they do it vicariously through the achievements of sons or husbands. Or they do it in support—the women behind great men—as secretary or nurse. So they’re allowed in, but only beneath men. Her thesis is that until you have both men and women nurturing children through that helpless stage of the first couple of years, this will continue.
MH: But aren’t these polarities drawn together through memory? To remember or bring back again is an acknowledgment of death. Because going back always returns to the acknowledgment of those already dead.
BS: The child dies to become an adult, but the mother dies also. The rituals that remain to us negotiate this passage between states. These old rituals of earth mounds and fire and water aren’t active for us anymore. Even as I put them in the film, I did it with the understanding that they weren’t the same for us as the builders of mounds or carvers of rock. But there’s something that remains, and these traces are felt in our everyday life. We don’t have to go somewhere else to find the mystery of that connectedness. It’s always there. We have flashes of it—some image, some moment that stays with us. Unaccountably.
The couple who appear as if out of an advertisement for the desirable life are finally animated by the presence of a child. It’s not the only signal of life’s mysteries, but it’s an obvious one. We don’t have many rituals. We have habits. But a child brings us closer to something else. I wanted to fill the film with the mystery of the everyday, of those moments which we haven’t learned how to attach words to yet, when you feel everything is different but you don’t know what it is, like the hair on the back of someone’s neck or a young girl running across the road. You feel something, like memory, or the understanding of those already dead.
MH: I felt that the camera pans over Silberry Hill and the child’s rolling ascents and descents marked a re-invention of ritual. The camera passes over this landscape again and again. Your son finally appears inside these pans, as if lured by this rhythm, and the two of you begin a kind of dance. You have flown across the world to bring him to this hill, to a place where you can impart some last understanding—the memory of your time together; that night of nine months. He shows in his rolling over earth that he remembers the unmistakable connection between the two of you, and understands also that it is time for him to leave. It’s a remarkable section.
BS: It’s as if the hill is trying to reclaim him. As if he’s trying to be free of it. The woman’s voice is trying to hold him at the same time, and then he has to let go. Separate.
MH: Did you get any kind of support for this work?
BS: I got money for the first time—my first grant. I came to Toronto late in 1984, just after I thought the film was finished. I had a fine cut and was ready to mix. Then I found out all my tracks were no good because they’d been transferred improperly. I thought I would die. So I re-transferred the sound, cut it back again, and started making changes. Then I started changing the picture again, redid the mix, and finally released it the next year.
MH: It’s a film that’s done very well.
BS: In terms of experimental film I’ve been fortunate. But the fact that it’s been programmed doesn’t necessarily give me confidence that people think a lot about it.
MH: Why is it being selected then?
BS: Moving to Toronto introduced me to the politics of exhibition—how and why certain works get picked. A lot of it is who gets chosen. I think my early films were considered good apart from the identity of their maker. There wasn’t as much consciousness about being a woman artist. Now we’re in a very self-conscious phase of change. Because my work was taken up by a largely male faction I was ignored by feminists for a time, as if I’m part of a male thing. Or perhaps my films aren’t as “feminist” in subject matter. There are also considerations of race. All this helps to open the canon up, remove its stronghold, but it’s complicated. The danger, of course, is “political correctness” being adhered to mindlessly. I see other filmmakers much more active in getting screenings for their work, but I haven’t done that and I don’t care to. Some people are smarter about distributing their work than making it. There’s a lot of energy that goes into seminars and posters and distribution these days.
MH: Does this focus on distribution signal a shift?
BS: The equation of money with value predominates and that’s a problem. I’m not trying to romanticize poverty, but does money make the art better? Give it more substance and impact? The sense of surface and advertising that permeates our world is also permeating our work. Which is not to say we should live in shit, but this feeling that making slicker work makes us better artists is not necessarily true.
MH: Do we need an audience for this work—do numbers matter? Is there a certain point where public attention wanes so completely that you have to say, okay, let’s pull the plug on this. What if no one comes?
BS: That’s fine. Then I’ll make it for myself. I think the work has an effect nonetheless. Things exist in the world. Look at Gertrude Stein —she was forced to publish most of her work herself. And her writing continues to be felt. I don’t think its implications have yet been realized. But the fact that she wrote what she did, when she did, changed everything. Which is not to argue for dead authors. But if she’d made the decision to stop working based on her audience, she never would have written anything.
MH: Why is it important to make fringe film?
BS: Why is it important to do anything? I just do it. What sustains public attention isn’t necessarily good. It’s better for me to make this work than do horrible things to people. If the role of art is to ask us to go deeper, to remember certain things, where else is it going to come from, apart from art? Is it going to come from a film that supports the status quo even as it’s attempting to critique it? Even if it’s against the Gulf War, for instance, but takes shape as a sponsored television documentary, this work still supports the system. It begs certain questions the filmmaker can’t afford to hear because finally their work needs to sell.
MH: Tell me about Tending Towards the Horizontal (33 min 1989).
BS: I was in Moncton, New Brunswick, walking past houses, and there was that moment, you know, of looking up when something just clicked, and two years later it was Tending. Around that experience I began to collect material about houses and bodies, reading books that seemed to relate. I didn’t want to use images as symbols the way A Trilogy did. I wanted the image to be more incidental, to cast away the signifier. I wanted to communicate something else. I didn’t want someone to view the image as a series of identifications of words—house, person, car, building. I didn’t want someone to read the film, I wanted someone to see it. So I was collecting images I knew I had to have without quite knowing why. Then I met the Acadian writer, Frances Daigle. She had seen some of my films and said she’d like to work with me. I thought this would be a good way to allow the words and pictures to become more fully themselves. To let her write the words for the soundtrack, and for me to make the images.
The film pictures houses, initially presenting them as they are, and moving to a point where they become light, shadow, and colour. For their occupants, these architectures mean home, but for a passerby they remain a divide, a line between inside and out. Something is going on in there, but I’m out here, and the structure that’s holding us apart is endless and immovable. So I took the light of the window, the orange light, and allowed it to fill the whole frame so that we could see the scene inside out. The film describes the dissolution of these rigid structures until they become alternating passages of orange and blue light. The substantial and permanent is subject to change and transformation. These are the two colours natural to film, so the film’s end signals a return to materials.
MH: On a scientific level, it would be that moment where you experience a table as a bunch of atoms. Was the architecture important?
BS: When a child draws a house, she or he makes a rectangle with a triangle over the top. The opening houses look like that. In the middle section I wanted houses that were increasingly covered by foliage and vines, that showed some merging of architecture and surround. A newspaper reviewer wrote that they were “middle-class” homes, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was simply thinking “house.” But in Toronto now, everything recalls class, race, and gender.
MH: Throughout Tending I felt we could be looking at anything. The show of houses was immaterial. This seemed the real aim of the film—to do away with the fact that the image “stood for” something. Maybe we could say that the film is crafted out of a certain kind of knowing, a way of living in the world. It’s like the woman described in the voice-over who sits in the library reading any book. She doesn’t care which one, because the feeling she carries is already there. How did you arrive at the title Tending Towards the Horizontal?
BS: At a certain point I’d shot footage that had a split image, like in Opus 40, but now split horizontally and vertically. I was trying to choose between the two and finally discarded them both. But before I did, I remember saying to a friend, “Oh, I think I’m tending towards the horizontal.” And she said that’s the title of your film. [laughs] I don’t give a lot of time to titles. For some people the title is the work. Some people’s titles are so fabulous I don’t need to see the films.
MH: You called your new film At Present (18 min 1990). How did it start?
BS: I was teaching, so I didn’t have a lot of time to work on film, but I wanted to keep my hand in. I had this footage I liked and wanted to make something with. I kept seeing all these male Toronto filmmakers making work about love. So my film is a response to these films. It has three sections. The first shows four individuals in four settings—two men and two women. All four are framed by houses—a man in a doorway looking out of the house he built; a man smoking; a woman who alternates between picking through broken glass and potting flowers; and a woman sweeping a studio floor. The soundtrack over each relates a parable. Then there’s a House Beautiful-type of apartment, and I run into the shot because one of the features of these male films is that they would always appear in their own films, so I thought I had to show myself somehow. So there I am primping in a chair, trying to fit myself into a life where I obviously don’t belong. In the course of making the film I interviewed a number of men about love. One voice-over begins with an evocation of media clichés—he talks about falling in love in Paris, about the Hollywood romance contained in Casablanca, and about his childhood in Niagara Falls, which remains the honeymoon capital of the world. Then there’s a chorus, or middle section, where another male voice asks, “What’s involved in love? Is it power—is that what we’re talking about?” With a single exception, all the voices in the film are male because I wanted to make a film about love that men would hear. If I had women talking, men would think it’s a woman’s problem.
MH: So this is a film addressed to men?
BS: Well, both men and women really, but for men to hear better they had to be addressed in their own voice. As the voice-over continues to speak about the body and its traces, the images change. They move outside now. They’re not so enclosed, and you don’t see as many couples. People are in more contact with their environment. We see people setting fire to a field and a woman’s voice reciting from R.D. Laing, “They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I know the rules, they will punish me. I must play the game of not showing I know how to play the game.” Another male voice begins more tentative than the last, accompanied by the rising sound of women laughing. The burning field is superimposed on a number of naked men taken from pornographic magazines. Another voice intercedes. It says, “Love, hate, he, she—it’s all the same, isn’t it?” The images of fire return to the apartment with a series of snap zooms which break open the space so that the house structure, which is the support structure of this coupling, opens up to another formulation of love which is more encompassing. The film turns to light and the talking becomes laughing. The beginning of the film shows an Aboriginal man opening his mouth as if screaming or calling, and the last shot shows a contemporary, an older man from this society, again in silence, and he’s looking out at the audience, and then he makes this little smile. This smile is really the beginning.
MH: To risk an obvious question: why an Aboriginal? He feels like the image equivalent of “once upon a time”—a kind of prelude to this male intercourse. His silent shout evokes a flash of light which lands us inside a Toronto living room. At present.
BS: I remembered that shot from a television documentary I saw in Saint John eight years ago. I didn’t know why, but I knew I had to have that shot—it was the only one I took intentionally for the film. So I tracked it down and shot it off the Steenbeck. It was important that it was a shout and that you heard nothing, that there’s an expression coming from the mouth that wasn’t words — because the rest of the film was full of words. It comes before the title because it’s before language, in a way, like laughter is before or beyond words. What did you think of the film? You’re in it.
MH: It’s your best work. The light is clearer and the montage is lovely and always unexpected. I could move alongside the changes without feeling either that I was being hijacked or completely disoriented. It struck a number of very different emotional registers and managed to negotiate them with a real elegance. It also has the angriest section I’ve ever seen in your work, which you pointedly ignored in your description of the film—a section which plays over my voice-over. It shows a number of gay porn images of men naked, erect and burning, mutilated by fire.
BS: Or “on fire,” “burning,” “hot.” The fire theme was introduced with the burning fields, which are set ablaze every spring to burn off old grass and supply nutrients for new growth. This burning field footage was actually from an artist’s [Bill Vazin] site piece. Art, fire, spirituality… layers of meaning. As to the choice of male nudes, I wanted to show men what it was like to show their bodies, so I put their bodies up there. As if they’re images of love, or whatever the excuses are for always doing that to women. As if they were about anything but power. The film is moving toward a more open and encompassing view of love which is no longer oriented to some exclusive “I love you.” This section marks a regression. It speaks of division and the objectification that comes out of fear. But there’s a lot of laughing in the film, even in that section. So you could say that women have the last laugh.
MH: And the title?
BS: I was going to call it Love Me. [laughs] I called it At Present because it’s like the end of a sentence—the way we are at present. This is sort of where we’re at, a news report on the state of love. It’s also a questioning of where the present is. Is the present the Aboriginal image that opens the film or the apartment that it moves to? Which are we present to?
MH: People are usually featured in At Present moving in a directionless isolation, like much of your previous work. Tending is a road movie—going where? Your son is running up the hills of England only to roll down again. The sleeper in Transitions never leaves the bed, though there’s a constant flow of images. The worker in Opus 40 is always in motion but always appears to be doing the same thing.
BS: But that’s all there is. There’s no place to go. I make films that I wouldn’t like as a viewer. I wouldn’t go to my own films. The stuff I like is not the stuff I make. I like Snow’s work. I like conceptualist, minimalist work. And yet my work is multi and messy and accumulates meaning through fragments which are layered and more personal. Seeing work and making it are two entirely different things.
MH: Do you think criticism is important for film?
BS: Because film exists only in the time of its projection, it’s crucial that there be writing. Writing endures. It gives work continuity. Many more people have read about Mike Snow’s films than have actually seen them. It’s given that work an existence it wouldn’t have otherwise. But who will write? Maybe criticism should come from other filmmakers—but the way we show our work is no good for discussion. And filmmakers don’t speak to each other about their work. We’re afraid. People work alone. Personally, I get confused by other people’s opinions while I’m working. Painters make reams of work that never gets seen. But that’s a weakness in film—if you make it, it has to be seen with a poster and press and stuff. I think we shouldn’t worry about it so much. There’s lots of work and what’s good will stay around somehow. And if not, so what?