02 – 16 APRIL

HANDS TIED

'Hands Tied' brings together two very different films about hands: Maria Lassnig's Palmistry (1973) and Ayesha Hameed's A Rough History (of the Destruction of Fingerprints) (2016). These works are contextualised and their scope extended further by a roundtable discussion featuring participants Rachel Aumiller, Sam Dolbear, Nadine El-Enany, Amelia Groom, Clio Nicastro, Anja Sunhyun Michaelsen, and M. Ty., who discuss their relation to fate, work, pleasure, touch, and surveillance. 

'Hands Tied' in presented in conjunction with Sam Dolbear at the ICI, Berlin, as part of his project 'Cosmic Reductions'.

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This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees aren't. We receive no funding so please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

EATING/

THE OTHER

04 – 11 APRIL

This programme takes its cue from the end of HANDS TIED's roundtable, which discusses gendered notions of eating.

EATING / THE OTHER presents six films about food and eating in relation to ritual, modernity, censorship and national myths.  

Films in this programme:

The Sweet Number: An Experience of Consumption (VALIE EXPORT, Austria, 1968) Melons (Patty Chang, USA, 1998)

Popsicles (Gloria Camiruaga, Chile/USA, 1982/4)

Rat Life and Diet in North America (Joyce Wieland, Canada, 1968)

The Sandwich (Ateyyat El Abnoudy, Egypt, 1975)

Fake Fruit Factory (Chick Strand, Mexico/USA, 1986).

SUBTITLED IN ENGLISH SOUS-TITRÉS EN FRANÇAIS SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUES SOTTOTITOLI IN ITALIANO 한국어 자막 

日本の字幕 SUBTITEL INDONESIA

 

TRAILERS

HANDS TIED

Two very different films about hands, followed by a roundtable discussion

PALMISTRY

1973, 11'
 

WITH PORTUGUESE SUBTITLES BY MARTHA ELISA

SPANISH SUBTITLES BY LUCIA DE LA TORRE

FRENCH SUBTITLES BY JULIET DAVIS

ITALIAN SUBTITLES BY LIVIA FRANCHINI

KOREAN SUBTITLES BY MONICA CHOI

JAPANESE SUBTITLES BY ILENIA PORPORA

INDONESIAN SUBTITLES BY ADRIAN JONATHAN

Palmistry explores some of the preoccupations that appears across Maria Lassnig’s 1970s video work, including female independence vs. the heterosexual couple, and the comically awkward, mechanical nature of their sexual relations. Combining animation and live action, Palmistry opens with a mostly animated section about a woman’s pleasure in eating alone, based on a series of drawings Lassnig did of her friend Bärbl, who also appears in one of Lassnig’s four-part ‘Soul Sisters’ series. In that later, eponymously titled film (1974/79), Bärbl is described by Lassnig as struggling with low self-esteem, expending more energy on those around her than she does on herself, including on a largely absent male lover. In Palmistry, an animated Bärbl reclines on the floor, joyfully ingesting biscuit after biscuit until ­– as the voice on the soundtrack recounts – “a little man comes along” and she is taken by the sudden impulse to nourish him, using her recently acquired energy to inflate him literally. Before long he floats off. Although the woman returns to eating – an activity that “cannot hurt [her]” – two other draining male figures appear later in the film. First, a male felt-tip figure with a serrated appendage for a penis seduces and then rejects an equivalent female figure with an oversized vessel for a vagina; later, a charlatan chiromancer reads the palm of a  woman who consults him about her romantic situation. Both of these encounters are emblematic of the way Lassnig interrogates dialogue, where interactions between men and women are typically circular, tonally flat, and scan like an out-of-step dance. As always, it is the male character’s refusal to listen and insistence that he knows what the woman is thinking and feeling that means conversation goes nowhere. Unique to Palmistry, however, is the fact that one of these women is charged $20 for the privilege of being gaslit. —DS

“73 palm eat eat shift eat be get it in the babe haunt to hung out to dry dry hay hey not the last am I the first male mail man abstraction female kangaroo pussy cat abstract penis penis inserted man snake asks first time Eva says why do you ask first male take care of what the male snake attempted manipulation of the female lie lie lying hand to animation amputation philosophy of life the change of energy the hand of her not him palm man snake oil man talk” —Paul McCarthy on Palmistry

 

Maria Lassnig (1919–2014) was an Austrian painter, sculptor, animator and filmmaker. Her paint works, largely portraits and self-portraits that centred what she called “bodily consciousness”, later took the form of films, a medium with which she started working after her move to New York in the early 1970s. There, she studied animation at the School of Visual Arts and began to film in 8mm and 16mm. In 1974, she joined Women/Artists/Filmmakers Inc., a nine-woman collective founded following the exhibition ‘Women Choose Women’ at the New York Cultural Center in 1973, made up of artists who used film as part of their practice. Members included Carolee Schneeman, Martha Edelheit, Doris Chase, Rosalind Schneider, Silviana Goldsmith, Nancy Kendall and Susan Brockman, with Lassnig as the only animator. On her return to Vienna in 1980, Lassnig became the first woman professor of painting in a German-speaking country and Chair of Painting at the Vienna University of Applied Arts. 

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Women/Artist/Filmmakers, inc (top left to bottom right: Susan Brockman, Martha Edelheit, Nancy Kendall, Doris Chase, Silvianna  Goldsmith, Maria Lassnig, Carolee Schnemann, Rosalind Schneider), 1976  © Bob Parent Photo: Archive of the Maria Lassnig Foundation

Bärbl in Soul Sisters: Bärbl (1974/79),

in a similar pose as she appears in Palmistry.

© Maria Lassnig Foundation 

“Maria, in New York City from Vienna by way of Paris, joined our group. Uniquely cheerful, she had a goofy smile that was always encouraging. Her films were charming, ironic, shifting between static images and density in motion – always colourful with a subtle, brutal gender appetite towards erotic happiness.

It was with her death that the powerful dark undertow of her self-portrait paintings became celebrated, shifting way from any interpretation of self-deprecation or essentialism!”
—Carolee Schneemann, writing in Artforum after Lassnig's death

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© Maria Lassnig Foundation 

SUBTITLES IN ENGLISH, FRENCH, SPANISH, ITALIAN, PORTUGUESE, JAPANESE, KOREAN AND INDONESIAN

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Stills from A Rough History

Francis Galton. Finger Prints. London: Macmillan and Co., 1892, Plate 15, Figure 22, following p. 96. 

"This is [...] a study that became a film and then a performance. It begins with a gesture made by migrants entering the European Union from the beginning of this millennium, of destroying the surface of their fingers. With the introduction of border controls at the frontiers of Fortress Europe, illegalised migrants were fingerprinted as they entered and the images of their fingers were consolidated in a centralized database called the EURODAC. A genealogy of laws named after Ireland’s capital (Dublin 1, 2, 3), regulated the movements of migrants entering the European Union. If someone without papers was apprehended by the police, their fingerprints were matched to the database of prints in the EURODAC, which located the country in the European Union where they were first documented and fingerprinted. They would then be deported to that country, usually on the outer borders of the EU where the rates of acceptance for asylum cases are very low, and the conditions of the camps were very poor.

[…]

This is a spatial study that sees how skin acts as a terrain whose topography both enables and restricts movement. It follows the life and circulation of the image of the fingerprints, away from the different life of the fingerprint attached to a body. This is a scalar study that flips the optic of skin as terrain to look at how the land acts as a skin whose illness reflects xenophobic phantasies of contagion. This work is a study of surfaces: of smooth surfaces of other hands whose fingerprints were benignly erased; of the hand-processed 16mm film this work was made on; of homes violently flattened; and the sea; and the land below the sea.

[…]

This study does not aim to resolve this ambivalent horror into a set of images. Rather, it seeks to make visible the moment that the image remains elusive, and to fracture the circuit of meaning linking image to referent. What this study attempts to plot is a constellation of referents. This is a temporal study, as the task of erasing fingerprints is a Sisyphean task. Fingerprints always grow back. This opens other looping portals of time.”—Ayesha Hameed

Dr. S. Ayesha Hameed is an artist whose practice, including performance, writing and video, explores contemporary borders and migration, critical race theory, Walter Benjamin, and visual cultures of the Black Atlantic. Hameed is the Joint Programme Leader in Visual Cultures and the Joint Programme Leader in Fine Art and History of Art Research Fellow in Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, London. Publications include contributions to Photoworks, Place: Location and Belonging in New Media Contexts and Tate ETC and future exhibitions include group exhibitions with the Forensic Architecture Project at the House of World Cultures in Berlin.

A ROUGH HISTORY (OF THE DESTRUCTION OF FINGERPRINTS)

2016, 10'
 

WITH PORTUGUESE SUBTITLES BY MARTHA ELISA

SPANISH SUBTITLES BY LUCIA DE LA TORRE

FRENCH SUBTITLES BY JULIET DAVIS

ITALIAN SUBTITLES BY MIRKO CERULLO

KOREAN SUBTITLES BY MONICA CHOI

JAPANESE SUBTITLES BY ILENIA PORPORA

INDONESIAN SUBTITLES BY ADRIAN JONATHAN

 

“NO, THIS IS A SCAR”

A roundtable discussion on two films about hands, by Maria Lassnig and Ayesha Hameed

1 Leggi questa discussione in italiano, tradotta da Mirko Cerullo.

2 Leia esta discussão em português, traduzida por Matheus Pestana

3 Puede leer esta discusión en español, traducida por Salvador Amores

4. 라운드테이블 토론은 한국어로도 읽을 수 있습니다. (한제인, 최서영 옮김)

5. Μπορείτε να διαβάσετε αυτή τη συζήτηση στα ελληνικά, σε μετάφραση του Γιάννη Ανδρονικίδη [Yiannis Andronikidis]

Sam Dolbear is a fellow at the ICI Berlin and is currently pursuing projects on hands, radio, and generational structures. You can sign up to 'Cosmic Reductions', his irregular newsletter about hands, gesture, gender and sexuality, here.

Amelia Groom is a Berlin-based writer and affiliated postdoctoral fellow at ICI Berlin. Her book Beverly Buchanan: Marsh Ruins was recently published as part of the Afterall One Work series.

M. Ty is an assistant professor of literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and affiliated fellow at the ICI Berlin.  

Nadine El-Enany is Reader in Law at Birkbeck School of Law and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on Race and Law and is author of the book (B)ordering Britain: law, race and empire (Manchester University Press, 2020).

Rachel Aumiller is a fellow at the ICI Berlin and is currently completing the book The Laughing Matter of Spirit on comic resistance and social change in Hegel, Marx, Benjamin, and Yugoslavian partisan theater.

Clio Nicastro teaches Cultural and Critical Theory at Bard College Berlin. Her current research focuses on the cinematic representations of eating disorders.

Anja Sunhyun Michaelsen is a researcher and writer based in Berlin. Her work focuses on queer theory, racism, the postcolonial archive. She is an affiliated fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry.

Daniella Shreir is founder-editor of Another Gaze journal, and programmer for Another Screen. She also translates from the French and  won a PEN award for her translation of Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs (Silver Press, 2019). 

Sam Dolbear:

Maybe we can start by thinking about the role of fate in the films. In Maria Lassnig’s Palmistry (1973) there are hands that speak of fate and hands that are fated: to perform certain duties, to fulfil certain roles. Interpreting the former is the vocation of the palm reader, who reads character and constitution from the lines, shapes, textures and proportions of the hand. When watching Palmistry, I was thinking of Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962). After the eponymous protagonist has her tarot read in the opening scene, she then asks for a palm reading. The reader can hardly look at Cléo for fear of the fate revealed by her hands. In this case, the palm reader knows too much.

Though palmistry is a practice that takes cues from various mysticisms, it can’t escape worldly matters. There’s a strange obsession in the practice with profession. Imagine going to see a palm reader and them telling you that you will do something for the rest of your waking life and that this is out of your control. That you are well suited to being a sales assistant or a domestic servant. That life is not just dull and exploitative but it is meant to be this way. This reminds me of the dual meaning of the word Beruf in German: both a ‘profession’ and a ‘calling’. The stars fall to earth.

 

Amelia Groom:

I love the part in Palmistry when the palm reader says, “You have three fate lines!” and she’s like, “No, that’s a scar.” I laughed. 

 

M. Ty:

I laughed with you.      

Why am I so taken by the gesture of closing and opening the palm?

 

SD:

Yes, the Lassnig is incredibly funny: its fatalism, repetition, looping, disagreement, dialogue, the futility, the “girdle of Venus”, even the electric guitar got me...  

 

AG:

I’m really into this idea of the mistaken fortune teller, the illiterate palm reader, the palmistry of misreadings. I also like to think of fate lines as things that can be accrued through experience, or accident, or prosthesis, rather than only operating as predetermined inscriptions. 

 

SD:

Charlotte Wolff, the palmist and sexologist I am currently working on, diagnoses pathologies and fate but I’m also interested in the moments at which she opens up other possible fates. For example, she reads the hand of a 26-year-old woman who works as a domestic servant and speaks of how the bumps on the inside of the hand express a talent for dancing.¹ When I read this, I wondered whether she’s even able to dance, or would agree with such a reading. In Palmistry, Lassnig allows the voice of the ‘read’ to answer back. The palm reader tells the woman “you like being inside”, and the woman snaps back: “I hate kitchens!”. Desire cuts through supposed destiny.

 

MT:

Lassnig animates the palm by turning it into a site of projection. When the chiromancer reads something they aren’t supposed to, they leave themselves maximally exposed to being called out as a charlatan but also open up a potentially infinite reservoir of laughter. 

     

SD:

In Palmistry, the palm reader is actually just a bossy, sexist man. Truth is found in disagreements with the prophet who isn’t really a prophet anyway.

 

Lassnig wrote a short text on animation in 1973 in which she says she prefers the German word Trickfilm to describe the practice due to its evocation of illusion.² She also talks about its inevitable emphasis on metamorphosis; the pull towards repetition, to save time, or make time.³ This is maybe why she makes the hand open and close so constantly… 

 

MT:

…It's the manual labour of keeping time, through an invented cadence of catch and release.  

 

SD:

Another thing that struck me while watching Palmistry, as well as some of Lassnig’s other shorts, is the way she uses animation to literalise her humour. Animation allows for a polymorphism of bodies and forms – something that complicates reading even further. In the penultimate scene in the film Art Education (1976), Lassnig animates Michelangelo’s scene from the Sistine Chapel, but in her version God first transforms Adam entirely into spots, then “all head”, then “all body”. Adam then asks who the woman next to him is and God says it’s his secretary. Professions return again as a theme. But so too does this question of reading and naming. 

 

MT:

An image just flashed into my mind of a library in which all the books have been replaced with palms, which do not wear jackets but gloves. 

1 Charlotte Wolff, Studies in Hand-Reading trans. O.M. Cook (London: Catto & Windus, 1936), pp. 31-32.

2 Quoted in Stefanie Proksch-Weilguni, ‘Maria Lassnig: Picturing Bodily Awareness’ in Maria Lassnig: Film Works edited by Hans Werner Poschauko, Eszter Kondor, Michael Loebenstein, Peter Pakesch), (Vienna: FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen, 2021), p. 67.

3 Maria Lassnig, ‘Animation as a Form of Art’ in Maria Lassnig: Film Works edited by Hans Werner Poschauko, Eszter Kondor, Michael Loebenstein, Peter Pakesch), (Vienna: FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen, 2021), p. 53.

"I’m really into this idea of the mistaken fortune teller, the illiterate palm reader, the palmistry of misreadings. I also like to think of fate lines as things that can be accrued through experience, or accident, or prosthesis, rather than only operating as predetermined inscriptions" —Amelia Groom

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"In Art Education (1976), Lassnig animates Michelangelo’s scene from the Sistine Chapel, but in her version God first transforms Adam entirely into spots, then “all head”, then “all body”." —Sam Dolbear

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"After the eponymous protagonist [of Cléo de 5 à 7] has her tarot read in the opening scene, she then asks for a palm reading. The reader can hardly look at Cléo for fear of the fate revealed by her hands. In this case, the palm reader knows too much." —Sam Dolbear

7 David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011), pp. 216-217.  See also: http://www.e-flux.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2.-Graeber_afterJubilee.pdf

9 Ibid.

AG:

 

The image of the scarred hand, and the questions about fate’s malleability or non-malleability, take a much more disturbing turn in Ayesha Hameed’s A Rough History (of the destruction of fingerprints) (2016)…    

 

Nadine El-Enany:

 

Here the scarred hands of people who have travelled to Europe in search of protection are held open as if in prayer, flickering in the forensic aesthetic that defines the film’s imagery. People’s hopes and dreams of holding more in their hands result in them having to harm their fingers: literally burning or cutting away the parts of our bodies that help us to hold tight the things that matter to us. 

The EURODAC system requires the fingerprinting of all asylum seekers on their entry to the European Union (EU). It was set up in order to monitor the transit route of asylum applicants in the EU. It exists to support the operation of the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that the first Member State with which asylum seekers establish contact is responsible for determining their asylum claims. The system drives people who are desperate to find protection, safety, a chance at life, to “deliberately cut or burn their fingertips”. After the database was introduced, a member of the Swedish Migration Board reported “scars from knives and razors, or entire [fingerprint] patterns that are entirely destroyed because they’ve used acid or some other kind of product to destroy their hands.”⁴ 

 

SD:

 

This is also why the scar can’t be read by the palmist. It is a thing of history, a thing of experience...

 

MT:

 

A scar is an embodied record of an incident, an inscription of something past. But as we hear in the voice-over: “fingerprints always grow back”. It’s strange to think that such thread-fine ridges could press through any scar, however thick or dense, and make themselves visible as surface again. It’s haunting, too, that these delicate marks are so resistant to alteration. They persist in the very same pattern for the whole of our lives. It’s as if they refuse to register history.

 

This is why cops like fingerprints. And for those who, in destroying their own prints, are trying to exercise a will to illegibility, this remarkable capacity to heal becomes an accursed regeneration. Maybe, alongside the film’s epigraph – “To live means to leave traces” – we can also think about the incapacity to leave behind the traces one leaves behind. You can’t shake your own prints. They follow you everywhere, like a store manager who suspects you of shoplifting.

 

SD:

 

There’s a book by the chirologist Julius Spier which posits that infants have lines on only one hand (this is referred to as the “ancestral hand”) and that the other hand accrues lines through experience. It’s as if one hand is fated by birth and the other by the world. Border agencies spend a lot of time trying to prove the age of migrants, to prove majority, and therefore accountability or liability to the violence of the world. 

 

MT:

 

EURODAC only used to collect prints if you were over 14, but that threshold has now been lowered to six, an age when most kids are still unsure how to read the face of a clock and are just beginning to develop a provisional notion of the future. Thinking with you, Sam, this is a targeted encroachment on the time one has for experience, before being inducted into a system of legal violence. Though EURODAC represents itself as a database that helps to “determine responsibility” for asylum seekers, it is openly used by The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) and the national police in their investigations of crime and ‘terrorism’. In other words, as soon as they arrive, refugees are booked as potential criminals. And if refugees refuse to have their prints taken, which they often do, the state asserts the authority to detain them or use coercive means to capture their prints. 

 

NE-E:

 

The law has always found ways to use our bodies as weapons against us. It profiles, stops, searches, abuses, maims and kills people for the colour of their skin. It requires that people seeking protection, safety and life give over their fingerprints, their identifying features, so that their movements might be tracked, monitored, policed and prevented. The law is violence. Hameed’s film lays bare the horrific consequences of the intersection between the Dublin Regulation and the EURODAC system. People become trapped in a “second kind of jail” where they are prevented from “go[ing] anywhere”. The film exudes the sense of ensnarement, of desperation, that forces people to harm their hands and fingers to escape the law’s violence. We learn that “to clean fingerprints is to erase them off your hands since erasing them from the EURODAC fingerprint database isn’t really possible”.     

 

Hameed reminds us that “fingerprints always grow back”. This is to show us that even harming one’s fingertips is not a solution to avoiding EURODAC’s control. But it also points to the perseverance of our bodies, our hands, our fingertips to heal, to survive, to live on. They are insistent, unyielding in the face of violence and repression: the skin that helps us to hold on grows back. Fingerprints, after all, are not only the unique patterns repurposed by the state to track and prevent movement, but are the minute ridges carved into our skin that help us to hold on to what is in our hands.

 

MT:

 

Since watching the video I’ve had a floating recollection about the destruction of debt records. I just remembered how some years ago David Graeber was calling for a long “overdue Jubilee” that would provide relief from consumer and international debt. At some point in his thick book, he points out  that popular insurrections have often begun with the obliteration of tablets, papyrus, ledgers, or whatever documents were keeping the official memory of what was owed. He mentions how, in ancient Babylonia, clean slates were referred to as hubullum masa’um: literally, a “washing away of debt”, a dissolving of the clay tablets on which financial obligations were recorded.  

 

AG:

 

Disintegrated records, indebtedness undone…

     

MT:

 

I started to wonder if EURODAC should be destroyed... I don’t know whether a Jubilee could, at this point in time, lead to full emancipation unless fingerprint databases were also wiped from the infrastructure of state memory.

 

SD:

 

Yes, the destruction of EURODAC would be a way of getting rid of at least one mechanism that forecloses the futures of those subject to its surveillance. 

 

MT: 

 

Hameed’s film moves attention toward the inability to erase one’s own fingerprints from the database, and the subsequent bind that some refugees find themselves in: either self-mutilate or risk being identified and/or deported.  But what if, instead of having to take on fingerprint destruction as an individual – and acutely painful – trial, the entire archive of fingerprints were destroyed, releasing people from the daily dread of identification and tracking?

 

Fingerprints weren’t even adopted as a systematic method of identification until the 1920s, so perhaps it’s not inconceivable that the practice could be abolished in our time.

 

AG:

 

I just went back and looked at Carlo Ginzburg’s essay ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method’ (1980), because I remembered there’s something there on the history of fingerprinting. It’s pretty fucked up!
 

MT:

 

Yeah. So fucked. After watching A Rough History, I tried to follow some of the references in Hameed’s film, which are like broken threads. It turns out that Francis Galton, the man who worked to classify fingerprints scientifically and pushed to establish them as a reliable form of evidence, was also the racist who brought “eugenics” into language – and into the world. One of his books was devoted to the Decipherment of Blurred Fingerprints (1893); for him, illegibility was a problem. There’s much to think about with respect to the relation between fate and racial guilt.
 

AG:

 

Ginzburg looks at this Galton guy, but he also looks at some precedents. He draws out some of the historical tensions and overlaps between fingerprinting and palmistry, which might be of interest in light of this pairing of Lassnig and Hameed’s films… 

 

There’s a Czech physiologist named Jan Evangelista Purkyně (1787 – 1869) who studied fingerprints back in the 1820s, and this early classification project coincided with a vehement attempt to scientifically discredit the ancient art of palmistry. Purkyně was determined to distance his method from what he called the “useless science of chiromancy.” Meanwhile, Ginzburg writes, “Chinese and Japanese diviners had taken an interest in these scarcely visible lines which criss-cross the skin of the hand. And in Bengal, as well as in China, there was a custom of imprinting letters and documents with a fingertip dipped in ink or tar.”¹⁰ So in the European scientific context there’s this anxious distancing of fingerprint analysis from divinatory practice, but elsewhere there’s an obvious overlap. As Ginzburg notes, “Anyone who was used to deciphering mysterious messages in the veins of stone or wood, in the traces left by birds, or in the shell of a tortoise, would find it easy to see a kind of message in the print of a dirty finger.”

 

The next part of the story is that in the Bengali district of Hooghly there was a British officer of the Indian Civil Service, Sir William James Herschel, who in 1860 comes across the local practice of fingerprinting on letters and documents, and has the idea to start fingerprinting the Bengali people for purposes of identification and tracking. Ginzburg writes, “what to the British administrator had seemed an indistinguishable mass of Bengali faces (or “snouts”, to recall Filarete’s contemptuous words) now became a series of individuals each one marked by a biological specificity.” The imperial administrators “had taken over the Bengalis’ conjectural knowledge, and turned it against them.”¹¹

 

So for Ginzburg, Galton’s work on fingerprints was ultimately made possible by three precedents: “the discoveries of a pure scientist, Purkyně; the concrete knowledge, tied in with everyday practice, of the Bengali populace; and the political and administrative acumen of Sir William Herschel, faithful servant of Her Britannic Majesty.” Unsurprisingly, Galton, the eugenicist, acknowledged only the first and the third of these. Ginzburg notes that “[h]e also tried to trace racial characteristics in fingerprints, but did not succeed. He hoped, however, to pursue his research among some Indian tribes, expecting to find among them ‘a more monkey-like pattern’.”¹²

"The law has always found ways to use our bodies as weapons against us. It profiles, stops, searches, abuses, maims and kills people for the colour of their skin. It requires that people seeking protection, safety and life give over their fingerprints, their identifying features, so that their movements might be tracked, monitored, policed and prevented. The law is violence. " 

Nadine El-Enany

4 J. P. Aus, ‘Eurodac: A Solution Looking for a Problem?’, European Integration Online Papers Vol. 10 (2006), p. 12.

5  Julius Spier, The Hands of Children: An Introduction to Psycho-chirology (London: Routledge: 1999 [1944]).

8 Carlo Ginzburg (tr. Anna Davin), ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method’ in History Workshop, No. 9 (Spring, 1980), pp. 5-36.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

eprs-aag-571346-fingerprinting-migrants-

"Though EURODAC represents itself as a database that helps to “determine responsibility” for asylum seekers, it is openly used by The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) and the national police in their investigations of crime and ‘terrorism’." —M. Ty

Ayesha-Hameed_A-Rough-History-of-the-Des

A still from Ayesha Hameed’s A Rough History (of the destruction of fingerprints) (2016)

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"It turns out that Francis Galton, the man who worked to classify fingerprints scientifically and pushed to establish them as a reliable form of evidence, was also the racist who brought “eugenics” into language – and into the world" —M. Ty

"But what if, instead of having to take on fingerprint destruction as an individual – and acutely painful – trial, the entire archive of fingerprints were destroyed, releasing people from the daily dread of identification and tracking?" —M. Ty

13 Walter Benjamin, ‘Experience and Poverty’, first published in Die Welt im Wort (Prague: 1933).

AG:

 

What did you make of the palmistry part in A Rough History? There’s something about trajectories of the stars, lines on the hand, lines on the land, “lorries under starry skies”...

 

MT:

 

It’s hard to know how to traverse the jumps between these voiced fragments.  But that turn to palmistry seemed to mark an uncertain opening toward possibilities of reading that remain foreclosed elsewhere in the film. Here, reading appears momentarily as a series of leaps: between trail and traveller, between hand and future, between lorry and star. The narration gestures fleetingly toward practices of tracing lines that are perhaps more capacious than the administration of identity through fingerprints that – in contrast to the palm put before the chiromancer – are taken and scanned, but not really read. 

 

SD:

 

Yes, in the sense the state grants or forecloses the future as much as the palm reader.

 

AG:

 

I’m struck by the evanescence of the imagery in A Rough History, and the few times in the film when the whole screen is momentarily wiped out by a flash of light. I just watched it on my laptop, and I noticed at one point how dirty my screen is. It’s covered in grimy fingerprints, which appear when the image on the screen is dark, and then vanish in these instants when the image becomes ‘blinded by the light’. There’s a lot of interplay between the visible, its limits, and the invisibilised...

 

MT:

 

Yeah, there’s a lot of flicker and overlay: print on print, shadow on hand, black gone wavering over black.  I often can’t tell where the light is coming from or what it is that’s casting an obscuring shadow. So much of the movement in the film comes from the unsteadiness of illumination. At times, the shaking silhouettes seem to phase into the stumbling of the voice. And the camera is often held so close to the prints that they start to look like the rings of a tree. It can feel as though the eye is pressed much too close to properly see the images. What you just said about the interplay of the visible and the invisible made me think of how, in Hameed’s film, texts are put on display but don’t remain sufficiently still to be registered by vision. Or they’re turned on their side—as though we are supposed to see them but aren’t meant to read what’s there.  

 

SD:

 

Going back to questions of wiping, and the erasing of traces, Walter Benjamin, who is quoted at the end of A Rough History, wrote about the glass of modernist interiors as a hard and smooth material upon which nothing can be fixed.¹³ In Benjamin’s thinking, glass resists the accumulation of traces, unlike the dust-ridden interiors of the 19th century. But, of course, these interiors  also demand a level of maintenance. Just  as dust must be eradicated, so too grubby hand prints on windows. This became clear to me watching the Berwick St Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975), which tracks the lives of those who clean the already pristine corporate offices of Central London, while those workers sleep. These “nightcleaners” remove the traces of the ruling classes, who presumably know nothing of their work, and make sure they leave behind no traces of their own labour. 

 

I wonder how this relates to Hameed’s work with Forensic Architecture and the status and/or power of evidence. It’s similar to how José Esteban Muñoz (1967 – 2013) talks about gestures: as a vanishing point, on the edge of disappearance, unable to be fully grasped or arrested; the vanishing point of evidence.

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"Berwick St Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975), which tracks the lives of those who clean the already pristine corporate offices of Central London, while those workers sleep." —Sam Dolbear

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"These “nightcleaners” remove the traces of the ruling classes, who presumably know nothing of their work, and make sure they leave behind no traces of their own labour." —Sam Dolbear

"[...] The image on the screen is dark, and then vanish[es] in these instants when the image becomes ‘blinded by the light’. There’s a lot of interplay between the visible, its limits, and the invisibilised..." —Amelia Groom

"Touching involves collapsing the distance between two people, while holding open a space for our own convictions and uncertain desires. In order for touching to yield intimacy, all parties connected by touch must give themselves over to the risks of this paradox." —Rachel Aumiller

II.

Rachel Aumiller:

 

The palm reader takes Lassnig’s protagonist by the hand. Even as he holds her hand, she confesses: “I am rather lonely.” Touching involves collapsing the distance between two people, while holding open a space for our own convictions and uncertain desires. In order for touching to yield intimacy, all parties connected by touch must give themselves over to the risks of this paradox. The palm reader, like the male lover, does not allow himself to be altered by the uncertainties of the other’s touch. The repetition of the opening and closing hand reflects the paradox of touching. Although the protagonist does not find a partner in intimacy, she does not forsake her own practice of leaning in while pulling away, of vulnerability and resistance:

 

[an open hand] I invited you to soak in my joy and my strength. 

[a closed hand] You will not drink me dry.  

[an open hand] Would you like to peer into my past, into my darkness, into my light?

[a closed hand] You demand to know me as no other knows, but you do not listen.

[an open hand] I want to dress myself in feathers, I want sex, I want to play now. 

[a closed hand] Why do you try to dry up my lust that causes you to swell? 

[an open hand] I will not shrink.

 

SD:

 

I found a quote from 1970 where Lassnig talks about searching “for a reality that was more fully in my possession than the external world” and adds, “I found it waiting for me in the body house in which I dwell”.¹⁴  Later in the book the writer and curator Jocelyn Miller writes that Lassnig’s own body was “the ultimate special effects machine”, a “making visual [of] her body's sensations”.¹⁵

 

RA:

 

To be touched risks being altered. Lassnig shows how holding oneself open for intimacy can lead to annihilation. Yet it is a risk she chooses to take, insisting at the same time on self-preservation and expansion. The hand blots out the red rising sun. Her used skin shrivels up. She uncurls herself and once again offers her hand.

 

Lassnig explores touching as a site of split desires: the desire for vulnerability and even the desire to be contaminated on one side, and the desire for self-preservation on the other. With every touch, we press ourselves into another or pull them into ourselves while simultaneously pushing them away. Lassnig shows how this double impulse of touching is both an obstacle and a condition for intimacy. One scene of touching takes place between the lovers. The male figure asks if it is her first time: 

 

[he hops into her pool] So is it? So it isn’t? [hops out]

[hops in] So it is? So it isn’t? [hops out]

[hops in] So it is? So it isn’t [hops out] 

 

He plays a game of fort/da, oscillating to and fro, but he is only playing with himself. He mistakes the desire for knowledge and possession as love. “You must tell me,” he says just as the palm reader later says, “You must have been…You must be…”

 

“You must have been crazy,” the palm reader says. “You’re making me crazy,” the male lover says. “If you say so…” she sighs, simultaneously holding herself open to be fully experienced by him, while resisting giving herself over on his terms. Why, why, why, she repeats, is your “I love you” a demand to know and possess? 

14 See Maria Lassnig, ‘Body-awareness-painting’ (1970) edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Maria Lassnig: The Pen is Sister of the Brush: 1943-1997 (Göttingen, Zürich: Steidl, Hauser & Wirth, 2009), p. 28.

15 In Maria Lassnig, ‘Optical Printer’ in Maria Lassnig: Film Works edited by Hans Werner Poschauko, Eszter Kondor, Michael Loebenstein, Peter Pakesch), (Vienna: FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen, 2021), p. 53.

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He plays a game of fort/da, oscillating to and fro, but he is only playing with himself. He mistakes the desire for knowledge and possession as love. “You must tell me,” he says just as the palm reader later says, “You must have been…You must be…” —Rachel Aumiller

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"The palm reader, like the male lover, does not allow himself to be altered by the uncertainties of the other’s touch. The repetition of the opening and closing hand reflects the paradox of touching." —Rachel Aumiller

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Jocelyn Miller writes that Lassnig’s own body was “the ultimate special effects machine”, a “making visual [of] her body's sensations.” —Sam Dolbear

"To be touched risks being altered. Lassnig shows how holding oneself open for intimacy can lead to annihilation. Yet it is a risk she chooses to take, insisting at the same time on self-preservation and expansion" —Rachel Aumiller

17  The Cooking Show is part of Critical Cooking Show, a digital programme of films, lectures and performances that reimagine the kitchen as a space central to design thinking and production, screened as part of the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial in collaboration with e-flux Architecture (2021) https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/critical-cooking-show/358101/the-cooking-show-with-dirty-furniture/

SD:

 

What can we make of the first half of Lassnig’s film: the line-drawn animation of a woman lying on her back and eating, cut together with 1970s recipe-book montages of cake and biscuits. Donna Craig, who voices the woman in the film, sings in the background:

         

I like to eat, I like to drink,

so made me god, I will not shrink

I like the cakes, I like the pies

as long as you eat, you will not die,   

To starve to death, to please a man
is woman's curse, it is a shame

because he leaves you anyway,

so why not eat, stay cheerful and gay

     

She says eating keeps her alive and makes her happy. How might we consider this in the context of feminism and film? My mind instantly jumps to the buffet and food fight in Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966). 

 

Clio Nicastro:

 

Starting from the last line of the song, “As long as you eat, you will not die”, I see a connection with the scene in Daisies in which the two protagonists, Marie I and Marie II, look at the floor covered with the skins of the corn cobs they’ve just eaten, which are organic traces of their passage. As they walk away, they say: “After all, we exist”. Then they start bouncing and singing: “We exist, we exist, we exist…”. In Lassnig’s film eating is also a way of asserting “I exist”. But food isn’t just nourishing, a means of survival – it’s also a door to a rich imaginary dimension: one that is tasteful, colourful, fragrant. 

 

Daisies’ protagonists eat constantly and without moderation, with pleasure and curiosity, breaking traditional ‘etiquette’ by devouring huge amounts of food.¹⁶ It is one of the ways they exploit men. “Are you on a diet?”, one of the two women asks a man, who is beginning to regret inviting them to dinner at an expensive restaurant. The female body in Daisies is not stuffed and anesthetised but rather explored, chopped to pieces, and recomposed – as in the famous moment where the two protagonists cut each other's bodies as if they were pieces of paper. Like making a collage. This doesn't lead to happiness, but… 

 

SD:

 

Yes, there's something in the way Lassnig’s character eats, too: the joy and the joke is in the mundanity of it, the way she just lies back. And given that Lassnig's friend Bärbl posed for the drawing of the woman, something of the friendship in Daisies comes through here, too. Friendship as collaboration and politics…  

 

Anja Sunhyun Michaelsen:

 

I think images of women who like to eat are revolutionary to some extent. Often it seems women can only eat too much or too little – both of  which leading to shame and eating disorders. Images of women who eat are over-determined with meaning. Women who eat are both sexualised and shamed, the subjects of an immense social pressure, in terms of gender and beauty ideals, entangled with health norms and biopolitics. This is why depictions of innocent, guilt-free pleasurable eating are difficult to achieve. I’m not sure Lassnig succeeds. As an attempt at self-empowerment it is still very defiant in its tone. 

 

CN:

 

I tend to be skeptical about the idea that disordered eating behaviours (especially in their most severe manifestations) are, as such, forms of resistance (e.g. against gender norms, against capitalistic consumption, and against certain beauty ideals) but I definitely think that women’s relationship with food is too often pathologised and its meaning simplified. There is an interesting ambiguity in the very first scene of Palmistry in which the protagonist lies on the sofa and eats all the biscuits from the plate in front of her, one by one; is she staring into the void or at the spectator, or is she just enjoying a sort of suspended time? She takes the biscuits from the tray on the table with her right hand, while cradling another biscuit in her left palm. This preempts the images shown in the second part of the film in which the palm reader analyses another woman and photos of her childhood begin to be displayed on her animated palm.

     

I see Palmistry instead as a reflection on what food does: which spaces and temporalities it opens and/or closes. 

 

ASM:

 

I generally don’t enjoy watching people eat, no matter what their gender is. I’d rather watch them cook. The delightful short video work The Cooking Show (2020) by the collective Dirty Furniture explains that in cooking shows women cook (at home) while men travel and eat (in ‘exotic’ countries).¹⁷ I imagine an ‘organic’ transition from women cooking as part of everyday reproductive labor (the most iconic depiction of which is surely Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman [1975]) to women cooking on camera as an exit strategy from everyday reproductive labor (all the Julias, Maangchis, and Nadiyas). At least at first glance, this seems possible for women of all races, ages, and backgrounds. Perhaps this explains my preference for cooking images as opposed to eating images. To Lassnig’s “fat girl [who] sings about her refusal to get thin to please men” I would like to put a person by her side who cooks what they eat (preferably not as part of a relationship of underpaid care work, and not necessarily within a romantic couple constellation), so she can “stay cheerful and gay” in good company. 

 

SD:

 

Clio, when we were talking earlier, we both said we were confused about whether the inflated figure who floats off is the husband/partner or a child? 

 

CN:

 

I shared your confusion, mostly due to the size of this baby-man...

     

SD:

 

[laughs]

     

CN:

 

...but, after reading the following lines of the song, I thought that he had to be a man:

 

There comes a little man along,

I blow him up, I make him strong,

He eats with me from my substance,

I feed him, rear him, give him a chance,

I do not flinch when he swells up,

 

So he flourishes thanks to her energy (air/nourishment) and then he flies away. He abandons her when he’s strong/big enough. As a critic of female reproductive and care work, I guess the ambiguity between man and child is what Lassnig wants to play on, and maybe also the cliché about woman being "mother earth"/the embodiment of the domestic, and man the traveller/explorer. Yes, he is permitted to float off. 

 

CN:

 

I think this is the element that connects the first part of Palmistry to the second part about hand reading. Fasting and shrinking as a false promise to gain a happy future with your “inflatable love” (a form of “cruel optimism”, to read the film alongside Lauren Berlant). The protagonist decides to go back to eating, to not die. Food and death, food and decadence, eating to live, eating to death. This takes me to the difference between the bulimic characters in Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1974) and Daisies. While in the latter, Marie I and Marie II choose to playfully devour/consume the world as a reaction to its corruption, in Ferreri’s film, four men decide to eat themselves to death to escape the void of their bourgeois lives. Ferreri literally displays the disintegration of the capitalistic body-machine; food, vomit, excrements, sex, and finally death. No desire, just compulsion. 

16  In a beautiful essay titled The Gender of Sounds (1992), Anne Carson searches for the ancient Greek roots of the link between the patriarchal focus on rational ability/self-constraint/decision making as opposed to the natural instincts that are associated with women who, being equated with nature, are not able to control what comes out from their bodies (fluids and sounds). She also sheds light on men’s aversion to feminine high pitch voices, or other feminine sounds they believed interrupted in the thinking process or ‘logos’. There are  two moments in Carson’s text I find particularly relevant to reflect on women and themes of moderation/shrinking. First of all in her analysis of sophrosyne as a personal and political virtue that only men can gain, she points out how this conception of sophrosyne, which corresponds to the space of the polis, was built upon the female body as  “the cathartic site” of passions. Carson here analyses ololyga, a ritual call particular  to females, a high-pitched piercing cry uttered at certain climatic moments in ritual practice or in life. The (wild) space for wolves and women was called apeiron (the unbounded) which is a row, formless peripheral space that needed to be civilised. At the end of her text, Carson asks “whether there might be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control, another kind of human self than the one based on dissociation of inside and outside.”

"In Ferreri’s film, four men decide to eat themselves

to death to escape the void of their bourgeois lives. Ferreri literally displays the disintegration of the capitalistic body-machine; food, vomit, excrements, sex, and finally death. No desire, just compulsion.

—Clio Nicastro

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"Marie I and Marie II, look at the floor covered with the skins of the corn cobs they’ve just eaten, which are organic traces of their passage. As they walk away, they say: “After all, we exist”. Then they start bouncing and singing: “We exist, we exist, we exist…”. In Lassnig’s film eating is also a way of asserting “I exist”. But food isn’t just nourishing, a means of survival – it’s also a door to a rich imaginary dimension: one that is tasteful, colourful, fragrant." —Clio Nicastro

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees aren't, so please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

Roundtable edited by Daniella Shreir and Missouri Williams

 

EATING / THE OTHER

Six feminist films exploring rituals, modernity, sex, labour and national myths

via food and eating. Runtime: 69'.

Melons (Patty Chang, USA, 1998)

The Sweet Number: An Experience of Consumption (VALIE EXPORT, Austria, 1968)

Popsicles (Gloria Camiruaga, Chile/USA, 1982/4)

Rat Life and Diet in North America (Joyce Wieland, Canada, 1968)

Fake Fruit Factory (Chick Strand, Mexico/USA, 1986)

The Sandwich (Ateyyat El Abnoudy, Egypt, 1975)

MELONS

Patty Chang, 1998, USA, 4'
 

WITH PORTUGUESE SUBTITLES BY MARTHA ELISA

SPANISH SUBTITLES BY LUCIA DE LA TORRE

FRENCH SUBTITLES BY JULIET DAVIS

ITALIAN SUBTITLES BY MIRKO CERULLO

KOREAN SUBTITLES BY MONICA CHOI

JAPANESE SUBTITLES BY ILENIA PORPORA

INDONESIAN SUBTITLES BY ADRIAN JONATHAN

She was just like Saint Lucy,

Saint Lucy of Syracuse:

eyeless, sightless, and carrying

her baby blues on a platter.

Patty Chang appears against a grey background in a bright white bodice and begins to tell the story of a plate she was gifted after her aunt’s death, taking it in her hands and balancing it on her head, all the while keeping a straight face. Next she reaches beneath the camera frame and pulls up a large kitchen knife before beginning to carry out a second, Buñuelesque action. After she makes a deep incision down through her bra, a dissected cantaloupe emerges, which she then deseeds and eats. This ritual, invented by Chang, but narrated so as to seem like an idiosyncratic family custom, is a balancing act, positioned somewhere between the endurance emblematic of the feminist body art and performances to which Chang’s work could be seen as responding.  (Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece [1964] has often been evoked in relation to Melons), storytelling, and the act of consumption. (She executes the last with particular exuberance.) Taking her aunt’s death from cancer as her point of departure, Chang has said that she invented the story “to fill a lapse in emotional memory”. But her story itself seems free-styled and full of holes, and grows more so as her performance progresses. It seems that this story is, in part, one she is telling in order to sustain the performance itself, the heavy, violent gestures that convey the physical consequences of loss. In the end, it is Chang’s self-cannibalisation and final act of rebellion that sees her attempting to break away from inherited trauma.—DS

Patty Chang (b. 1972) is a Los Angeles-based artist and educator who uses performance, video, installation and narrative forms when considering identity, gender, transnationalism, colonial legacies, the environment, large-scale infrastructural projects and impacted subjectivities.

If you liked this film, please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

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VALIE EXPORT, 1968, Austria, 10'
 

WITH PORTUGUESE SUBTITLES BY MARTHA ELISA

SPANISH SUBTITLES BY LUCIA DE LA TORRE

FRENCH SUBTITLES BY ZOÉ BARNES

ITALIAN SUBTITLES BY LIVIA FRANCHINI

KOREAN SUBTITLES BY MONICA CHOI

JAPANESE SUBTITLES BY ILENIA PORPORA

INDONESIAN SUBTITLES BY ADRIAN JONATHAN

THE SWEET NUMBER: AN EXPERIENCE OF CONSUMPTION

“A tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree which is decorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images in short, with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter” –Roland Barthes, Myth Today

 

Austrian artist and filmmaker VALIE EXPORT has long been associated with her confrontational interventions in public space. From 1968 on, EXPORT termed herself a “Feminist Actionist”, marked by her desire to “free men’s [and the male Actionists] products, that is, women, from their thing-character”. An early proponent of Expanded Cinema,  she utilised women’s bodies as principal material in both perfomance and video works. The use of her body as a sign – a system of codes – is epitomised in the well-known Touch Cinema (1968), where she wears a perforated black box on her torso and invites passers-by to put their hands in and feel her bare breasts.

 

In her rarely discussed first credited video, The Sweet Number, EXPORT instead examines a cultural object as sign, performing what social media influencers might now call an “unboxing” of Hofbauer ‘Mozart’ chocolates, the Austrian confectionary par excellence. At first treating the box with the respect its grandiose branding and multi-layered packaging seems to deserve, her Action begins with her cutting into its decorative paper and ribbon. (EXPORT regularly employs knives and scissors for more violent purposes – in the same year as The Sweet Number, she made Cutting, in which, among other things, she cuts her collaborator Peter Weibel’s pubic hairs). It soon becomes clear that this is more than just a box of chocolates. As EXPORT gives a set of mock instructions for the multiple uses of this product, we learn that we should use the cardboard packaging with its depiction of St Stephen’s Cathedral to replace the Van Gogh hanging on our walls, and save its protective corrugated sheet, storing it in a drawer, for it has “many potential uses”. Via this didactic mode, EXPORT cuts through the aura of the myth-laden object, making the implicit hyperbolically explicit. In doing so, she mocks the contentedly passive bourgeois consumer of Mozart chocolates, with dinner guests to please and replica paintings hanging on their walls. Insisting on storage, display and disposal, she seems to allegorise post-war Austria’s compartmentalisation and subterfuge. Later she reads the pamphlet that comes with the chocolates aloud: the company’s overly defensive return policy is generous enough to accept faulty chocolates “even when we are not at fault” and even when these “elements [are] beyond our control”.

 

In Melons, the intensity of Patty Chang’s multitasking gives way to a final act of rebellion, but in Sweet Number, EXPORT’s over-awareness of her self-conscious procedural mockery bears only a faint whiff of the lewdness she would infamously exploit in her best known works. As she turns and holds out a chocolate to an imaginary companion, suggesting the viewer might consume this product with “someone [they] love”, EXPORT cannot help but crack up. The shot is restaged multiple times – a quasi showreel of her coquettishness – and ends on a close-up of her giving in to temptation: mouth open, eyes closed and salivating audibly, she finally devours one of Hofbauer’s chocolates. —DS

Distributed by sixpackfilm, Vienna.

VALIE EXPORT (b. 1940, Linz) is considered one of the most important international pioneers of conceptual media, performance and video art. In 1967 the artist took the name VALIE EXPORT as an artistic concept and logo, with the requirement that it should only be written in capital letters .

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This represents a brutal confrontation

with the glib present, and as is

the essence of art, gives voice to the

naked truth about our trivial age.

I first encountered the work of Gloria Camiruaga in the winter of 2018, as one of the 29 artists featured in the exhibition ‘Niepodległe: Women, Independence, and National Discourse’ at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Following the source of a low droning sound at the back of the gallery, I found Camiruaga’s film on a single-screen, brightly saturated, pixellated video on loop. It was vibrant in the way that ‘80s videos are: citric lime green, blue drool, and pink lips, made it stand out among the collages, watercolours, and black-and-white photographs. In the film, a chain of girls and women speak in a rapid monotone, sucking and licking away at a succession of popsicles. Embedded in the neon ice are forest green plastic toy soldiers, gradually revealed as the speakers continue to eat. When you step closer to the screen the words become just about decipherable: a series of muttered Ave Marias that rise exponentially with the number of featured speakers (the filmmakers’ daughters) before swirling to a frenzied chorus and repeating (like the work itself) over and over, ad infinitum. These partial portraits of dark-haired speakers are complemented with quick cuts through a concrete courtyard that show the image of a rosary strewn across the Chilean flag, a toy soldier at its centre. At one point the sounds are muffled by the crackling of a man’s voice through a loudspeaker as he recites the same prayer. Something about hearing this prayer at a distance feels hollow next to the clarity and proximity of the video’s female speakers, whose performances alternate between apathy and an exaggerated, sardonic sexuality.

This video is Popsicles (1982-1984), a film of under five minutes that has become Camiruaga’s best– and at times only – known work, featured in exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. A small curatorial note tells us: “Gloria Camiruaga was a Chilean visual artist and documentary maker, regarded as one of the pioneers of South American video art.”¹ A pioneer? How had I never heard of her before? Who were her contemporaries? The (re)search began. 

Though I was intrigued by the symbolism of Popsicles, I was mostly ignorant of the film’s context. Visual metaphors and provocations that would be overt to those familiar with recent Chilean history required significantly more work from me . A decade before the film was made, Chilean President Salvador Allende and his democratic socialist regime had been abruptly and violently overthrown by a military junta, a coterie of Chile’s frustrated air force, army, navy, and national police officers set to restore privatisation to the country. General Augusto Pinochet had been named to lead the replacement government for its first year, to be replaced eventually by an annually rotating officer from each sect of the military government in turn. In a dictatorial manoeuvre, Pinochet quickly vetoed this agreement, cementing his leadership of the country until his ousting in 1990. Camiruaga made Popsicles against this backdrop – the omnipresent toy soldier signals the insistent menace of Pinochet’s military regime. Symbolism like this was the only means of criticism because  censorship was central to the maintenance of Pinochet’s power. Books were burned and banned outright, celebrated artists were tortured and killed, as in the case of famous folksinger Víctor Jara,² and television was transformed into a 24-hour propaganda machine for Pinochet’s government, oscillating between government broadcasts and glitzy, sanitised, highly escapist “game shows and contests hosted by big name brands”.³ Like other totalitarian regimes, a schism became quickly evident between official, government-sanctioned forms of expression – “grandiose performing art (opera and ballet) […] nationalist, […] and populist art”⁴, and the work of radicals openly critical of Pinochet’s rule, though this took some time to materialise. 

In 1980, a new Constitution was ratified, establishing eight more years of Pinochet’s reign before he would be up for re-election. With renewed vigour, beginning in 1983, counter-Pinochet protestors bravely took to the streets. The possibility of a post-Pinochet democracy offered space for the development of dissident art in Chile: “a surprising effervescence” bloomed through the arts, inspiring creative innovations visually, verbally, musically, and conceptually.⁵ Spontaneous ‘art happenings’ (acciones de arte) took on a particular significance in this environment, transforming unexpected public spaces into flash theatres, galleries, and lecterns, unpredictable occurrences which would elude the looming threat of Pinochet’s censors.⁶ One of Camiruaga’s films from this era, Performance San Pablo-San Martin (1986-1988), is a rare glimpse into the Santiago of this time. In her signature style, handheld, observational shots of women in the city are paired with vibrant, upbeat music. The women peer from behind barred windows, and the only men depicted in the piece are Lavin (Camiruaga’s co-director), a cartoon of Pinochet, and military soldiers and watch guards. This juxtaposition makes a not-so-subtle jab at the daily imprisonment of Chilean citizens – and, significantly, the experience of Chilean women – oppressed under the military government. In Performance, Camiruaga threads an interview with a middle-aged woman with interventions enacted by women in the Santiago streets. These are both playful and sorrowful: her subjects beg and look mournfully through the barred windows of their homes as if imprisoned, or dance naked in front of their open windows, their faces covered by the floral curtains.

Though the symbolic undertones of Performance are far from lighthearted, the moments where the naked women dance and laugh before open windows reclaim a kind of joy – and, by extension, a kind of autonomy – in the face of the extreme violence and oppression of Pinochet’s regime. In fact, the ‘NO’ movement that would later dramatically mobilise the Chilean populace to vote against – and ultimately oust – Pinochet in 1988 perceived joy as such a liberating force that it centred itself around the slogan La Alegría ya viene (“Joy is coming”). But until then resistance had to be subtle. As in Soviet Russia or Communist China, art critiquing the government was often abstract, relying on symbolism and coded referents. In ‘Performance’, the film opens with funhouse mirror images of the filmmakers paired with an unflattering cartoon of Pinochet, bloated, sagging and redfaced. In Popsicles, the combination of the titular ice snack, plastic soldiers, and Ave Maria prayer express the oppression and dissidence of the Pinochet era via a deceptively simple movement. The quick shot of the mutated Pinochet cartoon is the closest Camiruaga comes to a mode of direct political caricature, although it is paired with video documentation of contemporaneous, everyday citizens – something which brings the careful language of metaphor into unflinching conversation with the present. The same trick happens in Popsicles: the viewer is suddenly transported from the predictability of the frantically praying speakers to an unidentifiable outside. Concrete. A crumpled Chilean flag. The voice of a man for the first time. These juxtapositions show two worlds forced together under totalitarianism: public submission and private dissent; ciphers and gestures.
The Catholic Church was another bastion of safety for dissident voices, as well as being one of the (perhaps the only) prominent voices of resistance against Pinochet’s regime: assisting “numerous community organizations and research institutes”⁷, providing meeting spaces for dissident groups, and allowing continued access through workshops to otherwise suppressed writers through the Academia de Humanismo Cristiano.⁸ Camiruaga explores the duality between the Church and sexuality in several of her films. In Popsicles, the partially-visible women suck and lick at their frozen popsicles while the sticky red syrup melts down their chins. This sucking is sometimes nonchalant, sometimes sexual. The symbolism here is ambiguous – is Camiruaga implying that the symbol of Catholicism in this particular film is not as ‘pure’ as it seems? Or is she highlighting the feigned ‘innocence’ of the public through subverting our expectations of the young, feminine subject? She returns to the juxtaposition of Catholicism and sexuality – as well as the Church and the brothel – in Casa Particular (1990), a short experimental documentary featuring transgender sex workers in Santiago who describe their experiences of violence and abuse. In one striking scene, Camiruaga cross-fades from a reproduction of da Vinci’s Last Supper to a tableau of her subjects, elaborately costumed and enacting the sacrament ritual with bread and wine. She also addresses the role of the Church as a political safe haven. The frantic recitation of the Ave Maria in Popsicles, the rosary beads, and the imposing voice of a man over a loudspeaker reciting the prayer all evoke feelings of panic or guilt, but at the same time convey the position of Catholicism at the time as a last refuge.
While many of Camiruaga’s contemporaries across the arts in 1980s Chile are well-documented, it is almost impossible to find full or even fragmented versions of Camiruaga’s films online, let alone academic coverage of her work.⁹ Basic facts, including the names of her films, the dates of their production, and even their running times differ from one archival site to the next. The few, incontrovertible truths are these: born in Santiago in 1941, Camiruaga went on to study philosophy at the University of Chile and visual arts at the San Francisco Art Institute in the US, graduating in 1980. Over the course of her career, she made 21 films, receiving a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to complete La Venda in 1999.10,11 Many, if not all, of Camiruaga’s works centre on narratives of women, girls, and transgender people. Camiruaga collaborated with well-known Chilean dissident artists such as Pablo Lavin and Lotty Rosenfeld, and she died in 2006. The more I learned about Camiruaga, the more I wanted to know. She had been at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) until 1980, and could have studied with faculty members and video art luminaries like George Kuchar, Paul Kos, Gunvor Nelson, or Howard Fried.¹² Is this how she got into video art, rather than the ‘visual arts’ in which she received her degree? Was her interest in video always linked to her passion for feminist causes, to an ongoing discourse on postmodernism? When had she left Chile, and why? Did she leave when President Salvador Allende was still president, before the Chilean military mutinied on 11 September, 1973, and overthrew the government in a bloody coup? And when did she return? 

Unlike the more celebrated artists of the era, Camiruaga’s work during the Pinochet years merges a spontaneous approach alongside taped documentation. How ironic, then, that a poetic preservationist like Gloria Camiruaga can be so infuriatingly ephemeral today. This is the injustice of the obscure archive, hungry historians presented with nothing more than the crumbs of their own conjecture, hopeful home-sleuthing and speculation. Under dictatorship, the subjectivity of the individual – their personhood, their body, their history – is subsumed by the larger narrative of state violence. To view Camiruaga’s films today – with their gaps and in their fragments – is to glimpse the hard work of a carefully recorded history: the steadfast resilience of the individual in the face of systemic injustice, documenting and refusing to forget.

1. ‘Gloria Camiruaga’, from ‘Niepodległe: Women, Independence, and National Discourse’, at the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, 2018 (online).

2. Paula Thorrington Cronovich, “Out of the Blackout and into the Light: How the Arts Survived Pinochet’s Dictatorship.” Iberoamericana: September 2013, 120.

3. Ibid. p. 132

4. Manuel Alcides Jofre, “Culture, Art, and Literature in Chile: 1973-1985.” Latin American Perspectives: Spring 1989, 76-77.

5. Cronovich, p. 121

6. Marjorie Agosín, “Art Under Dictatorship.” Agni: 1990, pp. 34-35.

7. Cronovich, pp. 132-134

8. Ibid.

9. Here, I am grateful to Professor Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, who generously shared additional links and research materials about Camiruaga for this project.

10. ‘Popsicles (1984) by Gloria Camiruaga’, Vivo Media Arts Centre (online).

11. La Venda in English means ‘The Blindfold’. This film tells the stories of several different women who were brutalised under Pinochet. The titular blindfold refers to how they were first blindfolded before their torture.

12. ‘San Francisco Art Institute’, Wikipedia (online). 

The Chilean video artist and documentarian Gloria Camiruaga was born in Santiago in 1941. After obtaining a bachelor's degree from the Universidad de Chile in Santiago in 1971, Camiruaga studied video art at San Francisco Art Institute, graduating in 1980. As one of Chile's first video artists, Camiruaga dedicated her life to creating a space for women and transgender people to express themselves.

POPSICLES

Gloria Camiruaga, 1982/4, Chile/USA, 5'
 

NOT SUBTITLED. FOR INFORMATION ABOUT AVEMARIÀ – THE TRADITIONAL SCRIPTURE-BASED CATHOLIC PRAYER OF PRAISE FOR AND PETITION TO THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY – IN YOUR LANGUAGE, PLEASE CLICK HERE 

IN SEARCH OF GLORIA CAMIRUAGA

by Eliza Levinson, first published in Another Gaze 03

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Dios te salve,

María, llena eres de gracia; 

el Señor es contigo. 

Bendita Tú eres entre todas las mujeres, 

y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús. 

Santa María, Madre de Dios, 

ruega por nosotros, pecadores,

ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.

Amén

Joyce Wieland, 1968, Canada, 16'
 

WITH PORTUGUESE SUBTITLES BY MARTHA ELISA

SPANISH SUBTITLES BY LUCIA DE LA TORRE

FRENCH SUBTITLES BY JULIET DAVIS

ITALIAN SUBTITLES BY MIRKO CERULLO

KOREAN SUBTITLES BY MONICA CHOI

JAPANESE SUBTITLES BY ILENIA PORPORA

INDONESIAN SUBTITLES BY ADRIAN JONATHAN

RAT LIFE AND DIET IN NORTH AMERICA

"I have been aware of the fact that there is Art and there is Politics, and I have been working on putting them together in aesthetic terms for years. I think I am getting somewhere. I think one can have all the thrill of doing art as well as embedding the political thing in it. Making a statement in Art that will be political doesn't have to be through any standard way... It is the totality that I am interested in. I don't want to just harp on politics in my art. I want a really sensitive combination of all areas of our life; Canadian independence, northern mysticism, organic farming, sex. Everything which concerns us must be put together in such a way that one isn't preaching to somebody, or cheating anyone." Joyce Wieland interviewed in Canadian Forum, 1974

In a discussion with Hollis Frampton conducted by Kay Armitage for the Montréal publication Take One in 1972, Joyce Wieland described her day-to-night editing process for Rat Life and Diet in America, the closest she had come to a narrative film at that point in her career. She would spend all day organising the footage, before getting high in the evening in order to review her day’s work. She described this mind-altering interlude as the “most objective and useful tool” for the job of editing, something which requires a sensitivity to rhythm and the confidence to reduce and discard. Made in 1968, against a heady backdrop of hippy culture and the rise of leftist movements in Europe, it would come as no surprise if it were revealed that the use of drugs had also coloured the creation and shooting of the film. Rat Life opens with a surreal domestic scene, in which gerbils (Wieland’s pets, who play the titular animals) clamber over discarded food and then into a milk jar inscribed with the film’s name. Next we see them sitting on a window sill as they are confronted by two prowling cats on the other side of the pane. (One of these cats, Dwight, had started his career earlier that year in Wieland’s Catfood in which he ate fourteen fish over the course of thirteen minutes. Wieland referred to animals as a “legitimate subject matter” and as a way of uniting her practice with her daily life – the burden for many women throughout the history of art). Superimposed onto this image is the title card ‘POLITICAL PRISONERS’ – one of many such cards, which, along with fleeting shots of gerbils nibbling at the American flag and “found” images of Che Guevara’s dead body, serve to cement the anti-America, anti-war message of this dialogue-free film. Eventually the gerbils manage to escape their cat jailers and return to nature, fleeing to Canada with its pesticide-free grass and organic gardening.

A fiercely anti-war Torontonian making art in New York at the time of the war in Vietnam, where over 500,000 American soldiers had died by the year in which the film was shot, Wieland makes Rat Life as an ode to Canada and a plea for the country’s cultural independence. —DS

Joyce Wieland (1930 – 1998) was a feminist and activist artist who took on the Vietnam War, gender, and the Canadian landscape.

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AFTER TOO MUCH SUFFERING THEY

DECIDE  TO ESCAPE. FULL SCALE

REBELLION IS CARRIED OUT. SOME OF

THE BRAVEST ARE LOST FOREVER…

Chick Strand, 1986, USA/Mexico, 22'
 

WITH PORTUGUESE SUBTITLES BY MARTHA ELISA

SPANISH SUBTITLES BY LUCIA DE LA TORRE

FRENCH SUBTITLES BY JULIET DAVIS

ITALIAN SUBTITLES BY MIRKO CERULLO

KOREAN SUBTITLES BY MONICA CHOI

JAPANESE SUBTITLES BY ILENIA PORPORA

INDONESIAN SUBTITLES BY ADRIAN JONATHAN

FAKE FRUIT FACTORY

"In the town where I spend my time in Mexico, I had an American friend, a man who was a painter. He married a Mexican woman and had three children with her…..For years he tried to think of schemes which would make him money so he wouldn’t have to be a yo-yo [going back and forth between Mexico and the U.S.]….He started making papier mache fruit and vegetables to sell to local tourist stores.  They became very popular, and before he could think twice, the whole operation grew to the extent that he had to rent a factory and hire people to make unpainted pieces in their homes. Well, after about three years he started getting rich….but he got bored with the whole thing.  This is a film about the women who worked for him." –Chick Strand on Fake Fruit Factory

 

“Just as I doubt that an alien would learn much about the complexities of our culture by seeing the ritual of a Christmas Mass on film, I doubt if we really learn much in depth when we see a ritual from another culture, even though we are able to relate it to other events and various social structures within the culture.  We need to be able to relate to the individuals involved in the event.  We get no feeling for the culture because we are given no clues to the actual lives and inner thought of the people.  These films aren’t objective, truthful or holistic because they make everyone seem the same.  In a scientific attempt to present what is perceived only by what the anthropologist sees, all nuances, sensibilities, aesthetics, emotions and human drama in the culture are lost.  Insights into their art of living, uniqueness of spirit, complex variety of motivations and individual actions and reactions are impossible.  It is the people of a culture rather than how many hoops in a dance step or how they weave their baskets that will leave the biggest, darkest, most barren and mourned empty space in our world when the culture is forever lost to us” 

“…in most ethnographic films, the people are presented in groups, acting out a ritual as a mass – faceless, nameless, all the same, all appearing to act and react in the same manner.  We see events that happen only once in a while in the culture, and not what goes on daily. Even when a few people are separated out, we only get to see them in the most formal or fragmented behavior as it pertains to the event, and we know nothing else about them, except what the anthropologist chooses to tell us.  Rarely are their own words used, even in translation.  An uncaring and uninvolved voice of a narrator tells us what is going on.  The films are like textbooks and not true film documents of a people.”

 

“Where are the people in these films?  To leave out the spirit of the people presents a thin tapestry of the culture, easy to rent, lacking in strength and depth.  I want to know really what it is like to be a breathing, talking, moving, emotional, relating individual in the society.  The films lack intimacy, dimension, heart and soul and most of all they are artless.  The people are presented as bit actors in a culture play.  An alien interpretation is superimposed over the lives of the people.”

“The films only show what the anthropologist feels is important to show, not what the people feel is important to their lives.  And the only way to find out what is really important is to let them speak for themselves.  How much are we missing?  How much, by their silence and indifference, are anthropologists contributing to the destruction of humans and their cultures? [...] Ethnographic films can and should be works of art, symphonies about the fabric of a people, celebrations of the tenacity and uniqueness of the human spirit”.

— From 'Notes on Ethnographic Film by a Film Artist': Wide Angle, 2 (1978), 44-51

Mildred "Chick" Strand (1931-2009) was an experimental filmmaker, "a pioneer in blending avant-garde techniques with documentary". Chick Strand contributed to the movement of women's experimental cinema in the early 1960s–1970's.

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THAT'S HER PROBLEM,

TALK, TALK, TALK.

SHE'S TELLING THEM SHE'S A SEX TEACHER.

A TEACHER OF WHAT?

OH, YEAH. WE'RE GOING TO HAVE A HELLISH MONDAY.

"It is rare to find a documentary in Egypt. Other documentaries, if they exist at all, focus on general topics, not specific. They do not concentrate on people but keep it general. They are like the news, like reading something off a page, like a comment on what is seen. That does not come from the filmmaker’s own mind and not from the people." –Ateyyat El Abnoudy  speaking in Days of Documentary (2008)

 

Ateyyat El Abnoudy made The Sandwich, a lyrical portrait of the rural village  of Abnoud from which her family took its name in 1975, a year before the ‘Farouk Code’ of 1947 was reintroduced. This law allowed for the censorship of films that included, among other things, “Images of apparently soiled alleys, of hand and donkey carts, itinerant traders, copper cleaners, poor farm houses and their furnishings, and women wearing enveloping gowns”. Filmed in Abnoud, which the title card tells us is 400 miles south of Cairo, reached by the recently-built line for a fast train intended to allow tourists to visit the tourist sites of Southern Egypt from the capital, The Sandwich is a rare depiction of the Egyptian rural everyday. El Abonoudy is primarily concerned with the work and play of women and children (the men of the village appear only peripherally, sitting on the grass, slowly herding goats, or leisurely roaming on horseback). Throughout the film, the faces of those who labour over the making of food and rearing of animals, precede the gestures associated with these acts. The first thing we see is a close-up of a woman in a head scarf, her face in perpetual, repetitive motion, half-smiling, as she sifts grain; a reverse shot shows a pained young boy trying to follow her movements. A close-up of their hands at work segues into a series of medium shots that show the individuals involved in each stage of the bread-making process, from grain to oven. Bread is the film’s narrative thread film and with one young boy’s struggle to keep up with its fabrication and another’s idiosyncratic sandwich preparation, Abnoudy moves even further away from anything that might be considered ethnographic. Any accusations of over-poeticisation are undermined by the extreme individuality of the latter boy’s actions and the film’s final shot, a circular rejoinder to the train mentioned in the introductory title card.

The third in what is now considered a trilogy of films made while El Abnoudy was at the Higher Film Institute in Cairo, The Sandwich led to accusations of her “placing her camera in the mud of society” and was censored due to the dirt shown on the children’s faces and the emaciated animals. At first El Abnoudy argued with the female censor that it was a film-maker’s job to show the reality of society. Eventually, she succeeded on grounds of a practical argument: that the films were so short it was not worth cutting anything out.—DS

I am grateful for the information provided by the Viola Shafik in her book, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005), 51.

Ateyyat El Abnoudy (1939–2018), also known as Ateyyat Awad Mahmoud Khalil, was an Egyptian journalist, lawyer, actress, producer, and movie director. She was born in a small village along the Nile Delta in Egypt.

Ateyyat El Abnoudy, 1975, Egypt, 12'

NO CLEAR DIALOGUE / NON-SUBTITLED AT REQUEST OF THE FILMMAKER

THE SANDWICH

السندوتش

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This film was shot in the village of Abnoud

situated 600km South of Cairo, in Upper Egypt.

It is a village where the train never stops. 

 

ENDNOTES

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees aren't. We receive no funding so please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here

HANDS TIED

Concept by Sam Dolbear at the ICI, Berlin.

Programmed by Daniella Shreir, Another Gaze, and Sam Dolbear

Roundtable edits: Daniella Shreir, Missouri Williams

Thanks to the ICI, Berlin for helping to pay for these two films, and to Six Pack, Vienna for all their help.

EATING / THE OTHER

Programmed by Daniella Shreir

Thanks so much to Léna Lewis-King for her help with subtitle files and fact checking.

Thanks to Missouri Wiliams for her eagle editorial eye, and to Elena Gorfinkel for her support with the programme.

Thanks to Fumina Hamasaki for her help editing the Japanese subtitles.

Website design: Daniella Shreir

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