Occupy and Its Representations: An Interview with Molly Hankwitz

Film & video curator Kelly Pendergrast spoke with I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law exhibiting artist Molly Hankwitz. A portion of their conversation is recorded below.

What impelled you to make Pike Loop? Was it an investment in Occupy issues, specific interest in the “pepper spray cop” Internet meme, or something else?
I wanted to make a film for the [Occupy art and media] benefit at ATA. Having been involved with “protest media” for twenty-five years on both Coasts of US and overseas in Australia, I reckoned I could predict what much of the media would look like. I wanted both to make a different type of film and one that would touch raw, unpredictable and unspoken energies in the movement. Plus, protest culture always needs humor to relieve tension, weariness, and the build up of “seriousness” from social conflict in the soul. I had been looking at short films of Bryan Boyce and Dominic Gagnon which utilize Internet media. I am also an inveterate old school hacker sort. The Internet meme was fantastic content and I barely had to do anything. Occupy issues? Sure, I’m on side. I’d taken my son to the utopian camp. People needed to speak out!

I was completely pleased by the response of people rolling laughing, but I tried to milk the insane excess of police hubris and evoke the past excessive use of force in the Kent State image. Basically, a meme is like the cultural unconscious, so I exploited that.

With regards to the exhibition theme, “art as crime”, your main “crime” is appropriating images that had already been appropriated by the “pepper spray cop” meme. What do you think an artist’s responsibility to the law is?
Well, as a critically thinking person, especially around media, I think the Fair Use laws are really what serve to protect free speech in this country because they give artists the option of a critical outside on powerful images and ideologically loaded ideas floating around our culture. In Hardt and Negri’s book, Empire, they write about the empirical concept of the “just” war. The idea basically that we have come to internalize and accept that it’s kinda sorta OK to occupy Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of our democracy. A lot of people believe this, and would have no idea what to do if they didn’t. To my mind, “figures” such as the unjust cop also reify in the minds of protesters and by an act of art can be exorcized. The Pike Loop made Occupiers feel how absurd things can be. My obligation to legality is first to know what I’m doing and what I want responsibility for.

Your use of “Helter Skelter” invokes comparisons to the tumult of the late 60s. What were you intending to invoke with that link?
Yes, that is also a breach of copyright and being music, it lives inside me in a way that suggests I ought to own its rights even if I don’t. I grew up in the Sixties. We kids got The White Album for Christmas and although Dad censored some songs or tried to, that song, especially after Charlie Manson’s gang murdered Sharon Tate and wrote “Helter Skelter” in blood letters on her wall, has stuck in my mind. Not sure I should have looked at all those LIFE magazine photos as child. But, I got the idea of using one popular song as a soundtrack from another filmmaker and since my only audience was to be one night at ATA…well…I took the risk.

I’m not anti police by the way. I’m pretty law abiding and appreciate them at times, but I grew up when both women and African Americans were pressuring for more police education as to stereotypes and harassment of our kinds. So I don’t mind taking a crack at the excessive use of force and male bravado, which sometimes possesses police brutality.


About the author of this post:
Kelly Pendergrast is a film and video curator, maker, and writer. She programs film and video for Artists’ Television Access, where she is invested in providing a forum for underground and experimental artists to collaborate and show their work.

Originally from New Zealand, Kelly now lives and works in San Francisco. She holds an MFA from the University of California San Diego and a BA from the University of Otago. Most recently, Kelly has been working with a group of women filmmakers on a new quarterly screening series, GAZE.