Monday, December 29, 2014

What might have been....

As I've been resting up after finishing my long-in-the-works dissertation, I have rediscovered the joys of reading and watching films for pleasure. Perusing the selection at Hackney Library before Christmas, I took a few punts on some DVDs, including Sunshine Cleaning (2008), purely on the strength of the credits: two female leads, female director and female writer. Hurrah! Having viewed the film last night, I found myself annoyed at the ending and the disappearance of one plot strand without resolution.

I was so annoyed, I took to the Internet today to see if anyone else had noticed this lapse and to see if any key scenes had been deleted. The Internet did not let me down. SPOILER ALERT.

Lynn and Norah in the lift in Sunshine Cleaning
The plot strand I noted features Norah (Emily Blunt) and the woman she pursues, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), seemingly to return her childhood photos, having found them at the house of her deceased mother. What starts as a quest for Norah to get to grips with her own dead mother turns into a bit of a stalking, with Norah repeatedly seeking Lynn out, even inviting her to a party, where the woman nuzzles her neck! I sat bolt upright at this point: could this be an unexpected lesbian sub-plot? Suddenly Lynn's stroking of Norah's arm in the lift when they met made more sense. But, what was Norah's motivation? The film is quite unclear on this, and after revealing quite a bit of her family history during a "trestling" expedition, the film moved back to the main plot involving Norah's sister, Rose (Amy Adams), and her struggles with her young son and affair with a married man. But, wait! I wanted to know more about Norah and Lynn! When Norah finally hands over the photos to Lynn, the latter explodes in disbelief and a sense of betrayal: "I thought you were interested in me!" and leaves in a huff. No doubt about it: Lynn thought they were dating, and so did I. But, the film says no more about this relationship.

I thought to myself: there must be more. Something must have happened when they went trestling. Sure enough, if you check Megan Holley's script, there are additional scenes fleshing out the relationship. As Holley wrote it, Norah falls off the trestle, they go back to her place, make out and then Lynn discovers the photos. And Norah doesn't just accept the rejection. She tries to make amends by visiting Lynn's work place. It makes so much more sense! I did not listen to the audio commentary by Holley and one of the producers, but apparently, she does mention deleted scenes, but, as they do not appear on the DVD, it is unclear who cut them or why. But, like Desperately Seeking Susan, one is left to wonder what might have been. I'd like to imagine that after some time apart, Norah returns to make up with Lynn and they go trestling together. But, this time nobody gets hurt.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fringe! 2014: The unbearable lightness of being vulnerable

Art by Rachael House; photo: V. Phoenix


I can barely recall what I said as I stood at the at the Rose Lipman Building on Saturday night. Lip trembling, eyes watering, I reached out my arms and mumbled, “You are the audience.” And the people in front of me cheered. It was a live moment, energy crackling, shared with a group who wanted to be there, who were open, expecting, expectant, waiting for something. And that thing was In Search of Margo-Go, Jill Reiter's unfinished vision of the underground queercore-Riot Grrrl scene from the 1990s, and the centre-piece of our There's a Dyke in the Pit strand at Fringe! queer arts festival.

Not nearly as expectant as I was. I had waited 20 years for the thing to appear on the screen behind me. To appear on the screen behind me. Because what I had waited for was to see myself appear on the screen behind me. I was waiting for myself and my community to be seen. My community of the present was expectant to see my community of the past. And so was I. And it made me highly emotional. When the images appeared, I watched them in much the way I would any other film—I was appreciative, I laughed at the funny parts, frowned at the setbacks, empathised with the characters. But every time I reflected on what it meant, I welled up. Because it was so much more than a disposable form of entertainment, to be watched, lapped up, consumed, and disgorged, like a sweet wrapper.

As (I think) I told that evening’s audience, when we worked on the film, none of was a trained filmmaker, except for the director and the main cinematographers. Everyone else was, in my words, “enthusiastic amateurs”. My words were unscripted. I can now reflect on that choice of words. Amateur—one who does it for the love of it. Not too shabby. I guess I meant what I said. That was my community, a diasporic queer community of people who had waited a long, long time. And so had I. We were together. I only wish I had thought to change that personal address of “you” to “we”. We are the audience. And the producers.

In Search of Margo-Go
The film’s 20-year journey was one of obstacles, from lack of money, to personal conflicts, to obsolescence, changing technologies, all against a backdrop of time passing and social conditions changing, from queer street activism to equal marriage, from analogue film to digital video and non-linear editing packages, and its eventual emergence in Hackney in 2014. In a final three-day push, Jill edited it on her laptop on a table, leaning on a film canister that someone had bought as a piece of home furnishing. Spooky. I reflected that the film’s journey from New York to San Francisco to London paralleled my own journey. Perhaps it was meant to be.

Standing up and speaking to a room of strangers, some of whom were not born when we made the film (and I use this we to mean the wider queer community, as my own participation in it was fleeting), was potentially an alienating experience, especially for Jill, who was making her first ever visit to London. We spoke later about it and she told me she was glad it premiered in London, and not her own patch. Less baggage. Lucy Thane, on the other hand, marvelled that a film she worked on in San Francisco and New York had its premiere in her neighbourhood of Hackney. For the three of us who were there, all lesbians born in 1966-67, we had three very different journeys that put us in one place for a brief time in 1994 and again in this time of 2014. Wiser heads than mine could analyse that and make something of it.

What was extremely gratifying was that I felt not in the least ashamed or embarrassed by my reaction. I am a shy person. I am not a publicly emotive person. I prefer to share my feelings in private. This was a public occasion and I felt emotion publicly and shared it. Afterwards, I thought: Well, that was unexpected but it was honest and it needed to come out. The dykes finally took over the pit.

As my Fringe! experience was so totally focused on our strand, I have little to report from the rest of the weekend. But, I did catch three art exhibits in the basement of the Lipman, including Victoria Sin and Leslie Borg's Domestic Kitchen, their ode to both Nigella Lawson and Martha Rosler, and quite wickedly amusing.

The Lorenz-Boudry team brought us No Future/No Past, their take on first wave punk with a range of queer art types "performing" versions of Poly Styrene and Darby Crash in a kind of self-referential staged conversation.

Our punk den in the cafe of the Lipman was adorned with work by Gwenael Rattke and Rachael House, which again brought first wave punk and second wave feminist activism into conversation, thrilling for me. I had assembled an installation of my archive photos, plus shots of some of my vinyl collection, soundtracked by old cassette mix tapes I'd made, therefore reworking analogue forms into digital out of necessity. I'd like to revisit this project when I have more time and a better editing system, as there is much more to be done with the material. I am now the proud owner of a Rachael House Smash Patriarchy wrist band.

Shorts panel; photo V. Phoenix 
In the afternoon we had a shorts programme and   panel of bright minds discussing Riot Grrrl's cultural legacy. I had a thought that did not get discussed: how underground movements briefly surface, are burned by mainstream exposure, and quickly submerge, existing through word of mouth for those who can find them. This is the history of subcultures.

And, lastly, I did get to one screening on Friday, a retrospective of Barrelstout (Bev Zalcock and Sara Chambers) shorts from the last 20 years.

Bev Zalcock; photo V. Phoenix
While I don't feel my films have been directly influenced by them, we do share a DIY aesthetic and love of punk, and Tara from Wotever DIY Film Festival said she saw a link. Fine with me. Many of those who appear in the films were on hand, making for an amusing experience as they spotted their friends on the screen. Can't wait for them to  finish their football film, for which I was interviewed two years ago. Carol Morley, friend and associate of the Barrelstout stable, conducted a Q&A after the screening, and they elaborated on their manifesto. If I may excerpt:
We value themes that include optimism, cooperation, friendship, solidarity, fun  and laughter. We could not live without cinema. 
 DIY forever!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sound::Gender::Feminism::Activism 2014

Tara Rodgers; photo: Val Phoenix
I have just completed two days of extraordinarily thoughtful discussion about sound, gender, feminism and activism, courtesy of the conference of the same name, organised by CRiSAP. Yesterday I did my presentation on activating an archive, which was a technical challenge (if only I had three hands!), and I was much relieved when it was over. But, I am still pondering what came out of the conference.

At conferences I have attended in the past, it often felt like it built up to something and then didn't deliver: what next? At least at this conference, co-organiser Cathy Lane was explicit in her hopes for it: that someone else will take on its third iteration in two years and it can travel around (much like Ladyfest, I reckon). That would be fantastic. Clearly, there is an appetite to discuss the issues raised, and speakers had travelled from the USA, Europe, Mexico and Southern Africa to be there.

So, to the ideas raised. Well, for me, there was much interesting discussion about connection to ecology and other living things; ways of listenings; different forms of activism; and archival practices.

I think what stayed with me most, though, were the performances, which I don't recall from two years ago, when the conference was one day. I loved the performances. The first day ended with keynote speaker Maggie Nicols leading a group improv piece which ended in us all singing a sustained note, however loudly we wished and with no regard for key or pitch. That felt great.

The second day saw us meeting a puffin visitor from the Arctic Circle, courtesy of artist Elin Øyen Vister. Three of the Mexican performance group Invasorix provided a video/live performance of some of the videos of their work as feminist invaders from outer space. And the Greek troupe Fytini conducted a delightfully anarchic "lecture" on queerification and the possibilities of radical laughter. It was truly animating for me. Which is totally the wrong metaphor for a conference on sound. But, wow.

I am compiling a reading list for myself, based on works cited in the conference. So far, it includes Pauline Oliveros, bell hooks, Tara Rodgers (the other keynote speaker), Cynthia Enloe, Suzanne Lacy and others. It could go on and on.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Lydia Lunch on Post-Punk

I am a couple of days late with this, owing to general busyness, but I wanted write a few words about Lydia Lunch's appearance on Thursday. Appearing as part of the Post-Punk Then and Now series, Ms. Lunch held court at Deptford Town Hall before an adoring audience.

I turned up more out of curiosity than reverence and was quite impressed. I have not really followed her career extremely closely and know her more for her outrageous reputation than anything else, but must say she was quite the star turn. She performed two spoken word pieces on New York which had me nodding in recognition. Then she spoke with host Dominic Johnson, who seemed ever so slightly unnerved by her, especially when she gave him a lap dance and made comments about him becoming her next ex-husband. There were also recorded excerpts of her various musical projects, such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, as well as her new Retrovirus project.

The event was recorded, and I hope it turns up somewhere, because there were many quotable and applause-worthy moments, not least Lunch's forceful declarations on the state of the planet and her quest to destroy patriarchy. I could not get any decent pictures, but there are some online.

Plucking up my courage, I asked a question about her films with Vivienne Dick, and was rewarded with not only a direct gaze (we had to cock our heads to make eye contact), but a detailed answer about how the character played by Pat Place in She Had Her Gun All Ready was based on Dick herself. Most intriguing, as is Lunch herself.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The return of Sound::Gender::Feminism::Activism

I shall have more to say on this, but for now, I am very pleased to announce that I shall be presenting at the upcoming Sound::Gender::Feminism::Activism conference in London.

Two years ago I presented at the first such conference, an event that inspired a blog post and podcast. And possibly influenced me to return to higher education! The jury's out on that one....

My topic is Activating an Archive, and I am currently putting together the material for the presentation. I am trying to decide how to get in enough sound to fulfil the conference brief while working in my points.

Very exciting!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Disobedient Objects

I had been meaning to check out this intriguing-sounding exhibit at the V&A, but the confluence of my schedule, an out-of-town visitor and the happy coincidence of a late event swung it for me. So, Friday was spent in the salubrious surrounds of South Kensington.

First, the exhibit itself: many, many objects crammed into one room that didn't really seem big enough to hold them. It was busy, making for much manoeuvring around curious bodies, stooping for a look, craning necks to look up at banners and much photography. (Not too many selfies, though I did indulge. I wanted to position myself next to the blank space that was waiting to be filled with future disobedient objects.) So, what are disobedient objects? Well, they seem to be anything associated with protest, whether that be the arpillera textiles of Chile or the inflatable cobblestones of May Day in Berlin. A film played on a loop above our heads, and merged with the sound blasting from the bike bloc (and instructions on how to assemble one could be taken away) parked nearby. I reminisced over the ACT UP buttons and mused on the possibilities of book blocs.

Later, returning to the V&A in the evening for the one-off Making Trouble, Influencing People event, I found a techno rave in progress by the information table, and a series of lectures and performances dotting the museum. We queued for Guerrilla Girls' lecture, but missed out. We tried our hands at assembling book blocs and were chuffed to see our work realised as the cover of Animal Farm.

Book blocs; photo: Val Phoenix
We listened to barefoot music from Gaggle in the Raphael Room in front of the imposing altarpiece, wandered from room to room seeking amusement and finally sat outside in the vain hope of seeing a fully-formed cobblestone float into the sky. Instead, we saw what looked like a large bin bag being pumped full of air. Oh, disobedient objects!

Disobedient Objects is on at the V&A until 1 February 2015.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Upcoming Screenings

It's been some months since I have had any screenings to announce, but now I have two coming up in the next seven days.

This Friday in Hamburg my film In Bloom is part of a "swarm viewing" at the opening of a new exhibit, Fliegende Gärten. I have never heard of a swarm viewing, but, apparently, it is an interactive, personal type of film viewing in which visitors to the space get personal DVD players and exchange films. Wish I could be there to see it in action.

Then on Saturday is the first night of Wotever DIY Film Festival, and my films will be part of the closing night on 2 September at Royal Vauxhall Tavern as part of the Defiance programme. Very much looking forward to that.

I made a podcast for East London Radio to promote Wotever DIY Film Festival.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works

Over the years I have reviewed work by Yvonne Rainer, including her filmic and choreographic, but have never seen her dance work performed live. The show at Raven Row, curated by Catherine Wood, provides an opportunity to see four works performed, as well as see some of Rainer's notations and documentation of previous performances.

She's a puzzler, Yvonne Rainer. Not being knowledgeable about contemporary dance, I cannot say where she fits in or doesn't with standard practice. The dancers appeared before us in everyday clothes, five women and one man, and performed a series of moves, each one preceded by a spoken command. "C," for instance, was the aching back (my title), as they gripped their backs and dashed across the room. This piece, which dragged a bit for me, was Diagonal.

The second featured them using the second chamber, adjacent to the first, which was intriguing, as I had wondered when they would make use of it. They were also joined by a seventh dancer, a woman who appeared from the audience. She danced in jeans! I think this was Trio A.

The third piece featured the man alone (to the disgruntlement of my companion, Bev: "How feminist is that?"), tumbling through his moves while describing an essay he wrote about his great-grandfather and whether he should change it to fit the facts. That amused me. That was Talking Solo.

And then to the last piece, Chair Pillow, which alone featured musical accompaniment, the exquisite "River Deep, Mountain High", as the dancers brought out chairs and pillows and used them as partners. I was delighted by this and bopped along in my seat.

We took a turn through the exhibit, on three floors, in a gorgeous Huguenot building. I wanted to move into the fireplace, it was so roomy.

On the way home my back was complaining, and I gripped it, wearily. "C," I said.

Yvonne Rainer: Dance Works is on through 10 August at Raven Row, London. 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Women's Activism Film Night and East London Suffragette Festival

Four Corners; photo by Val Phoenix
No matter how long I have lived in East London, there are always things to learn about its rich and complex history, and last night's Women’s Activism Film Night at Four Corners gave me some new insights into the history of feminist activism in the area. Raised in the USA, I am familiar with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth and so forth, but haven't really familiarised myself with the Pankhursts and their agitations in the UK, first for the vote and then for multiple issues. Chief in this regard was Sylvia Pankhurst, who established the East London Federation of Suffragettes in Bow in 1914, working on a multi-pronged strategy to provide food and opportunities for East End women while the war raged abroad.

The film night was the kickoff of a ten-day celebration of her legacy and that of others in the East End, which culminates with a day-long event at Toynbee Hall on the 9th. It should be fascinating.

Last night's film programme, organised by the dynamic duo Barrelstout, started with footage of the suffragettes marching through London, but then moved on to other areas and time periods, seeking to make connections to labour, anti-racism, and other struggles that continue to the present day. It definitely whetted my appetite to see the excerpted films in full, which included Rise Up Women! and Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything Is Possible. Even the titles are inspirational! There were plenty of history I knew nothing about, such as the 1970s Grunwick strike, led by Asian women, and interviews with women who supported the miners strike and found they could do more than they thought. This is a familiar refrain with women's activism.
Suffragette rap sheet; photo by Val Phoenix

An exhibition of posters from several eras of women's activism in London is on display for the next week at Four Corners. I found the photos of the suffragettes and descriptions of their activities most intriguing. Such fierce women!

One interesting theme I picked up on in talking to other attendees was the vast energy and agency these women seemed to tap into. Could we ever see delegations from local estates pouring into a demo at Wapping? Labour organisers bussed down in their thousands to support a local strike? Women firebombing churches in order to obtain equal rights?

East London Suffragette Festival runs 1-10 August in London.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Sites of Collective Memory

Roz Mortimer; photo by Val Phoenix
Opening today in the atmospheric and ever so secluded grounds of Southwark Park is the group exhibit Sites of Collective Memory, featuring works by four artists (including one pairing) on the theme of place and memory. Quite intriguing as it follows on from my visit two weeks ago to the day-long symposium Anxious Places, featuring one of the group, Shona Illingworth, in conversation with two of her collaborators.

Illingworth's talk that today focused on the process of developing the piece showing here, 216 Westbound, a recollection by John Tulloch of being on board one of the Tube trains that was blown up on July 7, 2005. Unfortunately, on the night of the private view there was so much chatter from the assemblage outside the room where the work was showing, it was difficult to hear what Tulloch said. Then a message flashed up onscreen that the computer showing it was scheduled to shut down in nine minutes! Those of us in the room watched the clock counting down with mounting anxiety. I did have a thought it was part of the artwork, but I don't think so, and went off to ask someone to reset the machine. It definitely deserves a more sympathetic viewing and full attention. Later, I spoke to Illingworth in the lovely garden adjacent to the gallery, and we chatted about her process. "I'm not so interested in making objects," she declared, before turning the conversation to allotments. She has a plethora of courgettes.

A cosy living room was the setting for CHUVIHONI, Delaine Le Bas & Damian James Le Bas's multi-disciplinary work on collective memory, in which voices reflect on seeing ghosts, as a pastoral setting with flickering animation is shown onscreen. I noted with alarm that the photographs book next to the plush chair had some liquid on it, as if a careless guest had dripped his or her drink on it. I shook the book and the liquid slipped off. Thankfully, the photos were unharmed.

It's interesting to walk in on works shown on loops. Sometimes it's hard to tell the beginning from the end, and in the case of Jordan Baseman's Little Boy, I actually came in toward the end, an explosion of manipulated film, with holes and burns marking it. When it restarted, I heard the brief testimony of a survivor of the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima, which gave context to the subsequent abstract morass.

But, the most thought-provoking work for me was also the longest, Roz Mortimer's This is History (after all), which juxtaposed quite lovely, painterly compositions with a reflection on a hideous war crime, the slaughter of Roma by the Nazis in Poland. To this day, there are unexcavated mass graves under fields and in forests sitting side by side with a seemingly placid village. And people remember what happened, but there is no official recognition. It is one of Mortimer's "rebellious archives", as she explained to me afterward, aware of the tension between beautiful images and a grim story that is part of her working practice.

Sites of Collective Memory continues at the CPG Gallery in London through 10 August.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Whitstable 2014 Biennale

Whitstable; photo: Val Phoenix
My return to Whitstable was an afternoon sojourn rather than an all-dayer, but the weather was highly cooperative, and I had some company in the form of my friend Bev, who pointed out the abundant bird life as we made our way through town. First stop was the beachside HQ, where Collaborative Research Group were doing some demos of surveillance equipment. We returned later to pick up a map and find our way around.

The Horsebridge Gallery was a useful stopping-off point for a refreshing lunch, as well as site of two exhibits. I was quite keen to see the VALIE EXPORT film showing as part of Mark Aerial Waller's Welcome to the Association Area, but we ended up in the midst of the Sapphire & Steel clip, which featured a youthful Joanna Lumley and David McCallum bellowing at people in a cafe. I was quite taken with it, as I found their 1960s hair mesmerising, but Bev wanted to move on, so we went into the other gallery space to see Louisa Martin's film, The Lighthouse: Scenes 1 and 2. Despite two additional visits to the first gallery, it was always Sapphire & Steel, so never got to see EXPORT.

Moving on to Dead Man's Corner, we visited Laura Wilson's installation, Black Top, which makes use of the site-specific industrial conditions, i.e., a mound of black earth. Then we went for a stroll on the beach, taking in the beach huts. Bev was disappointed that the beachside bar stopped serving at 3pm, which is precisely when we arrived. So, it was off to find refreshments, and finally we made it to the highlight of the visit, Louisa Fairclough's Absolute Pitch, which was way off the beaten path at the Whitstable Museum and Gallery.

Because it is at the back of the museum, which charges an entry fee, one needs to get a token to see the installation, a film sculpture, but we had picked up our tokens from HQ earlier. Featuring five functioning projectors linked by crossed strips of film, Absolute Pitch is reminiscent of Lis Rhodes' Light Music. Pulleys hanging from the ceiling assist in the crossing of the strips of celluloid, while the projectors also emit streams of light, sometimes coloured with gels. And then there is the interimittent sound, an explosive female pitch. Bev and I wandered in and out of the patches of light as they hit the wall. It really was a marvellous experience and I could have stayed a lot longer, but we had a train to catch.

Much, much more is happening on the weekends, which is when the performances and live events are on, so it is worth checking the programme.

Whitstable 2014 Biennale runs through 15 June in Whitstable, Kent.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lost Endings and Hidden Meanings

Since I was in the area, I popped into the current exhibit at Space, Cherchez la Femme, about French feminist activist videos. Since there were no captions for any of the myriad screens, I wasn't sure what I was watching and since none of the headphones worked, I couldn't be sure what was being said except for the English subtitles on the screen. But, a familiar face caught my eye. "Is that Jane Fonda?" I wondered and sat down to confirm or deny my suspicion. Yes, it was, and she was discussing one of my favourite films, Julia, so I stayed put.

Well, it was most interesting. Jane, in translation, was talking about the representation of the female friendship in the film (between her and Vanessa Redgrave) and how it made the crew uncomfortable. The director, Fred Zinnemann, actually COUNTED how many times she touched Vanessa in their scenes together, because he didn't want anyone to think the characters were lesbians. Well, no doubt, their emotional intensity and the ambiguity of the relationship is exactly why the film made such an impact on me as a child. How often is a female friendship the anchor of a film? Jane's thoughts, exactly, as she elaborated on how rare it is to see two women behave "naturally" with each other and her realisation that that behaviour is so threatening to men.

Recently, I have been checking out films on DVD, including those I have seen before but many years before, as well as some I have missed. Last week's viewing included the commercial DVD of Desperately Seeking Susan, with director's commentary by Susan Seidelman, as well as three women involved in producing the film. Most illuminating were their comments that they had great feminist intentions for the film and wanted the two women to stay together at the end of the film. "I hate to say it," opined Seidelman, "but it's a love story between two women." A lot to ponder in that statement. Why "I hate to say it"? Presumably, because that implies a lesbian relationship between the two leads, Susan and Roberta, and that's (as Jane had stated) just not allowed, because it makes men uncomfortable and threatened.

Most startlingly to me, and I may be the last person on earth to realise it, but the ending of DSS was actually changed after shooting, because it "tested badly", i.e., audiences reacted badly to the two women RIDING OFF TOGETHER ON CAMELS at the end. This ending is actually included on the DVD and made my jaw drop. It totally changes the meaning of the film. How the %&*$£"! was that allowed to happen? To please the studio, presumably. And this is how female relationships are edited out of cinematic history. Cherchez la femme, indeed.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Tower

Entrance to The Tower;
 photo by Val Phoenix
Starting off the month with a multi-media site-specific installation! The day was grim and rainy, but that only added to the atmosphere as I made my way to unvisited location, a church in Bethnal Green. Not only a church, but as it turned out, the belfry of a church, lit by tiny tea lights set out on the steps. No electric lighting here! A Health and Safety nightmare, methinks.

But, I made my way carefully up the stone steps to the belfry, where I was met by a knot of people and a voice shouting, "The witch is here! The witch is here!" Indeed, she was, though I could not see her through the crowd, even when I crouched. Though I did make out a candle, as she read from a text and invoked "Away, black dog!" This turned out to be text by Jude Cowan Montague, one of the artists, as read by Jo Roberts, who also offered various potions for hair and skin. I did not require further moisturising, so did not partake. The installation was two-fold, two towers one in front of the other, with flickering lights (so there was electricity!) creating mesmerising patterns on the wall and the people gathered in the small space. Both artists, the other being Miyuki Kasahara, had taken inspiration from buildings, as well as transgressive women, to look at "how women express themselves in the face of societal persecution".

I suppose being sent to the tower holds its fears, but I felt quite relaxed as I made by way back down the stairs, past the flickering candles and out onto the street, enjoying the play of light on the puddles.

The Tower is on view Saturday afternoons through 5 June at St. John on Bethnal Green.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

On the Buses

An urgent errand in South London prompted one of my now-frequent epic bus journeys, but today's was a bit more pleasant than usual. For a start, I broke my journey in sunny Shoreditch to catch the last day of the Carolee Schneemann exhibit, Water Light / Water Needle, which I've been meaning to catch since it opened.

Set in one warmly lit room, the spotlit photos, which she'd painted on, were of her performances from 1966 of the titular piece, which was also recalled in a film, which I found most intriguing. Starting with a group of nude people emerging from a lake, it developed into a kind of naturism/naturalism study. Among the participants were Meredith Monk, James Tenney and Schneemann herself. Alas, I couldn't recognise Monk, but did pick out the other two. The piece absolutely screamed Hippy! But, that's no bad thing.

Then I had the great fortune to pick up one of the heritage buses running just for the day. Being a bus nerd, it was a great pleasure to hop aboard the Route 22 for just two stops to savour the atmosphere (OK, it was a bit musty, but it's 75 years old!) of one of the old RT buses, and I even got a ticket! And it was free! Very exciting. I switched to one of the newer, not so exciting buses for the rest of my journey, but felt v. satisfied indeed. Still, questions remain. When were digital clocks installed? Why is it the Year of the Bus and why only in central London? Why don't we in the outer areas get those nifty signs?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

BFI Flare: Tru Love and Conscious Coupling

Tru Love
When I booked my last day at the festival yesterday, little did I realise it would be the first day of equal marriage in the UK, and the trappings of weddings were all around: Sandi Toksvig was renewing her vows next door, the festival delegate centre laid on mimosas and the screen was showing footage of happy same sex couples getting spliced. Even Twitter was running a hashtag called #sayido. Oh, my. A bit much for early on a Saturday. Or any day. I shared a few grumbles with another old hand as we stood by the bar, ignoring the cocktails and chocolate hearts. Assimilation. Grumble, grumble. Homonationalism. Grumble. Privatisation of relationships. Grumble. Good luck to 'em, but my view is: #sayidont.

Grasping my glass of prosecco-free orange juice, I pondered my first viewing of the day. Tru Love. Oh, great. But, this turned out not to be so much a rom-com as a reflection on unfulfilled promise and what people settle for. A Canadian drama written by and starring Shauna McDonald, the film starts off as a bit of a sex farce, with McDonald's character Tru jumping out of bed with someone to rush back to a friend's to let in her mother, Alice. It seems Tru is always running away: from relationships, jobs, any form of commitment. As her relationship with Alice unfolds, Tru reveals some early hurts, such as losing her parents and being thrown out on the street, that may explain some of her behaviours. But, that doesn't make them any less difficult for those around her. Another relationship, between her friend Suzanne and Alice, also needs some attention, while Suzanne and Tru also have some simmering issues. And, so, though the film starts off looking pretty formulaic, it actually turns into quite compelling viewing, as one wonders how all of this will unwind. I was quite touched, even if I thought the ending left one important strand unresolved while wrapping up another unconvincingly.

My last two screenings were both shorts programmes, both of a very different character. You're the One, Aren't You? turned out to be about love (that again!), with a range of relationship dramas, comedies and even an animation in which lesbian astronauts save the world! The Spanish farce Vecinas was a highlight, as two lesbian couples decide to swap partners for the night, with amusing consequences. I especially liked the translation of confusion which spelled it as "confussion", surely a lesbian neologism that fuses fuss and confusion. I have definitely experienced "confussion" in my life.

And then it was on to Past (Im)perfect, the experimental shorts programme which featured the world premiere of Bev Zalcock's and Sara Chambers' The Light Show: A Trilogy. Bev has been telling me about these films as she's been working on them over the last year, and so I was quite keen to see them. And they are lovely, a mix of digital and analogue, with dollops of disco iconography (Helen de Witt's term), melancholia and nostalgia. It can be hard to get into abstract work sometimes, but the audience was rapt and the sound was great. I very much enjoyed it. Some of the other works were hard-going, most notably the last film, a 29-minute piece that seemed to be five or six films strung together. I should have known when the first section was one shot of a man shaving in a shower that went on for several minutes. The one bright spark was a girl singing Nirvana's "Dumb" a cappella in a locker room.

Everyone seemed to be attending parties in the evening, but I had to rush home, meaning I missed the Vagina Wolf screening, attended by none other than Guin Turner. I did see Turner sneaking out for a crafty fag, earlier in the evening as I took another turn in Killjoy's Kastle, as I wanted to listen to the footage of the zombie folk singers, which you can only hear on headphones. The performer featured is none other than Gretchen Phillips, whom I well remember from her days in Two Nice Girls. Here she was sending up the hoary days of lesbian folk singers, in an all-Canadian set. And her choices were Kathy Fire and Ferron! I am still not sure if her white braid, which she had to flick out of the way of her guitar, is real or was part of her costume, but she gave her zombie character her all.

I also ran into Carol Morley, currently in post-production on her schoolgirl drama The Falling, which she is prepping for the spring festival circuit. Grading starts Monday, and Tracey Thorn is doing the music, so that sounds fab.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

BFI Flare: Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?

Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?
So far, this is hands-down the best thing I've viewed at the festival, and there are rumours afoot that director/star Anna Margarita Albelo will be bringing her vagina costume to the screening tonight, so it should be quite the event.

Part farce, part reflection on success and failure and part mid-life crisis drama, Vagina Wolf is a delightful melding of comedy and pathos, with Albelo at its heart. As struggling film director Anna arrives at her 40th birthday party, she realises she is at a crossroads: "I had sacrificed love for my career, and now I had neither." Dressed in the vagina costume in which she earns a crust as a performer in galleries, she is exposed and lonely. And her friends (including Guin Turner in marvellously bitchy form) are no help, either, egging her on to chat up women with whom she has nothing in common. She lives in a garage and dreams of making that breakthrough. Once she embarks on a lesbian reworking of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in order to impress a young lady, she is on a collision course with herself, as her frailties and fears come to the surface.

What I love about this film is that Albelo, a seasoned comic actress, isn't afraid to make herself look ridiculous, as she spends much of the film hiding inside this costume. But, once on set, as Georgie, Anna is exposed emotionally, having to confront her worst fears, and the tone becomes quite serious. It isn't played for laughs. This character is going through hard times and we are not sure how she will emerge. It's very brave film-making. The film-within-a-film trope has been done many times, but here it really works. And the fact it may be autobiographical also has resonance.

Albelo's Hooters was a highlight for me of a previous festival, but here she really comes into her own as an actress and film-maker.

Friday, March 28, 2014

BFI Flare: Sex and Liberation

Between the Waves dir. Tejal Shah
Last night's Flare viewing consisted of a documentary on a pioneer of underground gay film, plus a semi-retrospective on a current artist filmmaker.

James Broughton, celebrated in Big Joy, was a West Coast filmmaker-poet active in the post-war years in San Francisco, though he attracted more attention in Europe, earning a special prize at Cannes. In truth, the film footage shown looked a bit ropy to me: sub-Chaplinesque hetero follies played out in unlikely locales, including London's Crystal Palace. But, there was more to Broughton than his films. A playful wordsmith, he wrote 23 books of poetry, lines of which are cleverly used in the film, whether flashing up on screen or read out by his nearest and dearest, including his estranged wife. Yes, wife, because Broughton swung both ways and wasn't exactly careful in his relationships. Three children came out of his liaisons with film critic Pauline Kael and his later wife, Suzanna Hart, who still seems broken by the betrayal. Broughton left her for the love of his life, a younger man, but I did feel for the abandoned wife. Very telling, too, that two of his children declined to be interviewed for the film. Artists, eh? The most amusing parts of the film (aside from the appearance of Frida Kahlo on two interviewees' walls) are the acerbic comments by George Kuchar, who takes the piss out of Broughton's sunny Radical Faerie world view, and stresses that his film The Bed was detested "on the East Coast". You can take the boy out of the Bronx...

The evening was capped off by The Stinging Kiss, nine films by Tejal Shah, who works in Goa and ususally shows in gallery settings. This festival screening, she said, was new territory for her. And for me, as I found myself by turns discomited, bemused, and a bit fidgety over the next two hours. The films' aesthetic reminds me a bit of the Austrian cyberqueer film, Flaming Ears, that I saw many, many years ago, and Shah did name-check Donna Haraway in her comments. There is a coldness and detachment that makes it difficult to get immersed in the works. To be sure, Shah is exploring power relations and oppositions, as she positions herself in the frame in different roles. In one, she is the "dacoit" (a term new to me) enacting a scene that blurs the lines between torture and S/M with a male protagonist playing a cinematic heroine. In another, she is being force-fed reams of food by a dead-eyed female collaborator. In the longest work, an epic five-part sci-fi meets nature drama (Shah declared herself newly out as an ecosexual), a band of unicorn beings frolics in various incongruous settings, including a desert and underwater grotto. I wasn't clear what was happening, but watching Shah penetrate her partner with her horn while both writhed in pomegranate juice, well, you don't get those experiences in a multi-plex.

Pick of the day:
For a good old-fashioned tragic romance, you can't beat Reaching for the Moon, Bruno Barreto's lush drama on the love affair between poet Elizabeth Bishop and architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Wow! These two women were seriously high-powered and highly strung. Two continents aren't enough for them, as they build parks, write masterpieces, squabble and seemingly ignore the heartbreak and simmering resentment of Soares' cast-aside partner Mary, an old friend of Bishop's. A high IQ clearly doesn't equal a high emotional IQ, and Mary's revenge is a turning point in the film. With gorgeous visuals of Brazilian landscapes, and judicious use of Bishop's poems, the film also features three excellent performances by the leads playing out the triangle over a 16-year period. Take tissues.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

BFI Flare: Another Time, Another Place

To be filed under back in the day, two features focused on gay men offer up competing visions of sexual mores and practices.

Continental, Malcolm Ingram's doc on New York's legendary Continental Baths, casts the mind back to a time between 1968 and 1974, when gay men didn't need to worry about safe sex and could frolic and bareback to their hearts' content. As long as the police and Mafia were paid off, since gay sex was illegal. But, if you didn't mind that intrusion, it was possible to meet hot guys and take in a show by Bette Midler and have a swim in the same venue. (Even Hitch dropped in!) Proprietor Steve Ostrow takes centre-stage, and his story threatens to overwhelm the Baths', as the doc shuffles along, creaking to a stop in present-day Sydney, where Steve has finally achieved his lifelong dream of a career in music.

Moving into 1980s San Francisco, Chris Mason Johnson's Test takes us into the world of modern dance, as young Frankie comes to terms with the realities of being a sexually active gay man unsure of the risks of his behaviour and trying to decide whether to take the new HIV test. I found the frequent dance sequences interrupted the unfolding drama, and waited impatiently to see whether Frankie and his hirsute colleague Todd would get together. The film picks up quite a bit in the last 15 minutes and there is a delightful nightclub scene in which Frankie and Todd shed their professional demeanour to have a good ol' knees up.

Monday, March 24, 2014

BFI Flare: The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer
It's been a long wait to see The Punk Singer in the UK, after it premiered at SXSW in 2013, and I had built up huge expectations in the meantime. Kathleen Hanna's story is hugely intriguing to me, for musical and political reasons. Bikini Kill remain one of my favourite bands and my interviews with her are also some of my favourites.

Sini Anderson's doc, shot between 2010 and 2011, crams a lot in, and, with its plethora of interviewees (too many, I suspect), covers a lot of ground, from Hanna's early spoken word (which opens the film) to her diagnosis of late stage Lyme disease (after being ill for five years). I hadn't realised Hanna had been absent from the music scene since 2005, so the film's prolonged tease about what exactly had kept her off-stage didn't work for me as a mystery, but it's still instructive to know more about this illness and its effects (quite dramatic, as one scene shot by her husband at home shows) on her.

As far as those interviewees go, well, there are so many of them, that several don't even merit captions (including Kaia Wilson--I would have liked to have heard what she had to say), and the plethora of hagiographic praise and snapshots of the singer only serves to create a cult of personality around Hanna, something she persistently resisted in her years with Bikini Kill. That's a shame, because while she is in interesting figure, the message of Riot Grrrl and feminism in general has always been to go out and do it yourself, rather than worshiping someone else for doing so. I wonder if the intervening years have diluted that message to the point that it's been lost.

In the house was Lucy Thane, as well as Shirley and Ana from The Raincoats, all of whom came on-stage for a post-film Q &A, appropriate as Thane's It Changed My Life was the opener for the Hanna doc. It's interesting to see how this record of Bikini Kill's UK tour from 1993 has aged. All the energy and graininess of the time is still there, but the audience seemed to find the naivety of the British bands who emerged, such as Skinned Teen, comical. I don't recall that being so when I first viewed it all those years ago. Perhaps there is less tolerance for non-technical playing these days.

I asked the panel about current feminism's preoccupation with responding to pop culture, rather than creating alternatives. Ana replied she'd like to see both, and doesn't mind pop culture if it has something to say. As these films remind us, sometimes the subculture says it louder and better.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

BFI Flare: Contentious

Today's overview centres on difficult women, from lesbian rogues to a mother harbouring secrets.

The rogue is the late Dawn O'Donnell, clearly a legend of Sydney's LGBT scene but unknown to me until Fiona Cunningham-Reid's Croc-a-Dyke Dundee. Colourful doesn't begin to cover O'Donnell's life: convent school girl, ice skater, nightclub maven and ruthless businesswomen who also had an eye for the ladies. Was she involved in a murder, too? The doc's voiceover is archly vague about this, but it's quite a tale.

Violette Leduc was clearly a woman in thrall to her passions, but she was French, so that's par for the course. In truth, the writer comes across as a bit of a drag in Esther Hoffenberg's doc, Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love, enmeshed in unrequited relationships with Simone de Beauvoir and several gay men, while complaining of never being at home anywhere. It did make me curious about her writing, however, so all is not lost.

Pick of the day:
Marcel Gisler's Rosie is a slow-burning drama about family obligations and secrets. Sibylle Brunner is mesmerising as the matriarch slowly succumbing to age, while her gay son Lorenz can't seem to commit, even when love is right in front of him. The rural Swiss locations are beautifully observed, as Lorenz makes ever more trips from Berlin back to the homestead to tend to Mama, while in denial about her frailty. When secrets emerge about his late father's past, Lorenz has to face up to some home truths.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

BFI Flare: First Impressions

Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger
I spent a very enjoyable afternoon / evening at the shiny new BFI Flare yesterday. Formerly the LLGFF, it's been rebranded and spruced up with rather viral looking explosive blobs that some mistook for hothouse flowers, but which I quickly recognised as flares. Ahem.

Highlight was most definitely Sam Feder's artful documentary Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, a title as playful as its subject. Gender outlaw Bornstein was a fixture on the queer scene in SF when I lived there in the early '90s, and though we never officially met, she contributed much to discussions of gender expression and identity throughout that time. I'd lost track of her work since then, but the film mentions several of her books, including one on alternatives to suicide. Feder's portrait does not attempt an overview of her life, but merely touches on several aspects, as we meet some of her friends and family, including at least one ex. Bornstein emerges as a spirited, very funny and opinionated (her defence of "tranny" will rankle some) soul, whose battle with cancer and dedication to a life lived without being mean offers a vision of how to get through the worst obstacles.

My prelude to that couldn't be more different. GBF (dir Darren Stein) is the latest in an endless stream of US high school comedies. This one offers the trope that the gay best friend is the latest accessory for the ambitious would-be top girl, and so dorky Tanner finds himself suddenly in demand by the three high-maintenance divas vying to be Prom Queen. While a lot of the comedy is predicated on just how shallow the three girls are, I will give the film credit for clearly differentiating them, as well as offering a plethora of juicy female roles in what is essentially a gay male coming out story. Megan Mullally even turns up as one of the boy's well-intentioned, overly supportive mothers. The film also throws in a couple of ethnic minorities in what is otherwise a white suburban setting, but then spoils its feel-good mood by its casual use of "Wonton" and "rice queen" in reference to the Asian sidekick character. Gnarly, dude.

I capped off my visit with some cake, courtesy of Allyson Mitchell's Kill Joy's Kastle installation which has taken up residence in the very chilly atrium. More on this later, but the artist is giving a talk today at 16:00 GMT.

Today's film picks:
Big Words (dir Neil Drumming) is an ensemble piece set in NYC 2008, in which John attempts to pick up the pieces of his life after being fired from his latest job. It emerges he was once in a rap trio, DLP, in the '90s and the film circles around its three former members as they all come to terms with changes in their lives. The gay content is only peripheral, but the most interesting thing about the film is its resistance to the obvious plot devices. We expect the three to come together at some point, but their confrontation is not the expected happy ending. Kudos also to a film that is set on the day of Obama's election, and doesn't show any characters voting!

Valencia, based on Michelle Tea's novel, has 21 directors, so I won't run through them. But, the film is a fragmentary portrait of Michelle's life in the queer scene in SF in the 1990s, extravagantly depicted through many, many styles, including claymation! The music is awesome, as would be expected.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

IWD Mash-up

Happy International Women's Day! I have just been sent a link to AGF's amazing mash-up of women electronic music artists from the 1930s-onward. Get squelchy!

NERDGIRLS Mash by poemproducer AGF 8 March 2014 - for equality, diversity and world peace by Poemproducer Aka Agf on Mixcloud

Friday, March 07, 2014

Off Road

Elisa Amoruso's film Off Road, which is playing in London as part of the Cinema Made in Italy festival, is an intriguing, puzzling documentary which raises questions about identity and constructed lives.

At the centre of it is Beatrice, previously known as Pino, a mechanic with a lovely life shared with Marianna and the latter's son Daniele. Beatrice is quite matter-of-fact about her transition from life as Pino and is a boisterous character, dressing in bright pinks and always in search of a new dress. She is also head over heels in love with Marianna, explaining how she set eyes on her and immediately professed her love and her desire to take her home.

Marianna, for her part, is more reticent, and I noticed after the film ended, that she never declared her love for Beatrice. In fact, she didn't refer to Beatrice as Beatrice or even she, calling her Love and Darling, and in her interviews consistently referring to Beatrice using male pronouns. Oh, dear. Despite Beatrice's emphatic embracing of a female gender, those around her consistently named her as male, including her mother and Daniele, who had claimed her as Dad, despite meeting her after her transition. They seem to regard her more as a man who cross-dresses and Beatrice as the personification of this identity.

How does Beatrice manage this contradiction? Well, she seems not to acknowledge it, preferring to dwell on her skill as a mechanic (the team she works for "never spoke about" her transition), and tend to her ill dog, Kira, as well as her menagerie of farm animals in what seems to be a rural idyll.

As the film develops, it turns out Beatrice has run away from a previous life, including a child who is heard but not seen, and the story takes a bit of a sad turn (even the dog sub-plot turns sour). Beatrice appears as not such a carefree soul, but one burdened by unresolved issues and a bit of anger, if determined to claim her space on the road.

Elisa Amoruso will appear at the screening of Off Road on 8 March for a Q&A.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Derek Jarman: Pandemonium

Fighting with London's sluggish traffic and ever-so-unaccommodating weather, I met up with my friend Bev to take in this exhibit wedged somewhere between King's College's Strand campus and Somerset House.

Descending the elegant spiral staircase, I felt like I'd been invited to one of the ambassador's parties, as we arrived at the exhibit doors. In we swept, depositing our mink stoles---Oh, sorry. No, actually, we picked up some cards and I tried out the MP3 player that is offered to visitors, containing "music from Derek Jarman". Not music to accompany the silent Super 8 films, but music that has some connection to Derek Jarman. I think it was used in some of his other films, but certainly an odd choice.

Perhaps the curator felt contemporary visitors couldn't bear to watch films in silence. It's not as if they are especially long films, and I found that every time I popped on my headphones, Bev had some illuminating comment to make about the films, and so I kept removing my headphones to listen to her. Some of the music was by Simon Fisher Turner, I know, but I didn't hear enough to really form an impression as to whether it added to my experience of the films.

Since Bev is both a Super 8 filmmaker and dedicated modernist, I thought she would be an ideal companion, and we spent quite a bit of time discussing Jarman's preference for "urban ruination", which is also something we feel has vacated London in recent years, as the glass boxes have proliferated and the scruffy elements have been swept under the carpet or pushed out of the gentrifying districts.

This was especially apparent as we watched Jarman's films shot in his loft in Butler's Wharf in the 1970s. Has there been any area more tarted up than the Docklands? A view on to the Thames allowed him a panorama of bridges, buildings, swooping seagulls and the lapping water, as well as the attractions within his own walls, seen in such films as Jubilee.

The works on show, which include some paintings and some influential books (including volumes by Ginsberg and Shakespeare) are mainly from Jarman's early years, pointing the way to his later features and a life cut short by HIV. There is also something of a vanished London in it, making it both celebration and memorial.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Many Happy Returns

Having rung in the new year, it's time to see what's on the horizon for 2014. I already have a very busy January planned, and am wondering how to squeeze in everything I want to see after a recumbent December.

First up this week is the very welcome return of filmmaker Vivienne Dick. I had heard over a year ago she was working on a new film, and she will be in attendance when it screens this Saturday at the ICA in London.

It's also worth popping over to Jude Cowan Montague's Nuclear Winter on Sunday the 12th, as she casts an eye over the situation in Fukushima. I may be screening a new film of mine, shot at a Cold War spy station, if technical facilities allow.

Next week sees some tasty-looking artists' films at the remodelled, swanky Tate Britain, as part of the Assembly series. I especially like the look of Assembly: Regeneration II on 13 January.

And starting tomorrow, Anat Ben-David has a new installation, entitled MeleCH premiering, with a live performance to follow on the 15th.

Loadsa arty doings in London Town!