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Touching Camera
Susanna Poole expands on a video documentary she produced on the work of Sarah Pucill, Nina Danino and Jo Ann Kaplan. First published in New Frontiers: Essays on the Body and Representation, 2003

In 1998 I made a documentary about Nina Danino, Jo Ann Kaplan and Sarah Pucill, experimental filmmakers based in London. Although coming from different backgrounds, they share a strong interest in the female body as site of reflection and aesthetic creation. [1]

This essay presents a theoretical postscript to a visual work. In it, at the risk of fixing in print what appears fluid and mutable in the film projection, I shall try to reconstruct the logical and imaginitive paths which accompanied that work: reflections on the body as a cross roads between contemporary art and feminist theory, and on how these spheres are traversed by the personal visions of Danino, Kaplan and Pucill.

Discontinuity and disorder of the body in contemporary feminist theory

The words which locate our bodies - biological sex, male or female gender, transvestism, heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual orientation, transsexuality, ethnicity, race, colour, cyborg, age, motherhood, illness, health, disability - do not fix them in an essential, permanent condition. Bodies are constantly restless, and these very definitions prove to be uncertain and mutable. They excite debate, inspire books,fragment and come together again in the images and words of fiction, in the installations and performance of artists, and they beat at the heart of feminist theories.

Transforming the parameters of how identity is defined, offering new approaches to the fields of gender, sexuality and reproduction - this Is the political project of feminism. Rivers of words are written about the Body and the bodies of women, rivers of ink - or of milk or blood, as French-Algerian philosopher Hélène Cixous has it - which branch off and flow back to one central question: sexual difference. The difference is described variously as an essential dualism, a cultural norm which manages and separates bodies, or as a performance which opens itself to risk through repetition. [2] While there are different approaches to the question of sexual difference, the very definition of a referent of feminist discourses, that is of a subject/woman or a multiplicity of female subjects, appears problematic. Judith Butler suggests that the phrase 'et cetera' - often placed at the end of a list of attributes in feminist writing (for example when talking about "ethnicity, colour, social class, sexual orientation et cetera") - expresses the embarrassed attempt to include all women, all differences, in the discourse. However, the sequence is never complete: the frustrated attempt to locate the subject, and her body, in all definitions is doomed to fail, indicating by this very fact a condition of complexity which cannot be reduced to a simple list of adjectives:
This failure nevertheless tells us something: what political impetus could be derived from that exasperated 'et cetera', found so often at the end of such lists? It is a sign of powerlessness and at the same time of the unlimited process of signification itself. And of the supplément, that excess which necessarily accompanies any attempt to define identity once and for all. [3]

In the multiplicity of discourses offered by psychoanalysis, biology and sociology as early as the beginning of the 20th century, Rosi Braidotti recognises a state of profound crisis in the definition of the body in modernity:

The body appears at the centre of the theoretical and political debate precisely at the historical moment when there is no longer any unequivocal certainty about what it actually is. The absence of certainty generates a multiplicity of discourses about the body, so that modernity becomes the era of excessive overexposure of the material nature of the embodied subject and, at the same time, that of the absence of consensus with regard to the embodied subject. The body has been transformed into a series of multiform bodies. [4]

The post-modern era gives rise to further fragmentation and contamination of the corporeal, new questions which lead to new developments in theory. Donna Haraway refers to the present as a time of radical transformation in the ways that power is exercised. The technologies which now inform communications, medicine and the arms industry interact directly with the psychic and organic structure of the individual, irreparably destroying any sense of integrity. This is the era of the cyborg, which goes a step further in the definition of the human body, understood now in terms of texts, genetic codes, functions and structures which are open to augmentation and mutation.5 Faced with widespread uncertainty about the status of corporeality and the subject, the modern 'bodies' of human and social sciences are melting away, while experiments on new biomechanical and transgenic organisms proliferate.

Proliferation and decline of bodies: The art scene

This sense of crisis, and at the same time of an excess of representation, is reflected in the work of contemporary artists such as the British artists Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and Jenny Saville, the French performance artist Orlan and the Australian Stelarc, and in the work of filmmakers Nina Danino, Sarah Pucill and Jo Ann Kaplan.

[discussion of contemporary art with reference to Hirst, Quinn, Savilie, Orlan and Stelarc.. ]

Flesh and fantasy: the films of Nina Danino, Jo Ann Kaplan and Sarah Pucill

Central to the entire, complex experience of difference, the female body is the basis for innumerable images in the experimental films of Danino, Pucill and Kaplan; it appears variously as flesh and phantom, site of pleasure but also of anxiety and fear. The contradictory nature, the turbulence and the excess of meanings associated with the body flood the films of these artists with an intensity of sensations - of pleasure and pain, frustration and liberation, ecstasy and melancholy.

I met and interviewed Nina, Jo Ann and Sarah in the spring of 1997. While all three make experimental films, almost always shorts, they are very different in terms of style and background. [6]

My desire to compare them, to bring together clips from their films in a single documentary text, stemmed from my recognition of the powerful, unavoidable presence of the body in their work. A presence which is manifested in complex ways, since the body appears not only as image or subject of the film project, but is also a source of aesthetic and intellectual inspiration. This is reflected both in the use of the camera and in the dominant visual imagery, in the active engagement with feminist theory and in the way intimacy is brought into play, in the determination both to place the body itself in the film and to consider the film as body.

In the documentary I arranged the interview clips and images in a precise sequence, under the titles style, theory, intimacy, body, so as to interweave the artists' comments on a range of questions: technical and aesthetic choices, relationship to theory, the personal and autobiographical dimension, and the encounter between film and the artist's body. Yet the words associated with the corporeal continue to appear at unexpected moments in the weave of voices and images, revealing their multidisciplinary nature, their capacity to signify in different spheres, their compliance in the creation of metaphor, their pertinence to the creative pathways of difference. For example, in the interviews the body is often described as a source of creativity. The art of shooting and editing a film certainly requires sensitivity to movement and space, and in independent cinema the artist is often technically and physically involved in all phases of production. Sarah Pucill and Jo Ann Kaplan personally undertook both the shooting and the editing of their work.

Editing a film is something very concrete, real, physical... I take the film in my hands, I cut it, I splice it... It's about controlling the body and going against a whole tradition which prescribes who looks and who is looked at, a heterosexual tradition of binary oppositions which I think is still quite rigid . [7]

[sections on work of Danino and Kaplan.. ]

In the short films You Be Mother (1990) and Milk and Glass (1993), Sarah Pucill works with animation of objects and projection of photographic images onto three-dimensional objects. In You Be Mother these are white porcelain objects associated with women's sphere of activity - cups, plates, jugs which, through their movement, challenge the undisputed power of the subject over inert matter. Sarah recounts her work with the objects as an intense, disturbing experience:
At the time I was interested in the interaction between subject and object... There is a moment in You Be Mother where I try to touch a cup and the cup moves away, and I remember that while I was shooting that scene - and I was alone in the room - I was concentrating on the event as if it was really happening. It's something very close to madness... and all these associations make me think of Freud, especially this really strong connection with the inanimate. [8]

On the curved surfaces of the crockery, the projected image of the artist's face becomes fragmented. In this way even the demarcation of the boundary between subject and object, animate and inanimate, becomes uncertain. The objects, moving of their own accord, disturb the unity of the lines of the face; the claustrophobic everyday scene is shaken up by the disorder of matter. The relationship between the female subject and these objects, white and delicate, fragile and familiar, is invested with a growing tension which is relieved only when a cup overflows and spills its contents.

The traditional trappings of femininity, linked to the domestic dimension of the heterosexual family symbolised by the table laid for tea, are revealed as a site saturated with repressed energy and desires. The refined rebellion of the objects is at once exhilarating and frightening, disturbing and liberating. Thus the way is opened to imagining a different femininity, another body, a different order of desire. In the interview Sarah refers to her personal experience of sexuality as a metamorphosis of the body:
It was as if it was assumed that I would be heterosexual, and I lived in a heterosexual relationship for a long time. For me moving from this situation to a lesbian relationship was like

having a whole new body. At that time that metamorphosis really made me feel... that I had no more need of feminism. [9]

In Milk and Glass objects once again come to life, and the human body is fragmented on surfaces which act as screens. A long spoon 'feeds' a bowl with a white, viscous substance, white on the bowl appears the image of a mouth which opens and swallows the milky food. Talking about these images, Pucill emphasizes that the anxiety associated with the intake of food is generated by the ambiguity created between internal and external space - by that unacceptable movement of the mouthful of food from outside, where it is still an inanimate substance and separate from the subject, to inside, where it becomes human matter, part of our being:
The orifice and the interface between internal and external is associated with the abject, that specific terror of not knowing where you are, whether you are inside or outside, the terror of that boundary between two states of being, not knowing if something is inside you, part of you or not. [10]

In this case, in contrast to Now I am Yours and The Story of I, abjection has no revolutionary or poetic connotations, nor is it the sovereign expression of female eroticism. The ingestion of milk, the mothers nourishment, appears in this film as an act of violence, disgusting and likened to oral rape. As the director herself affirms, the fear of penetration becomes a metaphor for the rejection of the patriarchal, heterosexual cultural order in addition to being, more literally, an expression of lesbian sexuality.

Irigaray attempts to affirm a utopian othemess about the female body, this body that can be penetrated. Maybe it is difficult to conceive of this difference theoretically, but it can be demonstrated in practice. Just as the male phallus assumes enormous symbolic resonance in philosophy and psychoanalysis, from Plato to Freud, I am trying to think objectively about what it means to have this space which can be opened, to have something which goes in and out of you. It's also a meditation on repulsion, on the possibility of not desiring this entry into the body. [11]

I leave the last word in this essay to Nina Danino, speaking about film as a body which is born and dies over time, which has a gaze and a voice, but which above all is thus a vulnerable body, open to recurrent transformation and interpretation:
Film creates its own body in time, as it runs through time. For me films have a body, a sense of presence. Just as the body occupies a territory, an identity, sensations, matter... I think of a film in the same way. I create something which has its own sculptural form, its own folds, forms, height, verticality, which supports itself and also has its own voice. This is how I think of the body in cinema: it is not the body behind the camera or as focus of the film, but rather the film itself as body. It is like a piece of fabric, a textile created from a certain material. And the material is of course that of cinema, which includes the elements of sound, image and time. This is how the body of the film, which has the ability to speak and, at times, its own autonomous will, is constructed. I am sure that every director knows that once a film is finished, it's like having another person in front of you, another being which is present every time it is projected. [12]


1 - The Touching Camera: The Body in the Works of Nina Danino, Jo Ann Kaplan and Sarah Pucill, UK, 1998. This is a 20-minute film in which sections of interviews are interspersed with clips from films. The video, which began as a thesis for an MA in Visual Arts at London Guildhall University, was presented at the conference from which this volume is drawn.
2 - I refer here to different theoretical positions. The definition of sexual difference as an essential human condition belongs to biological science as well as to the philosophers of female essentialism.
3 - Judith Butler, "Conclusion - From parody to politics", in Gender Trouble, London, Routledge, 1990, p. 143.
4 - Rosi Braidotti, "Body images and the pornography of representation", in Nomadic Subjects, New York, Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 60.
5 - See Donna Haraway, "Un manifesto per cyborg: scienza, tecnologia e femminismo socialista nel tardo ventesimo secolo", in Manifesto cyborg. Donne, tecnologie e biopolitiche dcl corpo, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1995, p. 88, note 8. ["A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology and socialist feminism in the late 20th century", in Cyborg Manifesto: Women, technology and biopolitics of the body.]
6 - Nina Danino was born in Gibraltar. In addition to making films she has been co-editor of Undercut, a journal of experimental film and video, and teaches at Goldsmiths College. Her book, entitled Visionary Landscapes: The films of Nina Danino, will be published by Wallflower Press, London, in 2002. Jo Ann Kaplan was born in New York but has lived in London for many years. She works as a professional film and TV editor, as well as being a painter and designer. Sarah Pucill makes film and video and is also a photographer, and teaches figurative art at the University of Staffordshire in Great Britain. Some of her photographs have been bought for Charles Saatchi's collection.
7 - From an interview with Sarah Pucill, by Susanna Poole. This and all subsequent quotations from Pucill, Danino and Kaplan are taken from the documentary cited and translated by the author from the original English.
8 - lnterview with Sarah Pucill by Susanna Poole.
9 - lbid.
10 - Ibid.
11 - Ibid.
12 - Interview with Nina Danino by Susanna Poole.

Susanna Poole
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