Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Heretics

“[We] fell in love with each others minds”Marty Pottenger

New York is a funny place. It feels so big that it could swallow you whole, but sometimes it seems as small as the rural village where I was raised in Canada. For instance, I had no idea that the friendly woman I was chatting with in the bathroom Thursday night at 92YTribeca was Joan Braderman, director of The Heretics, whose screening I was about to see. What would I have done differently had I known it was her—offered her my lipstick? Opted against using lipstick in front a more seasoned feminist than myself? I’ll say this: it was a fitting way to start an evening celebrating the camaraderie between women, and a reminder that the gap between Second Wave feminists and Third Wave feminists—insurmountable though it sometimes seems—can close in an instant.

The documentary, made by a three-person crew in multiple locations, traces the development of Heresies, a significant feminist art publication that ran from 1977 to 1992 out of New York. A goldmine for feminist art historians, it is replete with archival footage and contemporary interviews with 28 of Heresies’ key figures. Any reservations about the value of this film fall quickly by the wayside: we are reminded of the importance of institutional memory by a montage of contributors’ conflicting or nonexistent answers about where the first meeting was held. The film is effectively a piecing together of history, a kind of collaborative storytelling that establishes credence through repetition.

Watching The Heretics, we are captivated by the inception of the publication—by the list of some 300 titles considered, by the ability to mobilize without the power of the Internet, by the founders’ earnest attempts at organizational equity. We are stunned by Heresies’ perseverance in spite of resistance to a business plan, to male advertisers, and to so many conventions that keep publications afloat. And, I can’t speak for everyone, but for those of us who have lost countless nights of sleep to the publishing world (I even bumped the date of my wedding to accommodate a production schedule) in the pre-digital era, we are weirdly nostalgic for the smell of wax. Mostly, though, we are enraptured by the stories of the talented women who came together to change the world, who—as Marty Pottenger phrased it—“fell in love with each others’ minds” and capitalized on synergy.

Inspiring though the documentary may be, the content is gravely serious. A case in point is Lucy Lippard’s retelling of men and women bringing the same slides to galleries and the women being turned away while their male counterparts generated great interest. Stories like these give insight into the impetus for creating and sustaining Heresies. The serious subject matter carries over into the history of the publication itself. For example, Harmony Hammond recalls the tension of restricting the editorial team to lesbians for the lesbian issue, and Su Friedrich tells the story of how she got fired preparing the sex issue late at night in her workplace. Interestingly, despite the sobering content, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. A saxophone plays in the background when the aforementioned sex issue is discussed and the dramatic sound of thunder accompanies the first mention of the so-called Heretics; there are many such examples. A cut-and-paste aesthetic lends a quirky sensibility to the film, which might come across as amateur if it didn’t reflect the general look of the publication.

On the surface, The Heretics is about the project that tied these women together but it functions as biography in equal measure. The interviews conducted three decades later emphasize that creating the publication was not an isolated act, but rather part of a trajectory in each woman’s life. The Heretics reveals Heresies to be natural outgrowth of the contributors’ existing commitment to feminism, but also as a catalyst for personal change.

For more on The Heretics, see

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