In Conversation with Katrina del Mar
By KOFI FORSON, JAN. 2015
I first saw Katrina del Mar on social media. I was in awe of the look on her face. It can be best described as hardcore, tough and punk. A lesbian photographer and filmmaker based in New York City, her films have been screened at film festivals around the world and she has received several awards and fellowships, including the New York Foundation for the Arts. As a filmmaker her credits include Surf Gang, Gang Girls 2000, and Hell On Wheels Gang Girls Forever or as she calls it: the “Girl Gang Trilogy”. Her work has invited comparisons to American avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger. She recently had solo shows incorporating her multi media artworks of large scale photographs, hand made books, zines and films at the renowned alternative art space Participant Inc. and at Strange Loop Gallery in New York City. She is currently at work on an experimental documentary “semi surreal” web series called delMarvelous. We recently met for lunch at The Winslow in New York City.
Kofi Fosu Forson: The question I asked you before was about the “gang” mentality. How did that seep into your creative world?
Katrina del Mar: Did you say “gay” or “gang?”
Del Mar: I like the idea of combining gay and gang.
Forson: Gay gang. (Laughter)
Del Mar: If you think about all the shit that women take. All the shit that gay people take…
Forson: It’s a lot. It’s a lot. Putting it all together is quite a bit.
Del Mar: When I was first in the city in my teens and twenties it was like that catcalling video that went viral recently. Late 80’s, early 90’s, the city was pretty vile. It made me angry to be catcalled all the time. There was also a lot of gay bashing going on. People were dying of AIDS. People were afraid of gay men because they were afraid they were going to get AIDS. It was a bad time. So this idea of a gay gang was kind of a cool idea.
Forson: Was this sort of like the Pink Panthers.
Del Mar: Yeah! Exactly!
Forson: I remember them being like a neighborhood watch group.
Del Mar: Yeah, people were just looking out for each other. A lot of gays were getting beat up. So to protect each other they formed the Pink Panthers. So… “Gay Gang.” I envisioned a gang of girls who didn’t answer to men. When I did research on girl gangs I found out that the girl gangs were affiliated with male gangs. The Latin Kings had the Latin Queens. So I imagined and envisioned a world where women ganged up and did whatever they wanted to do without answering to men.
Forson: Did you ever want or mean these films to be political?
Del Mar: It was kind of immature thinking, maybe. I never thought of it as political, it was more philosophical and escapist. I just wanted to create a world I was beginning to see, and make it more fantastical.
Forson: A lot of what you do is imagined. But with most art the artist is not living the fantasy. The fantasy is represented on canvas or film screen. In a sense you are a lot of these characters.
Del Mar: I feel it’s a tool of survival to have imagination, especially if you are in a situation where you might feel oppression. I own my privilege as a white woman, as a woman of the working class, not the poverty class. Well, it depends on the year, of course, being a working class artist in New York City. I think imagination is a fantastic tool and art is a survival mechanism.
Forson: I think as an artist you have to at times be vulnerable. The sensitivity comes through the creative process, the straining of what it is you want to say, the dynamics of seeking information.
Del Mar: I consider myself (and I joke about this with people) to be a multi- faceted diamond. So there’s the hard edged, intimidating, harsh and maybe angry person. And then there’s the vulnerable person. I completely own all of that. And I celebrate it. I think being tough is all a survival mechanism for people who want to survive in this city. And even tougher cities than this. People would say “I always thought you were intimidating until I met you.” I also absolutely have sensitivity about beauty. I am able to appreciate beauty. To take it in and express it is paramount to my copacetic mental state. If I’m going to be a happy person I need to take in beauty and I need to express beauty.
Forson: As a lesbian where did you find the relevance of sexuality, if not in others who saw life the way you did? Certainly not in Hollywood movies or television… Did you have secret crushes? Gina Gershon. (Laughter)
Del Mar: Oh my God, Gina Gershon in the movie Bound. Oh my God, that movie is so great. I love that movie, I had a crush on Joan Jett.
Forson: Really? Why Joan Jett.
Del Mar: Well, she’s so tough and cool. She’s the first person I saw expressing lesbian love, just by singing that Tommy James and the Shondells song and not changing the lyrics. She said “I think I can love her.” That was so exciting. There was no expression of that. There wasn’t much to pick up on; there was Paul Lynde on the fucking I Dream of Jeannie show or Charles Nelson Reilly on the fucking Hollywood Squares.
Forson: Certainly you had grown into your own. You were aware of beauty and animal magnetism. I’d imagine it contributed to your social circle. Was this the origin of the girl gang mentality?
Surrounding yourself with beautiful women who thought like you, wanted the same things out of life?
Del Mar: I found myself in a social circle of people who are creative, whether they’re expressing that creativity through making music in a band, or having an advanced sense of style, or dancers, actors, writers and visual artists. Also I found myself among a bunch of people who maybe had a wild drug and alcohol history and were looking for different ways to cope with life besides drugs and alcohol. So a lot of us went to creativity, hung out together to support one another. Between the arts world and people who wanted to express themselves in a way that’s different from self-destruction. We got together and made art.
Forson: Your films have been compared to Kenneth Anger and Russ Meyer. What are your memories of seeing Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! for the first time?
Del Mar: It had to be in the 80’s. I can’t remember the first time seeing it; I imagine it was on at a party at somebody’s house. I’ve seen it many times. Of course we were all crazy about that movie. When I met the girls in the Lunachicks we bonded over that movie and over the films of John Waters. We were looking at underground expressions just finding such a great sense of freedom in viewing those films. The expression of the idea that “the world of a heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”
Forson: As a photographer you’ve worked with Nan Goldin.
Del Mar: She brought me into the process of working on new versions of the Ballad of Sexual Dependency for the MoMA and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Nan is hilarious, really brilliant, super vulnerable and super tough. From time to time when working with her I felt my hair stand on end because I realized I was witnessing a genius at work. I love that she was hanging out with and photographing marginalized people. That she felt like she found a family among her friends. I can relate to that. As a lesbian I’m on the margins of society. As an artist I’m on the margins of society, We find family - I love Nan. One night we were crashing in the same room, in the maids’ quarters of an old hotel in Hudson, and, I shit you not, we saw a ghost together. It sat on my bed. I’ll never forget it.
Forson: What brought you to filmmaking? Did you go to school? If so who were your mentors?
Del Mar: I went to NYU but I did not study film. I wanted an education so I studied Art History and German literature. I made a decision at a certain point to figure art and filmmaking out on my own. My father was an artist so he had brought me up to see and to be creative. I was reading books by John Waters where he wrote about making his films, the process. And also Kembra Pfahler who was making Super 8 films when I first met her. She talked about “availabism” which I heavily subscribed to. She has reminded me on a few occasions to make use of what is available, to not let anything impede the art making process. She wrote about using black plastic trash bags as a backdrop and how beautiful they became when lit; that they became like purple and pink waves. But they were just trash bags! How great is that?
Forson: Do you have any memories of the first shows you went to? Bands like Psycho Sluts from Hell, The Lunachicks and Bikini Kill.
Del Mar: In the 90’s I was mostly following The Lunachicks. They were personal friends of mine. I was devoted to them. I was devoted to seeing The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Kembra Pfahler’s band, Kembra was a personal friend. So I feel like those bands were part of my 90’s experience.
I went to shows at CB’s and the Pyramid Club. I saw Nirvana play at the Pyramid. I saw Diamanda Galas, Sonic Youth, Raging Slab. I wasn’t a big fan of Bikini Kill but I bought their record and I liked them. I just recently saw that film Sini Anderson made about Kathleen Hanna & I really appreciate what she was doing, this Riot Grrrl movement. I really didn’t get deeply involved in that, I was having my own little revolution.
Forson: How important was the punk and hardcore movement in your childhood?
Del Mar: When I found out about punk and hardcore, especially punk, it really freed me. I felt learning about and going to punk and hardcore shows was about anti-perfectionism. It didn’t have to be a perfect expression. It was raw, angry, real, direct, authentic, rather than polished and perfect. Punk was really important to me. What was really punk was Linda Barry.
Forson: The cartoonist.
Del Mar: Yes. I read her comics religiously. I went to so many shows in the 90’s. Everybody was hell bent to express themselves. It was a really great ethos, the D.I.Y. ethos. “Do it Yourself.”
Forson: You’re very fortunate that your work has been received all over the world in places like Berlin, Copenhagen and Reykjavik.
Why do you think your work is so accepted?
Del Mar: I feel people get my work or they don’t. The people who get it really get it. They love it. And the people who don’t, it’s like it’s not there. And that’s just how it has to be. The fact that I have found places around the world to show my work has been about hard work, good luck and finding the people who appreciate my expression. Hetero, white, male, punk musician type guys like my work because maybe their ideal chicks or girlfriends are in it and their music is in it. Gay women like my work: they like to see tough girls being badass and kicking ass. Some gay men and drag queens get my work because there’s this iconic female image presented, the high hard femme that’s just a blast to emulate, the men who get a kick out of smart women. The tomboys, the butch chicks are represented. The butch mechanic lighting her cigar off a blowtorch... Everybody has fun with it except maybe super straight people and when I say straight I mean are you cool or are you square.
Forson: You’ve been living in New York for a long time. What drove you here?
Del Mar: I had this experience of moving to New York at a time when the East Village was a petri dish of counter culture, where the freaks lived, self-proclaimed perverts, rock and rollers, artists, drag queens, squatter punks, and, you know, the activists. People in bands, people making music, people expressing themselves to drag, people making costumes, people making art. I feel like everybody hung together. I think my films speak to that time period.
Forson: Tell me about your new project, delMarvelous.
Del Mar: I’m about to launch a web series called delMarvelous. It’s an experimental documentary web series that is sort of a slice of life but a bit surreal, at times. It is non-linear, non-narrative, and it could be about anything. It could be about an art opening I go to. It could be about surfing with a friend. It could be about the day I hung out with my grandmother. It’s going to be impressionistic, and a lesson in coping when things aren’t perfect.
Forson: Do you have plans to make feature length films?
Del Mar: Yes. The process I’ve always adopted for making movies is circumventing perfectionism. I run around perfectionism by starting from the end, going backwards. And so the way I made my movies is we started with a photograph, made it into a poster then we shot some film then we made a trailer. Then we shot the movie then we wrote the movie. This backwards process was the only way I could get things done. My challenge to myself as I continue as an artist will be to put the horse before the cart this time. Maybe I will write a screenplay first, raise money and then make a movie. I’d like to see what happens if I really try that method of letting something develop that way. It’s been very underground, the process of making a film for me.
Forson: How do you compare New York in your imagination to the New York in your day to day?
Del Mar: There are days when New York feels completely oppressive and difficult and impossible. There are days when I don’t want to leave my apartment because the thought of leaving my apartment and going across town and back exhausts me. And then there are days when I’m on my bicycle and I see friends and I experience beauty and opportunities to be of service. In other words there are days when I’m in love with New York. So many creative people are still here.
Forson: Which draws me back to your work! That world of angst and humor! I think it’s a generational thing. And I have to agree with you. You either get it or you don’t. It’s not something you force down some one’s throat. I first saw your films they made me want to make art - that’s conviction. That’s true inspiration.
Del Mar: So nice of you. Thanks. WM