When video was introduced on an international level at the end of the 60s everything seemed to be in motion: from space travel, rock’n roll, expansion1, peace and the liberation movement. The portapak, the first portable video recording device, was the perfect tool for filming in the field: close to the events on the streets, to people’s lives. The video So Happy shot in 1973 on the streets of the Bowery in New York by artist Joëlle de la Casinière is such an outstanding snapshot of these times – full of both ease and revolutionary zeal.
With the emergence of the second international feminist movement, video seemed the ideal ally to address questions of feminine aesthetics and to communicate feminist politics and art theory. Many female artists started working with videos in the 70s developing new practices and concepts relating to the video as medium as well as to feminist objectives. To this very day the video is widely seen as champion for the feminist cause as proven by the many international contributions to FemLink’s collection since 2006 encompassing topics from Fragilité, Résistance, Préoccupation to currently Mâle – Homme.
Re-reading the representation of women in art history
The video’s potential to set in motion the classic image of the woman from within is cleverly demonstrated in the video performance Glauben Sie nicht, dass ich eine Amazone bin (1975) by Ulrike Rosenbach where she cross-fades two recordings, one of the medieval painting Madonna im Rosenhag (Stefan Lochner, 1451) on a target, the other of her own face while shooting arrows onto the historical painting, thus creating a third image: a woman shooting herself, both victim and murderer, Amazon and Maria. The live-conducted cross-fading metamorphoses to the demonstration of the dilemma of not being able to escape the images, there is no outside, no before, no after of the representation. In the same spirit, though not as overtly Lili Dujourie’s video series Hommage à … (1972) deals with representations of women in art history. In five scenes you see the sleeping Dujourie, lying naked in front of or on an intricately draped bed. The inference is that the camera entered a bedroom undetected so as to catch a covert glimpse of the sleeping beauty if not for the feeling that we have seen this all somewhere before. It is the poses adopted by the sleeping woman that recall images of a sleeping Venus and reveal that we, spectators seeing through the eye of the camera, have already been awaited.
Numerous women artists in the 70s used video as one way to voice their representation critique which reflects just this issue: the inevitability of woman as image. A paradox reality prompting Jacques Lacan to make his provocative statement: “La femme n’existe pas”. The artist Duba Sambolec seems to give this declaration by Lacan a new twist in her work Conversion (2000). She crosses an empty room blindfolded holding a rifle and iterating a mumbled “I don’t exist”. She stops, shoots, loads the gun with increasing skill and moves on. A disturbing mixture of feminist theory and associations with the Balkan conflict arises.
Curiosity and camera view
The complicity between curiosity and the camera is subtly dismantled in the video installation PP Contact (2001) by the artist duo PP Group ((Katarina Šević and Zita Majoros) . We see two women who are repeatedly swapping their contact lenses. As soon as they have inserted one lens, the other one is removed, swapped carefully, immersed in cleansing solution and inserted again. This exchanged and shared vision aid which can be interpreted as the swapped and shared point of view, includes the spectator solely as a witness but not as participant in the exchange – tantamount to a rejection of voyeurism.
As in most early video artworks, women artists picture themselves as primarily making themselves the objects of somebody else’s perception and in the process demonstrating this approach. Marina Abramovic incants Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful the artist while combing her untameable hair with both her hands, a comb and a brush in each respectively. The dilemma of being subject to a double requirement of beauty is painfully rehearsed.
“The private is political”
This was the credo of the feminists, and referred to a politics of the banal, beyond issues of domestic violence: who takes the garbage out? who changes the nappies? who bears the burden of everyday reproductive work? Schmeergunz, an experimental film by Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley from 1966 looks pointedly at these issues: in a collage in rapid cuts, images of beauty pageants alternate with those of a heavily pregnant woman in everyday schemes, close shots of a syphon from which a hand extracts disgusting dirt particles, and a storyteller’s voice relating the story of Sleeping Beauty’s awakening. The allusions to an existence as homemaker and mother together with the snippets of found footage of commercially produced teenage girls’ culture in American TV show the eroding divides between public and private, between obsession and individual fantasy, between images, ideas and actions. Nearly 40 years later, Eléonore de Montesquieu addresses the same issues in her film Swing, ma demeure. la putain et la maman (2003), however uses a different narrative stance: in quiet, black-and-white images shots of a luggage conveyor belt at an airport, a round gold fish aquarium, a child’s bottom getting a new diaper alternate, with several female off voices reflecting on their attitude towards pregnancy and childbirth: from the fear of seeing their own body go out of shape and losing all attractiveness to the hymn on what is growing in their body and makes their belly round and taut. The work attests to its feminist pioneers’ heritage with all the sensitive attention the artist bestows to the individual varieties. The attempts to find one voice for all has disappeared, the understanding that the politics of the movement have strongly changed is being demonstrated e.g., in the exhibition project ff- female takeover (Graz 2001). What remains, however, is the endeavour to increase the awareness of the meaningful interplay of myths, ideas, forms and politics, i.e. to pursue the analysis of power, representation and gender. Thus, emerging women media artists focus on issues within the contradictory field between enlightened, critical utopias (the Cyborg Manifest and the science critique of Donna Haraway being the crucial texts here) and the critique of enduring stereotypes.
Told you so is the Swedish artist, Cecilia Lundqvist’s title for her animation of a couple’s dialogue, which turns into a power discourse along the insistently repeated question “Do women always scream?”.
1 Youngblood, Gene: Expanded Cinema. Introduction by Buckminster Fuller, (London: Studio Vista 1970). // Claus, Juergen: Expansion der Kunst : Beiträge zu Theorie und Praxis öffentlicher Kunst. rowohlts deutsche enzyklopädie, (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt 1970).