Report | Ricardo Matos Cabo and Selina Robertson
20 June 2016
The programme, The Apparitional, was triggered by our conversations about how women’s bodies, how illness and treatment have been represented in medical visual culture and, in particular, in experimental lesbian and feminist film. We talked about our mutual appreciation for Barbara Hammer’s work and how it could relate to the series of films on uranium mining directed by Sandra Lahire. We were interested in films that dealt with the intersection between technology and medical culture and with the way discourses on objectivity and science have been used to discipline and exploit the body and in particular the female body.
Researching and thinking through a queer feminist theoretical framework for our event felt easy and most rewarding: we shared references and introduced new texts to each other – we drew on the text of Sophie Mayer’s concept that to do queer/feminist film theory is to work often with the apparitional and Terry Castle’s 1993 book The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture on the cultural haunting of lesbian apparitionality. A little further into the process Mayer suggested Lisa Cartwright’s book, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture, from 1996, particularly her chapter, ‘Decomposing the Body: X Rays and the Cinema’. Cartwright also features as an interviewee in Dr Watson’s X Rays.
Our choice of films was guided by the impression that both Barbara Hammer’s Sanctus (and Dr. Watson’s X-rays) and Sandra Lahire’s Uranium Hex and Serpent River engaged in a complex way with the theme of the ‘apparitional’ also through their figuration of the x-ray technology, and reference to the uncanny, to tropes of objectivity in science, the body as subject, illness, radiation and exposure. All of these themes felt prescient, urgent and contemporary.
We were also interested in the use both filmmakers made of the optical printer and more general in the queering of technology to subvert previously established intentions and forms of usage. The use of transparencies and the exploration of the frame (and in-between frames) seem to correspond to some of the ideas discussed in the apparitional aesthetics throughout the history of the film medium (and its use by feminist artists / filmmakers).
Barbara Hammer’s approach to the work of Dr. James Watson and the approach to the archive in the work also lead us to question and discuss what it means to ‘re-vision’ an archive (to use Adrienne Rich’s expression). The companion piece to Sanctus, Dr. Watson’s X-Rays is not only a film that puts Hammer in the original archive and in conversation with experts on Watson’s work, as a relevant piece about what it means to look at an archive through the lens of feminism and queer history. As Mayer remarked, the sometimes humorous way Hammer approaches the interviews and her comments on the overlooked aspects of personal history reveal otherwise unaddressed aspects of Watson (i.e. his sexuality or Hammer’s interview with his wife).
We were aware that the work of Barbara Hammer and Sandra Lahire might not have been in conversation before. It would then be up to us to create the conditions for that conversation and in order to do so we had to make sure the films were presented in the best way possible. This meant not only sourcing the best prints available, but to trace the film materials back to their origin–to trace the history of the prints and the different generations of video prints, to find out about the present state of prints, among other things.
We wanted to screen the films in their original 16mm format, because that we felt that their materiality was intrinsic to what they were trying to do and show. The use of the optical printer, the transparencies and transitions within the film strip, as well as the intensity of the light from the analogue projector projected onto the magnified image on the screen are fundamental to the way these films are received.
Due to difficulties and limitations of the Birkbeck Cinema we had to make important and sometimes difficult choices that would affect the way in which the films would be received. When possible we kept the 16mm projection and made sure reference was made when that was not possible. We also worked together with the projectionist (Lori E. Allen) in order to create a rhythm to the screening allowing for smooth and non-disruptive transitions between the different films, formats and presentations.
The screening was followed by a response and discussion between artist Sarah Pucill, Sophie Mayer and Selina Robertson, which contributed immensely to the understanding on how these films connected at so many levels. It also helped that members of the audience were familiar with Lahire’s film practice and her generation of 1980s London Filmmakers Co-op filmmakers.
It became obvious that the history and concept of the apparitional can be discussed in many different and rich ways, through the work and process of the films themselves, but also as a deliberate political choice linked to the conditions in which the films were produced and initially seen. In the discussion that followed insights from the audience alerted us to difficulties of producing these films, how they were made in isolation and also how the film-makers struggled to get their work shown.
The screening also allowed us to collect a living trace of how and when the films were shown in London, with a reference made to a screening of Hammer’s films in the early 1980s at the London Filmmaker’s Co-op. Hammer documented one of these screenings and discussion in her remarkable film, Audience, from 1980.
It is our wish to further investigate ideas around The Apparitional through an edited edition of Dandelion.