SHAKE IT UP, BABY
WORKS OF INTERVENTION BY
BY LISA STEELE
When Ardele Lister graduated from the University of British Columbia early in the 1970s, an era of cataclysmic change had begun. Feminism was upon us, and never would the (various) bodies politic cleave together as before. Liberal democracies right and left heaved in paroxysms of “difference”. It was, for me, and I suspect for Lister as well, a glorious time. And of course, it was only the beginning.
Lest I sink into that hyper-sweet and glutted state of languor so readily identifiable with The Big Chill Factor, let me reanimate. To speak quite plainly: there are many “feminisms”. The feminism of my youth, which I eulogize here, is not recognizable today. Here, I am referring to feminism in relation to art practice, as I came to know it in the 70s: a feminism which sought to define and make apparent the ways in which women’s experience, spirituality and physicality differentiated themselves from dominant discourse. This is the feminism which gave voice to the heretofore aphonic aspirations of myself and many others.
I am talking about a time when – to be biological, as we often were then – the eider had been established, but the family, the genus and the species had yet to be articulated. We looked for sisterhood and togetherness amongst all women, and the differences – even the most obvious ones – while recognized, were not stressed.
This was a time of celebration with a “give ’em hell” attitude. The worlds of art and sexual politics were similarly convulsed by change. and sometimes the two met. For instance, there is the spectacle of choreographer/filmmaker Yvonne Rainer spontaneously leading a chanting conga line “…up, down and around the Guggenheim ramps…”*, in response to the censorship cancellation of the 1970 Hans Haacke exhibition. Then there’s the image, from the same year, of Carolee Schneemann naked in performance, drawing a long scroll out of her vagina and reading from it. And there’s Lynda Benglis in her videotape-performance Female Sensibility (circa 1972), kissing, endlessly, another woman, both lipsticked and voluptuous in facial close-closeup. A month or so later, Benglis is pictured in the art mag of the day, Art Forum, in a full-page, full-colour, fully naked ad for her one-woman show at a private gallery in New York City. She’s wielding a strapped-on dildo.
It was, to put it mildly, a time of flux – now that I look back, a kind of midsummer’s madness, delirious and, it seemed at the time, without consequences. Most important – and most different from today – Women’s sexuality could seek expression without penalty.
As “determinist” as it may seem, its important to understand where an artist’s work comes from. Article Lister’s work began in the giddy climate described above, but hers was a very particular response to the multiple manifestations of feminism. Seeking to understand that which was not articulated (at least in terms of this second-wave-feminist outpouring). Lister became the chronicler of the self-deluded; the recorder of internal deception and the narrator of the “I’m ok because I don’t know any better” school of experience. Highly observant and fearless when it comes to what is within limits to talk about, Lister’s work encourages not cynicism but engagement.
Questioning and debate are inseparable from her work; nothing is too much. She will take on the role of the “other” if necessary, as in Sugar Paddy when, as a daughter, she assumes the character of her father’s mistress. She will intervene to the point of causing irritation, as in the persistent off-camera questions directed to the adult Suzy James in It Happens to the Best of Us. (And it pays off. Having allowed the teenaged Suzy air time in her tape Split, Lister’s questions for the now grown-up Suzy are focused on the change wrought by the intervening eight years.) Lister will correct her interview subjects, as in Behold the Promised Land, when an interviewee answers the question “What is an American?” with the reply that it’s a person who loves the flag. Lister says “no, that’s a patriotic American…”
More than anything else, Lister cajoles her subjects into revealing more than they probably should, not necessarily about their personal lives, but about how they see themselves. Ultimately the work discloses the gap between who we think we are and who we turn out to be.
*From the Center: feminist essays on women’s art by Lucy Lippard, Dutton, New York, 1976; p. 266.
PROGRAM ONE: ON VIGILANCE
SO WHERE’S MY PRINCE ALREADY?
1976, Film, 20:00 Vancouver, BC Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre
Co-written and directed by Lister, …My Prince…, delivers a stunning salvo straight to the heart of the matrimonial bed. Less a soap opera than an illustration of the bumper-sticker: “Life’s a bitch and then you die”, …My Prince… is
a series of vignettes that could serve as a cautionary tale for
girls: beware socially constructed dreams. They can be
hazardous to your self-image, let alone your health.
Like all good allegorical chronicles, …My Prince… takes us on a long historical journey. But there’s a twist in this corkscrew of a comedy; this mad fairytale. It was produced by Reel Feelings, a company of feminists that operated out of Vancouver in the mid 1970s, and as such it is firmly rooted in feminist analysis of that era.
As a child of analytically astute social critics, this film is congenitally inclined nor to possess a happy ending. But neither is there a ‘smart”, politically correct wrap-up. Instead, there are all kinds of “hassles” and an endlessly out-of-it heroine who just barely manages to keep up with the demands of the day-to-day, never mind fin-de’siècile scenarios.
Narratively speaking, first there’s a girl and then there’s a bride, and how our heroine makes her trip from one to the other is the real story. Cradled – nay, smothered – by the musical theme from Disney’s Snow White (yes, that one…) this film is an allegory of women’s survival; a Pilgrim’s Progress for gals. Here we have Pollyanna set loose in a post-primavcra feminist landscape. She believes, against all odds, that it will all turn out ok. She’s wrong… but that’s the interesting part.
On her travels our Princess meets, loves, defers to, reproduces via, and ultimately hopes for the best with her Prince. To us, he is less than royal. Venal to a fault, he objects to being “hassled'(his favourite – indeed, almost his only – turn of phrase). He’s lazy and hopelessly vague, prone to needing his “own space” and otherwise committed to nurturing his excessive self-involvement. Thus enthroned atop this wedding-cake-of-the-mind, he plays the perfect Groom to her eternal Bride. The strength of this film is its insistence on the equality of the protagonists. albeit an equality mired in the mundane and stalled in banality. Neither male nor female can claim more “victim status” than the other – here, absence meets absence.
This rejection of a binary, gender-based value system increases the complexity of the female character. Less than perfect herself, she is simultaneously aware of “her man’s” shortcomings. Co-dependent, she smiles and carries out her
various strategies for surviving endless drudgery and crumbling dreams: she cleans; she organizes; she studies Spanish at night; and finally she succumbs to The Bottle – all without ever shedding her bridal gown.
To be strictly analytical, she’s a loser, but she’s also a magnificent paean to endurance in her ability to displace her own disappointment. Played brilliantly by collective member Svetlana Zylin, our Bride defers constantly. first to a hubby-on-the-verge-of-a-Ph.D. and then to a tyrant-baby who never sleeps. She adjusts to a less than scintillating social life (evenings with other grad students where the guys put together Playboy jigsaw puzzles and the gals trade vegetarian recipes ’round the wok). Most of all, she endures – not sparkling, not even angry, but dark of eye and haggard of complexion – more cockroach than phoenix.
Only at the very end of this Portrait of a Marriage Made in Hell does a ray of hope appear: behold, a glowing dildo. Driven by her less-than-exciting conjugal life with a husband prone to headaches and whining, our Bride is taking things into her own hands. (Don’t forget, this was the era when feminists were still having fun with sex, and masturbation was – at least potentially – a political act.) After confessing “I’ve never had an orgasm…”, she brandishes her very own personal “tool for change”. Although the film ends with a moral lecture in voice-
over, this final scene is a sly reminder of the revolutionary power of sexuality awakened.
1976, Film, 1:00
National Film Board of Canada
During the U.N-declared International Year of the Woman in 1975, Canada’s National Film Board sponsored a series of one-minute films by women, under the umbrella title: Just A Minute. Headache, produced for this compilation, is the kind of film that makes Das Kapital seem like a pastoral. Intense and focused, it is the cinematic equivalent of a flare-up with a stranger in a bar: it’s over before it starts, but boy does it pack a punch. Headache is a blunt illustration of what happens when women speak up on issues which affect them.
Modelled on the classic tv commercials for pain relief, Headache begins with a woman massaging her apparently throbbing temples and listening to the soothing tones of an all-understanding, all-accommodating male voice-over. He’s trying to help her deal with the problems that face women in today’s world, but the offer that he extends is not compassion or even cooperation: it’s oblivion – cut to images of prescription drugs and martini glasses. “But I need more than temporary relief…” says the woman, operating within the genre even as her eyes snap open. Now, however, the departure begins as she proceeds to recite the (so-called) women’s liberation shopping list: daycare, a better job, recognition for work that is traditionally done by women, financial security, equal opportunity. As she rolls onward into more and more idealistic (and thus more threatening) territory, she raises her voice -just a bit. She’s going for broke now, and no sooner do the words “I need protective legislation…” escape, than the film freezes. Trapped like a deer in headlights, the woman’s image is dead-still as the male voice regains precedence: “A man has so much to cope with in today’s world…” his voice resumes, with its low-pitched and confident demeanour. Clearly, he means to instil trust. Yet this audacious act of erasure is a chilling reversal – replacing his voice for hers within the same dialogue and betrays his fear. The exercise in domination reveals how far he will go -not to win per se, but in order not to lose.
1980, Video, 30:00
Back from the dead (we presume) via audio tape, an older woman, Eva, exhorts a younger woman to “do” her biography, to tell her story. Eva’s story is remarkable in its implications for her biographer: she reveals that she was in love with the younger woman’s father for 20 years. The telling of her life careens between lucid propriety and ribald revelations, from maudlin, sloppy sentiments to articulate summations about the past. The performance is stunning, with the younger woman (played by Lister herself) navigating the tumultuous content by taking on Eva’s identity, complete with blond bubble-wig and slatternly halter-top dress in a fake leopard print. In this role, Lister seems less an actor than a woman possessed.
The Eva we meet must have been quite a gal. She was no doubt familiar with those notorious siblings, dubbed by Walt Whitman “the sisters Death and Night” – her writings and ramblings on audiotape indicate that she frequently contemplated the former during the course of the latter. Early on we hear Eva’s own voice: “…sometimes I think it would be
1981, Video, 22:00
Split is the story of 16 year-old Suzy James, the original lone wolf. Having run away from both her mother (three times) and her father (twice), she is deeply wise in the ways that only a teenager can be. This tape is part documentary and part commentary; as we follow Suzy through her adventures and misadventures, we catch a glimpse of what it’s like for this young embodiment of flux as she shoots the rapids of family life.
Suzy James is a thoroughly magnetic subject. Jellyfish-like, she is impossible to categorize; her personality expands or contracts depending upon her mood. She trips from impish abandon to bohemian cool to an almost Brechtian detachment with alarming ease. Technically, she’s not a schizophrenic, yet there are disturbing elements of a kind of mental “layering” that are similar. But this can also be read more simply, as a by-product of adolescence, an effluent emanating from the battleground of growing up.
Her existence (as we see it played out in this slice-of-her-life) is characterized by a combination of rebelliousness and an ever-decreasing spiral of expectation. In rebellion, she is exhilarating: hatching ingenious escape schemes that rival Jimmy Cagney’s from the Big House (she carries her belongings out in laundry baskets, with the sounds of her exit masked by the washing-machine itself). But when she actually gets out, her low self-image is demoralizing for her and us. The young, after all, are supposed to embody hope, but Suzy refuses to carry this baggage on our behalf. Her focus is much more narrow and (perhaps) pragmatic, but she’s going down right before our eyes, which makes her story particularly poignant.
Early in the tape, as she dishes the details of her most recent flight (she obviously savours her status as “subject”), she refers to the negative reaction of an old beau to her nervy runaway act. When asked (off camera) about the status of their “relationship”, Suzy is blunt: “No, I did not hope he would run away with me.” She continues, with deadpan delivery: “I did hope that I would find a place to stay for the night.” Thus dies Romeo, followed by Juliet. Suzy, however, survives. Practical to the end, that particular night she found a tree, and “closed my eyes and slept…”
In dialogue with the camera (and us, the viewers) Suzy readily admits her own foibles: How would she spend extra money that she might get? She’d “…buy tons and tons of punk clothes and quarters and quarters of ‘marihoochi’…” She is equally candid in disclosing details of her home and family life: “My mum went crazy and started beating me up…” (not strictly true, it turns out, but it does make for a good story); “…my dad stole that $1000 from me…” (not actually, but he did appropriate her money to “invest” in his store), and so on. But again, in the telling, these experiences come to resemble an emotional parfait, distinctly layered, obeying the laws of compartmentalization imposed by Suzy herself. This disturbing ability to separate is literally “acted out” in a later sequence. She relishes the details of her father’s anger at her latest flight, even when they include his yelling, shaking her by the arms, etc. The terror of being physically threatened comes through only in patches; what dominates Suzy’s account of this incident is her demented distance. In mid-narrative, she throws her head back, peruses the vehicular traffic behind her and mutters off-handedly, “…nice Pontiac…” before returning to full-frontal camera attention. Seconds later, as she continues her tale, she yields abruptly to a stage-whimper, no less convincing
because of its contrivance. There’s a heart of feeling to this trumped-up emotion that betrays the child inside Suzy’s part-human/part-Martian personality. She aches as only a just-about-grown-up girl can.
Suzy’s insistence on solitude provides conflicting information about her status as girl-becoming-woman. On the one hand, it is reassuring as a sort of feminist act: Suzy “being her own person”, “doing her own thing”. On the other, her rebellion is so internal. so disconnected from any other human being that it may simply be a profoundly alienated act. Suzy, it would seem, is definitely female but not necessarily feminist. Even sexual need seems curiously absent from her (stated) motives for “splitting”. In the end we hear that she is “living” in her boyfriend’s car, but no other details are offered. Cloaked in mystery, her sexuality is one of the only feelings Suzy James is unwilling to disclose fully.
In recording the passage of time, photography (i would, of course, include film and video here) is ruthless. Sequentially recorded visual histories, be they personal, architectural or social, allow physical changes to be marked quite clinically. Take a picture of the same street corner once a year for a couple of decades and the results will be a composite “history” of the place. Leaf through any family photo album and observe an effect similar to turning the pages of a flip-book, as baby yields to child who transforms to teen and so on.
Evoking time in this way does not necessarily lead to sweet reverie for things past. Youth spent is simply gone and never returns. What possible use is it to rake over these cold ashes? It Happens… would appear to be seeking an answer to this question. Fascinated by the distance between the 16 year old Suzy in Split and the She Who Would Be Housefrau of eight years later, Lister returns to her subject. Near the beginning, Lister asks (off camera) “…what happened?”
What indeed can have happened to change the intense, animated little weirdo of Split into this dulled-out seeker of low-end mediocrity. The new Suzy’s answer is simple: “I grew.”
Q: What would you do with a lot of money?
A: (After much consideration) I’d probably put it in the bank and save it for a house which I probably won’t ever get… but everybody saves for a house so I’ll do the same thing.
Now there’s growth and there’s growth. Her physical size notwithstanding, Suzy’s horizons would seem to have shrunk. Lister’s tape documents this in depressing detail. In Split, Suzy roams restlessly through her territory (a restaurant, a phone booth on the street; railroad tracks, front yards, video arcades etc.) In It Happens… she sits in a small, cramped back courtyard; imprisoned by her life and her shrinking horizons, she rarely moves. Where the younger Suzy spun her own story, unprompted by the interviewer, in a quirky delivery full of non sequiturs and neo-Shakespearian asides, the older, more mature Suzy must be prodded repeatedly to respond. And when she does answer, it is often in monosyllables. Where in youth she longed to tell all (with the exception of disclosures about her sexuality), now she weighs each answer as if calculating the “right” response, trimming her story to fit some image of what best befits this new wife-and-mother identity.
Q: Do you have any frustrations?
A: No… just pet peeves… like people leave things all over the house.
Q: What do you want out of the relationship (with her husband)?
A: To be happy.
Gone is the feral energy of youth. Young Suzy was no more interested in being a “happy” daughter than a “good” one, or in conforming to any other arbitrary standards of feeling and behaviour. The new Suzy seems intent on projecting herself as every inch the Stepford Wife, re-invented as obedient and content despite what would appear to be a less than ideal marriage.
Q: What qualities attracted you to your husband?
A: (After a few words about going out separately because “it’s funner that way…”) Sven (her husband) didn’t really affect my life that much. He’s a lot of work for me.
Q: Is it worth it?
A: (Hesitation, then tentatively) …yeah.
But this tape. it turns out, is not a simple tale of oppression revealed. There’s a final twist. At the end, the camera stays on as equipment is being put away and Suzy, shedding her character as The Good Mother, smokes a cigarette and chats with the technician. As she rambles about getting her hair striped and what’s normal and acceptable or not to her parents, and on and on, her façade is thinning. Off-camera, Lister spots what’s going on: it’s all been an act.
Q: So you’re under cover now? (Lister asks)
A: I can’t reveal my true self on camera.
Q: uh oh… (Lister is excited now; she can see the Suzy who used to be; there could be some fireworks.)
A: I have to be very careful what I say… very careful… (and here
Suzy approaches the camera, ‘a la Kathy Bates in Misery, all
moon-faced and dangerously unbalanced, then smiles demonically and orders the camera off- “Right Now!”).
As a documentary, It Happens… is a haunting indictment of dysfunctional families. The effects of abuse and misunderstanding have taken their toll on Suzy. Emotionally deadened and unable to trust anyone, she’s hooked up with a man she couldn’t care less about, has a baby she adores – at least for now – and spends her free evenings going to watch male strippers with her girlfriends. She’s down, but not quite out. The process of documentation is somehow curiously uplifting by the end of this piece. Lister’s connection with her subject has endured the years, and she’s there when Suzy drops her guard just enough to re-emerge from the dangerously soporific atmosphere of “proper” family life. It’s an exhilarating moment and Lister’s persistence delivers it straight.
PROGRAM TWO: ON OBLIVION
BEHOLD THE PROMISED LAND
1991, Video, 23:00
Brooklyn, NY, USA
It is the 4th of July. The premise of this tape is a simultaneous state-of-the-union interview with most of America. In Brooklyn, in Boston, in San Francisco, the interviewers talk with children, teenagers, older people, young “artsy” intellectual types, boys from the ‘hood and shopkeepers. All are asked to define what it is to be an American and why it makes them proud. Their answers are filled with mis-, dis- and sub-information. Inter-cut with cleverly re-edited clips from 1940’s and 50’s documentaries (post-war era propaganda films, all touting the virtues of democracy), Behold… is a bleak view of what’s wrong with America and what fuels the dream when the money runs out.
The America assembled by Lister in Behold… lies dozing, bloated after a big meal in the days of plenty. This America is curiously blank, dreaming itself no more. The lights are truly going out this time, and the alarmist cries of the past seem faint in this era of unquestioning complacency. The valiant struggles waged between the forces of Right and Left (for the purposes of rhetoric, I venture these simplistic labels) are only subliminal now, re-staged like shadow plays against the drooping eyelids of this collective slack. America snoozes.
Have you heard the one about American elections? Well, it seems that the voter turnout for most elections has been steadily declining over the past couple of decades. Less than 30% of the eligible voters in the U.S. actually cast a ballot in the last presidential election. Some link this downturn in the exercise of democratic franchise to the fact that federal election days have become the occasion for large sales in major department stores and malls throughout the U.S.
When an organism starts to feed upon itself, it does not long remain within health. LS
The America we see here is ahistorical, untroubled by chronologies. A young girl in Brooklyn defines the 4th of July: “it’s about independence …Benjamin Franklin and the government got together and signed a peace treaty (Lister’s off-camera question: ‘with who?”)… with Abraham Lincoln (pause) and that meant the slaves were free.” Likewise, it is unfettered by the exigencies of contemporary life, both political and economic. A San Francisco biker-in-the-cliched-style perceives America to be “…about freedom… you can be an astronaut or a millionaire or a drug dealer…” Clearly this leather lad believes in the myth of a classless society, perhaps extruded as a by-product of all this democracy.
And what of America? It dreams and it dreams and it dreams, separate from the life it inhabits. But some are sleeping more soundly than others. Sleeping right through the weirdest law ever enacted in the U.S. – the so-called “tax reform” of 1986 that resulted in 650 of the country’s richest individuals getting tax breaks worth billions of dollars because their congressmen wrote exemptions just for them. Seldom has the pork barrel been so convenient to partake of IS
The America of Behold… is fairly afloat in freedom. Dripping in democracy, even the homeless consider their condition to be an option; a choice of sorts – definitely not a failure by the political system to distribute its wealth fairly. A homeless man describes his condition articulately, but without irony, or any evidence that he feels its inherent contradictions. At one point he says that more should be done for people who find themselves in his position, but then concedes “…I don’t know where the money will come from.” Why would this messenger/victim so clearly shoulder the blame for his society’s bad news? The answer to this question provides a key to Lister’s work around issues of national identity.
Lister’ s America is clearly a patriarch, albeit an ailing one. To testify against the Father requires a rejection of all that is dear, a repudiation of self that few are capable of making. Drunk on an ideal of “freedom” long past its prime, and fearing loss at a very personal level, Americans have gone all catawampus. But Lister provides a context of sorts, a way of reading this national madness, as she lards interviews liberally with demonic cuts from the propaganda films of the post-war prosperity years. Starkly put, Americans have been told for several decades that they are better than other peoples of the world for two reasons: they are “free” (a value whose interpretation demonstrates great flexibility) and they have access to a veritable glut of consumer goods. As national characters go, these qualities seem flimsy, more like a coat of shellac than a solid armature upon which to build.
In the late 1980s, as the stock market was cooling and various scandals were making life difficult for the aggressive young brokers, it is said that a number of them turned in their suspenders and sleeve garters and headed West. Destination:
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Drawing on her own experience of growing up on the prairies, Lister interrogates the Canadian identity this time. In the process, she asks the same round of questions as in Behold…: Are you a Canadian? Are you proud to be a Canadian? And so on. More personal than Behold…, this tape finds her once again polling the body politic. There’s an interesting shift between the responses given in the two tapes. Here, Lister has found evidence of the legendary Canadian tendency to reverse: we’re more comfortable saying what and who we are not than in defining who we are. Conceived as the bookend to Behold…, this work, which Lister began in 1989, includes recent footage, shot at Oka and Meech Lake, to complete her portrait of the Canadian psyche.