Film and feminism - several art shows all over London
Women filmmakers with a long CV
With the Barbara Hammer season and a Joyce Wieland retrospective at Tate Modern, Lis Rhodes at the ICA, and Dara Birnbaum recently at the South London Gallery, London’s film and video world is awash with work by women artists.
Excepting American artist Birnbaum, however, recognition for these artists is way overdue. Partly this can be attributed to the niche area of art-making, but nevertheless, the comparison to their male contemporaries is striking: filmmakers like Michael Snow and Malcolm Le Grice are staples of the experimental film canon, taught to fine art and film studies students alike.
However, partly due to more female curators, scholars and artists entering the field, work by women filmmakers- especially those who until now have been relatively unknown- is being appreciated by ever-wider audiences. This may have never happened were it not for the commitment of the artists themselves, who in the late 70s’ second wave of feminism came together to create organisations that distributed and supported the work of other women.
Circles: supporting women filmmakers
Lis Rhodes for example, currently showing Dissonance and Disturbance at the ICA, was one of the founding members of original women’s film distributor Circles, along with Felicity Sparrow and Annabel Nicolson, amongst others. Founded in 1979, in the midst of an overwhelmingly male-dominated experimental film scene, Circles aimed to ‘encourage discussion and support for other women to make and show their own work, whether the subject matter be personal or political, figurative or formal’.
In 1991, Circles merged with Cinema of Women, a group whose collection was more directly issues-based and activist, after funding bodies decided that there was no need for two women-only
Thus an important collection of women’s films, embodying a diverse range of feminist concerns, positions and approaches, faced two unenviable choices: be swallowed up by a university, archive or library- and stop being actively distributed- or continue to run on a voluntary basis. A small group of women, calling themselves the Cinenova Working Group, chose the latter option, ensuring that the catalogue remains in one piece, while being distributed and screened.
Despite all the group members being engaged in other employment and receiving no funding, Cinenova attempt to work through these limitations and contradictions as a practice in itself. For example, they recently staged the very well-received Reproductive Labour, an exhibition exploring the work of Cinenova, at London’s Showroom gallery, which brought their work to a much wider audience, and are currently screening work at the Feminist Art Gallery in Toronto.
Why do we need women-only distributors?
One of the questions I asked Irene Revell, of Cinenova, was one they are probably tired of answering: why, when women’s films are on show in numerous public and private galleries is it (still) important for there to be a women-only distributor of film and video?
She pointed out that despite the increased profile of women filmmakers, many of the political issues motivating feminists’ work are far from resolved, and therefore the need for a feminist practice is stronger than ever. The pay gap, the dismal rape conviction rate and the still widespread horror of domestic violence are some of these unresolved issues; globally too, women are still struggling for equality in labour, marriage and political representation.
Despite the persistence of challenges facing women, feminism came to be seen as unsexy, which in turn lead many young women to reject it in favour of the marketing version: ‘girl power’, and self-objectification as empowerment.
Feminist art re-discovered
But with the arrival of shows like WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at LA’s MOCA, which billed itself as ‘the first comprehensive, historical exhibition to examine the international foundations and legacy of feminist art,’ and the increased interest in Cinenova, this attitude may be changing. A younger generation is re-discovering this legacy and identifying with the pioneering example set by the second wave of feminism, of which artists like Lis Rhodes were so integral a part.
With thanks to Irene Revell for talking to me about Cinenova and for providing photos
And thanks to Stuart Comer at Tate Modern for the Joyce Wieland and Barbara Hammer photos