No Masters: The Cinema of Peggy Ahwesh

The New York-based filmmaker has been questioning the politics of image-making for more than three decades

For critics such as Fred Camper, the 1980s were a period of mournful decline for experimental cinema in the United States. Was it a coincidence that the so-called ‘end of the avant-garde’ arrived just as women were asserting a central place within it? Not all saw the situation as one of crisis. In his landmark 1989 article, ‘Towards a Minor Cinema’, Tom Gunning discerned a spirited renewal of the field in a diverse group of filmmakers who were leaving behind an earlier generation’s academicism in films that ‘assert no vision of conquest, make no claims to hegemony’. Among them was Peggy Ahwesh.

Gunning’s epigraph, borrowed from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s book on Franz Kafka, pithily captures Ahwesh’s stance on aesthetics and social life alike: ‘To hate all languages of masters.’ Speaking of her film From Romance to Ritual (1985), Ahwesh described creating worlds from which traditional figures of authority have vanished: ‘The filming style is of the ethnographic film without the expert observer and of the home movie without the father.’ No experts, no fathers, no masters. In their place, Ahwesh would make a punkish turn to mothers and daughters, pleasure and pornography, jokes and games.


Peggy Ahwesh, Machine, film still.

Peggy Ahwesh, The Vision Machine, 1997, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY

Ahwesh was the artist in focus at this year’s Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, an event swiftly asserting itself as one of the UK’s most exciting destinations for the exhibition of artists’ film and video. A retrospective curated by Laura Guy offered a rare opportunity to revisit three decades of Ahwesh’s practice, one which continues to evolve in the present in response to new modes of image production and circulation, and new political urgencies.

Ahwesh began working in Pittsburgh before moving to New York City in 1982, where she formed part of an emerging generation of feminist filmmakers who placed subjectivity and sexuality at the heart of their work. In place of the pared-down, reflexive interrogation of the apparatus that had marked the practices of structural filmmakers such as Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits, Ahwesh joined artists such as Abigail Child and Leslie Thornton in pioneering a playfully anarchic sensibility characterized by fragmented narratives, improvised performances, and joyfully impure formal vocabularies. With one eye to the underground and the other to debates in feminist theory, in her early work Ahwesh gravitated to filming her friends, often with an emphasis on corporeality, theatricality and desire.


Peggy Ahwesh, Martina’s Playhouse, 1989, video still. Courtesy

Peggy Ahwesh, Martina’s Playhouse, 1989, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY

Martina’s Playhouse (1989) is exemplary of these concerns, while also typifying Ahwesh’s unsentimental ethnographic gaze and resolutely non-didactic engagement with theory. The film cuts between two domestic scenes in which the negotiation of gender roles is at stake. In the first, the child Martina talks and plays with her mother, performance artist Diane Torr. Among other actions, the pair reverse positions, pantomiming the act of breastfeeding with the mother in the role of baby. In the second, twentysomething filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery brazenly acts out, toying with the microphone as if it were a phallus and musing on her relationship to the camera and to Ahwesh. Childishness permeates the space of sexuality just as sexuality permeates the space of childhood. These scenes alternate, punctuated by interludes of flowers accompanied by voiceover quotations from Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan, the latter misread by Martina. Psychoanalysis is present as a prism through which one might apprehend the episodes presented, but its authority is undercut by the film’s presentation of encounters between women that point to the fundamental insufficiency of Oedipal narratives.


Peggy Ahwesh, The Color of Love, 1994, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY

The Color of Love (1994) adopts radically different formal strategies, inhabiting the genre of found footage. If Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) was subtitled ‘a film found on a garbage heap’, The Color of Love is literally so, made from damaged Super-8 porn footage Ahwesh found in a pile of rubbish. Two women perform for the camera, straddling a seemingly dead male body. The phallic power that conventionally animates pornography is reduced to an abject corpse over which lesbian coupling occurs. Using optical printing to slow and still the image, Ahwesh places the materiality of bodies in tension with the materiality of film, as the decayed emulsion reveals vibrant splotches of magenta and green that vie for visibility with the ruined spectacle of sex.


Peggy Ahwesh, She Puppet, 2001, video still. Courtesy: Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival

Peggy Ahwesh, She Puppet, 2001, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY

As these films suggest, Ahwesh has no interest in the production of conventionally ‘positive images’ of women; rather, she creates a permissive, non-judgmental space of self-invention that acknowledges the messy complexities of psychic and corporeal life. To create these worlds, Ahwesh turns to whatever technologies, whatever aesthetics, seem most fitting, working with diverse techniques across multiple formats, including Pixelvision and machinima. There is a politics to this promiscuity; after all, the notion of signature style is a potent site at which authorship meets authority. Rather than cultivate a trademark look, Ahwesh embraces forms of creativity that cede ground to the other. This is visible in the collaboration with performers that is central not only to Martina’s Playhouse but also to works including Strange Weather (1993) and The Vision Machine (1997), as well as in her engagement with found materials, which marks not solely The Colour of Love, but also She Puppet (2001), made using images from the videogame Tomb Raider.


Peggy Ahwesh, Verily! the Blackest Sea, the Falling Sky, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival

Peggy Ahwesh, Verily! the Blackest Sea, the Falling Sky, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY

Berwick also hosted the premiere of a new two-screen installation, Verily! the Blackest Sea, the Falling Sky (2017), in which Ahwesh takes her interest in found footage into our age of the internet and the anthropocene. Ahwesh foregoes collage to work with a single archive, compiling animated news clips produced by the Taiwanese company TomoNews into an eerie indictment of contemporary existence. On view in the in the Bankhill Ice House, an early eighteenth-century structure once used for storing salmon, sensations of damp and dirt formed a powerful counterpoint to the schematic CGI simulations of real-world events onscreen.

Ahwesh described the installation as her response to ‘the cutefication of our world’. Cuteness, as Sianne Ngai notes, is never innocent – it is always a matter of consumption and commodification. The images of Verily! are cute, indeed, yet bespeak the numbing horror of our 21st-century everyday. Accompanied by the melancholic grandeur of Ellis B. Kohs’s ‘Passacaglia for Organ and Strings’, Amazon drones deliver packages, bodies get biotech implants, flocks of birds drop from the sky, California freezes over and boats of migrants capsize at sea. Recognizable images of recent atrocities reappear as digital animations drained of specificity, whether it is the shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson, or the body of three-year-old Syrian child Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Mediterranean beach.


Peggy Ahwesh, The Star Eaters, 2003, video still. Courtesy: Berwick Film and Media Festival

Peggy Ahwesh, The Star Eaters, 2003, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY

Although Verily!’s interest in technology, climate change and humanitarian crisis sits at some distance from the subcultural bent of Ahwesh’s earlier work, she remains consistent in her questioning of the codes by which meaning is produced and the norms by which life is governed. As redeployed by Ahwesh, the computer-generated image becomes legible as a control-space of calculation that harbours a noxious ambition to master the flux of the world: a symptom of the perniciousness of media spectacle and an allegory of the violent techniques used to manage human and nonhuman life. She calls out the airbrushing of reality, questioning the cute digestibility of that which should sear our minds and stick in our throats.

Main image: Peggy Ahwesh, Martina’s Playhouse, 1989, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY

Erika Balsom is a critic and scholar based in London. Her most recent book, After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation, was published by Columbia University Press earlier this year.

Most Read

The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018