Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Working On It

Still from Working On Itdirs Karin Michalski, Sabina Baumann
Switzerland/Germany 2008

Puzzlingly subtitled "conversations, performances, queer electronics", this doc is a non-linear exploration of various forms of oppression experienced by women and trans people, from gender, to race, to sexuality and a bit of class thrown in. Hey, why not? The limitations of language, the assumptions of others, and the behaviour and thoughts of oneself all come under the microscope, as well as how it is possible to subvert or invert these behaviours.

Playing with the conventions of the doc, Michalski and Baumann structured the film in two parts: conducting initial interviews and then convening a group meeting a year later. This gives the film an intriguing angle as the participants arrive in a former Berlin supermarket to reflect on their earlier words and view others' contributions. There are several shots of interviewees watching TV screens and putting up art around the space.

But the promised performances and queer electronics are downplayed. One participant dons enormous eyelashes to recite a short poem and there are a few cameos of opening cupboards and some participants screen-printing T-shirts with the slogan "identity pills".

Interviews are interspersed with these activities rather than forming a linear flow. Decrying the limitations of gendered language, one participant creates alternatives by writing sentences on a wall using new pronouns such as "sni" and "per". Others discuss the frustrations of being stared at in public and asked where they are from because they are non-white.

One interviewee declares how great it is not to be white and skinny. Still others decry the binary gender system and refuse to be categorised within it. There is a brief interlude outside the space showing footage from what I believe was the 2007 Dyke Trans March in Berlin as rain-soaked marchers hold up signs.

Without captions or a voiceover, the film is a bit of a challenge as one struggles to see how it holds together. The interviewees are quite interesting but without knowing even their names (I recognised a couple of familiar faces from the Berlin art/music scene), it's hard to get to know them. A few clues are offered in the interviews, as some participants refer to their jobs or to confronting specific prejudices, but this is by no means uniform.

There is very little group discussion, which is a pity. Once the participants are gathered in one room, one expects more interplay but this is limited to about one minute of conversation and some intrusively shaky camera work. Perhaps this is some self-referencing comment on film-making? Then Rhythm King and Her Friends perform a song and drive off on a motorcycle while wearing bear heads (much of this footage appears in the video to "No Picture of the Hero!" but I am not sure which came first). Then the film ends. Most odd.

Nonetheless, I quite like the ambition and artfulness of the film, and its attempts to link many expressions of behaviour outside the norm. As one participant says, queer was an attempt to make heterosexuality not the norm.

Working On It screens at Frameline 32 on 21 June in San Francisco.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Bloods: The Secret Life

One highlight of Ladyfest London was the chance to see and meet New Bloods, the Portland trio whose debut album is just out. The band played at Camden Underworld during the festival and we then convened for a brief interview, interrupted by over-zealous security moving us on. Adee, Osa and Cassia of New Bloods found this hilarious, while I was irritated. Nonetheless, I managed to get a few words with them.

Comparisons abound between New Bloods and arty post-punk bands such as The Raincoats: the use of strings, wandering bass lines, shouted vocals, an interest in nature and the human condition, among them. Indeed, Ana and Shirley from The Raincoats ventured to the Underworld to check out the young pups, and Adee let out a squeal when she heard they were in the house, but unfortunately, the two bands didn't meet. Shirley explained to me the next day that she and Ana left to get food after the set and then never returned. How untimely.

Nevertheless, back at the Underworld, New Bloods talked a bit about their songwriting and interests. Cassia, the bassist, explained: "I think that we all share certain things and then we all have separate things, as well. I mean, personally, my main motivation is just having music as a mode for expression and what we want to express changes and varies, but, I think, you know, a lot of it is about my emotional life as a woman and... living in this world. It can be a beautiful world to live in and you can experience it also as... a hostile world as a woman, so it deals with those things."

Onstage they are an exciting proposition with Osa centre-stage on violin, barefoot, her bow shredded, Cassia taking most of vocals as well as bass and Adee on drums chipping in with some vocals (I will resist the Phil Collins comparison). They managed 30-minute set, seven minutes longer than album.

Clocking in at a brisk 23:36 and no messing, The Secret Life (Kill Rock Stars) is a curious record, which rewards on repeated listens. Very sparsely produced, with just violin, drum and bass for instrumentation, abetted by all three members on vocals, the record has a very post-punk, art rock feel and recalls recent British bands like Gertrude and Witchknot more than any of their Pacific Northwest contemporaries. For me, the standout is the tuneful and cryptic "Oh, Deadly Nightshade", which may or may not reference the 1970s' women's music band of the same name and features some brilliant plucked violin.

It's hard to make out what they are singing about, as the vocals are so far down in the mix, but as queer-identified women of colour, they have lots to say. The lyric sheet comes in handy, but even that is incomplete.

Violinist Osa said: "If I could, I would probably try to write more overtly political lyrics because I feel like it's coming from that place and... I wanna say something meaningful and important and a lot of that, to me, has to do with politics around race and colonisation and sexuality and gender, but I think that those things just come out kind of... as an emotional response rather [than] as direct political lyrics."

Here, dear reader, we break, as first an audience member thanked the band "for your amazing set" and then the guard chased us from the stairwell. Cassia retorted, "Why are you oppressing me?" before, with many guffaws, we moved back to the noisy confines of the bar area. How ironic that in the feminist womb of Ladyfest a male authority figure should hold sway.

Before we parted ways, drummer Adee added her tuppenceworth: "All of us write lyrics and the lyrics I tend to write are about the same thing: decolonising your mind from things and also the connection with the natural world because it's beautiful.... I spent a long time being in spaces where you complain about a lot of things and I definitely... think there are a lot of things that need to be different.

"I think that people can do a lot better but I also think I'm in a space in my life now where I want to celebrate all the amazing people that are in my life and all the amazing women and queer people and people of colour and artists and musicians that I know 'cause I feel really lucky, so I feel like kind of writing about that stuff and not really so much focussing on the people that are messed up in the world."

Currently, New Bloods are on tour throughout Europe.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ladyfest London

After three sun-drenched days of women's art and culture, it's back to the grindstone.

Much of my time at Ladyfest was spent in the cafe invigilating the music video exhibit, and so I cannot do a report, as such.

But I was privy to many illuminating conversations, interactions and pronouncements, of which my favourite were:

"Can I be an eco-feminist and use your plate?"

"Spuds are a tuber for every season."

"It is a bit like building a house with your teeth."

"Identity politics have gone out with the '90s."

"It's Edward Scissorhands meets Cousin It meets Diamanda Galas."

"It's like the city is buying the revolution."

"They can infiltrate the psyches of non-Ladyfesters."

"It was really groovy."

Thankfully, others were more mobile than I. Vertical Blue has a good overview of the festival. The F Word also has some good things to say.