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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, UK. Her most recent book is An Oceanic Feeling: Cinema and the Sea (2018), published by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand.