This essay was written in response to Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses (see left), for Document Film Festival. Some of the ideas were adapted from the author’s book A Nazi Word for A Nazi Thing.
I want to start by thanking Sam Kenyon and all of the Document Film Festival team for this invitation, and also thanks to Camilla Baier and Rachel Pronger of Invisible Women for hosting the Q&A, the important part of tonight’s event. Thanks also to Film Hub Scotland for funding Document’s ambitious plan to screen the explosive work that is Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses. Huge thanks are also due to Electronic Arts Intermix in New York, who take such great care of Barbara Hammer’s work and legacy, and especially to distributors Karl McCool and Michael Blair, who made it possible for the festival to screen the film even though they were furloughed. Thanks are also due to Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive, who struck a new print of Nitrate Kisses from which this digitised version was made available.
Nitrate Kisses was Barbara Hammer’s first feature length film, and it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. This is how the catalogue described it:
In 1990, while researching at the George Eastman Archive in Rochester, Hammer discovered what may have been one of the earliest gay films, Lot In Sodom. Utilizing outtakes and clips, interwoven with an assortment of other materials, including footage from German-narrative feature films of the thirties, interviews, period music and shots of three separate couples making love, she offers a different set of images about lesbian and gay life than those which have previously emerged. In so doing, she not only challenges the dominant ideology of the heterosexual society, but confronts powerfully and graphically our images of sexual and erotic love.
This is not a liberal film attempting to assimilate its eroticism into a safe and accepted world. It is in fact subversive and adamant in its efforts to force us to see what we’ve managed to avoid for so many years. Hammer is not, however, just an ideologue. Her artistry is striking: sometimes formal, but more often associative and constructive. Nitrate Kisses is a representation which operates on many levels, including allegorical, historical and erotic. The filmmaker also sees it as an invitation to elicit personal history. It is without question a statement about sexual mores which will remain impressed on all who view it.
What’s striking about this, in terms of the film’s later reception and for those of us who watched or rewatched it this week with an awareness of Holocaust Remembrance Day, is that the note makes no mention of why Hammer was drawing on German films of the 1930s to contextualise her argument about the erasure of queer history. It doesn’t specify that she was reconstructing Weimar queer culture as part of an argument about persistent and pervasive American homophobic censorship, or proffer that the film collages multiple ‘forgotten’ or previously unattended-to archival source to do a specific kind of memory work, which is what I’ll be trying to elucidate this evening.
I’m hoping that some or most of you have availed yourselves of this opportunity to watch Nitrate Kisses, which I think was last screened in the UK at Tate Modern’s retrospective of Barbara Hammer’s work in 2012. Hammer had just been to Gaza with a BDS Queers tour facilitated by filmmaker John Greyson, and while she was excited to be sharing her oeuvre with audiences at the Tate, her key excitement was crossing the iced-over Millennium Bridge to share and discuss her raw footage at Occupy London. Which is to say two things, at least: that I wish Barbara were still with us, so that she could speak to you anew about her anarchic, erotic work finding lives in the archives and her rage for plural and partial – as opposed to impartial – histories. My account of the film tonight is a partial history in that sense – this is a film I love deeply – but it’s also partial because I can’t give you Barbara’s account of it. And because Nitrate Kisses exists in a continuum of Hammer’s work, and the work of those she was connected to and in conversation with. The film itself is a continuum that locates its guiding theme – the erasure of queer sexuality, erotics and desire – not in a single site, but as a pattern cast across the twentieth century, one deeply connected to racism, anti-Semitism, fascism, class oppression, and misogyny. It’s a pattern that she locates doubly: in the violent erasures present in official archives; and in the living continuum of film outtakes, blues lyrics, and oral histories that speak not just of or for, but with and through the bodies that carry them into the film.
Hammer’s final audiovisual work, finished in 2019, was called Evidentiary Bodies, and it was paired with a 2018 performance lecture called THE ART OF DYING OR (PALLIATIVE ART MAKING IN THE AGE OF ANXIETY). Between these two titles and these two projects is where I come to situate my talk this evening.
Nitrate Kisses could equally have been called Evidentiary Bodies: the title sums up exactly how she worked with her own and others’ bodies across her career. Evidence of what? we can ask. The first answer that comes to mind is of lives that are otherwise unseen, and deaths which, because of that, have not been fully grieved, because they have been denied complexity or texture. Although it’s not the word that my book A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing is concerned with, this operation of power is emblematised by a particular Nazi word, which means precisely thing, stück – item, piece, object – which was used to refer to and describe individuals sent to concentration camps.
Hammer’s body of work is evidentiary, specifically, of LGBTIQ+ life, particularly but not exclusively of lesbian life, lives and ways of living that are obscured and erased when not being outright destroyed. I’m going to substitute that acronym with a better one coined by lesbian couple Nicola Griffith and Kelly Eskridge, and which I am trying to make happen: QUILTBAG.
The second answer, whose complex relationship with the first is what I want to talk about and what her late films think about, is QUILTBAG death. The idea that QUILTBAG life is intractably and only documentable as and because of QUILTBAG death is part of what Hammer’s films challenge – and
And. They are a valediction refiguring mourning. Nitrate Kisses demands a new kind of public space for mourning, one in which death does not objectify, sentimentalise, sanitise, or monumentalise. In Eurowestern culture, one of the classical terms given for what cultural works of mourning can do is catharsis, a word meaning at root to purify or purge. While it’s usually taken to mean the powerful emotional effect of art, the penumbra of purity and purging suggests the sanitising ways in which the state can performatively obscure and erase the granular, asymmetrical realities and experiences of a catastrophe, of a loss. The catharsis of public mourning can be used to accrue prestige to the powerful, allowing politicians and other agents of death to absolve themselves.
Here we are, again.
In the late 1980s, Hammer had become involved in AIDS activism in New York, via human rights advocate Florrie Burke, her then-new lover who became her life partner. Hammer made a number of activist video works such No No Nooky, which looked at abstinence-first and sex-phobic public health media around AIDS/HIV. Nitrate Kisses – which could also be called No No Nooky – is infused with the radical forms of mourning that AIDS activists were generating not only against the state, but against played-out forms of exclusionary and erasive catharsis.
Queer theorist and activist Douglas Crimp coined the perfect description for what he saw happening around him, one that describes Nitrate Kisses: militant melancholia, an activism that refused the closure of mourning that would cast the dead aside as erased, protests that confronted society with its refusal to bear witness to the epidemic created by political malevolence. Crimp was describing not only the die-ins that have come to emblematise AIDS activism, but also kiss-ins, street theatre, direct actions against Big Pharma CEOs and politicians, irruptive interventions into cathedrals, and candid sexual health PSAs broadcast on cable, as Frances Negrón-Muntañer and others have detailed. Protests that were burning full of liveliness and sexiness as itself a protest, but that never lost sight of the avoidable, criminal deaths and sickness occurring all around them.
And beyond that: the erasure of those deaths and sicknesses through the devaluation to ein stück of those who got sick and died. Erasure occurred in multiple ways: there was willed scientific ignorance and willed political negligence that led to the misrepresentation, the euphemisms, the blurring of statistics on cause of death. And there was the erasure of QUILTBAG life when it came to caring for and mourning those who died.
What does this have to do with documentary? In an interview with feminist film scholar Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Hammer said:
I have always read that a biographer needs to look at the context of an individual’s life; but looking back on mine it seems even more profound. . . He or she is there only as part of a long tradition that includes ancestry, tribal rites and histories, etc.
Foster comments that Hammer, in her early works, explores communal rituals. Into this space of ritual renewal, Hammer brings two practices that are – for her – interconnected: experimental filmmaking, and sex. Dyketactics, Hammer’s 1974 4-minute long film and the first surviving film known to be by a lesbian filmmaker depicting explicit lesbian sex, is often categorised as ‘experimental’ – and it is also documentary. Writing about the film in her autobiography Hammer!: Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, Hammer notes that its idyllic, sexy, utopian vision of a lesbian collective at work and sex play in a sunlit Californian meadow is also an acknowledgement of an absence in the archives: an act of radical ritual anti-catharsis for the lack of non-medicalised, non-pornographised, self-actualised depictions of lesbian sexuality. ‘We discovered who we were,’ writes Hammer, ‘as we stepped into the void, the invisible, the blank screen, and named ourselves lesbian.’
As Nitrate Kisses shows, if you are excluded by dominance culture, the archive itself is ‘the void’. Archives, as manifestations of state power, may be used deliberately to erase certain communities, individuals, political formations, histories not only by excluding or obfuscating details about them, but also by collecting and appropriating all the available information in order to criminalise, divide, disperse and erase them. The archive itself may become a form of erasure, acting in concert with the other buildings that the state erects to contain and control the people it wants to die unseen: alongside the forensic architecture of concentration camps, detention centres, residential schools, plantations, prisons, and care homes we can include the archive; additionally, all of those punitive architectures depend on, produce and lose endless documentation as a cover for their activities. Archives are not just implicit in punitive architectures, but actively complicit.
I am thinking of the University of Harvard’s announcement today about decolonising their museums which, they write, possess ‘the remains of more than 22,000 individuals’, a heinous continuing act of racist colonialism, of a refusal to see – as Judith Butler puts it – which lives are grievable. One way in which lives are rendered not-grievable is by their deaths being hidden and obfuscated, as we are witnessing on a mass scale: people physically removed from their communities and transmuted into statistics, denied any form of mourning other than power’s appropriation.
What can a documentary then do? There has to be more than the liberal pursuit of the human interest story; of putting an individual face on mass grief, of telling a single exceptionalised story, often shorn of its complexity and sentimentalised. This is where, for me, the profound power of Evidentiary Bodies conceptually might meet what Hammer learned and shared in The Art of Dying (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety).
If performative mourning can be instituted by the state as a kind of sanitisation, a purging by which power erases its own culpability – and often erases any counter-documentation too – then what can experimental documentary do to take the place of the eulogy and the elegy? If archives erase by absorbing and abstracting, can time-based audiovisual media like Nitrate Kisses offer a form of memory work that recovers, revivifies and respects – without any pretence that this can be reconciliation and recompense in the service of restoration?
What would it mean, for example, to consider some, or indeed many, of the documentaries screened in this year’s programme as, among other things, a new practice of public militant melancholia? To think about and through the models of liveliness as protest not against death, but toward placing those who have died, those who are ill, as evidentiary bodies who demand and command respect.
What can happen when evidentiary bodies meet the archive? This was the question Hammer pursued in Nitrate Kisses and beyond, in the great bio-docs of her late career: Lover/Other, about invisibilized queer artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore; Welcome to this House, about Elizabeth Bishop; and also A Horse is Not a Metaphor which documented her own lived experience of and after breast cancer, contesting narratives of ‘struggle’ and ‘fight’ to speak beyond taboos and silences. Speaking to Élisabeth Lebovici about her research on Cahun and Moore in the Jersey Archives, on the island where the couple lived most of their lives, and where they were imprisoned, and sentenced to death, for resisting the Nazi invasion, Hammer notes: ‘In the Cahun/Moore archive I found a love letter cut with jagged-edge scissors so only one sentence remained’.
Again and again, as with the Willa Cather archive at the beginning of Nitrate Kisses, Hammer shows us both the remaining sentence and the cut of the jagged-edge scissors; she fills the serrated spaces without smoothing out their serration. If the film is, as Sundance said, ‘in fact subversive and adamant in its efforts to force us to see what we’ve managed to avoid for so many years’, then part of what it asks us to see is not just living queer sexuality itself, but the ways in which it exceeds the frame – the ways in which film, because of cinema’s constrained history, cannot handle these kisses.
Nitrate Kisses is not primarily a sex education film or scientific documentary (although it is sexy and educational, including the use of condoms, dental dams and gloves for safer sex), modes of filmmaking that constitute a considerable percentage of the cinematic archive of sex, which could be called all evidence and no bodies. It is also not part of that larger share of the archive, pornography, in which bodies are bodies, but not situated as evidence. It draws on both modes, draws them together, questions the line demarcating them, and asks why the cinematic sexual archive is almost entirely confined to these two modes that both, differently and to different extents, render individual and living bodies as object lessons.
I think this conjunction and juxtaposition is what Hammer means by saying that the body is not evidence but evidentiary, adjectival, a description of one aspect of the body’s granular liveliness and lived-ness. Bodies do a lot of things, often all at once: they are erotic and ill and intellectual and practical, they carry familial, cultural and personal history, they are latent with memory and possibility, they are in touch with multiple other bodies at levels from bacterial to neurological – one way to say this is Nitrate Kisses is a film that, structurally and thematically, works like a body. It doesn’t show bodies as evidence; it participates in the ways that bodies are evidentiary, how they show the fullness of themselves.
What if we say that our flesh in its complex integrity and intermeshing – all of it, messy, sexy, ill and intractable – is the archive; is memory; is ritual. Our flesh that is at once individual and yet is our connective tissue; that is spectacularised and hyper-sexualised in mainstream audiovisual culture yet remains radical and resistant in its lived specificity. Nitrate Kisses draws attention to the basis of censorship and fascisms in eugenics: in the rejection of that messy, lived, plural, erotic, connective body as a source of thought, politics, work and pride.
I’ve talked a lot about the film, so perhaps it’s time to share some of it so you can see what I mean: this is a section where the film is particularly working in the jagged-edged space cut by the scissors in the archive itself. Here’s an interview with – I think – the writer Sande Zeig, intercut with a recording of Lotte Lenya singing Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song,” and one of the four sex scenes that Hammer shot for the film.
[Show the clip: bookmark “… oral history” 48:19 — to title “Every image of the past” 50:11]
I write about this aspect of Nitrate Kisses in A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing – this is the first time I’ve ever quoted myself in a talk, so it’s quite exciting and I also simultaneously apologise for doing so. I mainly want to take this opportunity to thank Peninsula Press who published the book, and editors Sam Fisher, Will Rees and Jake Franklin who made it infinitely better, including helping me clarify this particular, important section, whose thinking now ramifies throughout the final text.
The final sections of Nitrate Kisses turn to erasing the erasure of lesbians within the history of Nazi persecution, drawing on police records, archival fragments and oral history, which Hammer supplements with a contemporary lesbian BDSM scene. When one voiceover speaker mentions ‘oral history’, there is a swift, funny and knowing cut to oral sex between the couple.
One intervention into the erasive state archive is to make the lived body – especially the body classed as deviant because it is sexual, and because it is not cis male – palpable. Diana Taylor calls this ‘the repertoire’: forms of irruptive, excessive – often oral – performance and embodied memory that cannot be captured by the records… Taylor argues that the body is both itself a record and a technology of transmission, which can be wielded by those excluded by colonialism and heteropatriarchy because it is devalued and made invisible.
When dance, music, theatricality, protests, installations, consciously staged narratives or images, and, of course, sex irrupt in documentary, they can super-charge how we pay attention. These acts that centre the body as a self-aware site of making identity and community remind us, at once, that each of us is, not only psychologically but also cellularly, an archive – or rather, an anarchive, an uncontainable mesh of ever-changing repertoire and stored, organised information – and that that is what matters about what we are watching: the facts of the body being both irreducible and entirely shaped by witnessing. This is what AIDS activist and carer Rebecca Brown calls the gifts of the body: its intervulnerability, that the processes of living and dying are factual, material, indelible AND also require being seen and being understood in order to be so.
When documentary breaks out into repertoire as an ethical strategy, it has the opposite effect that Laura Mulvey describes of the close-up of the female star in Hollywood studio cinema, comparing it to the musical ‘number’: rather than stopping the action, it calls us to re-evaluate ‘the action’ – our addiction to linear narrative and plot. It redefines the relationship between film and viewer as intervulnerable, because it is our responsibility to contribute to the telling of the story. We thus become aware of our evidentiary bodies and of their responsibility for the evidentiary bodies we are seeing or hearing, or not quite seeing or hearing. We look and listen again.
Repertoire in documentary calls us to look again, which is the meaning of respect: re-spicere. Ethical strategies can centre evidentiary bodies in and as themselves. These might include forms of reframing such as: subjective narration and re-narration, revealing the construction of the film and its sources, intercutting between modes – found footage and sex, oral history and music – and media, repetition, optical printing (which Hammer used extensively in her 16mm and video works), and an open narrative structure or strategy that does not insist on completion, closure, containment, so that the end of the film asks us to look again: to look for more, to make our own works, to continue the work because it is not finished.
Archive documentary, especially with regards to human rights, to crimes against humanity, to structural and systemic exclusion, to colonialism and imperialism, is often spoken about as recuperative or reparative, and those are important analogical terms that speak to living audiences and our needs.
But the truth is that gaps in the archives – both missing or destroyed or non-existent documents, and the lost lives that they attempt to erase – cannot be repaired or recuperated in full. Eradicated histories, whether personal or political – and they are of course always both in nature, but I mean in scale or focus – can be shaded in, approached from multiple angles, re-imagined, re-engaged, spliced, sought, encountered, refreshed, hoped for. In this moment, though, as we watch the English government, among others globally, in the very process of the eugenicist erasure of those who have died and those who are chronically ill, what I want to ask is: how do we hold a place for that other gap, the one between what can be recuperated and repaired – as it should be, as it has to be – and what can not. Without despair or dismissal, without asserting totalised destruction: how do we look again, how do we respect that which has been lost, that which is gone? How do we use the tools and strategies of the documentary, the essay film, the anarchival poem, the approaches seen in Nitrate Kisses and across Document to recuperate and repair and, through that, to respect: to bear witness to what is not.
I want, in Hammer’s term, to call, or rather call attention to, this kind of filmmaking, or an aspect of it, ‘palliative care’.
I want to thank my friend, film scholar and writer Jenny Chamarette, for reminding me of the dual nature of the word palliare, to cloak. In its original usage, palliative meant treatment for the symptoms but not the cause, thus cloaking the etiology. The compound palliative care has come to mean ‘care for the terminally ill and their families’. Palliative care is care that recognises death and respects life. It does not erase or pretend away death, but considers the living body in its hands, and what the person who is dying needs and wants.
Like the word ‘screen’ referring to a fabric sheet that can conceal from view or, when a ‘cinema screen’, offer something up to view; ‘cloak’ – pallium – means a sheet of fabric that can conceal or hide, but also one that can safeguard and comfort the body in and against extreme weather. To shield, to protect what is vulnerable and subject to erasure. Palliative care is tender – Hammer’s film subsequent to Nitrate Kisses was called Tender Fictions. It specifically involves and requires intimacy, intimate touch, intimate knowledge, and also intimate consent.
Palliative care recognises that it is working in a community, one in which one person or some people are dying, and others will – for some time, anyway – go on living after that death or deaths. It holds these two things together, for both the dying and the living. It holds together the need for recuperation and the fact of loss.
Patient-led and patient advocate-led palliative care was a significant part of the militant melancholia and communal ritual of AIDS activism. It fits with marching in the streets, making art, holding meetings and occupying buildings. It was in a sense an occupation and a protest, a meeting and a making, taking place at a bedside. It was a refusal to cloak, to hide away or to be hidden. It changed medical care protocols, and it makes me wonder how its ideas and practices might change how we approach the very real bodies that are both contained and erased by archives: the lives that our work cares for.
Palliative care is largely the domain of nurses and care workers, whose work is seen as non-expert. They are hugely undervalued and underpaid, precisely because of their engagement with tenderness, intimacy and consent; precisely because they do not claim to cure definitively, nor abrogate patients’ and their families’ right to grieve. The majority of care workers, certainly in the UK, are women: women of colour, immigrant women, working-class women, older women. I am not claiming here filmmakers’ or researchers’ work is palliative care, or is even equivalent to it. Instead, I want to suggest that – as Hammer did during her multiple treatments for cancer – can learn from and with care workers’ labour, from their ingenuity and integrity in respecting the intractable fact of death while providing the best possible care, attention and treatment to and towards livingness.
There is a need to attend to care work as a cogent and urgent theory-in-practice of how to work with evidentiary bodies, how to be present to them, how to narrate them, how not to erase them. And there is a concomitant need to attend to filmmaking as work, and for whom: to consider whose bodies labour less visibly, such as the Orientalised extras in Lot of Sodom, or the Black actors of the studio era who were all too often uncredited, when indeed they were cast at all. When we turn to thinking about filmmaking – and archival scholarship and research – as work, then bodies are uncloaked; the vulnerable bodies that do the most labour, and the most care.
In that spirit, it’s crucial to remember that, when Hammer made Nitrate Kisses, working with archive footage meant travelling to archives, handling and viewing sometimes-combustible film; film that had sometimes been neglected and needed restoration. It was time-consuming and expensive work, so it’s also important to note that the film was funded by Frameline, the QUILTBAG film festival, part of a project and circuit without which much of the knowledge we now have of QUILTBAG cinematic history might have been lost, decayed or erased. Films like Nitrate Kisses and Before Stonewall (Greta Schiller) changed documentary practice and they changed history.
Nitrate Kisses attends towards livingness in the ethics of its memory work, which includes both its rage and its joy, and its foregrounding of the connection between them. It takes palliative care of its evidentiary bodies, especially where both evidence and bodies have been deliberately destroyed, and that destruction itself covered over. Nitrate too is a material, like a cloak or a screen: nitrocellulose was also known as guncotton because, before being used in the first film cameras, that was one of its first uses, to light the fuses of muskets. How could such a highly flammable material ever have been called upon to document the world around us? But battlefield doctors noted that the combustible liquid had another property, a stickiness that meant, when painted on a surface, it formed sheets. It was used as a wound dressing – palliative treatment – in the American Civil War. Both explosive and adhesive, destructive and healing, nitrate film has infused the post-nitrate moving image with these dual, entwined qualities in how might present – and erase – evidentiary bodies, with care.