Shoot Shoot, Bang Bang

The visceral cinema of Kathryn Bigelow ’79SOA has heady theoretical roots.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2009-10
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Download
  • Text Size A A A

Bigelow was born in 1951 in the northern California town of San Carlos, where she grew up riding horses and painting. She has a kind of buoyant, outdoorsy vitality, a big-sky embrace of the visual world, and an intense cerebral energy cut with New York punk and what she has called her “semiotic Lacanian deconstructivist saturation.”

A waiter comes by, and Bigelow indicates a nearby heat lamp. “If I could have one of these turned on to, like, nuclear,” she says cheerfully. The waiter obliges.

You think: semiotic Lacanian deconstructivist saturation.

The heat lamp turns bright orange. It starts to get very warm.

That’s when you remove your jacket and ask Ms. Bigelow about her time at Columbia.

Her attitude: to formalize, to frame, to keep a distance, to control. I think control is essential. — Lotringer

New York City, 1972. Two strangers, a young abstract painter from California and a renowned cultural theorist from France, arrive in Manhattan. One heads uptown, the other, downtown.

The theorist is Sylvère Lotringer. He has just joined the French department at Columbia, where he will introduce, from Europe, the field of semiotics — the science of signs in society. He will also be the first professor in the United States to teach the works of contemporary French thinkers like the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who claimed — intriguingly, for artists — that the signs and codes found in advertisements create, in the unconscious, desires that cannot be satisfied. For Lacan, desire is predicated on lack.

The abstract painter is Kathryn Bigelow. A student at the San Francisco Art Institute, she’s been awarded a fellowship for the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. It’s winter and freezing cold. The city is blighted, near bankrupt, dangerous.

“I’ve got a little Levi’s jacket, sneakers, T-shirt. That’s it,” Bigelow recalls. “I decided that wherever my studio was, that was where I was going to live. It was in Tribeca before it was Tribeca — a really rough outpost. I’ve got my sleeping bag and a little dog-eared piece of paper that has my address: ‘Basement of an off-track betting building, three flights down.’ Someone takes me there. There’s no light, footsteps resound off the walls, and the person says, ‘Here’s your studio.’ It’s a bank vault. I think, ‘It’s going to be a little chilly.’ There’s snow outside, and I can’t feel my legs. So I gamely pull out my sleeping bag, praying that somehow the door to the bank vault doesn’t close, because it’s a 24-inch slab of metal. Mind you, there are gunshots echoing every night. And one of my creative advisers is Susan Sontag, which of course meant that I was never happier in my life.”

“There’s a maverick streak in her that enables her to handle these violent genres, but also to give them a very personal touch and deal with them in a very sensitive way.”

After completing the Whitney program, Bigelow stayed in New York and began to work with conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner and the British collaborative Art & Language, which was based on “an attempt to decommodify art, yet still have it be defined as art and justify its existence as art,” Bigelow says. “We were in the Venice Biennale, where we put up a giant banner over the Grand Canal with an inversion of the famous Latin phrase, ‘Art is long, life is short.’ The group is always trying to subvert. Very political in its own way, and insidiously provocative. It made you think.”

With Art & Language, Bigelow started making nonnarrative short films. The group returned to England in 1976, and Bigelow, still in New York, applied for an NEA grant to make a short movie. She got the grant and shot the film, using her conceptual artist friends as crew. But the money ran out before she could edit the piece. “So I think, ‘Aha. Graduate school. Free mix at Trans/Audio!’” She submitted the uncut footage to Milos Forman, who was head of the film department at Columbia. Bigelow was accepted and given a scholarship for an MFA in film criticism.

Sylvère Lotringer, meanwhile, was attempting to bridge the divide between downtown artists and uptown theorists. He taught Lacan and Foucault by day, and, by night, explored the downtown art scene and the prepunk happenings at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. In 1974 he launched a journal called Semiotext(e), a watershed publication that brought art and theory together. The next year, he organized a conference at Columbia on madness and prisons called “Schizo-Culture.” He invited French poststructuralists like Foucault, Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, and Félix Guattari, and artists like Richard Foreman, William Burroughs, and John Cage. The event drew 2000 people.

Afterward, Lotringer was approached by students from the Columbia film department. “Semiotics was in the air,” he says. “Filmmakers were the first to pick up on it. Artists get excited by new ideas earlier than academics. They wanted to know more, so they came to my classes, and that’s how I met them.”

One of those students was Bigelow.

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (88)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time