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EXCLUSIVE Interview: Lynn Hershman Leeson Talks !Women Art Revolution, Feminism, Outtakes of History

EXCLUSIVE Interview: Lynn Hershman Leeson Talks !Women Art Revolution, Feminism, Outtakes of History

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new documentary about feminism in the art world of the 1960s, !Women Art Revolution, will make its theatrical debut at NYC’s IFC Center June 1, followed by showings across the country (schedule below, along with the trailer) via Zeitgeist Films. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, and also screened at Sundance and Berlin.

Sophia Savage spoke with the filmmaker, who says the film “exposes the previously obscured and often indiscernible limits of access and voice that were imposed on a selected group of artists,” and shows “how presumed restrictions to freedom of expression were triumphantly surmounted.” As for whether the art world has — by 2011 — made any progress, she says: “Yes, but slowly. Much too slowly.” Our interview is below:

THR describes the film as:

“Comprehensive and vibrant…a must for university arts archives and other artistic institutions. !Women Art Revolution smartly mixes the dynamics of the emerging feminist movement of the late ’60s with the prevailing male chauvinism of the arts world at the time.”

On how the film has been received:
LHL: This film has had the very rare honor of being included in the official selections of Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, Human Rights Watch, S.F. International and several other major festivals. It has had sold out screenings with standing ovations at nearly every screening. I was heartened and amazed by the remarkable response, from both women and men, many of whom were moved to tears to discover this history and others who remembered when. There has been no prior platform to disclose the embedded issues.

Is there a fear surrounding women’s art?
LHL: It is a complicated issue. Why does discrimination exist? Who benefits from it? What has been the historical trajectory of power and how does that affect how history is constructed? Who survives into legacy? In the 1960s, when the Feminist Art Movement emerged, it was fueled by the rhetoric and power of the Black Panther Movement. Female artists needed to become politicized in order to understand the nuanced complexities of gender, race, class and sexuality, and to make art that was uniquely their own. These artists made groundbreaking contributions and insisted on exposing inequality. The Guerilla Girls, became the conscience of the art world and held galleries and museums accountable for discrimination. Female artists, critics, and curators, struggled to re invent themselves and introduced the first concepts of social protest, collaboration and public art, which addressed directly the political imperatives of social justice and civil rights.

On where the art world stands in 2011:
LHL: There is a growing community of enlightened philanthropists, many of whom are female, who are insisting on change. It is a mandate essential for their support. This is evidenced in the number of women being hired as curators, and the growing insertion of important women artists to collections and a correction to the policies of omission that formerly dominated selection processes. It is rather thrilling to see this happen in such a cohesive, proactive and concrete way…[However] There are many examples of subtle resistance which is reflected in how and where work is seen, who is exhibited, how work is reviewed, collected, or placed and what future creative opportunities are available. Having a strong, original voice can be personally exhilarating but often treacherous in its’ uniqueness when it does not fit into a pre existing expectation.

On the meaning of ‘feminism’ today:
LHL: Of course I think it has positive connotations for intelligent women and men. But there is still an existing fear of the word itself, as well as miscommunicated baggage of what it represents. This needs revision. Feminism is about cultural values and equality. The young women I am in contact with are grateful to learn about this history. They devour the information. It is, after all, their legacy.

On the need for sources of history, such as this film:
LHL: Women have been, very often, the out takes of history, so very little information exists. This is why I wanted to make a film that had NO out takes and worked with Stanford University to put the entire footage that was shot, along with the transcriptions and information about the artists online. It is an extended history that expands the narrative. The partnership with Stanford University Libraries (SULAIR) houses the !Women Art Revolution Collection in a publicly accessible online archive for study and research. The retrievability of this information subverts traditional notions of filmmaking. In the 60’s, women used slides sent around the country as a kind of underground railway. Now, we have the internet. I think the next generation has access to very exciting technologies that will extend even more the reach into new communities.

We invented RAW/WAR* as an extension of the film into the future. It is an interactive, community-curated media archive and an accompanying installation that provides a forum for users to collaboratively contribute to the history. The site is a democratic community space where users can post links to images and video. RAW/WAR opens up this dialogue to a global audience, using geotags to connect histories worldwide.

*RAWWAR is a collaboration between Lynn Hershman Leeson, Alexandra Chowaniec, Brian Chrils, Gian Pablo Villamil, Paul Paradiso and Stacey Duda.

What’s the message you want to send with this film?
LHL: As Marcia Tucker reminds us,”humor is the single most important weapon we have!” I think audiences will be inspired by the courage, sense of humor and tenaciousness of the artists who courageously and constantly reinvented themselves and in doing so dynamically revised existing exclusionary policies of their culture.

June 1-7: IFC Center, New York, NY
June 10: The Screen at Studio 2, Santa Fe, NM
June 15-19: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
June 17-23: Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Los Angeles, CA
June 17-23: Northwest Film Forum, Seattle, WA
June 23-26: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OK
June 24-30: Denver Film Society, Denver, CO
June 24-27: Northwest Film Center, Portland, OR
July 1: Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT
October 5: International House of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA

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