by Laura Staab
Maya Deren’s Morton Street apartment in Greenwich Village and Marie Menken’s Montague Street apartment in Brooklyn Heights were cradles of experimental film in 1950s and 1960s New York. Artful places where each filmmaker lived, socialised, and worked, these frenetic apartments were studios, salons, and domestic spaces combined. Morton Street and Montague Street appear little in Deren’s and Menken’s films, but oral histories (and a few photographs from the time) help us to imagine each raucous abode. In Points of Resistance (1991), scholar Lauren Rabinovitz draws on conversations with Shirley Clarke and Joyce Wieland to paint a vivid picture of Deren’s place, bustling with avant-garde artists among ‘Haitian masks, Caribbean drums, and eighteen cats whose odor permeated the room no matter how filled with cigarette smoke it became’. Interviewing the likes of Gerard Malanga and Jonas Mekas for her Notes on Marie Menken (2006), documentarian Martina Kudlácek narrates the weekend-long parties that Menken would throw with her husband Willard Maas at their place – the couple were famous for boozing and bickering into the depths of the night. Titbits of gossip aside, these stories of artists, intellectuals, and revellers often gathering at Deren’s and Menken’s apartments created a fuller impression of American experimental film: the New York avant-garde had a good deal more to do with coming together and hanging out than brooding, heroic mythologies of the genre had previously implied.
Approximately 8500 kilometres to the south of New York and about a decade later, Narcisa Hirsch’s studio in central Buenos Aires was – minus the spousal quarrelling or feline aroma – a similar sort of spot for a diminutive group of Argentine artists and filmmakers in the 1970s. Or at least it seems so to watch six works Hirsch made there between 1972 and 1976, and to read her recollections (in interviews with Federico Windhausen in 2009 and Alejandra Torres in 2010) of projecting reels there to small, clamorous audiences who were otherwise unfamiliar with experimental film. Before Hirsch and other interested filmmakers began working with the Goethe Institute in 1976 (then becoming the ‘Grupo Goethe’), what existed of an experimental film scene in Buenos Aires was gathering either in ‘some foul basement’ or – on what must have been happier occasions – in Hirsch’s mellow studio.
No Haitian masks or Caribbean drums decorated this room, though there were numerous souvenirs from Hirsch’s travels across Patagonia and further afield. Among photographs and posters tacked to the walls, a white-haired gorilla would give a smile and a blue-eyed woman adorned with a butterfly would invite visitors: join me in the underground. Two models of babies’ heads sat on one surface, and a sextet of Matryoshka dolls were sometimes spilled across another. Plants by the windows. Birds just beyond them. If a woman called Aída had stayed with Narcisa recently, then an arrangement of flowers, casually in a vase. “Aída has a talent for instant ikebana,” Narcisa would joke with wry affection, while offering guests coffee, tea, and toast from the tangerine divan. Along with a splendorous spherical lamp and an often-spinning turntable, that divan gradually becomes something of a star: the three objects appear in almost all six of the films Hirsch made in the studio across the early 1970s. As for the screenings of experimental film held there – sometimes our host’s own works ‘straight from the oven’ – these were met with predictable complaints. Each bored or befuddled spectator had a child who could make this stuff. Why were any of them coming here anyway, ‘to see these films that nobody else watches’? If not for the films, then perhaps – how else to put it? – for the vibes, all molten and welcoming in the red-orange glow of the globe-shaped lamp.
Born in Berlin in 1928, Hirsch was nine when she emigrated with her mother to Buenos Aires, where her grandmother lived. Hirsch married a businessman in 1950, and the couple had three children in the decade that followed, raising them in the Buenos Aires suburb of Vicente Lopez. Hirsch got into art in earnest at the start of the 1960s, exhibiting painting at what would become an important venue for the Argentine avant-garde, Galería Lirolay. Unlike the traditional works of her father, a minor watercolourist who still resided in Germany, Hirsch’s works were made in part of cement, paste, and sand. Tuned into the trends of the time, however, she soon left the easel for the streets. Towards the end of the 1960s, she took to the riotous medium of happenings.
Marabunta (1967) was a collaboration with two artists, Marie-Louise Alemann and Walther Mejía, and filmed by Raymundo Gleyzer. Among the most famous of Hirsch’s happenings, it was intended to unfold on the streets of Buenos Aires. Yet a combination of torrential rain and police officers, anxious to maintain order under the dictatorship of the time, eventually moved the work to the first floor of the Teatro Coliseo, an arts venue in the Retiro district. As people left a screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) on 31 October 1967, that film’s enigmatic final image of a mimed tennis match was made to compete in the minds of moviegoers with an enormous female skeleton lying akimbo in the lobby. Festooned with bocadillos and fruits, it was also filled with live parrots and pigeons painted in fluorescent colours. (Imagine the squawking!) 16mm footage edited by Gleyzer and Hirsch shows the hungry crowd feasting on the figure, themselves becoming the titular marabunta: voracious ant colonies that consume prey in the hundreds of thousands every day.
Fruits materialised again, and in abundance, across Hirsch’s happenings after Marabunta. Manzanas (Apples, 1972) and Muñecos (Have a Baby, 1972) document happenings in which the artist handed out apples and baby dolls to pedestrians not only in Buenos Aires but also in London and New York. Elsewhere, a dose of orange was a common motif. As part of a group project called Operación color para la ciudad (Operation Colour for the City, 1968), Hirsch brightened Buenos Aires with orange posters, and in an event that doubled as public art and clean-up initiative, she corralled people into placing orange bins around a local park (as seen in the undated Tambores en la plaza). Across these various works, Hirsch intervened in the city with surprise encounter, colour, and care.
Editing the Marabunta footage introduced Hirsch to the art of filmmaking, now accessible to amateurs due to the new availability and affordability of small-gauge formats. Accompanying her husband on business trips to New York, she saw Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, and did not watch, but did hear about, A Casing Shelved (1970). Federico Windhausen has detailed the ways in which Snow’s films directly influenced Hirsch’s Come Out (1974) and Taller / Workshop (1974): the former is shaped by a zoom, as is Wavelength; the latter is an impression of Hirsch’s studio, as A Casing Shelved is of Snow’s own. Yet Hirsch wasn’t just riffing off Snow, wasn’t just attracted to structuralist filmmaking. Throughout the 1970s, she was watching other films from the North American avant-garde, purchasing prints from Millennium Film Workshop in New York to bring back to Buenos Aires. Hirsch first bought Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967) for 300 US dollars – ‘an immense amount of money’ to the American artist, but a price she could afford as the wife of a businessman – and then she continued to explore experimental film from there.
That miniature collection – eventually somewhere between ten and twenty prints – was screened more often in Hirsch’s studio than in public spaces. She intervened less in the city with experimental film. Given that Marabunta was forced from the sidewalk due to an air of unease in 1967, it isn’t unreasonable to suppose some of those filmmakers went underground in the 1970s – a decade of enormous political unrest. Military juntas were in power for all but the troubled years of late Peronism (from 1973 to 1976), disappearing or killing thousands of leftists during the Dirty War that lasted from 1974 to 1983. Gleyzer, for instance, who worked with Hirsch on Marabunta, went on to make documentaries which were explicitly critical of the dictatorship: he was abducted by the military’s death squad in 1976 and never seen again. What Hirsch calls ‘some kind of double life’ – bohemian and creative in one respect, bourgeois and domestic in another – might have helped her work under the radar. (How much of a threat was the wife of a businessman?) Looking back, however, she thinks it more likely that her work was so minor back then, only subversive in so far as all art is subversive, that she never posed any kind of threat. How much of a threat is experimental film? Even the close circle of friends who came to her studio were sceptical about it, descending into debates about this ambiguous art. No programmers or curators were associated with this inchoate group of filmmakers. No one was the subject of a write-up in the newspaper. Away from the eyes of institutions or authorities, Hirsch was filmmaking for free: ‘it was sort of gratuito, and that was a good thing’. Against all odds, she had ‘a very good time’ in the 1970s.
What sort of space does the studio become in this context? Is that very good time dependent on shuttering windows, withdrawing into a hermetic realm of mirrors instead? It would be easy to narrate the early 1970s as a time when Hirsch turned from the tumult of the world to explore inner regions of the self, or otherwise as a time when she turned from what was going on in Buenos Aires to engage instead with an international avant-garde. While Hirsch continued either to stage happenings or to edit footage from them (Manzanas and Muñecos), when she left the studio to make films, it was most often to make diaries in landscapes far from the city (as in the Diarios Patagonicos from 1972 to 1974). Otherwise, Pink Freud (1972), Aída (1976), Pocos son los que conocen el secreto del amor (Few know the secret of love, 1976) and Testamento y vida interior (Testament and Interior Life, 1976) take place more or less within the four walls of Hirsch’s studio, as do Come Out and Taller / Workshop. Yet the studio is still connected to the wider world. It is ‘a place where people come and go’, as Hirsch and Windhausen discuss. It ‘isn’t a closed space’, commodious to introspection and nothing else. It hasn’t been, going back to Gustav Courbet’s thronging ‘L’Atelier du peintre’ (‘The Painter’s Studio’, 1855). Open and social, the studio is porous – alien ideas, as well as other bodies and other voices, get in. Two currents of 1970s thought, for instance, ooze into the space of the studio in Pink Freud.
Expressing an allergy to any ‘ism’, Hirsch says that she has ‘never’ been a feminist and that she is ‘not a theorist at all’. Far be it for me to contradict Hirsch – who is certainly not the only woman artist of the twentieth century to eschew category and label – but feminism and psychoanalysis were in the air in 1970s Argentina and find easy way into Pink Freud. That title is not only a pun on Pink Floyd – even if the psychedelic loops of ‘Echoes’ (1966) that reverberate across the soundtrack cast the film into a Pink Floyd daze. Scattering pink cushions across the tangerine divan and allowing Sigmund Freud through the door in pastiche guise, Hirsch creates an analyst’s office from an artist’s studio – and makes a feminist satire of the patriarchal injunction to procreate.
Pink Freud begins with an image of a door handle and keyhole: an image of secrets to be unlatched and unlocked. Carrying a big brown paper sack, a man in a tweed suit and spectacles opens the door and enters the room that lies behind it. Stark where it is otherwise soft and welcoming, Hirsch’s studio is absent of the red-orange glow of the orblike lamp. In white light, Hirsch’s divan now looks like a couch where an analysand would typically talk in the hope of a cure. Dozing there instead, a woman twitches in the fog of half-sleep. Close-ups of the doctor accentuate his eyes and his ears. Close-ups of the patient, her mouth. She never speaks (although she screams come the end of the film). He neither really looks nor really listens. He has no need to. He had his diagnosis in hand when he walked in. Without a single word being said, the doctor produces his prognosis from the mouth of the sack: babies, babies, babies. Tiny plastic babies are poured and pulled from the sack in comic, horrific quantities – the same sorts of baby dolls Hirsch hands out in Muñecos, as she utters the imperative to have a baby to passers-by. When the doctor does gaze on the patient, his vision is clouded with googly-eyed babies and gravid tummies. Hirsch’s models of babies’ heads and Matryoshka dolls are nowhere to be seen, but the lamp is drawn into that fertile domain. Balanced atop the stomach of the woman suggestively, the lamp looks like a bump and, with its mysterious swirls, like a crystal ball. And in the overdetermined milieu of the bad analyst, the prediction can only be pregnancy.
Pink Freud isn’t much of an exaggeration. In the 1960s and the 1970s, Argentine governments pushed a pronatalist agenda against the rising tide of women’s movements, which were advocating for contraceptives and suspicious of family values. Two years after Pink Freud, the third and final Péron term restricted access to contraceptives (condoms included), in a decree that took twelve years to be repealed. Beyond that, elective abortion was not legalised in Argentina until as recently as 2020. And so, from the space of the studio in Pink Freud, Hirsch reflects on what has been a difficult history for Argentine women: babies, babies, babies.
That Hirsch would surmise later on in life that ‘we are inside and outside the world simultaneously’ makes a lot of sense to me, given her inside-outside orientation towards the world from her studio. Taller / Workshop is a miniature retrospective of Hirsch, by Hirsch – and still it extends from the self and the studio to the wider world. Perspective is torn in the film between what we can see and what we can imagine: the camera fixes on one wall and Hirsch – talking in voice-off with an artist friend, Leopoldo – relates what the frame excludes. Describing mementos from Bariloche, Berlin, and New York, she opens up the so-called rigour of the static frame not only to the rest of the studio but to the world beyond it, and to history and memory besides. Hirsch ends the retrospective with the lamp, which illuminates the image from the corner of the frame. “And then there’s the lamp, the red-orange lamp, which we see on the film … And this is where it ends … the light is out and there is no more workshop, no more film. It finishes here.” Hesitant though I am to import foreign theories into local contexts, there is ample space, I think, in Hirsch’s well-travelled studio for an apt quotation from Gaston Bachelard here. In The Poetics of Space (1958), the French theorist wrote that ‘the lamp-lighted table is a little world in itself’. That much is true of the lamp-lighted table in Hirsch’s studio. Deren and Menken had apartments that each became a little world for the New York avant-garde, and Hirsch also created her own little world, a welcoming red-orange world, for hanging out, making films and making art.
Rodrigo Alonso, ‘In Praise of Indiscipline’ in Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, ed. Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta (Los Angeles, CA: Hammer Museum, 2017).
Karina Felitti, ‘The Birth Control Pill and Family Planning’, Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Latin American History (June 2022).
Narcisa Hirsch in conversation with Alejandra Torres , ‘Seeing (Oneself) Looking Into the Camera’, The International Journal of Screendance 3 (2013).
Narcisa Hirsch in conversation with Federico Windhausen , Speaking Directly: Oral Histories of the Moving Image, ed. Federico Windhausen (San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Cinematheque Books, 2013).
Mariano Ben Plotkin, Freud in the Pampas: The Emergence and Development of a Psychoanalytic Culture in Argentina (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).
Lauren Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance: Women, Power & Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema, 1943-71 (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1991).
Federico Windhausen, ‘Agitation and Involvement: Narcisa Hirsch’s Come Out and Michael Snow’s Wavelength’ in A Companion to Experimental Cinema, ed. Federico Windhausen (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2023).
In unserem erstmals stattfindenden VIENNALE YOUNG CRITICS' CIRCLE arbeitet eine Gruppe junger, internationaler Filmkritiker:innen unter editorischer und organisatorischer Begleitung von Autor und Filmkritiker Patrick Holzapfel an einigen Texten, die sich mit dem Programm des diesjährigen Festivals auseinandersetzen.