I have been watching a lot of forty year old videos of designer, teacher, and public artist, Sheila de Bretteville, as part of my research for my Women’s Building video archive project. What a thrill, a delight, a deja-vu to see her as a rip-roaring, as eloquent as ever, in the flesh presenter (last week at Oxy)! In the 1970s, de Bretteville left Cal Arts to co-found the LA Women’s Building with Judy Chicago, Arlene Raven, and others, and in the uncountable hours of black and white videos they shot of their process, boldly developing a feminist arts education based on consciousness raising and its role in responding to women’s victimization, voicelessness and invisibility, she was a predictable beacon of intelligence, clarity and theoretical wisdom.

At 70, she shows a life’s work dedicated to including other people within the creation of meaning, a feminist and humanist commitment to participation and process. She says, “the way a work is made is part of what it means.” She thinks all humans have the right to leave a trace of their lives, thoughts, and experiences in the environments where they have lived, and just getting through a day without doing harm is the most powerful demonstration of heroism, deserving of a monument or perhaps a less austere trace (of public art) all one’s own.

Her gracious, generous, and self-effacing talk included the wonderful work of her students (above).

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The archivist brings work to visibility by seeing it, knowing it in her way, and connecting it to other video and viewers that will frame and hold it: giving context, making friends, building arguments, forming associations. Unruly archives need curators. Their holdings nothing but inconsequential detritus until loved and re-purposed.

I have proposed a video archive love fest. I want to take the dead work of the L.A. Woman’s Building (recently archived at the Getty’s Research Institute) and re-purpose it on-line. Bring it back to life. Make it relevant. Make if visible and re-usable. Put it on YouTube.

A proposed (pending funding) continuation of my work with the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Project, I hope to move old tapes on-line linking this inspiring (and too invisible) retro-video-vision to the hyper-mediated now. I am eager to re-purpose YouTube as a productive archive of video art that addresses some of the contradictions engendered by this unique process archive. Women’s Building video was made and saved by countless (often anonymous) women who were mutually developing and enjoying a uniquely feminist theory and practice of video fundamentally informed by a consciousness raising that was itself conversant with contemporary art and primarily engaged with video at its inception. Throughout feminist art education at the Building (video) process was valued, and itself documented as well as being document, and all of this was meant to be made public (often through video), and then saved for history (as video), even, counter-intuitively, as it was also, most critically, marking something entirely internal and ephemeral.

In videos from the Building, there is a consistent and self-aware project that evocatively links video across this archive to both feminist process and preservation. I would continue this past project, by selecting videos from the archive, with the artists’ permissions put them on-line, and produce prompts, frameworks, and tools for their contemporary use. In so doing, I would be attempting to making this archive newly usable for present-day digital (video) processes, thus unmooring it from its obscure, frozen, and misunderstood place as feminist history, and encouraging it to better engage with our feminist present (which was once its under-theorized future), in the meantime allowing past work to remain relevant, become active, and embark in dialogue with the present.

I will speak on this Saturday at the ASA Conference.

On Watching Bad Video

June 10, 2009

I’ve spent a long day at an undisclosed location watching a load of bad video. As with all things tedious, cheap, people-made and yet somehow also pretentious, the hours enjoy the most unimaginable turpitude when marked by unedited real-time ramblings of the self-serious. And yet. I champion bad video across this blog, make bad video myself on many occasions, and somehow still believe my time was well spent today even as I sometimes (I hate to admit, what kind of researcher am I?!) scanned the tapes, while also secretly reading email, and picking my cuticles.

How can bad video be good for you?
I believe it might be helpful to begin to nuance this ungainly term. Here’s a quick attempt. More to come.

1) Is it bad on purpose? To what end?
2) Does it know it’s bad? Does it let you know it knows?
3) Does it not care it’s bad because it’s up to some other good?
4) Could it be good if the author had better access (to equipment, education)?
5) Where does talent fit in? Content?

I’m stuck in Peoria. Really. Trying to get home for my daughter’s birthday dinner (I failed. argh) after participating in an invigorating conference that attended to intersections of avant-garde and documentary film and was organized by a hard-working team of grad students at the University of Iowa. While the whole day of talks that I attended was impressive and edifying, I want to highlight a few presentations that introduced me to new work, and new ways of thinking about documentary, which is always the hoped-for take-home from a conference. Alive Lovejoy presented three historical moments from her extensive research into the experimental documentary production of the Czech and Slovak Lands: an amazing body of diverse, complex, and unique films, formed before, in, around, and after multiple regime changes, that used a range of documentary practices to evoke subtle critiques (often expressed within the aesthetic not the rhetoric of the frame) of lived situations. Dennis Hanlon introduced me to several radical uses of the sequence shot (long take) by Latin American documentarians, the Bolivian, Jorge Sanjines, in particular, who invested in imagining the incorporation of indigenous interpretations of time into his documentary practice. And James Cahill introduced me to the strikingly weird docs of Jean Painleve, a French surrealist, who used scientific and medical documentation to evoke the sexual and psychic undertones of the natural world.

Interestingly, terms Cahill mustered to make his argument about Painleve will end up well serving my project on the Woman’s Building, albeit from different angles and hisorical moments. Using John Grierson‘s terminology about lower and higher categories of documentary (the former being footage of people, places and processes, the latter interpreting these brute documents through rhetoric or artisty), Cahill suggeseted that Painleve does both through surrealist additions and the “suggestive shimmying” visible within Painleve’s erotically clinical shots. Similarly, I will attempt to argue that the unedited documentation of women’s building processes are a form of lower and higher documentary: a careful and thoughtful body of work that is structured and theorized through a format and politics of simple documentation.