Video + Essay: Deborah Stratman's Vever
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Deborah Stratman: Vever

Deborah Stratman, Vever, 2018. Image courtesy the artist

Deborah Stratman brings past perspectives into the contemporary moment in a montage of unfinished film footage from artist Barbara Hammer with evocative sound, texts, and teachings from artist Maya Deren. Vever poetically draws connects between three generations of women filmmakers who separately, and now together, have taken on unknown challenges, and opened themselves up to reinterpretation in their filmmaking practices. (2018, video, 12 minutes)

Cardinal Points and Points Between

In her 1953 book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Maya Deren wrote, “Today, in September 1951, as I write these last few pages of the book, the filmed footage lies in virtually its original condition in a fireproof box in the closet; the recordings are still on their original wire spools; the stack of still photographs is tucked away in a drawer labeled ‘TO BE PRINTED,’ and the elaborate design for the montaged film is somewhere in my files, I am not quite sure where. That is unimportant, for a new plan is necessary…”

Maya Deren

In early 2018, artist and filmmaker Barbara Hammer approached Deborah Stratman with a request: Could she create a new work from unused film footage Hammer shot during a motorcycle trip to Guatemala in 1975? For the past few years Hammer, with the support of curator Jennifer Lange at the Wexner Center for the Arts, had been planning on delving into boxes of her films that she has never shared with the world. “This project really started with conversations Barbara and I had been having over the years about boxes of tapes that contained material she had either shot with the intention of making something or just shot without any specific idea of what would result,” Lange recalls. “In some cases, she hadn’t even seen the footage in many years.” Initially, the plans were for Hammer to take part in the Wexner’s residency program and revisit the material herself. But the opportunity came at a moment when Hammer’s plans changed course as a result of her declining health, requiring her to reimagine the project by asking other filmmakers to work with the material.1

Seeing it as both a challenge and an honor, Stratman agreed even before seeing the material, assured by the significance of Hammer’s long career and its impact on her work and that of many other moving image artists. For Hammer, choosing Stratman mirrored her own adventurous spirit. Their shared intrepid characteristics—embodying resistance, traveling the globe, being curious, and asking good questions—suggest an affinity for one another’s practice. Yet, while perhaps they have kindred filmmaking impulses, the subject matter and content are typically quite different. Hammer is known as a queer feminist artist whose work from 1970s onward explores feminist theory and creating dialogue around lesbian sexuality and community. In Stratman’s case, the desire for knowledge is the catalyst for nearly all of her work, where curiosity and a resistance to ignorance is embodied in the art. “I make as a way to get to know things,” states Stratman. The project with Hammer is no different: it presents a unique opportunity to activate never-before-seen footage while reflecting upon the work of an influential figure. Stratman’s starting place is an impulse to not simply tell a story but to create a feeling, an emotion, a visceral reaction that has both social and emotional resonance. With this in mind, the words of Charles Bowden, a writer Stratman often refers to, are particularly resonant: “What is explained can be denied, but what is felt cannot be forgotten.” With a commitment to actuality and history, Stratman’s filmmaking is grounded in a detailed and often intense process of research and investigation, yet, with a poetic rigor and formal experimentation, she ventures into unpredictable territories, sharing nonfiction narratives with mythical qualities. In a 2012 interview with the Brooklyn Rail, she said she thinks of her work “more in terms of volumes and pressures. In my mind, the film is literally some sculptural form, a temporal sculpture that has dimension to it, and I think about building up and relieving pressure more than of a causal, linear, ‘A triggers B triggers C.'” This nonlinear approach allows Stratman to contain multiple trajectories in her films, moving in directions with ideas and stories folding back on themselves in order to explore alternative processes at the same time. She’ll often place different concepts next to one another to produce new meanings because of their proximity rather than a shared intent.

Inverted image of person
Deborah Stratman, Optimism, 2018. Image courtesy the artist

Stratman’s process of drawing out connections and working at the intersection of myths, histories, and narratives is particularly evident in her Walker commission, Vever2, which weaves together Hammer’s request with the Walker Art Center’s Moving Image Commissions, a program that funds the creation of a new work in response to an artist in the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. Perhaps serendipitous or perhaps fate, both groups approached her within weeks of one another, and she immediately saw parallels between the Walker’s collection of titles by Maya Deren and Hammer (who had previously directly referenced Deren in the 2010 short video work Maya Deren’s Sink). However, upon delving deeper into Deren’s body of work, Stratman became drawn to Deren’s journey and personal accounts of her experiences of Haitian deities and Voudoun3 rituals as documented in her 1953 book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. It was in Deren’s writings, as well as the illustrations of vevers—symbolic designs to invoke a loa or god—seen throughout the book that Stratman unearthed deeper connections between the women: Their similar choice to abandon film projects looking at indigenous cultures. “I couldn’t find any poetical content, or personal context for the film. So I didn’t see a reason to print it,” recalls Hammer. Deren goes further and critiques the gaze of the colonizer’s lens: “I have come to believe that if history were recorded by the vanquished, rather than by the victors, it would illuminate the real, rather than the theoretical, means of power.” Fundamentally both looked toward themselves as artists and recognized the risk of ethnocentricity as American filmmakers.

Decades later, seeing Hammer’s film material in the new commission and reading Deren’s accounts from Haiti, one must consider this position while acknowledging the significant generational distance between the artists, who each worked at very different political and social moments in history, which doubtlessly influenced their individual practices. Deren in the late 1940s and ’50s was working not only during a time of American prosperity and dominance worldwide but at a time of oppressive gender conformity and suppression of equal rights. However, a rise of proto-feminism, where traditional female roles were being challenged, are reflected in the practice of Deren, who at the time was one of the very few women working in the male-dominated field of avant-garde cinema. Perhaps it was through being a misrepresented or underrepresented woman that Deren became acutely aware and suspicious of her now contrasting stance as the foreign power or “victor” in footage she had intended to become part of a film looking at Haitian ritual dance. Instead she decided to abandon the film and advocate for true representation of the “vanquished,” doing it in part through her personal accounts of becoming an initiate into the Haitian Voudoun rituals and from her experiences of possession. In the author’s preface of Divine Horsemen, Deren recognizes her new intent with the project she withdrew from: “I had begun as an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art in the image of my creative integrity; I end by recording, as humbly and accurately as I can, the logics of a reality which had forced me to recognize its integrity, and to abandon my manipulations.”4 Deren’s perspective is woven into the commission Vever through language and symbols rather than film footage itself, which in a questionable twist, was edited and released in 1985 as the documentary Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti by Deren’s partner, Ito Teiji, after her death.

Deborah Stratman, Vever, 2018. Image courtesy the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Hammer’s material was shot in 1975 in rural Guatemala in the midst of a civil war as leftist groups, mostly supported by Maya indigenous people and the rural poor, fought government forces. Hammer traveled not only at a time of major political rebellion all over Latin America but during the volatile political movements in the United States, from civil rights to second-wave feminism, with which Hammer closely identified. While Hammer’s footage does not overtly suggest political intent, the overtones of the heavy political atmosphere around the globe are reflected in her choice to make a film on the disappearing indigenous cultures of traditional market life, one in which scenes of local people, food, fabrics, and landscape are juxtaposed with images of imported goods like Pepsi-Cola. “Let’s see how Western markets have taken over indigenous markets and in doing so changed the culture,” she states to Stratman.

But, crucially, Hammer’s presence behind the camera is the powerful and political gesture. This pivotal decision to travel and connect with the indigenous people is plainly seen in the first scenes of Vever as Hammer’s hand reaches into the frame for a bowl of soup handed to her by an indigenous woman sitting with a large group of people. One of the few moments we actually see Hammer’s presence throughout the 12-minute work, this active participation immediately inserts the political body of a queer American woman into the landscape she is discovering. Outside of this moment Hammer’s character permeates and informs Vever in the gaze of the women in the marketplace. Her camera directly engages, sometimes in close-up, capturing their beauty, personality, and responsiveness through shy smiles, laughter, and posing; in other contrasting moments, some have looks of hostility as they hold up their hands, point toward the camera, or dodge it altogether. It seems Hammer is both a welcome and an undesired presence, one whose foreign gaze and western camera draws attention, altering the moments of engagement and, as a consequence, centers Hammer’s presence in the film. This interpretation contrasts the filmmaker’s perspective: Hammer clearly states she could not see any personal context. But perhaps it’s in seeing the footage 47 years later, through Stratman’s outside gaze, that brings to light Hammer’s important personal and political outlook.

Deborah Stratman, Vever, 2018. Image courtesy the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Stratman’s montage of images from Hammer, with language and sound from Deren, suggests a removal of her own personal or political standpoint, yet it is exactly this distance that inserts Stratman into the work, in turn opening a new vantage point to access Hammer’s presence. Given her recognition as a filmmaker since the 1990s, it’s worth considering Stratman’s position from the perspective of third-wave feminism, which critiqued past feminist outlooks in order to advance diversity by encouraging the reexamination and recontextualization of material, communications, and perspectives of previous feminist aspirations. At the same time, especially in the example of this commission, there is a desire for understanding, sensitivity, and a sense of responsibility toward preceding generations of women who paved the way forward for the next group of voices advocating for reform, change, and the improved lives of the under-represented, misrepresented, or abandoned. Stratman’s distance gives her a critical view that forges connections different from those of Hammer, who can’t escape her close personal involvement. Her entry point to Hammer’s material is from multiple angles, expressed through her editing choices, which contain characteristics borrowed from Maya Deren’s films, writings, and teachings. For example, while Hammer’s footage in Vever had been shot in silence, Stratman includes sound taken from Ito Teiji’s composition for Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), creating a spiritual and uneasy overtone, which in turn highlights the emotional resonance of Hammer’s footage and creates a bond to the mysticism and aura of Deren. Moreover, known for combining incongruous cuts that challenge viewer expectations, Deren’s style disrupts expectations, which additionally satisfies Stratman’s desire to include disorienting perspectives, such as the vever illustrations layered with the images of the marketplace that allow her to take the viewer in unpredictable directions with material which on first looks appears to be a linear documentary recorded in Guatemala.

Deborah Stratman, Vever, 2018. Image courtesy the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

While Stratman’s distance has successfully given her a power and authority when recontextualizing Hammer’s footage, she misses out on the emotional connection gained when actually participating in the filmmaking, which for Stratman, whose films are often driven by more visceral reactions, is a significant obstacle. Here again she calls upon Deren’s teachings for guidance, this time in reference to the symbolic designs of vevers in Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Deren used vevers as illustrations throughout the book, believing each charts an emotional passage or crossroad, with an individual name identifying their purpose—Magic Pentacle, Androgynous Totality—which Stratman, too, includes in Vever. Here one can get imaginative and engage Stratman in some of the many trajectories she likes to play with. Perhaps she is attempting to emotionally access Hammer and Deren by invoking the power of the vever to channel their spirits. Or, in a less mystical approach, perhaps the vever symbolizes a juncture of three female artists communicating across generations. What Stratman’s Vever does convey is the shared aspirations of each woman to create work with integrity while upholding personal accountability as filmmakers.

Deborah Stratman,Vever, 2018. Image courtesy the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Ultimately Stratman brings past perspectives into the contemporary moment with Deren’s meditations on her own experience from the ’50s informing Hammer’s unfinished project from the ’70s. Separately and now together, at different points in time, all three women recognize the agency of their decisions as filmmakers, and in doing so attempt to move away from positions of power and instead embrace a position of vulnerability with a willingness to confront failure, open up to reinterpretation, or take on unknown challenges to create a bond across generations. The juxtaposition of Deren and Hammer both abandoning film projects because of the lack of integrity and recognizing the failure of production makes visible a self-restraint and inner critique that Stratman brings forth, showing the energy they all have for imagining alternative possibilities to the power structures they are inherently a part of. To borrow from Deren once again, who in 1953 reinforces the sentiment of confronting the paradox of power and facing one’s fears:

To run away would be a cowardice. I could resist; but I must not escape. And I can resist best, I think to myself, if I put aside the fears and nervousness; if, instead of suspecting my vulnerability, I set myself in brazen competition with all this which would compel me to its authority. With this decision I feel a resurgence of strength, of the certainty of self, and my proper identity.


1 Email conversation with Jennifer Lange in September 2018

2 In Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953), Maya Deren defines vevers as “symbolic, caballa-like designs drawn on the ground to invoke the loa at ceremonies, made of wheat or maize flour or ashes.” They have also been called veve (also spelled vèvè or vevè) and are  is a religious symbol commonly used in different branches of voodoo throughout the African diaspora such as Haitian voodoo.

3 In Divine Horsemen, Deren uses the spelling “Voudoun,” more commonly referred to as Haitian Vodou, Vaudou , or Voodoo.

4 Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Author’s Preface.

Special thanks to: Jen Caruso, Jennifer Lange, and Matt Whitman for the generous support and thoughtful advice.

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