Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Born in Flames

More underground NYC culture, at a viewing of Lizzie Borden's dystopian future vision at the finale of Reproductive Labour.

While I had seen the film years ago at a queer film festival, I didn't recall much of it. On this re-view, I found it quite thought-provoking and prescient, with its mix of female rebellion, eroding labour rights and African revolutionary struggles all conflated into one seething city, plus cameos from future stars Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Bogosian.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Downtown New York Scene

A visit to Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark, Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s is quite the eye-opener, especially conducted under the watchful eye of the "supermoon".

In truth, the moon wasn't much in evidence when I arrived at the gallery for an early Saturday evening visit. And when I emerged two hours later, the moon was nowhere to be seen. But, SOMETHING was in the air. How else to explain the strange confluence of events, from the mysterious piano appearing on the pavement of a Shoreditch street to the gravity-defying yoghurt accident that befell me? London felt like one big performance piece.

But, back to the exhibit, a sprawling beast taking in two floors, numerous rooms and multi, multi-media: sculpture, sound art, Super 8 film, drawings, and even some dance. Trisha Brown's gymnastics-infused choreography is performed several times a day on the walls of the Barbican, as well as on the floor. I saw two pieces, Floor of the Forest and Walking on the Wall and was left rather bemused. But, it's certainly unusual. Too bad there is no recreation of her dances performed on the roofs of NYC. That must have been something to see.

Laurie Anderson I know mostly as an innovative musician, but her visual art was a revelation. Even her handwriting is artistic, perfectly formed letters that could be plucked from cartoons. No surprise then to discover she was a political cartoonist at the university newspaper. Is there nothing this woman can't do? Her drawings for such pieces as The Handphone Table were beautifully wrought, witty and clever.

And then to see the piece below and watch people's reactions to it was fascinating. When I'd arrived, I'd walked right past the cluster of her works, imagining the odd clasping gestures I witnessed to be one of the live performances scheduled. But, no, we were the performers for these pieces, as they were in the interactive section. Laying my head on the Talking Pillow, I heard Anderson whispering to me, while seated at The Handphone Table, hands pressed to my skull, I heard some bass frequencies.

By contrast, Matta-Clark's and Brown's displays were much grander: large-scale installations grounded in urban architecture and movement. Anderson's concerns seem more intimate and wittier and to me, more endearing. Though there was no video, just stills of it, I could well imagine her performing her Duets on Ice on the streets of New York, wearing ice skates encased in ice, playing her violin to passing jaded habitues of the city.

And there was a bit of nostalgia for me in this very New York show. Though much younger than the artists, I well remember the crumbling, grumbling New York City of this time in the early 1970s when The Big Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy. Though it spawned punk, No Wave and a host of counter-cultural movements, it was a difficult time. But, very exciting.

Of course, "downtown New York" meant Manhattan and I lived in the Bronx, oblivious to the world of performance and avant-garde. While Gordon Matta-Clark may have been "dancing with buildings", cutting sections out of them to highlight neglect, I was living a more mundane existence, full of subways, Yankees and the odd teachers strike. It takes a certain detachment to see everyday life as an art project.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

When Ida Met Bridget

Earlier in the week I popped into the National Portrait Gallery to check out the new exhibit, tantalisingly titled Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908-1974 (actually, having the dates in the title rather spoils the effect). That's quite a promise and the exhibit, to my mind, doesn't live up to the title.

Ida Kar sounds like a fascinating character, born in Moscow, educated in Paris, an established photographer in Cairo before she moved to London in 1945 and opened a gallery with her husband. She worked in several areas of photography, including portraiture and photojournalism. In fact, in some ways, her career paralleled that of Lee Miller, who has also been "rediscovered" after a period of neglect.

But, I didn't have nearly as strong or favourable a response to Kar's work, which occupies one corner of the NPG, divided up into various alcoves, illustrating her different eras, including trips to Havana and eastern Europe.

Much of the exhibit is devoted to her portraits of actors and artists of the mid-20th century, but I found this the dullest section, firstly, because I didn't recognise many of the names (how quickly the famous are forgotten!), but secondly, because they followed a rather staid formula: serious-looking artiste stares down the camera, surrounded by the detritus of his (and they are overwhelmingly male) profession. If he's a writer, he sits at a desk surrounded by books. If he's an artist, he stands by one of his works in a studio. The pictures were perfectly competent, but the subjects seemed rather stiff and self-important. I didn't feel invited into their worlds, fascinating though they may have been.

The one exception to this was a marvellous portrait of Bridget Riley. Positioned between two planes of one of her signature Op art pieces, Riley seems to actually emerge from her own art work and stares up at the camera, looking pensive and ever so slightly vulnerable. Partly, this is owing to the high angle of the shot, which is unusual in Kar's work. But, part of it must be down to something caught between Riley and Kar which is curiously absent from the rest of the show.

By chance I had just seen Riley's exhibit over the road at the National Gallery and was struck by her working methods and her presence in her studio, surrounded by assistants, recorded for a rather stodgy TV feature in 1979. Kar's portrait, shot in 1963, shows her in an earlier phase of her career, a promise of things to come.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

BEV: Sound and Silents

Still from Meshes of the AfternoonFriday night saw a coming together of music and silent film at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as Birds Eye View (or was it WOW? I got confused) presented four silent films with new live scores.

Of the four, I had only seen Meshes of the Afternoon, and so was intrigued to discover a plethora of old and new work, musical and cinematic. Sometimes I didn't know whether to watch the screen or the stage, as the performers could be quite animated.

First up was Hänsel and Gretel by the German pioneer animator Lotte Reiniger, scored by Micachu, standing behind a bank of computers. This was the toughest pairing for me, with Reiniger's delicate silhouette figures paired with Micachu's industrial squeaks. I wasn't quite sure this worked, but it was bold of Micachu to produce something so unmelodious for a fairy tale.

This was followed by Alexander Hammid's / Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, scored by Seaming, seated at a keyboard and clutching a clarinet. She added some piercing screams, as well, which was quite dramatic. I was enraptured, both by the film-making innovation (Deren's presentation is strikingly forward-looking) and the score.

Last before the interval was Tara Busch sitting down to another bank of instruments to score Lois Weber's melodrama, Suspense. Busch's music was quite modern, in contrast to the film, which was the most conventional narrative of the bunch.

After the break was the premiere of Imogen Heap's ambitious a cappella score with a 30-plus piece choir for Germaine Dulac's completely wacky surrealist film, La Coquille et le Clergyman. WTF? Heap's score featured hand claps, whistling, and some cooing, as well as conventional singing. In fact, one section was positively jaunty, considering the action on screen featured a priest attempting to strangle his love rival. Marvellous stuff.
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Monday, March 07, 2011

Birds Eye View Festival preview

Tomorrow, International Women's Day, sees the premiere of the Birds Eye View festival of women's film-making (albeit missing an apostrophe). Having seen a handful of the films, I think it's a pretty strong bill, featuring features, shorts, live music and some filmmaker Q & As.

Best of the bunch I've seen is Zeina Durra's debut feature, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! The title gives a clue to the film's tongue-in-cheek style. After a standout opening sequence featuring an Arab conceptual artist in New York staging a photo shoot with gun-toting Iraqi women, and champagne-swigging guests in an art gallery discussing a possible CIA rendition of a friend, my mouth was hanging open. The juxtaposition of the deadpan performances with the art-world-meets-global-issues was breathtaking. The film loses its way a bit, but Durra displays a keen eye for irony and sharp social commentary.

Compared to that, Susanne Bier's Oscar-winning drama, In a Better World, was a bit of a disappointment, a melodrama considering masculinity and power in both Africa and rural Denmark. It all goes a bit kitchen-sink-drama, as a troubled boy draws his bullied friend into a revenge fantasy. The scenes in an African refugee camp, in which a Swedish doctor attempts to provide treatment while wrestling with his marital problems, display a problematic issue for western filmmakers: none of the African characters has a name. They are merely types: victims, helpers or warlords. Quite disappointing.

Of the docs, Orgasm Inc. and Women of Hamas are timely and thought-provoking, as well as illustrating the lengths filmmakers will go to get their story out. Israeli filmmaker Suha Arraf was unable to get into Gaza once the border was closed, but enlisted local filmmakers to gather her footage. Liz Canner was working for a pharmaceutical company that was developing a new product for "female sexual dysfunction" when she found herself questioning the party line and embarked on a quest to discover the truth behind the need for this product.

Special events include an appearance by Margarethe von Trotta, who is the filmmaker in focus. Imogen Heap, Micachu and Tara Busch are among the musicians providing live scores to classic silents by Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac in Sound in Silents.

Saturday, March 05, 2011


Other than Thursday's filmic forays, mostly the last two months have been spent at home, considering various improvement schemes of the personal and business kind. As I've moved around so often since I have been in London, I have fallen into the pragmatism of not bothering to do much decorating of my space. But, since this is the first place I have ever had that actually had room for a division of work and private, I spent a bit of time when I first moved in setting it up, mostly painting and installing shelves for my voluminous boxes, boxes, boxes (someday to be a brilliant book. Or DVD. Or website. We'll see how technology develops over the next millennium).

But, with the council insisting on refurbing my bathroom, I took the opportunity of the disruption (two weeks???!!!) to look at other areas that could use some TLC. Which basically means everything.

So far, before I tweaked my wrist today, I had managed a coat of paint on the foyer and front door (I declined the council's invitation to replace it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it), and finally painting the trim, trim being an option in my mind. Who looks at trim? Really.

Was going to get onto painting the office, but then decided it was well and truly time to tackle the accumulation of dust bunnies. OMG. The dust bunnies. I could knit a large coat with the dust bunnies I unearthed. I also disturbed a family of spiders that have taken up residence between my posters of Governor Ann Richards (RIP) and The Go-Gos reunion album of 1994. I decided it's too cold to rehouse them outdoors, so that web is staying for now. The dust bunnies, though, are well and truly expunged. For now. I am always amazed at the resilience of dust.

The nesting instinct is actually a bit ironic, given that the two months of the Shunda K Challenge ended with me holding the exact same status as before. Although not of a scientific bent, I can still see how there were significiant variables in our approaches to life that might explain the differing results achieved. Then there was the god thing. That wasn't happening. But, all is not lost. I am now creatively visualising clean walls, bright ceilings and shiny floors.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Where Art Meets Commerce

Sign on door of Showroom gallery announcing Reproductive Labour exhibit; photo by Val PhoenixYesterday provided a double helping of alternative cinema, as I visited Reproductive Labour, Cinenova's exhibit at the Showroom. Running for another three weeks, it offers tiny section of the archive of this longstanding feminist film distributor.

Each day of the exhibit a selection of films is screened. What I hadn't realised until I was in the space was that visitors could also request films. After a brief browse at the display of ephemera from various films in the archive, I settled down to watch Friday's selection, chosen (unseen) by Howard Slater, both on the theme of "father". The Death of the Father and The Father is Nothing both proved to be artful depictions of power and control, made in 1986 and 1991, respectively, quite a fruitful time for feminist film-making. I had a nose through some of the files on show and was amused to see some contained rejections from film festivals and apologies for delayed royalties! Perhaps too revealing. The next three Saturdays feature lectures and more extensive screenings.

Cake celebrating 25 years of London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; photo by Val PhoenixThat evening it was on to the launch of the 25th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Festival launches tend to be little more than extended thank yous to sponsors, interspersed with a few clips to tantalise the punters. This one proved rather more dramatic, as the future of the festival was being loudly debated, first by the announcement of a Facebook campaign to "discuss" the BFI's stewardship and then at the after-party, as the rumour going round was that this is to be the last festival! What? I wondered. Funding cuts to the BFI mean the future of the LLGFF will be assessed between the end of the festival in April and the calendar year, and that comes from BFI director Amanda Nevill.

Which rather cast a pall over what should have been a pretty joyous knees-up. 25 years is pretty good going. This year's festival has been curtailed to one week, because of the missing money, but it still boasts some intriguing films and events, including a preview of The Night Watch and The Owls, a new feature from Cheryl Dunye starring a who's who of dyke cinema.

But, as the volunteers who run Cinenova know, providing a platform for artistic excellence is no guarantee of finding financial support. They haven't had a grant in years.