Feminist video largely came into its own in the midst of second wave feminism in the 1970s. Incubated in the milieu of Fluxus, happenings and actions of the preceding decade, its context included performance works like Yoko Ono’s provocative Cut Piece (1965) and the more outrageous Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969) by VALIE EXPORT. These and other female performances were to shape the future of feminist art practice by predicating the female body as the site of contested issues. On the streets the slogan “the personal is the political” rallied women to action in an era of bra-burning activism. Women were protesting their lack of rights over their own bodies on issues such as abortion and the laws that were being made on their behalf by the patriarchy of Church and State.
When a kneeling Ono in Cut Piece (1965) invited her audience to cut off a piece of her clothing, her body became the testing ground for personal boundaries, ethics and permission (in some performances she was left in her underwear, in others completely nude). Challenging the objectification of women for the pleasure of the male gaze, a machine-gun toting VALIE EXPORT, wearing crotch-less leather trousers, walked into a porn cinema and dared the audience to look at the real thing in Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969). The men fled, terrified—their anticipated gratification compromised. Hence, by the time feminist artists like Martha Rosler and Joan Jonas got their hands on the hugely portable, and relatively cheap, Sony Portapak video camera in the early seventies a politicised performing body was already at the core of feminist practice and became integral to feminist video.
Overall it’s been an intense ride as the trajectory of feminist concerns has expanded and diversified from abortion rights and “white middle class issues” like equal pay to broader concerns around ecofeminism, violence against women, post-porn feminism, maternal rights, ongoing issues of equal opportunity that transcend race, class and cultural difference including—perhaps somewhat more contentiously—male feminism. Against this background a sampling of works from contemporary Australian artists and filmmakers, Janet Merewether, The Twilight Girls and Tina Havelock Stevens, affirm the role of the performing body within the range of feminist video and film. Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (2015) will also be included for analysis of the gender-switching role of Australian actor Cate Blanchett.
Janet Merewether’s award-winning hybrid documentaries have been acclaimed for the way they reanimate serious and challenging documentary footage with the addition of insights generated through humorous, and highly staged performance tableaux. An independent filmmaker and founder of Go Girl Productions, Merewether’s hybrid documentaries stake their perspectives through first-person female performance, putting women’s experiences and issues at their core, including her autobiographical Maverick Mother (2007) on the contentious topic of motherhood-by-choice.
Merewether lived the role of Maverick Mother and we follow her journey via video diary from social infertility to the birth of her son. Along the way Merewether addresses the losses as well as the gains of the sexual revolution that swept Australia in the 1970s. What women gained in sexual freedom they lost in a new breed of under-committed men who were no longer under any obligation to have or support a family; or who, like many of her socially infertile and tertiary educated girlfriends, were likewise too preoccupied by their own careers. At one point Merewether laments, “Today, supposedly, a woman like me could have it all. Education, career, travel and a house. So why was having a child so far out of reach? When women embraced free love with no strings attached, we didn’t realise that we might be left alone, with only our pets, our spinster friends and our maternal instincts.”
At the age of thirty-nine she decided to become a single mother by choice. She takes us through the trials and tribulations of the options, including the impersonality of the sperm donation process. Only details of hair and eye colour are released—not enough to convey any sense of personality or character. Furthermore, the supply has dwindled, now that any offspring have the legal right to know their fathers. A rendezvous with a bisexual male friend also fails—she gets “shagger’s back” and his jealous boyfriend smashes up the house. Merewether contemplates impregnation with the hospital’s version of the turkey baster. But giving a night of passion one final go she puts on her “lucky fishnet tights” and goes to a Nine Inch Nails concert, meets a hot adventurer and invites him home. She shows us her bedside table and the condom he declined to wear—an important ethical point. This becomes the night of her son’s conception.
Within this multi-layered autobiography that is part history lesson, part feminist politics and part personal biography, Merewether deftly mixes her tones to celebrate and make a case for motherhood-by-choice or, as she experiences, motherhood-by-chance. Her extravagant and often surreal performances represent shifts in attitudes towards social change in ways that the direct, recorded documentary footage cannot. Articulating a difference first attributed to Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949) role-play underscores the distinction between biological gender and the historical construction of gender stereotypes put upon women that continue to evolve.
Within the mode of performance of role-play these gender stereotypes are no more than subject positions or roles that can always be put on or taken off like a switch. In one scene Merewether plays a pregnant, unmarried teenage girl, a “victim of seduction.” In another she is a messy, cigarette-smoking “white trash” mother, perceived as a threat to conservative family values. Or, shrunk to the size of a Barbie doll, in a 1960s shift with a use-by date on her chest, amidst supermarket stock she role-plays her father’s views of her unmarried status (and career choice) as “a filmmaking weirdo left on the shelf.”
On a more positive note, as an expectant mother in a 1950s-style kitchen, Merewether celebrates her “bun in the oven” by cooking up a storm, then dons overalls and picks up a drill to also fulfill the male role that completes “a happy family.” But not all of the film is so light-hearted: hugging her newly born son in the recorded video footage and speaking direct to the camera Merewether grimly reminds us of women in Victorian times who had no option but to murder their own babies; or, unmarried Australian mothers who were forced to give their children up for adoption to childless, married couples as late as the 1960s. Until the legislative reforms of the 1970s an Australian child born out of wedlock was considered to be filius nullius, “child of no-one,” and denied inheritance rights. “In twenty-first century Australia,” as single woman, able to hold and nurture her infant son, she “feels like the luckiest woman alive.”
A different set of feminist issues informs the performative video practice of The Twilight Girls (Helen Hyatt-Johnston and Jane Polkinghorne). Echoing Barbara Kruger’s 1989 catch cry, “the body is a battleground,” they raid the history of screen culture from the angle of the female grotesque in a direct link to the early feminist video performances of Martha Rosler, who punched, stabbed, squeezed, kneaded and smashed her way through the confines of female domesticity in Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). Throughout her threatening gestural performance Rosler chillingly explained the use of kitchen utensils—scrapers, knives, rolling pins, presses and the like—heralding the video birth of the monstrous feminine, a figure retrospectively championed by Mary Russo in The Female Grotesque (1995).
In the twenty-first century, Rosler’s grotesque is well out of the kitchen. In the multiple mediums of The Twilight Girls she’s now a monstrous double avenger, a twin raider of cinema history who has multiple scores to settle. In Fifty Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers (2014), the hapless Renny (Mark Shorter) will be hacked, splattered, chopped and strangled as payback for what the horror genre has done to women. In this respect there is much in common with Janet Merewether’s staged set pieces that also borrow heavily from cinema, specifically B-movies like Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958). For The Twilight Girls, murderous fantasy is a means of obtaining symbolic redress. In the classic mode of Freud’s “return of the repressed,” cinema’s century of violence against women is repaid in spades. Only Tracey Moffatt in Love (2003), her collaged raid on Hollywood romance, has been so thoroughly attuned to modes of feminist revenge.
Why can’t I be you? (2017) by The Twilight Girls put historical feminist reckoning aside for an oblique swipe at our contemporary obsession with the selfie and self-image via the medium of cosmetic surgery. With deadpan humour, Hyatt-Johnston and Polkinghorne engage in a silent intra-feminist conversation—or competition—that is played out through contemporary surgical “enhancements.” Scrubbed clean, and seemingly readied for the knife, the “living portraits” of Hyatt‑Johnston and Polkinghorne face the camera, in readiness for the swapping of their facial parts—eyes, noses, and mouths—in order to become each other. As the twin videos cycle through the permutations you’re left with an interrogation mark, a pointless why? Why try on another’s nose or mouth? Why would they want to look like each other? What perversity of conformity is driving their actions?
More disconcerting is the way Hyatt-Johnston and Polkinghorne blink intermittently at odd intervals, in the manner of owls—or a malfunctioning robot. Perhaps they were performing the act of trying to stay still for the surgery, but for this viewer they came across as transformed by a process of becoming-owl. In ancient cultures owls were a symbol of the feminine and fertility associated with the moon’s cycles of renewal. For the ancient Greeks, they were the symbol of the goddess Athena, and her higher wisdom. But for these contemporary owls, there’s no wisdom or spiritual renewal, no restoration of the relationship with nature; instead, surgical renewal has imparted a vacant, interrogatory blinking.
Why can’t I be you? lampoons contemporary preoccupations with self-image through a double-pronged attack that includes the so-called physical improvements of unnecessary medical procedures. As a feminist work, it belongs to the expanding catalogue of concerns invested in the female body.
Broader ecological and political concerns of third-wave feminism are expressed through the practice of sound and video artist Tina Havelock Stevens. An extraordinary drummer, Havelock Stevens has played in numerous bands, including the Plug Uglies and sound-art group The Mumps. A performer of great sensitivity and range, in her art practice she incarnates the figure of the White Drummer, using the drums as a medium to amplify and channel energies of sites of resonance.
In many respects she’s a contemporary shaman, an exorcist of bad energies or malevolent forces. Her drumming performances often takes place in fantastical locations resonant with residual energies—as in the semi-derelict post-industrial urban landscape of Detroit (White Drummer Detroit, 2013), or Giant Rock in the Mojave Desert, a graveyard where hulks of decommissioned Jumbo Jets are left to rest (Ghost Class, 2015). High off the ground, playing inside the echo chambers of their rusty steel fuselages in Ghost Class, her performance amplified psychic remainders of late capitalism and its vaunting ambition, transmitting the pulse of decay.
Thunderhead (2016) is a video and performance work that channels the energy of the rare, meteorological phenomenon of a supercell. Camera ever at the ready, Havelock Stevens chanced upon the storm when driving along Texas Highway 54. Performing live with the projected footage in the dark, cavernous space of Sydney’s Carriageworks, Havelock Stevens and guitarist Liberty Kerr rode the edge of its towering vortex through the medium of sound. Across time Thunderhead resonates with the “earth-body” artworks of Ana Mendieta, a performance artist and video maker who enacted ritual relationships with the forces of the ancient mother Earth.
In the Silueta Series (1973–78), she merged her body into nature through sculpting forms and silhouettes from materials of the earth, dirt and grass. Havelock Stevens likewise disappears into her landscapes, albeit through the resonances of sound. Costumed simply in varying white outfits, her uniform for the series of performances as the ”White Drummer,” she becomes that blank spot from which the sound builds and emanates. In an interview for Screen, she described white as a channelling colour with its own vibrational sound.
Nature comes even closer in Reading The River (2017) in what becomes an animist form of performance, merging with the river itself, in an extraordinarily challenging ten minutes of underwater video, drumming and ecofeminist buffoonery. Lowered into the river, in scuba gear covered in dense, white, tendrils, she became a giant anemone, her drumbeats slowed in the heavier medium of water, taking the pulse of the currents. I don’t want to set the World on Fire (2017) is an affectionate portrait of her sprightly eighty-something mother. A contemporary Wonder Woman, her mother is shooting bolts of energy into her garden, quietly marshalling forces of the universe while she practises Tai Chi. Shifts in focus have moved with the times but this low-key intergenerational work demonstrates the constant of a feminist ethics of care. The nurture of the ancient earth Mother still resonates deep within contemporary feminist practice.
In this sampling feminist video and its role-playing continues to exercise a currency across the spectrum of contemporary world concerns. Throughout, the body is a constant, a substance of matter that is literally earthed within the matrix of life. This body is also, symbolically, the bearer of multiple meanings and roles that mark history and shift with the times. In this light Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (2015), recently exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, poses interesting questions for feminism and feminist video practice. It’s a large thirteen‑channel video work in which Cate Blanchett performs key manifestos of twentieth-century avant‑garde art and thought from an embodied female perspective. Most were written in a tone of revolt and made revolutionary claims.
But it becomes clear after a while, after probing the memory for recognisable phrases from the canons of Dada, Futurism, Situationism, Fluxus and Surrealism and scanning the room notes for those less familiar, that with the exception of Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Maintenance of Art Manifesto,1969), Yvonne Rainer (No Manifesto, 1965) and Olga Rozanova (Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, 1917), the majority of the manifestos were written by men. They include: Tristan Tzara (Dada Manifesto, 1918), Filippo Marinetti (The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism, 1909), Guillaume Apollinaire (The Futurist Antitradition, 1913), Lars von Trier/Thomas Vinterberg (Dogma, 1995), André Breton (Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924), Francis Picabia (Dada Cannibalistic Manifesto, 1920), Guy Debord (Situationist Manifesto, 1960), Sol LeWitt (Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, 1967) Kazimir Malevich (Suprematist Manifesto, 1916). This prompts the question as to why Rosefeldt, conceiving such a work in the twenty-first century, should switch the gender of the author as spokesperson? And why rely on one actor to play all the roles?
At first Blanchett in the role of everywoman appears to support a form of feminist subversion, an affirmative transfer of power suited to twenty-first century expectations as a measure of feminist progress. Yet as you move around the thirteen tableaux of Manifesto this perception falters. Blanchett’s multiple roles shift in respect of age, class, income, education, worldview and profession. In common with concerns of contemporary third-wave feminism stark differences of opportunity are laid bare. Most of the roles are still smugly middle class. Blanchett’s everywoman is a stockbroker, schoolteacher, middle-class mourner, puppet-maker, upper-class wife and mother, art curator/gallery director, theatre director, post‑punk rock chick, scientist and television reporter. More provocatively, she plays a garbage facility worker and a homeless man in a post‑civilisation (likely post‑Soviet) industrial wasteland. By the end of this series of transformations, she is the unseen disembodied voice occupying the all-knowing, all-seeing, traditionally male, position of the narrator as God.
Rosefeldt is no champion of social progress. Much of it feels like bourgeois business as usual, with the middle to upper classes firmly in control. When the words of twentieth-century art revolutionaries, Marinetti and other Futurists, fall from the mouth of Blanchett’s well-to-do stockbroker, they come across as ironic in relation to her occupation as trader on the futures market. Likewise, the well-mannered children of a conservative housewife can barely contain their giggles when she proclaims the words of pop artist Claes Oldenburg over lunch: “I am for an art of underwear and the art of taxicabs. I am for the art of ice-cream cones dropped on concrete. I am for the majestic art of dog turds, rising like cathedrals.” (I am for an Art, 1961)
What then are we to make of this work? How are we to read it, if not with irony, as the subversive discourses of the twentieth century’s avant-garde are themselves subverted by the commodification of the late twenty-first century? When Blanchett’s art dealer in her ultra-modern, lakeside villa proclaims “we are standing at the threshold of the epoch of great spirituality” (Barnett Newman, The Sublime is Now, 1948), a party guest can be heard whispering behind her back “Not all of this money comes from art.” In this moment, the enemy is no longer the old adversary of patriarchy, but something less obviously gendered, the machine of late capitalism itself. To underscore this point, several scenes, void of people, foreground capitalism through its architectures of power and submission. It is not by chance that the first tableau frames Manifesto by quoting Karl Marx (Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848).
Rosefeldt is making a point about contemporary culture, that all resistance becomes commodified (the endgame of postmodernism). Symptomatic of this Blanchett becomes parodic and when her collective voices align in a crescendo of strident cacophony, the change of register suggests an attempt at exorcism or the distancing voice of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. But unlike the authenticity of theatrical self-reflection, Rosefeldt’s medium is video, like the media under global capitalism destined to loop in endless circulation and replication as ultimately inauthentic. While Blanchett’s personas raise their collective voices, at times creating a cacophony, their words are effectively nullified in the noisy circuits of the machine.
Rosefeldt’s Manifesto elicits mixed responses. The parodic elements are unsettling, also from a feminist perspective. But Manifesto would not be nearly as interesting if the central protagonist was played by a man. Its ironies would be very much diluted, and Blanchett’s role is after all a measure of a certain feminist progress, in that we bear witness to the multiplication of middle class workplace roles, once the domain of men. The focus on matters of justice, ethics, equity and care, all core issues of third-wave feminism, may be oblique, but these concerns resonate in his portrait of daily life under late capitalism. Its divisions of power and class are issues that future decades of action in the workplace and beyond would align with the representation of gender equity from the boardroom to the media and cultural industries as sites of labour.
Ann Finegan is a writer, educator and former co-director of Cementa Contemporary Arts Festival, Kandos.