Possibly Pertinent Paradigms
(in making Unpopular Culture)
by Ardele Lister
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a matrix is defined as:
2. A situation of surrounding substance within which something originates,
develops or is contained. (From the Latin)
I have a history of making fractured time-based narratives, sometimes utilizing all the bells and whistles of computers in fast-paced, multi-layered edits; at the same time, my work in film, video and text has been deeply committed to responding to the state of the body (most often female) in the context of culture: media-saturated, driven by capital, usually a one-way street.
I am taking this opportunity to look back, again in a fragmentary way, at my own archive, at analyses and strategies in their respective times, for what they might offer to us today.
When women artists protested that their own concerns had been denied them and insisted that men could no longer speak or make art for all of us, they were met with a considerable degree of anger, resentment and shock from male artists who had always prided themselves on their abilities to be perceptive, intuitive and sensitive – all qualities that women have been conditioned to reflect. It was no wonder that male artists were surprised and hurt that they were being accused of behaving like men, discriminating against women, playing power games, and of being deceitful towards women and their art. But the fact of such deceit was proven out when women were branded as regressive for searching through forms thought to be obsolete (discarded in the career competition for the new) as they found places in the existing system which they might for the first time inhabit. Painfully obvious because men had already taken the first step in such a denial of the problematic notion of progress by returning to art as act. But men were not able to break away from the unmanageable notion of progress through ‘breakthroughs’ and women were left to solve the resulting solipsism with the sense of communitas available to oppressed people just beginning to comprehend the true nature of their oppression.
(From a chapter in Performance by Artists which I co-authored with Bill Jones, 1977, published by Art Metropole, Toronto)
In 1975, I wrote and directed my first 16mm film. The smooth-voiced male narrator in Headache speaks over the image of an unglamorous woman: “A woman has so much to cope with in today’s world,” he says. “Good to know you can always reach for a bottle of this (cut to headache pills), “or this,” (cut to a martini) “or this,” (cut to tranquilizers) and “feel your troubles melt away.” Her face goes into soft-focus. She opens her eyes tentatively at first, then widely, comes into sharp focus and speaks for herself: “Don’t give me temporary relief” she says, “I want daycare, I want equal opportunities for the good jobs”… and before she goes on much longer, her image and voice are cut off, stilled, as the male narrator returns: “A man has so much to cope with in today’s world.”
In addition to utilizing the photographic properties of video cameras and their recording devices, my work specifically references technical properties of the medium and its machinery (including what computers have added to the arsenal) to demonstrate what goes on in our lives. Our voices are drowned out, or cut off. Our images can be manipulated to fulfill agendas not our own. Fragmented repetitions, moving only within the confines of the monitor’s frame, all speak to the realities of our lives.
The limited evidence of a desiring body in Headache, where the female drugged in the service of the family/society is coming to consciousness, is a desire for economic parity, and a need to be heard. In So Where’s My Prince Already? (1976), the woman is claiming her own desire, while brandishing a pink, lit-up dildo at her sleeping husband after she directly addresses the audience: “Every couple has their problems and we’ve got some too. Like, like…I’ve never had an orgasm, at least I don’t THINK I have.” The promise of her desire’s fulfillment is hampered by the numbing confusion that her unanalyzed dreams, television shows and alcohol provide her.
I looked into the silky entrails, I showed them
What color gall bladder meant the Gods were pleased,
And the liver’s lovely marbled lobe.
(From Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, trans. James Skully and C. Herrington, Oxford, 1975, lines 719-23)
In Mesopotamian culture part of ritual life involved elaborate reading of entrails, most broadly the organs of sacrificed animals. The liver, as the organ of ‘living,’ was the preferred entrail for interpretation: Was it swollen to indicate we should go forward; did it show unusual marks on the left (unfavorable) as opposed to the right (favorable)? The intestines were also meaningful probably because of their mysterious property of coiling; this variable characteristic offered an opportunity for messages from the divine. The science of haruspicy (‘looking at the guts’) became important in Etruscan and Roman religion.
(From The Body, volume 2, written by George Elder, Ph.D, Shambala, 1996 Boston and London,
When I was 26, Eva, a Polish immigrant to Canada, whom I had known and loved since I was a young child, told me she had been my father’s mistress for many years. It was a pivotal experience in my life and my work. Several years later, after many attempts to deal with this subject in my work, I performed Eva, telling the camera her story in the videotape Sugar Daddy (1980). I embodied the wife, the daughter, the mistress, in what is very much a story about a sexual, desiring female body, posited in opposition to the limited desire inherent in the body of the wife and mother, sanctioned in marriage, but from the conflicted daughter’s point of view as she comes into her own adult desire.
I return again and again to the daughter’s conflicted role in the family of our cultures/nations. In Split (1981), a portrait of Susy James, an adolescent female body constrained in the too-small rocking chair of her childhood, describes three attempts at running away from the two branches of her divorced family, as she seeks temporary solutions (“find a nice tree for the night”) to the conflicts her awareness, her hormones present. She has settled, for the time, in the liminal space of her boyfriend’s car. To the disappointment of most viewers of Split, Susy as seen eight years later in It Happens to the Best of Us (1989) has capitulated to a desire to be like everyone else, her body sagging, her spirits low. She is now raising her own daughter, but what does she have to give? In Zoe’s Car (1986), the very young girl’s body is a site for capitalist manipulation of desire (50 Farm Animals for Just $2.98), already disappointed and confused by the results (“But I don’t want this car…”).
Many years ago, living on a working class street in Brooklyn, with the kids used to my camera, I shot the following scene at dusk. Three little girls play clapping games as they stand in front of an abandoned sofa on the sidewalk of an empty commercial building. The goal is to keep it going to the highest possible number, and whichever player messes up is out of the game. It’s a process of elimination, but one which is ultimately about cooperation, about seeing and feeling each other’s rhythms. A group of young boys plays behind them, clearly trying to disrupt the girls, jumping off the sofa, yelling wrong numbers, poking their plastic guns at the girls as they try to keep count, keep the game going. If a single image is ‘worth’ a thousand words, this series of moving images with sound embodied a million refracted into such archetypal behavior it might as well be ten words, but ten we would all know by heart. This sequence, cut up into several elements, is one trope for my 1995 tape, Elemental: Being There, a meditation on the metaphysics of being in a relationship, from the woman’s point of view, as daughter, as lover, as wife. The burning sofa, a funeral pyre for unfulfilled desire, the rolled-up mattress taken to the street evidencing the body’s history in place.
In Hell (1984-5), the body is mangled in the intestines of the computer.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the first artists to work with state-of-the-art post-production and computer technologies in the early ‘80s. It coincided with my making a modern inferno, where Hell has been computerized and souls are stored on disk, tortured with digital effects according to their sins. The body is mangled, modified, controlled in the intestines of the computer, with Dante’s favorite punishments fitted perfectly to the mechanistic, measured effects that had just become possible. In Lust, for example, the frames of the lovers’ initial capitulation to their sin of betrayal are captured, frozen, repeated and programmed to travel in the black wind/space of the eternal frame. While the last fifteen years have “domesticated a number of Hell’s formal devices, which can now be executed with Adobe Premiere software, at the time, Hell split open the syntax of video narrative, while exercising it in a dystopic fictional cybertopia.” (Tony Conrad, in a letter written in 1995 about Lister’s video work, Hell)
The enteric nervous system is housed in the lining of the small intestine. It creates all of the same neurotransmitters that the brain does. In evolutionary terms it is thought to be the original brain.
Ardele Lister: “Narrative traditionally begins with or assumes a state of equilibrium which is then disrupted. In my narratives, the status quo is disruption; the search for equilibrium unfulfilled within the piece. We need some people to acknowledge in concrete form the spaces between the lines of mainstream media and what our lives are really like. Edgy, complicated.
Pat McCoy: Is your use of the media an intervention to deconstruct received conventional narratives?
A.L.: In addition to deconstructing the myths that we’ve been given through the hegemony of TV and Hollywood, I’m working psychically and physically with the images and texts in films of the ‘40s and ‘50s which I believe have been osmotically imprinted on our collective psyche.
P.M.: Can you describe that process?
A. L.: I’ll give you an example. In Behold the Promised Land (1991), I use a short sentence fragment from a film, What It Means to Be an American: “He started at the bottom and worked up to his present position.” The image is of an African-American, Bill, a housing construction worker, on a site. The film was meant to deliver the American dream to people of all colors and backgrounds. Clearly, how this was perceived forty years ago would have been different from how it is perceived today, given the real history of African-Americans in this country. But I find it very useful as a trope to show how the myth was constructed, forcing us to look more carefully at the ever-increasingly sophisticated versions of the myth in our contemporary culture. I use archival bits from many different films, editing them together to construct the meaning I want.
P.M.: How do you see the relationship between post-modernism and feminism as ways to critique these narrative conventions? Perhaps these recent movements have come to exist precisely in order to provide a critical perspective to received conventions and conventional meanings.
A.L.: I think both movements come together in the area of acknowledging deconstruction, or demanding deconstruction, or giving permission for the inclusion of forms and strategies for making work that might not have been allowed prior to either movement’s emergence. Feminism appears to run parallel to post-modernism, but my gut tells me that feminism is more primal in generating a voice, a place and an expression. Or maybe it has a clearer, more positive agenda than what I perceive to be the nihilism of post-modernism. I do find it interesting that just when women and other marginalized voices began to speak publicly, the post-structural, post-modernists, boys for the most part, decided and pronounced that there was no meaning anymore and/or there were so many meanings that none of it really mattered.”
(From Felix, Volume 1, No. 3, 1993, Ardele Lister in conversation with Pat McCoy, pp. 80-82)
Our ability to know what we need for nourishment, to extract what we must use, and to eliminate wastes is governed by the intestines, organs that generate evolution and change in the body.
(From Staying Healthy with the Seasons, Dr.Edwin Haas, Celestial Arts, San Francisco)
My most recent work, Conditional Love (See Under: Nationalism-Canada), which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA, New York) in winter ’97, chronicles my own strategies from being a young girl learning to discern the values ascribed to different identities (e.g., ‘boy’ got more than ‘girl,’ ‘Jew’ was bad, should be hidden), to a teenage girl coming of age with her country and identifying with that proudly. Fast-forward to a university student studying film and realizing that her landscape and her narratives were nowhere to be seen. Regardless, she was expected to just digest/absorb the narratives and identities that were valued and not question or object to her own identities (woman/filmmaker/canadian/jew, etc.) remaining unseen, unvalued.
Making film wasn’t a conscious strategy per se, but in the process of trying to comprehend and digest myself and my world, I began to see that putting something DOWN on paper, on videotape, on film was a way of making it real for myself and the world.
In an article in BOMB Magazine (1999, Winter issue), Allen Frame writes that “in a sense both Sugar Daddy and Conditional Love are about compromised patrimony,” returning us to the site of the female body, in patriarchal institutions of family or nation.
I love that which machinery helps me and you to facilitate, particularly in the arena of audience agency, communication and shared goals for making the world a better, more peaceful place in which to live, but I worry that we’re not yet skilled in the process of discrimination between what is nourishing and what is wasteful, and if we’re not careful, and not healthy, the fragile valves and portals that govern these directions will reverse their roles, feeding waste into the bloodstream, and letting all the nourishment go.
And as I gratefully send this by the relatively recent miracle of email, I have spent far too long in the pursuit of wholeness to aspire to be broken into bits, assembled into meaningless packets of information, sent by efficiency-minded routers along jammed phone lines, likely to be ‘killed’ before the message arrives just because my allotted time is UP.
Despite, or perhaps because of, having been at the forefront of working with new technologies for the last 25 years, the tendency towards utopianism that pervades much writing in this field makes me think of Prometheus, or prophets in the wilderness, usually considered luddites in their times. Whatever strategies we may employ in our work, I am hoping that we use our art and our technologies to say a few civil words to each other and mean it. Not simultaneously, mind you, but listening deeply to each other in whatever time and space that requires. And that we might stay long enough to see the results of our speech or other actions, and take responsibility for them. And if we fail to communicate, that we stay longer still to try again. There is no spectacle in it, which makes it rather unappealing, but this is what I want to accomplish in my life and through my art.
Ardele Lister is a writer, director, producer of video and film. Her works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art , NY, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, the National Gallery of Canada, Ydessa Foundation, the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), Academie der Kunst (Berlin). She is currently working on an interactive work set in Eastern Europe. She is a Professor of Video at Rutgers University.