My Little Lady Digs: Vaginal Davis on “Rising Stars, Falling Stars”
Shortly after moving to Berlin from Hollywood in 2006, Vaginal Davis started sniffing through the vaults of the Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art. She sensed that the Berlin archive was a good place to start looking for early feminist and queer traces. The result was Rising Stars, Falling Stars—a monthly series of experimental rarities, long-forgotten commercial films, and even familiar classics of early cinema, viewed from her tilted perspective. Each screening was accompanied by live musicians and introduced by Ms. Davis. (Davis 2012)
On Sunday November 13, 2022, Marc Siegel sat down with artist Vaginal Davis to discuss “Rising Stars, Falling Stars,” the legendary film series she curated for the Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin [Fig. 1-4]. The discussion of Ms. Davis’s curatorial practice necessarily digresses into a consideration of the biographical factors that shaped the accidental development of her archival strategies.
Marc Siegel: You started “Rising Stars, Falling Stars” at the Arsenal in 2007. Over the next decade or so, it went through a number of different stages, each time with a new focus.
Vaginal Davis: The concentration when it started was for the most part only silent films from the archive and within that highlighting and spotlighting the sort of queer and feminist tissue elements to early cinema.
MS: That lasted from 2007 to 2012, right?
VD: Yes, yes. In 2012 during “Camp/Anti-Camp: A Queer Guide to Everyday Life” we did a shift to “Rising Stars, Falling Stars: We Must Have Music!” And that was from 2012 to 2015, I think. Then we did another shift to focus on architecture, costume, and make-up, “Briefe aus der Garderobe.” I think we did that for several months and then we did another shift, and that was “Rising Stars, Falling Stars: Sweet 16 mm, Never Been Kissed.”
MS: And after that came the series “Contemporary Vinegar Syndrome,” right?
VD: Yes, we did a complete breakdown and dropped the title. Stefanie [Schulte Strathaus] suggested that we just stop using “Rising Stars, Falling Stars.” At that point we had been doing it for almost a decade, or over a decade. Even though I loved the title, which is based on a book about silent movies, I thought it was a really good idea to just completely have a whole new point of view altogether. That’s where “Contemporary Vinegar Syndrome” came in, which we kind of saw as bringing this new adage of, you know, Andy Warhol: “Anyone can be famous for 15 minutes”—but taking that one step further and creating a new movement, a movement du jour, every 15 minutes. This is part of the movement du jour: “Contemporary Vinegar Syndrome,” where we’re focusing on the decrepit patina, cinema as decrepit patina. Starting with the degradation of the film, when it starts to get infected with vinegar syndrome and creating this new movement. From pretending and putting it out there, it sort of manifests itself. You imagine it and then it becomes it.
MS: You were imagining a political movement around the decrepit patina of archive films?
MS: Thinking of new political–
VD: And social, artistic, and cultural ways where this can be expanded. It can be observed. It can be theorized. It can be completely inculcated into a sort of way of living. It’s kind of a lofty goal in itself. But it’s also done with humor. Just being playful and whimsical. It’s whimsy. It’s bringing all those things into play.
MS: Vinegar syndrome is of course a real archival problem that affects cellulose acetate film. Did this issue determine your selection of films? Was there a shift in your curatorial process from the various manifestations of “Rising Stars, Falling Stars” to “Contemporary Vinegar Syndrome”?
VD: Oh yeah, because when we went in to look at the archive, we went into it with a more… Because you know, Daniel [Hendrickson], the Muslim, and I were working together on it, and you know how critical she is. [laughs] Of course the archive was moved from Arsenal on Potsdamer Platz to silent green in Wedding, so you couldn’t escape this feeling of deterioration, being in a former crematorium. You know, silent green, soylent green. All that affected our way of looking into the archive. I think we would sift through a lot more films. Because before, I would always have a certain one already in my head.
MS: How did you choose the films?
VD: Well, before Daniel became more involved, I was spending a lot of time just going through the database in the Arsenal offices on Potsdamer Platz. A lot of the movies I was already familiar with. The staff there was just really, really helpful with bringing things to me and they would set up—because I’m so technically not able to… When Daniel became more involved, he would actually put the things on the… what’s that machine called?
MS: A flatbed, a Steenbeck.
VD: Steenbeck. Yeah, he was good at that, doing the technical stuff. ‘Cause you know, I was really horrible about that stuff. “Tunte und Technik.” I think that with “Rising Stars” I already had an idea of what I wanted to show. But then with “Contemporary Vinegar Syndrome” it was delving even more into things and finding them. ‘Cause, you know, Muslim has very esoteric tastes. When we were in silent green, we watched a lot more. It’s also because it’s further away from us. Just going to Potsdamer Platz was relatively easy ‘cause it’s just three subway stops away or a short bike ride. But going all the way to silent green was more of an adventure. Working with the crew there—Juan [González] and Marcus [Ruff]—they were really great. I think that we relied on their suggestions for things too. You know, they’re experts in their own right.
MS: It’s important to be open to what archivists recommend.
VD: Exactly. Because they’re working in the archive on a daily basis.
MS: When viewing for the series, would you watch the entire film?
VD: Oh yeah, pretty much so.
MS: Did you ever screen something that you didn’t watch beforehand?
VD: No, no. I don’t think I did. I think that probably goes back to the days when I used to screen films for Shari [Frilot] for the New Frontiers section of Sundance film festival. I guess this is my naiveté—I didn’t know that most people who were looking at the films for the film festivals didn’t watch the entire film. They just watch a little bit and then go on to another one. But I think I was the only one that watched all the short films and all the feature films from beginning to end. I was the only one. [laughs] Which shows you the naiveté that I had.
MS: Let’s talk about the origins of “Rising Stars,” how you came to curate this series at the Arsenal in the first place. You started in 2007 when Stefanie asked you—
VD: …to come up with a concept. Actually, it was at your and Susi’s [Susanne Sachsse’s] dinner party. I think the Empress, Stefanie, was somewhat aware of what I had done with Sundance.
MS: Did you have archival experience, any history of curating and programming films or doing archival research before “Rising Stars”?
VD: Well, at UCLA at the Melnitz, I spent so much time there.
MS: The UCLA Film and Television Archive screenings?
VD: They used to have every—was it every Saturday or was it once a month? I can’t remember, it was so long ago. But at the Melnitz, it would be on Saturday from 12 noon to 12 midnight, showing films from the archive. That was incredible. And I was quite young, ‘cause it was during the Upward Bound program. I think I was in 5th grade. And this was like an offshoot of the MGM program, the Mentally Gifted Minors program, where I was taking actual coursework at both USC and UCLA.
MS: Incredible. Upward Bound for smart public school students–
VD: Well, I don’t know about smart. It was just a special program through the Los Angeles Unified School District, that was a sort of tie-in-program, I think, to the MGM program. Part of Upward Bound was spending a lot of time at libraries and archives. I went to a high school near the old Mary Pickford estate that’s in Fremont Place, which was a gated community in a section of Hancock Park between Olympic and Wilshire. Mary Pickford and her mother lived there, I think, in the teens. I have a history with this actual house, because in the ‘70s Muhammad Ali lived there.
MS: Mary Pickford and then Muhammad Ali—wow!
VD: Yes. And he invited all the top graduates of my high school to a big reception at that house.
MS: So you were at a reception with Muhammad Ali!
VD: He had like a chamber ensemble play for the reception and this wonderful food spread. The house is gorgeous, gorgeous. I think he was the first Black person to live in Fremont Place, because Fremont Place is southward from Hancock Park. What’s his name—uh—Nat King Cole was the first Black to get into Hancock Park, and they gave them hell trying to move there, Nat King Cole and his family. But I think Mohammad Ali was the only one—because Fremont Place is a gated, private street. You can’t imagine what a thrill it was to be able to see this house and go into Fremont Place, which I could never just walk into. To go to this reception for the top graduates of my high school. And you know, my high school, Los Angeles High School, also had a working relationship with 20th Century Fox. Because 20th Century Fox filmed Room 222—remember Room 222?
MS: The TV show?
VD: It started in 1969. It was quite ahead of its time, along with Diahann Carroll’s sitcom Julia where she’s not playing a maid. She’s a nurse. This show was set in a contemporary urban high school. The opening credits were filmed in the gorgeous old Los Angeles High School building that got destroyed in ’71 with the earthquake. I was in high school from ’76 until ’79. But because of this relationship between Los Angeles High School and 20th Century Fox and because I was the editor of my school newspaper, I was able to go to the screenings of films on the Fox lot and also eat at the commissaries. The thrill of that, of being able to go and—I didn’t have a car or anything—and getting off the bus, walking through the gates of 20th Century Fox to get to the screening room: that was a thrill for me! And being able to go to these screenings like a film reviewer of, like, the LA Times or any other mainstream magazine. You know what a big deal that is? I got to see the screening of Alien when it came out; with Sigourney Weaver and Veronica Cartwright—I love Veronica Cartwright! She is so good. But all these things are kind of interconnected—in terms of archives.
MS: Clearly, your early exposure to libraries, archives, film screenings, Hollywood stars, and celebrities shaped your future archival practice. What I always loved about attending “Rising Stars, Falling Stars” was that it was more than just going to see a film from the Arsenal archive that was selected by Vaginal Davis. There was always an element of excitement and sexy uncertainty in the air, not really about the screening of a little-known film, but about how Miss Davis would articulate its relevance to her and us. There was music playing in the cinema as we entered. Stefanie would introduce you and then you made your grand entrance, singing, often from the back of the cinema. You would then proceed to the “reading of the text,” your brilliant and unexpected film introduction–
VD: I tried to present the films in different ways.
MS: And there was always the legendary “kissen, drinken und sexen und flirten” in the red Foyer afterwards.
VD: [laughs] Because there’s not a lot of flirting in Berlin and I wanted to bring that kind of party hostess thing. One thing I’m known for is bringing people and different kinds of groups together.
MS: In your introductions, you often hilariously and absurdly riff on the radical possibilities of reflecting on specific Hollywood stars from queer, feminist and/or Black perspectives. Just to pick one example, here’s an excerpt from your introduction to Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street, G.W. Pabst, 1925), which you screened on March 16, 2008:
The first film I ever saw with the great Asta was G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse, 1925) in Los Angeles at the UCLA Film Archive. From that moment on i became an ardent Asta submissive and vassal to her almighty will and power. 2nite in fact i no longer want to be Vaginal Davis, continental film hostessa, but i want to transform myself into the faithful Josephine, the famed confidant, personal assistant, faithful servant and valiant protector of Die Asta at the old Nero Film Studios. Yes, this is a performative evening, so let’s stretch into the Anarchy of the Imagination, and create a lesbian separatist/feminist utopia of genius feminine psychology. That is how i like to see the important oeuvre of Die Asta in all its hallowed glory. Just think about the possibilities. (Davis 2012)
VD: Well, that’s stretching the imagination, talking about her maid Josephine who’s also the maid to Louise Brooks when she was filming Pandora’s Box. It’s just taking something that someone may neglect—like who would write about someone’s maid—stretching that out and making that more the centerpiece than even the star; this interconnection between the star and her maid and how her maid was really transformative in her career, as a confidante, as someone that she ran things by. That screening was presented during a month of Asta Nielsen screenings organized by Karola Gramann and Heide Schlüpmann of the Kinothek Asta Nielsen.
MS: It’s so great how much Karola and Heide, these two experts on Asta Nielsen, value your whimsical approach to opening up new ways of articulating the relevance of Asta Nielsen.
VD: Well, that’s what I hope. I don’t know if with every presentation things always work; but that’s the goal that you’re working towards. There is a method behind it all. [laughs] It may not always seem apparent. This is like the story of my life, where people always later, in hindsight, realize, “Oh, she wasn’t just a high holy developmentally disabled temple concubine. There was actually a method to her insane madness.” I get that so much. Because it’s so easy to just dismiss a person like me, you know, it’s very, very easy.
MS: It seems that part of your archival or curatorial strategy is to turn those figures that interest you—no matter how well or little known they may be to the rest of us—into significant reference points for queer, feminist, and Black culture today. In an introduction to an evening focusing on the silent film comedienne Mabel Normand, for instance, you emphasize her love of “the charms of Schwartze (Black men).”
VD: Yeah, if you can call it a strategy. I don’t think I was that determinant. I think it was just organic to the way I view and see things. Well, I try to bring in miscegenation to show that there was always racial mixing. It’s been pushed aside. With Hollywood stars or people who come from wealth and privilege, there’s always been slumming, going to Harlem, going to buffet flats. Because let’s face it, the white culture was so boring and they wanted to do something that was more exciting. Where do you go that’s more exciting? You go uptown, to Harlem, where Black culture, music, arts, and sexual things are happening—where the excitement is, where the fun is. Yeah, it’s scandalous, you know. But people who are somewhat decadent, as Hollywood types are, they want to be part of where the action is. I like to put that into the mix too. Of course, I do it in a sort of humorous way. But I like to bring it out because it’s always been there. It’s always been there. That also goes back to my mixed-race background, with my family being Creole from Louisiana. So yeah, I throw in these things that people with bildungsbürgerliche background and class sensibilities would probably never give credo to within a film context, a film archival context—let alone mention it.
MS: So you show films from the archive that are significant because they allow you to thematize social or political issues that you want to deal with today or that you want people to be thinking about. You may not have thought of this as an archival praxis. But it seems to me that your work has always been about turning to archives of Black, feminist, queer, and film culture for what they can offer you for reinventing yourself and the world around you. You thereby make clear what’s relevant or can be relevant about that stuff for many of us today.
VD: Exactly. And that has always ignited my tuches. These concerns didn’t begin with this series. I’ve worked in this way since I was in Junior High School. I’ve always looked at things in this bratty critical sort of way. Some teachers loved it. Some saw it as an assault, as in “What does this uppity Negro child think she is? She’s just an uppity Negress. Who does she think she is?” This is something I’ve gotten all my life. Of course, there’s this anger that flows through me. But I’ve channeled this anger into my little lady digs. And I think that’s been my survival mechanism. I actually never thought I would get lauded for it. That’s the thing. If you don’t die, if you manage to hang on, people start to recognize you. Basically, I’ve been doing the same things since I was a child—ad nauseam actually. I mean, I haven’t recreated the wheel. I didn’t think of it as an art praxis.
Many thanks to Jakob Villhauer for assisting with the transcription of the interview.
Davis, Vaginal. 2012. Rising Stars Falling Stars. Berlin: Arsenal—Institut für Film und Videokunst e.V.
 “Camp/Anti-Camp: A Queer Guide to Everyday Life” was a festival curated by Susanne Sachsse and Marc Siegel that took place at HAU and Arsenal in Berlin in April 2012.
 The MGM program, which began under this name in 1961, was specific to California schools, whereas Upward Bound was a federal program designed to support students from low-income families or those whose families didn’t have a college-going tradition.