Living on air
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Living on air
Living on air
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Table of Contents
María Palacios Cruz, 2021
Jo Comino, 1996
Who Wants to be Monogamous?
Sandra Lahire, 1983
Lesbians in Media Education
Sandra Lahire, 1987
Exploring the Work of Sandra Lahire
Vicky Smith, 2017
“Overexposed, like an X-ray”: The Politics of Corporeal Vulnerability in Sandra Lahire’s Experimental Cinema
Maud Jacquin, 2019
Plutonium Blonde: Radioactive Contamination
Julia Knight, 1987
Curating “The Apparitional, films by Sandra Lahire and Barbara Hammer” Selina Robertson, Ricardo Matos Cabo and So Mayer, 2016-2020
48 On A Cold Draft
Sandra Lahire, 1990
Letter in The Guardian
Sandra Lahire, 1991
Laura Guy, 2021
Sandra Lahire, 1999
Eruption, rupture, suture and disruption
Sarah Pucill, 2021
The Fairies Banquet
Sandra Lahire, 1998
Living on Air
Michael Mazière, 1988
Gill Addison, 2000
Pam Cook, 1990
Irene Revell and Kerstin Schroedinger, 2015
The Snake Inside Eve
Ana Vaz, 2021
Sandra Lahire Tribute by Sarah Turner, Lis Rhodes and Sarah Pucill, 2002
Introduction by María Palacios Cruz
This modest volume represents the first monographic publication to be dedicated to the work of British filmmaker Sandra Lahire (1950-2001). Lahire was a central member of the feminist and experimental filmmaking community in London in the 1980s and 1990s. She made ten 16mm films, most of them under half an hour in length. Hers is an important body of work that deserves wider recognition — its environmental concerns, its intersectional feminism, its honest discussion of mental health feel poignantly modern and relevant today. Marked by corporeal vulnerability — her own, that of the female body, the body of the earth, the body of film — Lahire’s work proposes a comparison between the violence committed by patriarchal society against women and that committed by humans against the non-human world. Her four anti-nuclear films echo the feminist anti-nuclear, anti-war movement at the time. Formally, they merge documentary, performance, animation, experimentation (superimposition — both in camera and on the optical printer — re-filming, colourisation, changes of speed, layering of sounds). “Kaleidoscopic” is a word that many texts use to describe her work. Lesbian, Jewish, feminist, Lahire was a proud queer activist in a troubled time of British history, Thatcher’s 1980s. In her essay “Lesbians in Media Education”, written as a student at the Royal College of Art, she discusses oppression and identity: “Wherever I am and come from, my tongue is Lesbian.” Her work — her films, her words — is of the present, her present, but it reaches both to the past and to the contemporary moment. From her first to her last films, Lahire was in sustained dialogue with the poetry and archive of Sylvia Plath.
Living on air
The connection between biography and artistic work is a difficult one to untangle in Lahire’s filmmaking. The films are also ground-breaking in the frank way that they addressed the unspoken cultural causes of diseases such as anorexia, with which she struggled throughout her life and which led to her untimely passing in 2001. Like Sylvia Plath’s, hers is a body of work that is retrospectively overshadowed by her premature death aged 50. The trauma of her loss, still painful to many, perhaps contributed towards a lack of visibility of her work until recent years. The texts included here offer a much richer account of her bio graphy and artistic work than that which can be attempted in this brief introduction. She was, as Maud Jacquin writes, “one of Britain’s boldest and most important experimental feminist and queer filmmakers.” This cahier brings together new and existing texts on Lahire as well as writing by Lahire herself, from letters to newspapers to essays on subjects close to her practice: Lesbian filmmaking, Sylvia Plath, the work of important figures such as mentor and friend Lis Rhodes or her partner Sarah Pucill. We have also been able to include a number of documents from LUX and Cinenova, as well as from Sarah Turner’s personal collection, that hint to Lahire’s creative process; storyboards and excerpts from proposals, including detailed planning for her unfinished project Necropolis. The archive of Sandra Lahire, a prolific letter writer, exists across fragmented personal and institutional collections. It was important for us to address her life and work from the perspective of the living — through her own writing, her collages, through texts by her contemporaries, whilst at the same time being able to look back on it from the standpoint that a twenty-year gaps affords, to contemplate the significance of her ten films as an entire body of work. Newly commissioned texts by Laura Guy, Sarah Pucill and Ana Vaz, as well as recent writing by Maud Jacquin, Vicky Smith, Irene Revell and Kerstin Schroedinger, Selina Robertson and Ricardo Matos Cabo (in complicity with So Mayer) situate Lahire’s legacy in the present moment.
This is not an exhaustive anthology — an important text such as Marina Grzinic extended essay for luxonline has not been included because it is easily accessible.1 Others could not be included because archival research was impacted by the closures of libraries during lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Initial bibliographical work was conducted by the research group Their Past is Always Present at Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola,2 who have collaborated with Courtisane on this publication. It is in the texts of her contemporaries that Sandra Lahire comes alive as a person. Sarah Turner’s moving account of Lahire’s laughter “echoing” through the spaces of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative and Circles, gives a sense both of the vivacity of her presence and of a close-knit community in which she was a vital force. We have included film credits in the filmography to account for the importance of her many collaborators. She also contributed to works by others: piano music for Lis Rhodes, camerawork for Tina Keane … It is Lahire’s hands that are seen in Keane’s In Our Hands, Greenham (1984). We thank all the authors for permission to reproduce their texts in this volume. We are particularly grateful to both Sarah Pucill and Sarah Turner for their support.
1 https://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/sandra_lahire/ essay(1).html Charlotte Procter and I are co-lead investigators for this 2 research project. Three films by Sandra Lahire (Plutonium Blonde, Night Dances and Johnny Panic) have also been digitally restored in the context of Their Past is Always Present.
p. 8-9 Eerie, film still, Sandra Lahire, 1992.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Living on air
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Sandra Lahire by Jo Comino
An exhaustive line of enquiry runs through Sandra Lahire’s films. Sparked off by personal preoccupations, they comprise a barrage of facts and statistics, images and sounds, loosely interwoven around a specific topic and branching off into wider issues. The earlier work, low-key and unofficial in its tools — 16mm and Super 8 film, some camcorder footage and Walkman sound — flouts so-called documentary objectivity. Arrows (1984), a disturbing treatise on anorexia, sets self-portraits against pecking, bird-like images while a confessional voice-over shifts discussion into the field of cultural representation. Four stays in Elliot Lake in North Ontario, Canada, where the multi-national Rio Tinto Zinc owns a huge uranium mining operation, instigated the films Uranium Hex (1987, a pilot), Plutonium Blonde (1987) and Serpent River (1989). Serpent River is the most rigorously organised, both in the formal progression from ice and snow imagery to fire and brimstone and back again, and rhetorically, as an investigation into a latter-day body politic. Taking a multi-layered approach, it centres on medical, political and social issues, with the river as (contaminated) life-blood of the community. Testimonies and interviews (the staple of traditional documentary) are linked with performance which, featuring the filmmaker herself, anchor the content of the film, inscribing it as personally perilous. The film is further removed from conventional investigative reporting by the way in which both sound (synthesised Geiger counter noises) and image (slow-motion, freeze-framing, repetition, solarisation and flicker effects) are extensively reworked. Lahire’s integration of sound, image and intent is often apposite; there are flashes of inspiration in the way, for example, the view of a bared back, with muscles painfully flexing under the skin, is succeeded by shots of drills pounding away at the rock face. Her manipulation of colour is excellent, con-
p. 10 Arrows, on set photograph of Sandra Lahire, 1984.
juring up sulphurous yellows to match the description of yellow cake residues or, in Uranium Hex, causing a field of flowers to flare up like a Warhol screen-print. Occasionally the parallels, more often when stated as opposed to drawn, can seem over-laden; the way in which, for instance, the notion of vulnerability fixes on a group of schoolchildren. In Lady Lazarus (1991) which introduces itself in the opening titles as “a film spoken by Sylvia Plath, 27th October 1932 — 11th February 1963,” the biographical structure, with its insistence on cinematic pilgrimage, has its limits. A woman (Sarah Turner, a filmmaker herself ) is captured on film responding to the Plath recordings, standing in for her in a sense, on the image track. While this can be interpreted by the viewer as period re-enactment, the narrative thread gives context and continuity to Lahire’s visual similes for the obsessive rhyming patterns of the poems. The one minute long Eerie (1992), commissioned by the Arts Council and BBC2’s The Late Show, is of necessity, much tighter and more muted. It draws visual and aural analogies between the act of film projection and the operation of a cable-car carrying the loved object, framing her, much as the rectangle of the screen does. These few shots, intercut with a romantic interlude — an encounter, a dance, a kiss — are evocative but also focus our attention on the process of image-making, on the nature of cultural representation (crucially, as a lesbian film) and the potential for appropriating, as Lahire does, such images.
Written for A Directory of British Film & Video Artists, edited by David Curtis and published by the Arts Council of England in 1996.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Who Wants to be Monogamous? by Sandra Lahire
Dear Spare Rib, About the December issue:Monogamy and genital fixations deny ourselves and our creative powers as women. Precious energy is drained from us when we put so much ingenuity into keeping partners to ourselves, low to stave off the fear of “losing” your mate to someone else, how to make yourself helpless in certain respects so that your mate can feel needed — it’s all a charade. Animals don’t waste their lives in this way. We learn that Man is a toolmaker. What a shame that we cannot liberate ourselves from our obsession with contraceptive tubes and dutch caps and penetration. Yes, there were four pages used up on a story called “The Apparatus” which indulged in pseudo-Plath phrases and tired clichés like the spermrugger players on the wet field. Let us take possession of our fantasy worlds and dispel the stinking air of Freud. Only when we move constantly between different friends “helping, listening and hugging” as Veronica Attlotod says in her letter, can we have sensuous games with our whole bodies and selves. In “The Apparatus” there is no play, not even inspiring word-play. We are locked in some no-woman’s land with spermicide on the bedside table. No hope that the woman has books there, or that she could enjoy painting her life in her own colours, or cooking for the joy to her palette. Her only sensuous outlet is the secret, seedy little genital ordeal between the sheets. The drawings were dreadful and rigid, like sex-shop toys — phallus candles and pathetic female dolls which are pencil sharpeners. I even resent the biology diagram with labels and arrows to parts of me that are alive and pulsing with blood and energy. I mean the “female pelvic organs (side view)” from Our Bodies, Ourselves. It is not ourselves. But Veronica’s letter warms me. With concern, Sandra Lahire Published in the “lots more letters” section of Spare Rib, February 1983.
Living on air
Lesbians in Media Education by Sandra Lahire
This is written in a building called the Darwin building at the Royal College of Art, London.1 Darwin, whose revolution in science legitimated the socially created differences between men and women and gave them an apparent biological justification. Lesbians were excluded as “unnatural” or an impossibility (see the monument of Queen Victoria over the road). This is what many women artists in education have said to me: Women sit on the TV production line. Men take the fruits of this labour to use them against us. The tools of government, the means of evaluation in media education, the core disciplines to be learned, are dictated by the latest technological acquisition, by an establishment of design and media education that does not share its power. Let us take it. I kept it silent, even in a group of women working with performance and media, because I feared it was disruptive of some more important struggle, which was predesigned for me to carry out. Now I know that it is my body, my room, our daughters’ employment that is at stake, and my filmmaking with other dykes — that could be all other women. Our tongues and eyes meet in our words, in the tastes, smells, sinking and biting that we enjoy together. In its growth, our media work does not coerce people, it is how we make ourselves selfresponsible. Wherever I am and come from, my tongue is Lesbian. I do not feel I should have to support the debate of middle-class intellectuals with it. I and others I have
Sandra Lahire was a student in the Environmental Media department of the Royal College of Art. She makes reference to this at other points in the article. This was the only department in the college with a strong feminist presence and a tradition of students engaging with oppositional politics in their work. It was closed down by the new, Thatcherite Rector, Jocelyn Stevens. The last students left in 1986. [note added by the editor of Visibly Female, Hilary Robinson]
worked with have accepted my Lesbian identity. My Jewish identity is my work now in terms of “where is my homeland?” If you have enough money and privilege you can separate yourselves from heterosexist oppression. Let us not forget, though white middle-class feminism would like us to, that Lesbians are constantly threatened. “Passing” — staying invisible and presumed to be heterosexual — is a central issue in Lesbian culture. Often, the less privileged you are, the more necessary is passing for survival in a harsh urban environment. In the frightened mood of the 1980s, there is a kneejerk reaction to the economic recession that warns Blacks not to be too Black, Jews not to be Jewish, and the unemployed and Lesbians not to be too visible. The more we let ourselves be pushed out now, the less room we will have for manoeuvre and formulating our own imaginative tactics of resistance. The time to manoeuvre is now, with our work, whilst we still have a foothold. Unless we are affirmed, the feeling that we often get is that Lesbians must stop being selfish and giving joy to each other when the birth of a nation is at stake. But precisely by eschewing the family and marriage structures of white society, free Black women negotiated their own forms of autonomy. This contrasts with the framework of the USA and its satellites in which the family has been defined as a closed nuclear unit, the foundation of capitalism. Instead of being bound up behind veils and distortion, let us establish the forms that we need and begin to manipulate them for ourselves. As a teacher I see this works best in an atmosphere of warmth amongst women. You read flashes of body-language, some of self-dismissal and at the same time stubborn affirmation. And it is not necessarily that women would find out that they were Lesbian, but even to take that route and look at things from that angle is turning the world inside out. Turning negation back on it-
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
self. Adrienne Rich argues2 that when we stop lying about our love (sexual or not) for other women, when we stop mutilating ourselves simply to survive our subjection, we can begin to resist our mutilation by values and laws based primarily on male needs. She posits our resistance as a Lesbian continuum or network for action, which women might move in and out of all the time. This must not be cut. As there have not been many Lesbian filmmakers, we study our lives to show the following generations. “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”3 There is no aspect of the dominant culture that does not contribute to the enforcement of heterosexuality in some way, whether it is the withholding of technical knowledge, the burning of documents and archives, the burning of witches (“witches” meaning quite literally those who have wits, who know). Who was that haggard twin of hers staring through the screen? The night was chilly. She summoned her in, and helped her unfreeze. They resembled each other. Being a Lesbian is not in itself political. However, the conditions in which we live as women are available to political change because they can be seen to be socially caused and not naturally destined. This is about actively politicising areas of our lives that are assumed to be unchangeable. Sex between women opens more channels of communication and strengthens the network through which every issue is being fought. One may ask, are our identities really so bound up with sexual choice? The human essence is the assembly of social relations, and sexuality is social relations. If our work were ambiguous, it would pull us back to a false, not Lesbian, continuum. When our work is forthright we illumine for each other territories that we can no longer allow to be obscured. Lesbians should strive to minimise the chances that radical content will be perceived in terms of style alone, “Lesbianism”. Operating on the premise that the culture of resistance uses all the media at its disposal, Lesbian culture — if not censored, stifled, or invisible — is “tolerated” or imitated in a colonising way for commercial or high art purposes. As a former anorexic, I am sensitive to all forms of subtle manipulation of women.
Adrienne Rich, “Women and Honour: Some Notes on Lying”, 1977. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, 1980.
Our fight grows out of our women’s circle of discourse. This must spread wide to make interference in the millennia of talking men. We are not abstractions in male psychoanalytical debate. Laughing, working, touching, we are putting our own psychic health first. I am hoping that our voices may derange those who support the leadership of this police-state. What a relief to feel solid against that alienating stare of ownership to which women may be subjected at any time of day or night. Far from being a riddle to ourselves (as we seem to be held out to men) we are restrained by double bindings in a male language that is as cramping as Grace Poole’s attic. Catatonia would be the end result, the gesture of a lunatic having to separate herself from her language and eventually killing herself off: “Words dry and riderless/The indefatigable hoof-taps.”4 What was the price of subjection to the Law of the Father? A violent denial of my mother’s body and bonds of feeling by which we clarified each other’s images. A mother is a woman, not the easy target for our repressed anger; and, childless, I am a woman. Is “mother” or “language” primary? Or “phallus as signifier”? The female body is complete, not a negative to the phallus. Ultimately the Lacanian debate is redundant to the Lesbian, both because it is class-based and because the influence of the mother is as primary as a hieroglyph. Now we are thinking of two women imaging together, lips speaking together, maybe in conflict but so making a discourse in and of and for itself, not embedded in one certain psychoanalytic schema of construction of femininity, e.g. mother/daughter roles. Because it forced itself upon me I told the absence-of-signifier theory of women to get knotted. It was. Even now there is little material support for Lesbian couples apart from within the Lesbian community. Any public display of a relationship problem is seen as having to do with its being Lesbian. No one ever thinks that the ownership politics of heterosexual culture may have eaten holes in the Lesbian relationship. Or maybe the trouble is one-to-one relationships. Or that women ever have relationships together whilst at art school. Women students consolidating each other’s meaning are an asset that had better be liquidated, in the interests of the management and a culture that would rather fragment the body, and make lucrative fetishes out of those fragments.
Living on air
Sylvia Plath, “Words”, 1963.
One aspect of our practice has tried to operate on the very terrain of stereotype itself, trying to undermine and change the readings of certain stereotypes, by showing up the contradictions between them and the doublethink that is necessary to believe in them. Those who control stereotypes are never exposing themselves. This is also true for straight “experimental” practice. For women filming women, what we need now is to restore the integrity of the whole body, which is what Chantal Akerman and Helke Sander have chosen to do.5 “Narcissism” was adopted by Freud in his libido theory to describe a condition in which the ego turns its energy back on itself. And without the shared experience of being female, some spectators are unable to see the revelations of Lesbian work as any thing but narcissistic, in a sense of being trapped in herself, or indulging her ego. How can women committed to producing socially engaged work confront this narrow view of narcissism encouraged by the art world and promoted by the video apparatus? Turning the camera to the world, yes, and if it is oppressive, turning the monitor to the wall, or manipulating the Barbie-doll imagery sold to us. In the case of the woman dealing with autobiographical material and self-perception, turning the camera on herself is necessary, not because she is reinforcing the male fetishising of parts of her body. She opposes externally imposed images of her sexuality by building up a dialogue with aspects of herself, with doubles or twins or alter-egos, as Sylvia Plath does by her writing of The Bell Jar. The mirror is a common-sense method of crystallising a twin through inward dialogue. Far from mimicking the isolated self-obsession of the male narcissist, a woman working with herself and devoting her love to herself in another woman, instead of gaining access to power via men, is working with the self-reflection essential for self-determination and political change. Men who feel “left out” of this woman’s work blame the Lesbian element, this completely autonomous self through which women address social issues such as work and nukes and pit closures. Returning yet again to the Lesbian Body, I remember Focii by Jeanette Iljon6 centring on a relationship of self to self and self to other. And some work by Chantal Akerman in which she uses a fixed camera that disrupts the Hitchcockian pleasure in looking associated with traditional or “experimental” techniques such as close-ups, quick cuts, zooming, panning, tracking (see ads, promos and male “experimental” film discourse). For every reason hinted at so far, I find Stephen
5 See Jump Cut no. 22 for Helke Sander. 6 Distributed by Circles. [now Cinenova]
Dwoskin’s, and much of Godard’s work, offensive when it plays around with pictures of women ostensibly alone, yet who are penetrated by the male camera with as much inherent violence as the Psycho shower scene.
Women filming women and our own sexuality Through this very negation I feel this work pressing on me to make a positive imprint. Such work could relate the emotional freedom of women to the freedom of society itself. This is a great pleasure to any woman viewer, and it makes a change and revolution in the material world irresistible. I thought that it was a lethargy that dulled me, a repressive force; but I’ve begun to understand it as an energy that strikes icy-bright. I’m paralysed, caught for a while in its bright focus. My response seems so ingrained, its line marked out over so many political scenarios. Paralysed, I become flustered. It must be obvious to all who look. Tattooed at mouth and eyes. I’m not sure what happens next. No matter. Too long I’ve gone back over those old tracks. Where? The thing is to get off, pushing into that light. This feeling, all such feelings, are not transgressions. No more time for that limited “romance” which feeds off being forbidden. My positive Lesbian feelings have come out simultaneously with my work. You learn about yourself as you make the work with the materials around you in installations and film and performance, and that learning process becomes part of the meaning of the work. The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticised sensation. For this reason we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic.7 We are making images for our sexuality, and there are more responses like touch and hands holding. Not as public spectacles like hanging, violence, murder, Not making a public spectacle of ourself, But the visibility and touch of our works to each other, So that we crystallize each other’s thoughts.
Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, 1979.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
She needs warm compresses for her eyes if nowhere else, due to the dearth of Lesbian films and the need to do a salvage job on Supergirl. Shut-away Lesbians, without the particulars of wider social encounters, become abstractions in any current debate on sexuality in media work. Our media work is not just about positive images of Lesbians, but an impact suggesting a positive guide to action. Being that obtuse and cussed we are already not such a welcome choice for design-orientated education, and perhaps being thrown out on the streets from our brief intervention at the Royal College of Art is the beginning of becoming visible and fighters. We are already listening to each other and weaving a picture-poem patchwork of protest. Within Environmental Media which moves out from the walls, I am taking space for a Lesbian voice. Where to for all the undergraduate women I chatted to for this issue? Lesbians are not an exclusive club or ghetto but all women’s desire for each other’s full expression of our bodies and language. We oppose the predefined category of woman in male theory and its derivatives, in which woman is a lack, of power, of penis, and who bears a very heavy negative relation to the jolly pageant of male art and design history. Through my very negation in a system of feudal chivalry, that does not use our discourse of body and loving/being in love, I use strong — sometimes angry — images to tell the stories of our lives. It is essential that we be a mirror to each other. Hearing, feeling. Many images of feeling boxed in, and bound. Together exploring each other’s solitary confines, and together weaving a very large space. Rooms within rooms, with doors opening in different directions. Men have always wanted to identify a hierarchy and an “ism”, and women at the peace camps and in Women Challenge Film and TV Education have none. Drawing breath from each other, we say the same thing in different ways. At any one point along the timescale, there is always a woman who is guiding herself past her male assessors as if by a thread. I was alone and I wanted to express my Lesbian feelings in the Darwin Building so intensely that I even resented the ingrained and casual male-female habits of chivalry... and the “blondes” and “redheads” lights. It was a chasm inside of me. Now that chasm is space out of which I spin my images. The darkness of this well inside contains all colours. I never want to hear you say that blackness is the colour of despair and negativity. The position of Black Lesbians, when working with/for white people is fundamentally different from that of white Lesbians. I am a white woman, I think that any feminist work at the Royal College of Art is bound to be limited when there are not many Black women and women of colour.
I remember very clearly when I was nine and she was twelve, and we kissed and caressed each other and played tricks on the boys and grownups.
Lesbians aren’t oppressed by the Law...? Anti-Lesbian practice ranges from a verbal omission to actual physical violence. In media education Lesbian images represent the ultimate threat to the patriarchal order: independence from their whole art-historical debate based on ownership of the female body and exploitation of her work. At work particularly, teachers are permanently forced to conceal our Lesbian identity. This means living in constant strain, whilst still being subject to anti-Lesbian attitudes and behaviour from colleagues, employers, male technicians (which is most technicians), and critics parasitical to the art establishment. Here is one Staff Group’s proposals for inclusion in a school statement on sexism, adapted to higher and art education: Lesbian students must see their sexuality positively reflected in the society of the school, and all students must be actively encouraged to see that their sexuality can be a matter of positive choice. This can best be achieved by Lesbian and gay teachers being visible within the school. This means that teachers who are Lesbian or gay should not be pressurised into hiding this fact from students or into allowing students to make a wrong assumption about their sexuality. Their decision to come out must be actively supported by all members of staff right to the rector. In no way should being Lesbian be made to feel like a sinister activity (“sinister” in the McCarthy sense, not in the sense of subversive and transforming). The homophobia that faces young Lesbians in colleges does not exist in a vacuum. It is all part of a learned response and attitude that everyone in our society assimilates through subtle means in the dominant media. Lesbian teachers, whether they are out or closeted, are helpful as role models, implicit support etc.8
Living on air
The Gay Teachers Group put forward the following motion at the 1984 NUT National Conference: This conference rejects all discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and instructs the Executive to support vigorously all teachers discriminated against on these grounds… Conference also instructs the Executive to promote constructive and positive attitudes to homosexuality in school curricula. Furthermore… to press the TUC to include sexual orientation in its model Equal Opportunities Clause. So far, none of the teaching unions has a policy on the rights of Lesbian teachers and students. Some teachers and some LEA’s — notably the ILEA (if it remains intact) — are tackling this issue. Get a clear statement of support from a local branch.9 Nothing contributes to anti-Lesbian attitudes and Lesbian self-loathing and neglect of her sexuality so much as a feeling of insecurity with regard to the world of work, the law, and union activity. Yes, a Lesbian working to encourage women’s strength in an art college has, even now, been nicknamed “he” (strange that this appears unusual, as the generic term “he” usually embraces “she”). Often we feel like staying at home, or are frightened when returning late from our shows and meetings, because we are not accompanied by the chivalry of a man. At the same time, men seem afraid of the strong woman and her autonomous sexuality. Lesbian mothers must tailor work around bringing up children, who are not an abstraction during “working hours”. Men have been conducting a debate in colleges into which we may step when we are not at home. This is the social condition which work made by women must oppose, or this work will tend to be seen either as “evidence” of some essential (essentially inferior) femininity, or else as some special kind of “achievement” like that of circus animals. Being Lesbian is not a soft option. Surprisingly, we also have housework to do, bills to pay, children to get to school, ill people to care for. Anti-Lesbianism occurs every time our childrearing is scrutinised in an unsupportive way and every time it is assumed that what we ought to want is to raise “normal” children... the argument for denying Lesbians custody of our children. Mothers do not have to be mothers only. Our access to jobs ought not to be limited by access to child-
care and by male-engendered expectations of what a “good” mother is. My hope is that every woman teacher and student choosing to remain with a man will require of him that he treat her as a person who has the very needs Lesbians have been asserting. This is the only way we can gain our full heretical strength. Pulling out the magical cliché of male thought — “it’s not men who oppress women, it’s the capitalist system” — is a long-standing cop-out and denial of men’s responsibility. Of course it is the system of capitalism which oppresses us. But this “system” is a collection of people’s actions and attitudes. There is a subversive perception of the order of things developing. Men always want to identify and recuperate a hierarchy and “ism”, but we are all spokeswomen. Conversely, we are free to see men as people who can change rather than as fixed tormentors, providers, lovers and, worst of all, judges of our validity. To fear a knowledge of our own Lesbian love is to fear a knowledge of our work in performance art and media. Sexuality between women opens more channels of communication and strengthens the network through which we will bring about material changes. Our Lesbian continuum: Paradigms, folding mirrors, multiple and serial loves, coming and going through out rooms within rooms … an ongoing collation, not a preset line of argument. The only line is a Lesbian Line. This is the version of the text included in the volume Visibly Female: Feminism and Art (1987) edited by Hilary Robinson. An edited version had previously appeared in Undercut, Summer 1985.
NUT: National Union of Teachers; TUC: Trade Union Congress; LEA: Local Education Authority; ILEA: Inner London Education Authority.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Living on air
Exploring the Work of Sandra Lahire by Vicky Smith
While Sandra Lahire (1950-2001) is best known for her live action films, prior to 1986 she was working primarily with animation. These early works have received little attention, possibly because of their experimental approach and difficult subject matter. Throughout her oeuvre Lahire dealt with the impact of technology, ideology, science and medicine on the body. Despite these being tough issues Lahire explores them with humour: “There has to be an element of fun with something raw and close to the bone or you don’t come across to other people.”1 In her animated works, rather than pointing the camera out at the world, she focused it toward a rostrum table and created the body upon it. Arrows (1984) and Edge (1986) both employ multiple methods to create their urgent and impassioned messages concerning the vulnerabilities, resilience and interconnectedness of embodied beings. As though the rostrum table itself were a body, Lahire layered upon it materials that are associated with the physical. These include cut up photographs of bodies and crude masklike drawings of bruised human faces animated with real objects such as plastic tubing, medical instruments, bandages, surgical gloves, bloody swabs, fur, claws and stand-ins for bodily parts and fluids, such as a red capsicum and flowers. Making the process transparent, Lahire’s hands are constantly visible animating these materials, delving into and prizing apart the layers and then bandaging and stitching them back together, as though the caressing gestures might repair at the level of film the damage done in reality. The diverse methods, dense visuals and frenetic pace are grounded by the constancy of Sylvia Plath reciting her poems “The Thin People” (1957) and “Poem For A Birthday — The Stones” (1962).
Edge compares the horrors of vivisection to that of cosmetic surgery. Images of restrained monkeys and cats with screaming mouths, wounds and implants are rapidly smothered over. The butchery that the low resolution animal campaigning photos common to that period can’t clearly depict, Lahire reconstructs through compositions of bloody gauzes, spilt entrails, shots of her own eyes and mouth wide open as in terror and claw like scratches dragged directly onto film. Throughout, an equation is made between animal bodies and that of the artist as Lahire films her own gaze confronting the viewer edited together with the chemically destroyed eyes of rabbits. Lahire alleviates these scenes of distress with ironical commentary at both vocal and visual levels and animation is one tool through which it is possible to bring about such lightness: it is humorous to watch slices of salami, compared to the surgical removal of human fat, jerking themselves around the frame, while a group of back-lit razor blades appears without malice, like the geometric shapes of early abstract animation. Arrows narrows the focus of concern with the suffering body to that of the human condition of anorexia. Imagery of grids, caged birds, spiky red shards, snakes and body parts cut from magazines are moved through limited animation, twisted about on the rostrum table to the soundtrack of exercise class instructions. The isolation experienced by those with anorexia is conveyed through the soundtrack as Lahire’s requests for counsel are met with an answer phone. Throughout, Lahire adopts different positions and roles: from that of the media analyst, the scientist, the anguished and sceptical artist to the mimicry of non-humans. In photos she appears wing-like with a shawl draped upon her outstretched arms, suggesting that through weightlessness she will become airborne. Shots of a rotating owl head are matched with photos of Lahire as she describes circular swivelling movements, while “her hands replicate the move-
Sandra Lahire interviewed by Jo Buxton, “Interview with Sandra Lahire: The Thin People”, in D. Harcombe & V. Smith (eds.) Boiling — Experimental Animation Journal, 1996, p.14.
p. 18 Arrows, Circles distribution leaflet, 1984.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
ment of wings.”2 It is as though, in her identification with beings that are trapped in violent systems, the artist is continuously searching for affinities between her own body and that of non-humans. Rosi Braidotti3 finds that idealist philosophy positioning of thought as other and higher than matter has meant that animals, relegated to the latter category, are devalued. She proposes a post-human position to be one of a widened subjectivity that rejects anthropocentrism or the limiting of the roles of animals in favour of that which she describes as an assemblage of human-animal interaction. Through devices of animation, montage editing, superimposition and mimicry Lahire sets up an equivalence and an inseparability not
only between her own and animal bodies, but also between objects and materials. In this sense she anticipates the recent explosion of post-humanist ecologically oriented art practice (Marcus Coates and Jacqueline Traide) and also the screen based eco-aesthetics of the present day.4
Originally published on the Animation Studies 2.0 blog on 16 October 2017. A slightly reworked version was subsequently published in July 2018 on the LUX website. We have included the original text here.
4 2 3
Lahire in Buxton, op. cit., p.12. Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, 2013.
Edge, video still, Sandra Lahire, 1986.
Living on air
See for example Silke Panse, “Land as Protagonist. An Interview with James Benning”, in A. Pick, and G. Narraway (eds.), Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human, 2013.
“Overexposed, like an X-ray”: The Politics of Corporeal Vulnerability in Sandra Lahire’s Experimental Cinema by Maud Jacquin
“Overexposed, like an X-ray.” This line is borrowed from a poem by Sylvia Plath whose life and writings have had a considerable influence on Sandra Lahire’s oeuvre, even inspiring her final trilogy Living on Air (1991 to 1999). It crystallizes some of the formal and thematic concerns at the core of Lahire’s films by expressing a sense of profound vulnerability through an image that evokes the intersection of the body with technology. Sandra Lahire was one of Britain’s boldest and most important experimental feminist and queer filmmakers. Like many of her contemporaries who started making films in the 1980s, she entered the world of experimental cinema through the recently established and truly innovative film and media departments at St. Martins and the Royal College of Art in London where she studied with such ground-breaking filmmakers as Malcolm Le Grice, Lis Rhodes and Tina Keane. Simultaneously, she started working in the context of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, an artist-led organization founded in 1966, which brought together the activities of film production, distribution and exhibition. Despite the relatively small corpus of work that she left behind — she made ten 16mm films between 1984 and 2001 — Lahire expanded the boundaries of what feminist cinema could be by challenging established categories (in particular the separations between personal and documentary, narrative and non-narrative, the body and language), forging a singular film language that fused formal experimentation with socio-political commentary. In her work, and particularly in her films from the 1980s, which are the focus of this essay, Lahire examined the many ways in which the female body is exposed, trapped and infiltrated by the colonizing forces of our technological and patriarchal culture. Through a deep engagement with the materiality of both body and film, she explored the vulnerability of wom-
en’s bodies to various forms of patriarchal violence and vigorously denounced this violation of their bodily integrity. In addition, I will argue, her own experience of pain and bodily suffering led her to recognize the ethical and political value of acknowledging corporeal vulnerability as a shared aspect of human, but also non-human, life. Lahire’s first film Arrows (1984) explores both the artist’s own experience of anorexia and the cultural causes of an illness against which she struggled for many years until her untimely death in 2001. The film’s effect depends upon a metaphorical parallel, established from the first sequence, between the artist’s suffering body and images of caged birds. Other images such as those of Egyptian mummies or of the artist screaming in anguish like the vacant-eyed character of Edvard Munch’s iconic painting, also convey a sense of imprisonment and suffocation, one heightened by the frenetic and often overwhelming rhythm of the editing and rostrum camera work. This sense of imprisonment not only evokes the anorexic’s relation to her body and to her condition, but also the oppression of a patriarchal society that pressures women into conforming to masculine desires. Many scenes in Arrows indeed underscore the role of the media in women’s body-image disorders, such as when magazine cut-outs of female models are animated to the rhythm of aerobic instructions. In addition, the gruesome depiction of invasive medical procedures such as liposuction, combined with the recurrence of grid-like patterns throughout the film, point to the complicity of medicine and science in the shaping and disciplining of women’s bodies. Lahire’s second film Edge (1986) expands on this idea of the infiltration and fragmentation of the female body by science and technology. A collage of excerpts from poems by Sylvia Plath recounting experiences of hospitalization and
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
surgery (“The Stones”, 1959, “The Surgeon at 2am”, 1960– 61 and “Facelift”, 1960–61) serves as the inspiration — and voice-over — for a fractured film that conveys, in a profoundly visceral way, the violent breach of bodily integrity entailed by the technologisation of society. The film abounds with measuring and cutting instruments (compasses, rulers, razor blades, knives, etc.) and with female body fragments often shown through the screens of medical machines or amongst an accumulation of surgical tubes, gauze bandages and viscous materials evoking oozing wounds. Here, the female body is exposed in all its vulnerability in the literal sense of the term — the word vulnerable indeed stems from the Latin word vulnus meaning wound. Women’s corporeal vulnerability and exposure to techno-patriarchal culture is also at the heart of Lahire’s four films on nuclear power, which, with their focus on female workers, echoed the feminist discourses circulating in women’s anti-nuclear activism in the 1980s.1 Whether they are operators at nuclear power stations (Terminals, 1986 and Plutonium Blonde, 1987) or uranium miners in Canada (Uranium Hex, 1987 and Serpent River, 1989), the women workers in these films appear to be ensnared in technological apparatus of exploitation and control, as figured by barbed wire fences, looming helicopters, overpowering drilling machines or walls of computer screens. This sense of claustrophobic entrapment is conveyed through the images but also through the restless camera movements and the unnerving sounds of electronic machines and industrial work. In addition, Lahire’s anti-nuclear films call attention to the very real and harmful effects of computer screen rays and nuclear radiations on women’s bodies. In all of them, voices of women and children describe their heightened exposure to the risks of lung cancer, miscarriage, Down’s syndrome or neurological damage, while deeply affecting images and sounds attempt to give tangible form to this intangible threat. In Terminals, for instance, the filmmaker draws the names of radioactive elements, as well as arrows pointing at her breasts on her own vulnerable naked body. In Plutonium Blonde and Uranium Hex, the acid-hued smoke clouds appearing near people and the incessant crackling noises on the soundtrack materialise the chemicals’ invisible circulation and their contamination of the workers’ bodies.
For a discussion on the intersections of feminism and antinuclear activism, see, for instance, the chapter “Personal Politics: Radical Feminism, Difference, and Anti-Nuclear Activism” in Kyle Harvey’s American Anti-Nuclear Activism, 1975–1990 (London and New York, 2014), pp. 68-92.
In Lahire’s films on nuclear power, the “overexposure” of Plath’s poem quite literally becomes that of the women’s bodies affected by radiation. But this term also evokes light’s inscription of the image onto the celluloid and thus the material processes of filmmaking. As I mentioned earlier, Lahire was part of LFMC, where she worked alongside filmmakers such as Jean Matthee, Anna Thew and Tina Keane with whom she collaborated on several occasions. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, the LFMC was the anchor of a vibrant filmmaking movement, characterized by a shared commitment to experiment with the language of cinema and, for a majority of filmmakers, to explore the nature and materiality of film. In her work, Lahire arguably adopts the vocabulary of this material exploration of cinema — superimposition, re-filming, colour inversion, changes of speed, etc. — to articulate her own conception of film as a body, itself subjected to various intrusive interventions and exposed in its vulnerability. Here, the exposure (both literal and figurative) of the film’s body comes to reflect the female body’s exposure to patriarchal power. In Edge, for example, Lahire’s style of editing cuts like the scalpel of a surgeon. Images follow one another at a frenzied, spasmodic rhythm; the body of the film is sliced to pieces, left in a state of dismemberment. Several times, the screen is entirely covered with gauze bandages as if to protect the underlying image. Accompanied by the sound of a heartbeat as heard through a doppler machine, the filmmaker’s hands appear over the dressing and make an incision, letting some blood flow out. The body of the film becomes one with that of the female patient, as the protective surface is breached, and the boundary between interior and exterior dissolves. In the nuclear trilogy, film is also conceived as a vulnerable body but this time through the act of being burnt rather than cut up. Echoing the way that the nuclear workers are harmed by penetrating radiations, the filmstrip is constantly overexposed, eroded to the point of the image’s near-disappearance. Finally, through the negative and acid-coloured shots that recur throughout, Lahire’s 1980s films evoke the imagery of X-ray and MRI machines. Actual radiographic images also appear in several of the films, and once again present a form of bodily exposure not only to electromagnetic radiations but also to the penetration of the medical gaze — a theme taken up explicitly in Edge but that traverses Lahire’s entire oeuvre. Through her singular use of experimental film techniques, Lahire thus conveys a visceral sense of women’s embodied vulnerability to various forms of patriarchal (and technological) violence. In so doing, she hoped to help “the silent scream become audible” and encourage the fight for
Living on air
Terminals, still, Sandra Lahire, 1987.
women’s rights to control their own bodies.2 But there is something else at work in Lahire’s films that resonates with a different (and not necessarily contradictory) feminist position on vulnerability that has emerged in recent years: an intuition, presumably connected to her life-long suffering from anorexia, that the genuine acknowledgment of one’s own bodily vulnerability can become the ground for
Sandra Lahire, as quoted from luxonline, an online education resource by LUX, the British non-profit organisation that distributes Lahire’s films. See http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/sandra_lahire/ edge.html (accessed 28 March 2016).
an ethical relationship to the other.3 In Undoing Gender and Precarious Life, both written in 2004, partially in response to the United States’ highly militarised reactions to 9/11, Judith
In recent years, many feminist theorists in various disciplines (philosophy, law, political sciences and other fields) have explored the ethical consequences of the inherent vulnerability of the human body. See, for instance, Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, 2006); Martha Albertson Fineman, “The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition”, Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Vol. 20, no. 1 (2008), pp. 1-23; or Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence (New York, 2008). For a rich introduction to the diversity of perspectives on this issue, see Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers and Susan Dodds (eds.), Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy (Oxford, 2014).
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Butler argues that the experience of corporeal vulnerability does not only imply an acute sense of powerlessness and dispossession — one that can generate pain, fear and rage — but also the visceral recognition of the co-implication and mutual exposure of bodies. Without denying the traumatic impact of terrorist attacks and other violent actions, she contends that one’s capacity to viscerally extrapolate the vulnerability of others from one’s own experience of vulnerability can prompt an ethical response and become the foundation of a different kind of politics. Butler writes: Mindfulness of this vulnerability can become the basis of claims for non-military political solutions, just as denials of this vulnerability through a fantasy of mastery […] can fuel the instruments of war. We cannot will away this vulnerability. We must attend to it, even abide by it, as we begin to think about what politics might be implied by staying with the thought of corporeal vulnerability itself.4 To “attend to” and “abide by” her corporeal vulnerability is precisely what Sandra Lahire did in Arrows, exactly twenty years before Butler wrote these lines. And like the American philosopher, this experience seems to have enabled her to recognise that the fragility and porosity of her body “establishes a field of ethical enmeshment with others and a sense of disorientation for the first-person, that is, the perspective of the ego.”5 Indeed, through language and through elaborate montages of images and sounds, Lahire manages to convey an embodied understanding that her own corporeal vulnerability is a channel to other suffering bodies — anorexic bodies like hers, but also less close ones who suffer from famine, war or the inconceivable horrors of the Holocaust. “I am so aware of my body. It hurts… If only I was not alone in this big empty skin. If only you could enter and comfort me.”6 Uttered by Lahire in the film’s voice-over, these poignant words express a piercing need for a bodily communion with an other. Importantly, these words are not those of the filmmaker but of a teenager named Kate who responded to Lahire’s letter published in a feminist magazine in which she invited women to share their experiences of anorexia. In borrowing the words of another, and simply ending her reading with the sentence “Dear Sandra, I’m Kate, seventeen, just
Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London and New York, 2004), p. 29. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York, 2004), p. 25. From the author’s transcript of the script of Arrows.
getting over anorexia,” the filmmaker expresses more than just the awareness that anorexia is both a personal and a political condition. She also performs something of the bodily encounter, the slippage between the “I” and the “you” that the anorexic teenager so urgently calls for. This slippage between self and other is also reflected in the images. In one particularly striking sequence accompanying the voiceover reading of Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Thin People”, closeups of Lahire’s emaciated body — her jutting spinal column, exposed ribs and raw-boned face — alternate with a blurry scene of a ragged woman staggering among what looks like barbed wire, a grainy newspaper photograph of a man’s face in agony and various images of Egyptian mummies. Like in Plath’s poem, and through the skillful use of visual parallels, Lahire’s own thinness is made to resonate with that of other vulnerable bodies.7 Judith Butler describes corporeal vulnerability as the condition of “being given over to the touch of the other.”8 In an almost literal manifestation of this idea, an animated scene shows photomaton portraits of Lahire being manipulated and later engulfed by large drawn hands. But in Arrows, the image of touch is also used to express the physical reaching out to the other that the recognition of this vulnerability might entail. During the sequence described above, and also during the reading of Kate’s stirring words, silhouettes of hands appear over the images to slowly touch and caress them. Here, Lahire’s recognition that our bodies expose us to one another fosters an attitude of care and empathy. As intimated by another appearance of a hand, but this time pressing under the transparent surface of the image, this physical reaching out also extends to anyone engaging with the film, whether the filmmaker or the film’s viewers. Indeed, and this is something that can be generalised to Lahire’s entire oeuvre, both the act of making and of viewing Arrows seem to emphasize the co-implication of bodies, their connection through surface contact. In the words of Sarah Pucill, Lahire’s fellow filmmaker and partner: “[I]n Sandra’s films, closeness is arrived at through focusing on texture, through the surface. Then, the inside and the outside are that much
The image of the concentration camps and the Holocaust runs through “The Thin People” but also through many other poems by Plath, most notably “Daddy” (1962) and “Lady Lazarus” (1962). For a discussion of the various responses to Plath’s use of the Holocaust, see Deborah Nelson, “Plath: History and Politics” in Jo Gill (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 21-3. 8 Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, p. 31.
Living on air
closer. The surface of the body is so much closer to the surface of someone else’s body.”9 In her films, Lahire uses an array of experimental film techniques such as colourisation, time-lapse and multiple superimpositions done in camera or on the optical printer to create richly-textured, multi-layered surfaces. This emphasis on texture not only suggests a very physical, hands-on engagement with the material body of the film from the part of the filmmaker,10 it also appeals to the viewer’s sense of touch, activating what Laura U. Marks has described as a mode of “haptic visuality” in which “the eyes themselves function like organs of touch.”11 In other words, Lahire’s focus on the film’s surface, on what Marks has called “the skin of the film,” establishes a sensuous or tactile exchange between the bodies of film, filmmaker and viewer, thus underlying the fact that they physically impinge on and transform one another.12 In Arrows, Lahire thus manages to convey a sense of her corporeal connection — or intercorporeality — with other vulnerable bodies by working with and through the material of film. The ethical nature of this connection is made even clearer in her subsequent films on the human and environmental cost of nuclear power. In these experimental documentaries, Lahire always puts herself in front of the camera, sometimes making brief appearances (as in Plutonium Blonde or Serpent River), other times playing a more central role (as in Uranium Hex). This refusal to maintain the supposedly objective distance with her subject can obviously be understood in the context of the discussions on the ethics of documentary filmmaking that were happening at the time, particularly in feminist circles.13 But there is more to it than this: When Lahire appears before the camera, it is often to
9 Sarah Pucill in discussion with the author, February 2016. 10 This relationship of physical proximity between the filmmakers and their films had a particular significance for several women filmmakers at the LFMC including Annabel Nicolson, Sarah Pucill, Nina Danino. See for instance: Lucy Reynolds, British Avant-Garde Women Filmmakers and Expanded Cinema of the 1970s, Doctorate Thesis, (University of East London, 2009); or Susanna Poole, “Touching Camera” (2003), published on luxonline: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/touching_camera(1). html (accessed 28 March 2016). 11 Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (Durham and London, 2000), p. 162. 12 Ibid. 13 On this subject, see “Part II: Filmmaker/Subject: Self/ Other” and “Part IV: Innovative (Auto)biographies” in Diane Waldman and Janet Walker, Feminism and Documentary (Minneapolis, 1999), pp. 117-183 and pp. 267-338.
perform her fleshy vulnerability and expose herself to the same physical dangers as the workers she films. This exposure plays out in different registers across the trilogy. In Terminals, she appears outside a nuclear facility and engages in a disturbing dance, with her naked skeletal body partially wrapped in strips of linen and her head sometimes covered with a black bag. In Uranium Hex, she stages the contamination of her own body by filming herself in the uranium mine amid clouds of coloured smoke or drinking a glass of water as the voice-over states: “You can’t drink it because it’s filled with uranium; you can’t drink it to save your life.”14 And in Serpent River, in an attempt to share the bodily experience of the local native community, she walks through a zone identified as the “sulphur circle”, while images of devouring flames appear in superimposition (the accumulation of sulphur residue in areas inhabited by native communities produces skin burns and other harmful health effects). By unveiling her own corporeal vulnerability as a gesture of empathy, Lahire does more than search for a compassionate identification with her filmed subjects. She also suggests that crucial ethical and political possibilities emerge from the recognition that vulnerability is constitutive of subjectivity, resonating again with Butler’s view that “the way in which the body figures […] in the struggles for a less oppressive social world […] is precisely to underscore the value of being beside oneself, of being a porous boundary, given over to others.”15 But whereas Butler’s discussion of the ethics of corporeal vulnerability remains centred on human beings, in Lahire’s work the other to which the self “is given over” extends to the non-human. Her films indeed underline the co-implication of human bodies not only with each other but also with animals, and with the environment. Both Arrows and Edge draw connections between the bodies of women and animals. In Arrows, for instance, a close-up on an owl’s talons is followed by a shot of Lahire’s hands clenched into claws while the bird’s round eyes echo the shape of the camera lens. Later, a frontal shot of Lahire pointing the camera at the viewer while slowly raising and lowering her elbows evokes the recurring scene of a seagull flapping its wings. But while Arrows establishes a largely metaphorical connection between women and birds — one that allows Lahire to express her feeling of imprisonment and her desire to find some kind of freedom through the act of filmmaking — in Edge, this relationship appears to be of a metonymic order, in the sense that metonyms express not just a similarity but
14 From the author’s transcript of the script of Uranium Hex. 15 Butler, Undoing Gender, p. 25.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
a relation of contiguity between two terms. When in Edge Lahire superimposes her own screaming face with a seal’s head just after a scandalous scene of seal slaughter, she is not simply trying to voice her own and other women’s desperate feelings. She is also taking a stance against animal violence — a fact made even more obvious by the inclusion of footage of demonstrations against animal testing — and attempting to provoke an ethical recognition of one’s human body as made of the same flesh and exposed to the same vulnerability as that of animals. Throughout the film, images of cats with cables hooked to their heads, of monkeys howling in scientific labs and of massacred seals abandoned along beaches are interspersed with bloody scenes of medical procedures performed on women, thus underlining the community of suffering between human and non-human creatures. In addition, the film’s focus on the female body as meat — “a pathological salami,” says Plath in one of the recited poems — emphasizes the material sameness of human and animal bodies and draws attention to the contiguity existing between them. And here again, an ethical and political call stems from the awareness of this bodily contiguity. In the nuclear trilogy, this awareness extends to encompass the body of the land in ways that resonate with current approaches to ecofeminism, attempting to undo the nature-culture divide that enables the oppression of both female and non-human bodies. These films, and particularly Serpent River on which I will now concentrate, bring to light the mutual vulnerabilities of human bodies and nature in the hope of transforming our relationship to both. In Material Feminisms (2007, edited with Susan Hekman) and Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self (2010), feminist theorist Stacy Alaimo introduces the concept of trans-corporeality, which she defines as “the time-space where human corporeality, in all its material fleshiness, is inseparable from ‘nature’ or ‘environment’.”16 For her, the realization that human bodies are in constant interchange with the environment can only lead to a reconfiguration of nature as an active agent, which has fundamental ecological consequences. In her own words, “imagining human corporeality as trans-corporeality […] makes it difficult to pose nature as mere background for the exploits of the human since ‘nature’ is always as close as one’s own skin.”17 Serpent River overflows with images that can be said to visually translate Alaimo’s no-
Stacy Alaimo, “Trans-corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature”, in S. Alaimo and S. Hekman (eds.) Material Feminisms (Bloomington, 2009), p. 238. Ibid, p. 238.
tion of trans-corporeality. Among the most striking is that of a chest X-ray superimposed with the underground cavity of the uranium mine. As a group of workers moves deeper into the mine to the sound of a heartbeat combined with machine drilling noise, it is as if foreign, maybe cancerous agents had penetrated the X-rayed lung. Another evocative passage, which brings us back to the etymology of vulnerability in a wound, is when Lahire performs naked in front of a “wounded” rock cliff while a miner explains in voice-over: “[T]hat’s how the cut would break after it’s been blasted.”18 The filmmaker’s prominent spinal column visually echoes the deep crack in the rock, forming an image that epitomizes the common precariousness of body and land. More broadly, Lahire evokes the circulation of toxins in the bloodstream by representing the dispersion of radioactive substances through shots of trucks, trains and pipelines, and also of the river itself, which is often coloured in artificial hues, transforming the landscape into a vast venous network. It is highly significant that these trans-corporeal motifs appear in the context of a film exploring the noxious effects of uranium mining on the bodies of the workers and inhabitants of the region. This context indeed moves us beyond a metaphorical relation between body and land to a more concrete figuration of the actual but invisible material exchanges between people and places (for instance, the much higher rates of health problems due to the intensity of radiation generated by uranium exploitation; the chemical contamination of the water and soil as a result of the careless treatment of hazardous waste, etc.). In her writings, Alaimo has been especially concerned with “toxic bodies” as she believes that they constitute a “particularly potent site for examining the ethical space of trans-corporeality.”19 Because tracing the effects of toxins forces us to recognise that one’s health and welfare is inseparable from that of the planet, “toxic bodies may provoke material, trans-corporeal ethics that turn from the disembodied values and ideals of bounded individuals toward an attention to situated, evolving practices that have far-reaching and often unforeseen consequences for multiple peoples, species and ecologies.”20
From the author’s transcript of the script of Serpent River. Alaimo, “Trans-corporeal feminisms and the ethical space of nature”, p. 260. 20 Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington, 2010), p. 22.
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Thirty years before Alaimo’s theoretical writings, and twenty years before Butler’s, Lahire’s relentless experience of bodily vulnerability gave her the intuition, or rather the corporeal knowledge, of the palpable interconnections between all things, human and nonhuman. Experimental cinema, and in particular the mode of filmmaking associated with the LFMC in the 1980s, provided her with the aesthetic vocabulary to express this contiguity between all sorts of bodies: her own body, the miner’s body, the body of the land but also the body of the film and that of the viewer. Through a hands-on engagement with the materiality of cinema and a focus on the film’s surface, Lahire managed to give form to a trans-corporeal space that acknowledges the porosity of both human and non-human bodies and places. Her films make clear that this is also a space of shared vulnerability, which can become the ground of a feminist ethics that is anchored in the body and does not take a fixed, bounded subject as its basis.
Essay originally published in Women Artists, Feminism and the Moving Image (ed. Lucy Reynolds, 2019) and reprinted here with kind permission of the publishers.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Living on air
Arrows, photocopied performance photographs, Sandra Lahire, 1984.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Plutonium Blonde: Radioactive Contamination by Julia Knight
Plutonium Blonde, a video about nuclear power, is being screened at this year’s Bracknell video festival. Julia Knight talked to its producer, Sandra Lahire. The origins of Plutonium Blonde are slightly strange to say the least. In 1986 Sandra Lahire was working on a production called Terminals. At the suggestion of its funders she sent the only print she had of the film for striping in France. Somewhere along the way, however, it got lost. Unable to obtain funding to have another print made, Sandra decided to apply for funding to finance a new production. The result was Plutonium Blonde. In broad terms Plutonium Blonde is about nuclear power in Great Britain. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster and in view of the innumerable media representations of nuclear power that exist, ranging from more mainstream films such as The China Syndrome and Silkwood, through the multitude of spine chilling drama-documentaries to various independent products like Tina Keane’s In Our Hands, Greenham and Dennis O’Rourke’s Half Life, one could be forgiven for thinking there could be nothing new to be said about nuclear power. However, through a reworking of footage from promotional films produced by the CEGB and the Atomic Energy Authority, combined with her own secretly filmed footage of the nuclear reactor at Winfrith, Sandra Lahire has produced an impressionistic kaleidoscope of images and voices that act as a highly thought-provoking reminder of the realities of nuclear power and point towards the radioactive legacy we have bequeathed future generations. Plutonium Blonde revolves around the image of a woman, a nuclear worker, watching a bank of plutonium-decanning monitors. She can be viewed as performing a political function — that of monitoring nuclear power, in much the same way as the women at Greenham Common have — but the video is also an exploration of what such a worker might think about, faced as she is day-in-day-out with plutonium.
The concern that dominates the video, however, is to do with the extent of the radioactive contamination of our environment and the difficulty of understanding the full implications and long term effects of such contamination due to both its invisibility and the sparklingly clean image the industry presents of itself. This concern with nuclear power and radioactive contamination is a long-standing interest of Sandra Lahire’s and was sparked off by the high level of cancer cases among people she knew, which she felt could not be attributable purely to smoking. However, she locates her interest in these issues within a broader context — that of power in general, i.e. social, economic and political, and in fact questions of such power are central to all her film and video work. One of her earlier productions, Arrows, for instance, is about anorexia in women, which she views very much as one way in which women deal with their lack of power, i.e. since they are not in control of the representation of their own bodies, they try to efface themselves by not eating. In Plutonium Blonde it is a question of the power structures that have developed and actively promote an industry that is doing untold damage to our environment, despite the lessons to be learnt from such catastrophes as Chernobyl. As if to underline the pervasiveness of such power structures Sandra is continuing to pursue her interest in this area. Her current project is about the uranium mining that goes on in Canada and the pollution it is causing, with those affected powerless to get anything done about it. Hopefully, we can look forward to seeing it at next year’s festival!
Published in Independent Media, November 1987.
Living on air
Uranium Hex by Michael Mazière
Uranium Hex by Sandra Lahire deals with uranium mining in Canada focusing particularly on the women’s work and the destruction of the environment; the film uses a kaleidoscopic array of experimental techniques such as superimposition, refilming, changes of speed, pace and an elaborate layering of sounds where “atmos” recording mixes with voices, music. The constantly shifting images provide instances with extremely filmic qualities: the image of a man digging out uranium is superimposed over a woman’s back while brash sounds of machinery are heard and a woman speaks, “… it was like being under an X-ray machine day and night.” The film proposes a number of visual instances operating on different levels but never gelling together, the layers of images and sounds are disruptive, breaking up the surface, giving the piece a textural complexity. “No one is allowed to film inside the crushing mill, but I am working on acid-coloured printing
and video-performance techniques, treating voices and fields of industrial sounds as well as making local speech come to the foreground of the composition.” The recurring image of the filmmaker (looking into the frame as if by the light of her headlamp) gives testimony to the images of mine shafts, drilling marks, X-ray of chests with lung cancer, confronting the viewer’s own look, his/her perception of these images. Questions around the visual pleasure of this aesthetic collage, as to the beauty of the images are endemic in any appraisal of its political aim. What is certain is that the aggressive control and the subjective address create a self-reflective tension, engaging and disturbing the viewer.
Published in Independent Media, March 1988.
Uranium Hex, photograph of film frame, Sandra Lahire, 1987.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Serpent River by Pam Cook
Occasionally, in shots of young children playing on blackened lake-side sand, miners toiling underground in dark and dangerous conditions, or in the voice-overs detailing how in drilling for uranium the crushed radioactive rock is blown by the wind into rivers to be carried far and wide, we glimpse the documentary Serpent River might have been. For Sandra Lahire, however, the bare facts are not discomfiting enough in themselves. In this dense, paranoid film poem the aptly named torrent is transformed through dazzling colour effects and evocative use of sound into the poisoned bearer of death and destruction. The luckless inhabitants of Serpent River and Elliot Lake in North Ontario, the location of a huge uranium mining operation owned by Rio Tinto Zinc, have had their lives radically changed by the presence of the forbidding plant on their once green and pleasant surroundings. Miner Diane Guillemette describes how employment was brought to the economically depressed area. Her decision to take on work in a male-dominated field is shown to be double-edged, her delight in equality mitigated by the deadly side-effects of high levels of radiation on the land and on the human body. The film depicts a cold, desolate landscape reminiscent of science fiction projections of post-nuclear holocaust, a dire warning that the future is already with us. It is haunted by the image of a body whose skeleton glows red and black as though skin and clothes had melted away. A burnt-out terrain with blackened, stunted trees is accompanied by a voice-over telling how children suffer burns when they swim in the sulphurous lake.
At times, the imagery is positively gothic, as when a huge black bird takes flight, echoed later when its harsh cry is heard on the soundtrack. At others, a dark irony prevails: children play in the grounds of the Uranium Capital Nursery School; a roadside hoarding proclaims “After Death, the Judgment”; a jaunty Country & Western ballad mockingly celebrates the quick money to be made from the deadly uranium rock; and a sermon preached to the cancer-ridden congregation of the New Life Assembly promises that God will provide. The overriding impression, however, is of the filmmaker’s own fascination with the eery beauty of the doom-laden images she creates, many of which seem to be repeated as much for their aesthetic lure as for their impact as memento mori. While this may to some extent undermine the film’s ostensible message that the devastation of natural resources by greedy capitalist enterprises must be stopped, it adds another, disturbing layer of meaning, a Romantic intimation that nature and life itself is always overshadowed by death. This fatalistic sense that it is already too late, that the human death drive is in the ascendancy, lends Serpent River an intensely obsessional air which makes it all the more compelling.
This text appeared in the Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol 57, no 679, August 1990.
Living on air
Diffracted Landscapes by Irene Revell and Kerstin Schroedinger
What does a feminist landscape look like? Or rather, how does a feminist look at landscape? What if our (point of ) view is not a defining one? The landscapes we look at are not to be explored and occupied; but how does our gaze escape these tendencies? Teresa de Lauretis speaks about mechanisms of coherence: she espouses a fundamental suspicion towards narrativity and yet simultaneously argues for its re-articulation, in reference to the narrative strategies in Yvonne Rainer’s films.1 “[F]eminist work in film should be not anti-narrative or anti-oedipal but ... working, as it were, with and against narrative in order to represent not just a female desire ...; but ... the duplicity of the oedipal scenario itself and the specific contradiction of the female subject in it.”2 This duplicity is meant to be specific in regard to the history of cultural forms and also the contexts of reception. In analogy we assume a suspicion towards narrativity transfers to a suspicion towards a 360-degree pan, a full panoramic picture, a panoptic control scan, amidst other mechanisms of (visual) coherence.
Greenham Common and the Menstrual Hut The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp (1981– 2000) was a women-only protest against the threatened deployment of nuclear cruise missiles at Royal-Air-Force Greenham Common in Berkshire, England. Numerous works were produced in this context that take activist, documentary, or social approaches. Within the Cinenova collection, the films also make wider connections with concerns of ecology and the (feminist) body, a coming-to-terms with a growing contamination of public (as much as personal) space.3 In her essay on artist Annabel Nicolson,4 Felicity Sparrow describes the entanglement of these spaces: “The tension between public and personal space, between introspection and action, were further developed, often collaboratively with other women, like the Menstrual Hut in Concerning Ourselves (1981) which literally created a private meditative space within a public art gallery.”5 The Women’s Peace Camp functioned as such a space of collaboration, being simultaneously inclusive and exclusive, public and private. This tension may, or may not, take form in a paradoxical structure, as much suspicious of spatial incoherence as coherence. Returning to de Lauretis, it is important to consider narrativity “strategically and tactically in the effort to construct other forms of coherence, to shift the terms of representation, to produce the conditions of representability of another—and gendered — social subject.”6
Cinenova distributes The Man Who Envied Women (1985) and Privilege (1990) by Yvonne Rainer. Teresa de Lauretis, “Strategies of Coherence: Narrative Cinema, Feminist Poetic, and Yvonne Rainer”, in Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 108.
4 5 6
Tina Keane, In Our Hands, Greenham (1984); Caroline Goldie, Greenham Granny (1986); S. Fonseca, S. Gillie, V. Grut, and J. Holland, Nuclear Defence “Living In a Fool’s Paradise” (1984); Lis Rhodes with Jo Davis, Hang on a Minute / Swing Song (1983); among others. Cinenova distributes Slides I-V (1971) by Annabel Nicolson. Felicity Sparrow, “Annabel Nicolson”, luxonline, http:// www.luxonline.org. uk/artists/annabel_nicolson/essay(2). html, accessed 3 April 2015. Teresa de Lauretis, op. cit., p. 109.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Sandra Lahire, Serpent River (1989)
Serpent River is the last work in Lahire’s trilogy7 that creates a dystopian outlook into a radioactive future made in the aftermath of Chernobyl and the proclaimed “end of history”, at the historical moment when the Cold War — with its promises of an endless source of nuclear energy — was falling apart. These three films have a very particular relationship to landscape: totalising through their pulling-in of collaged references and multilayering, yet not panoptic. As much as Lahire creates this heterogeneous coherence, it remains always partial and fleeting; there is no anchor, no vantage point, no origin, and each repeated viewing feels equally cast away. In Serpent River the images seep into one another: blue-tinted floods of water, X-rays, positive/negative, skeleton dances, descriptions of physical labour, ice, crystal ice, blue ice, blasted rock, children, radiated pink, day-for-night, skating on ice, reflections of water, reflections of sun, flames burning images. These are all overlaid and simultaneously shifting from one to the next. The montage is not made with sharp cuts, but the sequences seem to rather taint each other in their superimposition. Colour contrasts hurt the eyes; radiant flashes burn into the retina. The soundtrack remains autonomous; aggressive sounds of cutting through ice. Narrative bits are juxtaposed with sci-fi sounds: uranium capital nursery school, uranium in the drinking water, formerly a clean town, generous with the hospital, sulphur cycle, Trans-Canada Highway, drilling, the sound of drilling. The film material simulates X-ray plates or is treated physically, contaminated, raw images exposed over and over again, or brought into bright subzero winter. Serpent River may be the final film of the trilogy, but it does not come to a conclusion. Just as the nuclear activity will stay — there is no end to it.
In Serpent River this narrative coherency materialises in a diffracted way. Lahire shows layers of bright colours, both radiating from and X-raying into the depths of the images. We borrow the term “diffraction” from Karen Barad, who writes that the problem of representation should be placed in “questions of diffraction rather than reflection.”9 She cautions how each intra-action (or striving for coherence, if we may put it that way) always makes a mark; as soon as one attempt at clarity is made, another is occluded. We might say that this understanding of agency complements de Lauretis’s notion of narrative coherence, whilst also offering a possible account for the simultaneous suspicion. While Barad draws from Niels Bohr’s development of nuclear physics, Lahire uses radioactivity as a formal figure that escapes the patriarchal gaze. Decomposition takes place, not just in the film frames, but in the context of production, in the aspects of perception. Discontinuity — but at the same time also raising the demand for women artists talking, telling their stories. It can be both: “... feminism understands the female subject as one that... is at once inside and outside the ideology of gender...; the female subject is in both places at once. That is the contradiction.”10 A feminist gaze towards landscape can thus be one that doesn’t aim to represent what we see, nor does it reflect on the film image “what is to be seen.” Rather, it enables a vision that is diffracted, in more ways than one, with all that the material can offer at stake.
Written on behalf of the collective Cinenova — Feminist Film and Video for Camera Austria International, issue 130, June 2015.
Sandra Lahire, Plutonium Blonde (1987) and Uranium Hex (1987).
Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”, Signs, Spring 2003, p. 802. 9 Ibid., p. 803. 10 Teresa de Lauretis, op. cit., p. 114
Living on air
Serpent River, film still, Sandra Lahire, 1989.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Living on air
The Snake Inside Eve by Ana Vaz
Travelling by car from the backcountry semi-arid lands towards the Atlantic coast, it is known that travellers are led to stop and contemplate the impressive scenery of Serra da Mantiqueira. The lush mountain range is called Mantiqueira after Amantikir, from the Tupi Guarani meaning “crying mountains”. The range is replete with cascades and waterfalls; a vast network of natural springs supplying fresh water to large cities in the country. Mesmerized by the timeless beauty of the ranges, travellers tend to stop their serpentine journeys to contemplate the land. The story goes that one family taken by awe, stopped their car and walked into the forest to drink from the mountain’s tears. They were surprised to find a blue waterhole standing majestically below a thin and crystalline waterfall. The family approached the fall and each of them used their hands as cups to drink from the flowing water. The younger of the family, a curious and entranced young girl, mesmerized by the intensity of the scene, decided to open her mouth wide and drink directly from the fall. Oh, I think I swallowed a leaf! Not a minute had passed until the young girl began desperately screaming. Raging pains attacked her stomach while her parents watched her in shock. The young girl was now possessed by a new being hosted inside her: a small snakelet coiling and expanding inside her stomach. The young woman’s tale reverberates timelessly across the ranges, now transformed into a cautionary proverb: beauty is treacherous.
k e i n
We were traveling by car, crossing over 300km of soy monoculture plantations that have exponentially taken over the Brazilian cerrado.1 I was taken back by the brutality of the scene: endless green fields of soy pushing back the wild, rough, uneven and savage vegetation of the semi-arid. This is a road I thought I knew, yet the extensive green layer of soy transformed the landscape into a perfectly green dystopia, or rather a murder scene. This is when my mother begins to tell me in great detail about the snake-swallowing tale. Maybe because of the amount of dead snakes by the road, maybe as a warning. All I know is that the image of the young girl drinking from a fall and swallowing a snake rested with me. She appeared to me in recurrent dreams, serene and whole. The tale resonated with me as a founding myth: a snake, a family, a deviant
p. 36 “Some notes on making Serpent River”, photocopy of text by Sandra Lahire, 1989.
Tropical savannah that extends over Brazil’s centre-west states: Goiás, Tocantins, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul and parts of Minas Gerais and is home to the country’s most notable river beds.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Terminals, black & white photograph, Sandra Lahire, 1985.
young woman who entranced, drinks directly from a waterfall. The waterfall of knowledge? In the Genesis, when the serpent dares Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge, she warns: then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. Daringly, she eats. In Judeo-Christian faith, snakes are threatening tricksters not to be trusted. Neither good nor evil, both venom and cure. The snake’s venom can both heal and intoxicate, expand consciousness or kill. In the garden of Eden, the serpent is commonly interpreted under a simplistic heterosexual psychology of the snake-as-phallus and sex-as-sin. Yet, here the idea I would like to propose is that falling from the garden of Eden seems to be rather a release from a despot god — who uncannily mediates all access to resources — allowing Eve the autonomy to inquire, question and see — your eyes shall be opened.
For Sumerians and Dahomeans, snakes are taken to be an umbilical cord tying all humans to the Earth. For the Tupi Guarani, first inhabitants of the southwest Atlantic coast, the Earth was once a luminous serpent in the cosmos coiling itself in the galaxy until transforming into a turtle-turned-world. In the Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation, compiled by John de Patmos — even if originally written before Christ as an eschatology made from dreams and visions — the ancient serpent reappears transformed into a seven-headed dragon. Enemy, satan, divinity, creature of the underworld, spell of fertility, lust and healing, the serpent-dragon is vital energy and stands one of the most ancient symbols in human consciousness. In D.W. Lawrence’s last book Apocalypse, he describes the dragon-serpent as “symbols of the fluid, rapid, startling movement of life within us. That startled life which runs through us like a serpent, or coils within us potent and waiting, like a serpent, this is the dragon.”
Living on air
In Sandra Lahire’s very first film Arrows (1984) — a personal and brave testimony of her experience with anorexia — real, drawn, animated, photographed and cut up snakes appear as hypnotic figures until the pagan phrase is spelled on screen: the snake inside Eve. The brief animated phrase appeared to me as a lead and metaphor to interpret all of her work. The snake inside Sandra devoured her, all the while instigating her radiant rage. Here, the serpent’s bite, dare or ingestion seems to be rather a calling from a much larger body. Bitten by the luminous cosmic snake — the earth’s body? — Sandra, Eve, the young girl walk the earth alongside a polymorphous assembly of bodies knowing no distinction between in or out, person or animal, land or body. The outside becomes inside. The luminous serpent, origin of the planet, coils inside Sandra, it coils inside Eve embodying knowledge and suffering, life and death. The suffering of the earth is a suffering of the body. No distinction, no boundaries. Affected by most planetary phenomena, the women’s body knows no distinction between itself and the earth. snake
the earth, snake, the snake,
quences of drilling, extracting, nuclear fission and latifundia monoculture fuelled by the never ending hunger for more, more, more. The luminous serpent coils and turns. Her sparkle, bright, her body curved. Meanwhile, armies of man puncture, dig, excavate and pierce her body searching to extract from her the luminous sparkle that glows somberbright. She is made of fire and the more they pierce, the more her venom jars from her veins intoxicating her river-scales, soil-flesh, water-blood and killing huge assemblies of life, exhausting territories, sculpting endless deserts. Looking like luminescent or blood-red capillaries, t h e R i v e r s n a k e s i t s w a y o v e r a n atomised country.2
condition her body her
fate the earth
Snake is lived experience for many women whom I have had the chance to listen to, accompany, film or simply be in the presence of. In Há Terra! (2017), Ivonete dos Santos Morais tells me that ever since being bitten by a snake, her foot swells up with the full moon. Years have passed and she tells me the swelling is the same. Unbeatable, timely, the full moon, her swollen body. Bitten by snake, it is within the body-mind that the barbarian devastation of the earth’s tissue manifests. G. suffers from post-traumatic stress after the inundation of her home with toxic mud coming from the collapse of a mining dam in Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil (Olhe bem as montanhas, 2018). Y. is forced into seclusion after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown “dreading the rain on a rainy day, the wind on a windy day and the leaves in a warm tea” for their possible contamination (The Voyage Out, in becoming). Ivonete dos Santos Morais (A Idade da Pedra, 2013, Há Terra!, 2016) has exhausted her search to re-occupy land persecuted by large landowners of monocultural plantations. A. combats an unknown illness while resisting to maintain a garden within the fields surrounding the Fukushima Daichi collapsed power plants (The Voyage Out). Land-bodies torn by the toxic conse-
In Sandra Lahire’s Serpent River (1989), a juxtaposition of creatures: flying birds, curious dogs, X-rayed bodies, blue waves, fish and children make for a cinema of the elements.
Sandra Lahire’s notes on Serpent River (broadcast on Channel 4 Television in 1990)
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
One in which bodies are placed side by side as to compose a much larger body. A landscape is never empty, nor single. Amidst the elements, it is Sandra’s body that appears as matrix in all of her films. Furious, moving, fragile, broken, scanned, X-rayed, as canvas, instrument or means it is her body that connects all the broken pieces of her films. Alongside a multitude of beings, her body stands as if to scream: we are one of the same. Curiously, cinema, the medium that has historically embodied modernity’s inherent separation between observer and observed, becomes the instrument for a necessary collapse: imagebodyterritory, undergroundaboveground, bodyimageland. Layering images upon images, Sandra’s anti-nuclear environmental manifestoes (Serpent River, Uranium Hex, Plutonium Blonde, Terminals) seek to collapse borders and distinctions in raw statements against the devastation, extraction and intoxication of the Earth’s systems, always akin to the suffering of her own body, naked, walking or dancing — fired by the serpent. Zooming into experiences and testimonies from workers, specialists and doctors working around rare earth mining and nuclear energy power plants, Sandra weaves these perspectives through her own, becoming her own miner. Excavating layers upon layers, heading far underground until arriving at a space where language is not sufficient and neither is a single image. A throbbing persists. Holes, holes, holes and more holes are pierced on stone ranges, mountains, rock walls as if piercing through the skin, an arm, a leg. Each piercing goes through the imagebody. A woman’s voice describes the effects of uranium mining on the borders of Serpent River: miscarriages, down syndrome, neurological damage of unknown kinds. In Serpent River First Nation lands, uranium extraction tears apart and pollutes native land while protecting only “the white community living on one side of the river” through “a water purification system installed only on the white community’s side”3 (sic). Sandra focuses on the white female workers of the mines and I wonder: where are the native women? Their testimonies, voices? The anthropology of Sandra’s work is above all a self-anthropology alongside one of hospitals, workspaces and the industrial complex. In Serpent River, we see repeated X-ray images of bodies being brought to light by delicate hands of doctors and nurses. The medical images, at once ominous and hypnotic, attest to the equation: disease + image = proof. In the language
of science, the invisible is always rendered visible. In the language of cinema, the proof can be opaque. Yet, in the earth’s language the invisible remains invisible. Evidence need not to materialise as images in order to exist, they simply do. In thinking of Sandra’s anti-nuclear films, I can’t help but think that her efforts to visualize the toxicity of rare earth mining is made through visual techniques often alluding to the very toxicity of image making. How can we look at an X-ray and not be stunned that the image itself is made from radiation? If exposed directly onto the body without the appropriate lead protection, electromagnetic radiation can trigger the deterioration of cells, malignant or benign. Curiously, in 1895 when Roentgen first discovered the imaging capacity of X-rays, he photographed his wife’s hand. When looking at the image, Mrs. Roentgen wisely and infamously exclaimed: I have seen my death. Anna Bertha Roentgen hence enunciates the image’s fate as pharmakon, both cure and venom; akin to the serpent, image making has been the fate and pathos of modern life. And I ask myself: in a time in which images are as contagious as a virus, can watching images still release us from our despot gods? The young girl reappears to me, this time transfigured into a seven headed female dragon. She coils and dances spitting fire from her mouth. As a sphere, circle or spiral her body, enraged, spits fire and blood. The smoke from her breath makes for indescribable images, coiling into themselves, in colours and shades never seen. The vision lasts the length of a breath. Looking over the ranges, the vision disperses itself. The murmurs of water, the warmth of the sun take over. An eagle crosses the sky, too quick for any image to be made. The most vital comment I would like to make about Sandra Lahire’s films lies not in her films alone, but rather in her embodiment of the snake as vital energy, radiant rage, mingling with the earth. This is the force of her work and the greatest contribution for the recent history of moving images in its discreet and firm effort to prevent cinema from being an art of extinction, to being an art of livelihood, rage, chaos and invention — an art of the dragon.
Brasília, January 2021
Voice-over in Serpent River (1989).
Living on air
Curating “The Apparitional, films by Sandra Lahire and Barbara Hammer” Notes by Selina Robertson, Ricardo Matos Cabo and So Mayer
Wherever I am and come from, my tongue is Lesbian. Sandra Lahire I am so aware of my body. Sandra Lahire in Arrows The viewer enters the invisible, the place unseen yet familiar, his / her body. The “holy” body. The fragile body. The experimental body. I have returned to the interior body but through the exterior remains of the first cinefluorographic motion pictures of the human skeleton and organs. As we rush into the future it behoves us to look at our history. To stop, digest, inhale, read, and reflect. To appreciate and respect; to despair and vow never to repeat. Barbara Hammer The Apparitional was a film screening presented at Birkbeck Cinema on 18th May 2016. The event was held as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2016, sponsored by Birkbeck Institute for Moving Image and Birkbeck Interdisciplinary Research in Media and Culture. This text is a record of the screening, a compilation of excerpts taken from introductions, emails and responses to the event. Our idea for the screening was triggered by conversations with each other about how women’s psychic and social bodies, their illness and treatment have been represented in medical visual culture and in particular, in radical lesbian experimental cinema. We thought about the hidden histories of lesbian sexualities, and also about how ideas of (in)visibility are inscribed in the convergence and conflict between practices of science, objectivity, spectacle, gender, sexuality and technology. Sharing a mutual appreciation for Sandra Lahire’s and Barbara Hammer’s work, we spoke about how we might collaborate together to explore these issues through placing both filmmakers in dialogue with one another. Drawing on the concept of the The Apparitional from Terry Castle’s 1993 book The Apparitional Lesbian:
Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture1 in which she locates the “ghosts” of lesbian sexualities obscured by history, together with the documentary work and experimental films of Barbara Hammer, Dr Watson’s X-Ray (1991) and Sanctus (1990), and Sandra Lahire’s Uranium Hex (1987) and Serpent River (1989), our screening explored this idea of the apparitional within the context of specific scientific and visual objectivity and the politics of gender and sexuality in the 1980s. ***
Excerpt of an email sent to Barbara Hammer, 11 February 2016. Dear Barbara, [...] In our discussions we have been thinking about the hidden history of lesbian sexualities, and also about how ideas of (in) visibility are inscribed in the convergence and conflict between practices of science, objectivity, spectacle, gender, sexuality and technology. Discussing the use of science in relation to this subject we thought it would be interesting to address the history of medical technology and specifically that of radiography and the use of X-rays. We are interested in using this idea of the ghost and the uncanniness implied by the concept of apparition (in the broad sense of the term) and how we can relate this with the body as a subject, sexuality, illness, radiation and exposure (as vulnerability). I told Selina how much I enjoyed your presentation of Sanctus at Tate and what you said about the work you did with the archives of Dr. Watson. You also mentioned the terrible ef-
Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
fects suffered by the subjects of Watson’s images, exposed to early X-ray technology. I am aware there are several other dimensions to Dr. Watson’s work, notably his work as a translator of modernist texts and as a poet, as well as his work in ethnographic and avant-garde film, which led him to pursue his interest in industrial and medical research. A second screening would be dedicated to Sandra Lahire. As you may know, Lahire’s radiation trilogy draws on her lifelong passion to critically explore the porous relations between nature and culture, landscape(s) that are destroyed by pollution or nuclear waste and body and gender politics lensed through a radical lesbian vision. Lahire’s films deftly investigate arenas of in(visibility) and apparition as connected to the material, the social and the political. We should also not forget the lesbian erotic charge that pulsates through your films and Lahire’s trilogy. These films have recently come back into circulation, and significantly her remarkable body of work is little known outside of the 1st and 2nd generation of LFMC filmmakers, curators and writers. [...] *** Another theoretical starting point for our screening was reading So Mayer’s chapter “Uncommon Sensuality: New Queer Feminist Film/Theory” in Feminisms,2 where they posit the question whether the lesbian is still apparitional in cinema as a way of thinking about/with queer feminist experimental filmmakers and what they do to the screen to actively engage with theory on and off screen. The ghosts of the repressed come back in “small” or “poor” films, bringing together this idea of the apparitional with traces of film theory and radical lesbian experimental filmmaking to challenge representionality. In this way, we wanted to articulate ideas of the “apparitional” as a condition of visibility; and how the work of radical lesbian feminist filmmakers such as Hammer and Lahire might allow us to understand how some films engender their own politics through the prism of the apparitional. We were aware that the work of Hammer and Lahire might not have been in conversation before. It was up to us to create the conditions for that conversation and in order to do so we had to make sure the films were presented in the best way possible. This meant not only sourcing the best prints available, but to trace the film materials back to their ori-
So Mayer, “Uncommon Sensuality: New Queer Feminist Film/Theory” in Laura Mulvey and Anna Backman Rogers (eds.) Feminisms: Diversity, Difference, and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Culture (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015) pp. 86-96.
gin — to trace the history of the prints and the different generations of video copies, to find out about the present state of prints, among other things. Due to difficulties and limitations of the Birkbeck Cinema we had to make important and sometimes difficult choices that would affect the way in which the films would be received. Working closely with projectionist Lori E. Allen, we kept the 16mm projection where possible and made sure reference was made when that was not possible. When Selina worked as a film programmer at BFI Flare (formerly the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) in 2002-2005, she planned to organise a screening of Lahire’s work at the festival, but there was difficulty accessing the archive and film materials as it was so close to Lahire’s passing. Subsequently, the Nuclear trilogy was presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in April 2007 as part of The Secret Public: The Days of the British Underground 19781988. As film programmers, to have to wait to present Lahire’s films and critical writings has often felt like working in a space between the material and immaterial, where remembering, dreaming, desiring, hoping and mourning become survival acts of queer feminist film programming to counteract the erasure by omission in the heteronormative film canon. Moreover, this difficulty of access draws into sharp focus the ways in which the canon continues to be shaped by access to materials, rights, digital restoration, dominant concepts of political relevance, what counts as film heritage and the terms of distribution and exhibition. ***
Edited selection from Selina’s introduction to Sandra Lahire’s films: The socio-political context for Sandra Lahire’s films in 1980s London In 2001 Jacqueline Rose wrote Lahire’s obituary for The Guardian, “Making films, animating, bringing to life, was, as she said repeatedly in her commentaries on her own films and in her critical writings, a way to reassert the body in the face of erosion.” Lahire’s politics and creative practice was deeply connected to her own body and struggle with anorexia which took her life in 2001 at the age of 50. Her engagement with the limitations and abjections of her body can be seen in her film Arrows from 1984 which delivers a blistering address to Western patriarchal culture for its objectification and exploitation of the female body. As with her Nuclear trilogy, the female body and environmental body are one, of-
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fering landscapes of reflection, illness, erosion, fear and attraction as well as aesthetic composition. “Wherever I am and come from, my tongue is Lesbian”3 she wrote from the Royal College of Art whilst a student in the Environmental Media department where her lecturers included Lis Rhodes. Drawing on Adrienne Rich,4 she envisaged resistance as a Lesbian continuum and a network for action in creative practice and political life. Watching these films today we bear witness to these lesbian apparitionalities and psychic hauntings within the raw bones of the film’s materiality. Set in North Ontario, Lahire’s Nuclear films make visible the invisible menace of nuclear, industrialization, radioactivity and uranium mining or “yellow cake” as it is colloquially known. The people, women’s work and their bodies (both the miners and First Nations People), the environment and natural resources all bear the scars. The films should be historically and culturally contextualised within the decade that they were made, that of the charged landscape of 1980s Thatcherite Britain and the global militarisation of Cold War politics that saw the embodied activism of the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common, set up in 1981 by Women for Life on Earth, and in general with the feminist anti-nuclear movement of the decade and the politics of the Left. Moreover, the legislation in 1988 of the anti-gay law Section 28 opened up renewed direct queer activism around the HIV/AIDS pandemic and LGBTQ+ lives. Channel 4, which began transmission in 1982, commissioned radical lesbian, gay and Black cinema for television broadcast, specifically catering for less represented audiences. Serpent River was edited at the LFMC and Four Corners in Bethnal Green, for Channel 4 in 1989. The previous decade saw filmmakers and collectives use their medium to participate in, as well as contribute to, radical politics. From mid-1960s to the mid-1990s the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative (LFMC), a ground-breaking organisation that was committed, as a political project, to generating, distributing and exhibiting artists’ moving image in Britain fostered a vibrant filmmaking community led by filmmakers whose initial aim was film production through an exploration of the structural and material properties of film; the LFMC eventually expanded to running workshops, hosting symposiums and weekly film programmes in the cine-
Sandra Lahire, “Lesbians in Media Education” in Hilary Robinson (ed.), Visibly Female: Feminism and Art Today: An Anthology (New York: Universe Books, 1988), pp. 274-282. Adrienne Rich, (1980) “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”. Signs 5 (4): pp. 631-600.
ma. This environment, along with the gains of the Women’s Liberation Movement, supported Annabel Nicolson, Felicity Sparrow and Lis Rhodes among others to create a separate women only/feminist space at the LFMC and other spaces such as conferences and informal locations, creating an interconnected, supportive feminist art practice. The formation of COW (Cinema of Women) and Circles: Women’s Film and Video Distribution in the late 1970s-1980s came out of the LFMC and London’s interconnected feminist spaces. This activist work opened creative and intellectual pathways for a second generation of LFMC women filmmakers such as Jean Matthee and Nina Danino to make work that challenged ideas around subjectivity, narrative, representation and sexuality. Lahire, Sarah Pucill, together with Sarah Turner, Ruth Novaczek and Alia Syed were filmmakers associated with the third generation of the LFMC, whose situated practice drew not only on feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, psychoanalysis and post-structuralism but also on beauty, music, colour, punk and Hollywood cinema, exploring the intertextual spaces between abstraction and narration. This was a counter-practice to change the world as Jean Matthee remembers, “The LFMC was a place that we fashioned as somewhere where women could go to explore, to experiment with complex difficulties, forces and contradictions. This was a time of the interregnum where the moment of the first generation of the LFMC filmmakers (the structural materialist) was over and the future neo-liberal project had not yet begun.”5 Both Uranium Hex and Serpent River were shot on 16mm, with the use of an optical printer, a “hands on” film practice that was key to both the practice of Hammer and Lahire at this time. Significantly, in a roundtable interview for MIRAJ, artist and filmmaker Nina Danino remembers how the women’s use of the optical printer at the LFMC “explored its possibilities but used structural techniques such as repetition, superimposition and other aesthetic effects … women working with representation and the subjective may also have created a context for developing men’s practices such as those of David Finch or Guy Sherwin. Women’s practice started to mould and change the kinds of representation this
Nina Danino, Jean Matthee, Ruth Novaczek, Sarah Pucill and Alia Syed, (2015) “Roundtable discussion: The women of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op”. Moving Image Review and Art Journal 4 (1&2): pp. 164-179.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
equipment could produce.”6 Indeed, this is a history about a shared form of feminist film practice linking aesthetics and technology that is only now coming to light. ***
From So Mayer’s response to the films of Sandra Lahire: The Nuclear trilogy 1987-1989 In Tina Keane’s 12-screen video installation In Our Hands, Greenham (1984), it is Sandra Lahire’s hands that hold — technically, vignette — Keane’s footage from the Greenham Common women’s camp, including images of the famous New Year’s Day silo dance and a spider spinning its web. Perhaps conscious of holding Greenham in her hands, Lahire went on to make what could be considered a “post-Greenham” nuclear trilogy of Plutonium Blonde (1987), Uranium Hex (1987) and Serpent River (1989). These short films extend the feminist anti-nuclear experimental film movement (which included Lis Rhodes and Annabel Nicolson as well as Keane and Lahire) to connect Greenham activism to protests against a nuclear processing plant in the UK and a uranium mine in Northern Ontario, Canada, as well as critiquing images of “nuclear” women in mainstream films such as Silkwood (Mike Nichols, 1983). In her essay, “Singing for My Life: Memory, Nonviolence and the Songs of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp”, Greenham woman and activist historian Anna Reading notes that: the ripples from Greenham were far more inter nationalized in the 1980s than [first] thought. These globalized connections were woven at the time as part of the nonviolent struggle well before digital connectivity. Feminists moved around the world, nurturing links between and with other related struggles, with the international peace movement connected through its various camps at different global sites.7
Michael Mazière and Nina Danino, (2014) “Roundtable discussion: London Film-makers’ Co-op – the second generation”. Moving Image Review and Art Journal 3 (2): pp. 236-247. Anna Reading, “Singing for My Life: Memory, Nonviolence, and the Songs of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp” in Anna Reading and Tamar Katriel (eds.) Cultural Memories of Nonviolent Struggles (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 147-165.
Lahire’s trilogy weaves a web across the international anti-nuclear movement, refusing the parochial that came to contain the British cinema of the 1980s, as her films imply instead how many fires were started in the traces and tracks of centuries of British imperialism. Serpent River is an hallucinatory study of a community and land eaten alive by uranium mining: an Anishinabe First Nation and signatory to the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850, Serpent River (whose members include film curator Jesse Wente) was in the throes of a 15-year process of clean-up from the Cutler Acid Plant when Lahire made her film, a clean-up that would continue to leach into Lake Huron.8 The films of the trilogy are a river system, linking there to here, an X-ray of the irradiation of colonial capitalism that finds, simultaneously, that the misogynist tropes of Eurowestern visual art persist in Hollywood’s nuclear mothers and martyrs, and that corporations continue colonisation on sacred land. Reading notes that the powerful myth of the Rainbow Serpent, who guards the underground uranium veins, came to Greenham via Australian First Nations anti-mining activists who visited the camp and hosted return visits. Lahire’s documentary is not just of one community in crisis, but that community and land as indicative and indexical of the global devastation of the nuclear industry. Her incisive vision takes the whole world into her hands, not as appropriation but to think responsibility, a web that still needs to be woven, and one that in Lahire’s hands is linked to an inclusive, anti-racist lesbian feminism. There are rare echoes of it in two recent memory works: in the burning Lake Baikal in Sarah Turner’s Perestroika (2009), in Ginger’s refusal of both nuclear family and nuclear war in Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa (2012), both of which take up Lahire’s international feminist imaginary and weave it into feature-length narrative forms. As climate crisis intensifies and the nuclear threat returns, Lahire’s practice of holding and weaving remain crucial, critical inspirations from which feminist cinema can draw. ***
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Uranium Hex, on set photograph with pen shading, Sandra Lahire, 1987.
Edited selection from Ricardo’s introduction to Barbara Hammer’s films: Sanctus (1990) is best understood in the context of Barbara Hammer’s work in the 1980s and 1990s dealing with mortality, aging, illness and sexual mis- and under-representation as well as with the skeletal body, a motif that reappears in many of her works of this period. In her own words: “By the time I got to the 1990s and found the archive of Dr. Watson and his research associates, who X-rayed the body in motion, I was very aware of the fragile human body. Not only the unresolved issue of AIDS but also the environmental issues that threaten the body, and aging itself, of course. Today I’ve gone through cancer treatments and chemotherapy, which brings forth another invisibility of the body as it struggles to survive.” […] James Sibley Watson, who had previously ventured into modernist poetry as well as filmmaking, including the ex-
perimental film Lot in Sodom (1933, co-directed with Melville Webber), also directed short industrial and amateur scientific films, for example about the physics of light (The Eyes of Science, 1930). From the 1940s until the 1960s, he returned to his interest in medicine, becoming a researcher in the radiology team of the University of Rochester School of Medicine, where he honed existing techniques for making cine-fluorographic films. These were short 20-second to one-minute animated X-rays using a lighting technique that produced a scintillating image when seen through a radiant screen. His team made thousands of such X-ray medical exams and also made films with no medical purpose, exploring the aesthetic possibilities of the moving 3D X-ray, including subjects, many times women, performing their daily routines, such as eating or putting on make-up. Barbara Hammer’s encounter with this archive happened in the late 1980s and played a fundamental role in the filmmaker’s work, influencing the way she approached archival footage. Hammer made sev-
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
eral works with material taken from this archive and revisited it throughout her career. She made Sanctus using images shot by Watson and his associates and directed a documentary about his Rochester archive, Dr. Watson’s X-rays (1991), a companion piece to Sanctus which we have also included in this programme. It is a short and raw research video documenting Hammer’s visit to the archive. She films the machines of Dr. Watson, shows us his cameras and optical printer, and does interviews with archivists, people, including his wife, who were close to Watson and scholars who have studied his work. […] Hammer described the film as an “attempt to use a language of multiplicity to question the unitary concept of creation as well as the epistemology of the scientific method.” In Sanctus she re-figures images of X-rays by subjecting them to multiple passages through the optical printer, creating juxtapositions with various scientific and philosophical textual fragments within the image. Hammer uses mattes and hand-paints the images; she re-frames these X-rayed bodies, freezes and repeats their movements. This creates both fascination and horror. Her decision to mute the original soundtrack of the films (originally sounds of heartbeats or voices), replacing it with an electronic music collage, further disembodies these transparent skeletal bodies, turning them into ghosts without perceived interior or exterior. These images pulsate; just like apparitions, they materialise for brief instants in front of our eyes, only to disappear. […]
Lahire’s Trilogy was made around the same time as Sanctus, at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, in a period when the harm caused by the proliferation of nuclear energy plants and armaments was very much on the surface of public consciousness and protest. The films deal with spectrality and with the body under threat, exposed to radiation. By displaying processes of image and sound disfiguration and decomposition, Hammer and Lahire create an unstable territory where new sensibilities and unexpected image/sound configurations are able to emerge. The apparitional mode is thus an unsettling, unfixed threshold between exterior and interior, between what is visible and what is not, what is recognised and who is able to recognize it. To engage with the apparitional in a queer context is to put fragility and instability at the heart of these images, discovering new ways of engaging with the politics of light and technology. Hammer and Lahire’s film practices confront these established politics, their bodies emerging in the light, thus entering a territory of multiplicity and uncertainty. May 2016/January 2021
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p. 47 Uranium Hex, description, Sandra Lahire, 1987.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
A Cold Draft Sandra Lahire writes about Lis Rhodes’ new film
A Cold Draft (1988) shows the surveillance of a woman by overseers who have judged her to be mad. What is most provocative about this film is that it proposes multiple credible viewpoints even as the woman is being certified insane by the “Censors” ... “it happens — here all the time.” She is many women who don’t officially exist, or make films about “desire” or “identity”, and who live in the streets without the cushions of career and therapy. We voyage into the skull of a woman and peer out to a monumentally static cold waste with planetary slow motion. The sun bleeds light. It is a bunker-eye view in that: the execution had been planned, costed, and enacted the remains sold off to private investors. And it is a kerb-side camera-eye. The gravel of the road is the grinding dogma that digests her into the maw of the system. In her own stomach, instead of food which she cannot buy, are charcoal grains. We peer through a window cut in a cranium of an extinct civilisation. I, we, live there now, but the controlling “Censors” would call that vision mad. Like the asphalt of the road, the pitch poured in to embalm this particular mummy made her a dispensable tool of the social pyramid and its oneway road — up. The road from Chernobyl (“sealed in a sheep’s intestine”) is eroded by radioactive transporters in a play she has no part in — with heroes at the top and squalor beneath. You are either slaving for this great event, or you sit like a flexed corpse in your alloted space. But, says this film, the many voices down here are also a great root in the undergrowth, a seed with a code that evolves through time in the visual planes. Aleatory shifts between stills create a stately radiating pulse at their roots of fusion. These movements are perfectly reversible. This structure eliminates drama. Like a transparent sepulchre, the visual planes dissolve so slowly into each other that they stretch tick tock time. Systems of incarceration fix, divide, record the capture and control of our bodies. The film counters this by dissolving, multiplying and overlapping the methods of walling us up. The jittery flicker of TV feels mean by comparison. And it took chunks of a woman’s eyesight in the factory to make a TV set:
that never sees her presence or perceives her absence. We hear the women’s voices sussing the System. They stimulate action as did St Joan’s, for which she was executed. They are not pleas to the patriarchy or the art patrons. A Cold Draft sweeps away the comfortable view of a woman’s place being a cosy beauty to which men can turn from the cruelty of the business and military world. She lays bare the raping of a woman’s energy and time. Surrounded by age upon age of dust and bombed-out bone — splinters from the wasted city, that grow large as hoardings on the screen, she is an embrace of many women, but also one who is utterly isolated. Daylight fades in and dies out regularly: across her face, and over a vast overpopulated, infertile land for the Reactor. This monolith poses as a god around whom we may creep at ground level. That is, when we are not doing the clone-multiple jerks of work: actions frozen into repeatable parts hammered home in freezer bags Order is maintained with Nazi Rationality; with abstract double-talk of freedom at the end... arbeit macht frei. But the “liberal” state has overlooked the sting in the tail of its slaves. Yes, the road “edged with rape” has as its fast lane, men’s brutal competitive market forces zooming along. But, even as the macho stealth bombers and surveillance copters crescendo in and out of our heads, the certified insane woman conjures up her own sensuous and luscious world. The Controllers are the ones who are pushing over the limits of intelligibility, with their obsolete warnings about radiation (nowhere to hide) and their flogging of contaminated food. Mutation means madness. The microchip and rubber plant officescape that she must dust is part of a military technology, like the everexpanding Siemens Electronics in a new “free” Germany. She examines her nail-parings under a lens to the deathrattle of the State overhead. Her voice to her woman friend hits metal sheets, but we hear her laugh defiantly at “the choice of bracelet or manacle.” The meaning
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of the metal-insect sound somersaults, and instead we hear women in gaol rattling mugs on the bars. From out of the film the storyteller’s rich voice surrounds the viewer, making the poem into an oscilloscope — drawing response to the startling and convulsive images: she watched the emerald sun roll around the world a bullet on a saucepan lid She has her conversation with an absent friend. And thereby marks passing events in the time shared with the viewer. This is closer to the bone and to our rhythms than screwup-able news-headline poetry, or controlled doses of TV. Fragments of working women’s lives telescope into each other. We see through the windows of their busrides, to each of the women silhouetted against the panes of old buildings. The execution was a denial of herself. Yet her own emotional reality can melt down this repression: she kissed her — and said reality is imposed to be believed All this she sees and feels, but the camera surveilled only a mask-like face as it: snapped at the light ignoring the snake in her eyes By day she is under the deathly multiple-fly-eye of the sun: traditionally known as the light of reason. Insects in this film are the survivors. And there is a lurid place for the sun to sit. “Three kinds of colour — black, yellow and scarlet — loomed ominously over the people” (words of a Nagasaki survivor). Lis’ film-pictures are expressive like camp survivors’ work, sometimes feeling like woodcuts. A Cold Draft opens out in a rhythm of revelations rather than the forced formulae of the male structuralist tradition. Neither is this an example of “denials” in materialist filmmaking. The woman in the film who was censored — declared insane — has nothing to deny. Rather, it was the Controllers who issued the edicts of denials — in, say,... “There will be no” — food, water, survivors. (Civil Defence). The nuclear winter which is being manufactured will be a world of darkness, cold, powerful storms, ferocious glows of chemical intensity, and cockroaches. The woman’s voice is not fearful from a shelter. It has kept a memory of sensuousness in the colours:
yes — I loved her in between the purple and green of violets and lavender are passion to me A Cold Draft cuts through the established Culture’s convenient orders and labels with a razor. The woman no longer tries to paper over the cracks in the language ossified. Instead, if such a cracked monolith constitutes reality, madness is as plausible as sanity. The film is no mere re-enactment of a pathological state, with the old cliché of woman going mad (oooh look how hysteria can jazz up the visuals). In the currently imposed “reality”, large numbers on the stock market, multiples of radioactive units, half-lives in centuries — all belong to the same meaningless large numbers that stand for the hunger and liquidation of people. And the coin currency liquidates into credit cards for the few, in a system which has the impartial frenzy of a steamhammer. Would the woman’s perception of exploitation even be heard against the official “freedom” from Communism? The holocausts of commercial cinema teeter on the trivial, and belittle those who actually died (and who will die from being guinea pigs for “tests”). In A Cold Draft there is a move away from manipulation of our emotions towards a laconic accumulation of details. Against the system of the “Censors” the storyteller proposes many peripherals: the young woman in a bar maybe lesbian; the woman now utterly alone in crumbling accommodation; and the woman in the factory: she had made their profit next she must make her living a fury of sweat ran down her arms I hear an echo or forewarning of a stage early in the 1930s when some Jewish people were forced to clean the road with toothbrushes. This brutalisation paved the way to terminal concentration camps.
Originally published in Undercut, no. 19, Autumn 1990.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Letter to The Guardian By Sandra Lahire
28 June 1991 YOUR Profile (June 24) showed us how biographies and critiques continue to dismember Sylvia Plath and often lose her voicebox, even though her own poetry readings and interviews can be heard in our National Sound Archive. No, she did not leave a will — but she did write her own view of her posthumous existence. Miraculously she survives the blame-throwing for her suicide and rises out of the ashes to inspire other youthful minds by her intelligence in addressing our most terrifying experiences, like madness and being tortured. Sylvia did forecast the roles of the retailers of her image: The peanut-crunching crowd Shoves into see Them unwrap me hand and foot. Against the disposable news headline she asserts: The blood jet is poetry. There’s no stopping it. She worked at the craft of her voice and radio-poetry as Dylan Thomas did. A medium like film, in which she can speak for herself and make poetry a communal cinematic act is one way out of the treadmill of personal invective. Funded by the British Film Institute, I have directed a short film called Lady Lazarus. Permission was given by Olwyn Hughes to use recordings made by Sylvia around her 30th and last birthday. All locations are Plath’s. In the words of “Lady Lazarus”, she is a smiling woman who is only thirty. She will always be around with her ironic “dying is an art” tones. If she could see her media-circus striptease, and our gullibility, she would be in stitches. Sandra Lahire. British Film Institute, 29 Rathbone Street, London W1P.
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p. 51 Lady Lazarus, photograph, Sandra Lahire, 1991.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Echoer by Laura Guy
Sandra Lahire was an extraordinary reader of Sylvia Plath. Many of her films contain lines from Plath’s poetry and prose, utilising recordings of the poet reading her writing aloud. These sound fragments echo through the films, framing Lahire’s own film language. This is especially true of the Living on Air trilogy — Lady Lazarus (1991), Night Dances (1995) and Johnny Panic (2000) — which represents a profound engagement with Plath over a ten-year period, each film a sustained encounter with the poet and her work. Lahire described these encounters with Plath as collaborations, indicating the depth of the relationship she sought and emphasising the way that the text continues to lead an active life after its author is no longer with us. “Plath’s poetics could be used to inform filmic perspectives such as the microcosm of the frame and the spaces it implies outside its boundary,” Lahire wrote in 1999, “her voice is a sound miniature, framing the ‘moth-breath’ of her baby wakening her ears to the ‘far sea’.” The voice of the poet has an echo-like effect that awakens film to shifting scales and intensities, confusing the distinct locations that separate the spoken from the heard, the self from other. The Living on Air trilogy is not only a collaboration with Plath but also with other women. Night Dances (1995), the second in the Plath trilogy is dedicated to Lahire’s mother, Inge Madsen, with who she worked on a number of her films. In the film, her mother’s hands, arched and pale, glide across the frame, playing a stone piano that they came across in a graveyard. In Night Dances, dedication to mother is the establishing shot but she is surrounded by others who dance through the film. Cécile Chich and Fran Jacobson hold each another in tight embrace. Sarah Turner plays ferrywoman with Charlotte Schepke on the deck beside her. Many of these women are filmmakers too, part of a feminist network working in London. Studying first with Tina Keane at St. Martin’s School of Art and then with Lis Rhodes at the RCA, Lahire became involved in independent spaces like the
London Film-Makers’ Co-op.1 The affinities between women filmmakers associated with these and other institutions in this period encompass working partnerships, friendships and romantic attachments. Such relationships are legible in Lahire’s films and the credits that accompany them. This community was integral to the production of feminist experimental film in Britain at this time and has been crucial for maintaining Lahire’s legacy after her death in 2001. The examination of feminized labour in relation to biological and social reproduction, and medical and military intervention, that one finds in Lahire’s films, influenced, Marina Grzinic writes, “deeply not only a generation of feminists, but also the lesbian movement in Britain and internationally.”2 Like many feminist filmmakers of this generation, Lahire’s work often departed from autobiography. The stakes of speaking from experience — in particular of lesbian and Jewish identity and of anorexia — are high, exposing a deep interior or private location where broader structural oppression is felt and from where wider analysis is drawn. As So Mayer and Selina Robertson write of imagery of a feeding tube in Edge (1986), it is “a memory of Lahire’s embodied experience of hospitalization perhaps, as well as an image that
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So Mayer and Selina Robertson discuss this in their review of Maud Jacquin’s programme “From Reel to Real: Women, Feminism and the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative” at Tate Modern in September 2016. Jacquin also provides a short overview in her essay on Lahire, reproduced in this dossier. See So Mayer and Selina Robertson, ‘‘‘Joined together there is power, sister’: Re-viewing feminist work from the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative”, in Aniki: Revista Portugesa da Image mem Movimento, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2017, pp. 222-229; Maud Jacquin, “‘Overexposed, like an X-ray’: The Politics of Corporeal Vulnerability in Sandra Lahire’s Experimental Cinema”, in Lucy Reynolds (ed), Women Artists, Feminism and the Moving Image: Contexts and Practices, London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 127-138. Marina Grzinic, “Sandra Lahire” on luxonline. [Accessed online at: https://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/sandra_ lahire/essay(1).html on 16 January 2021]
holds a collective haptic memory of women’s bodies as sites of torture, abjection and heteronormative patriarchal entrapment.”3 Plath is a guide for this inquiry and her poetry is a line that connects Lahire’s earliest films to her last. Arrows (1984) features extracts from Plath’s poem “The Thin People” alongside the voices of Lahire and other women who recount experiences of anorexia. “Lines from Sylvia Plath” are also woven through Edge, a frenetic film of shifting scales propelled by the quickened rhythm of a foetal heart. “This is the city where men are mended,” it begins. Cut open by knife or fragmented through media circuits, scrutiny of the body in Edge produces a kind of invasive aesthetics that foreshadows Johnny Panic, Lahire’s final film, based on Plath’s story of the same name, in which the self is split before the surgeon’s gaze. Lahire’s films are not simply illustrations of Plath’s poetics. The poet’s singular voice punctuates their soundtracks as the poems are recomposed within meticulous arrangements of other image and sound elements. Yet the films share with the poetry various repeated themes and forms. One encounters feminine whispers, vivid colours, the hot hues of flowers that are too red, like wounds. The body is shorn of flesh, all bone, yet never ossified, instead a spectral presence of the feminine that is unfixed, unstable. In Lahire’s films, as with Plath’s poetry, one finds permutations of the feminine as it has been violently organised through — but crucially also as it exceeds — the tools and technologies of capitalist patriarchy. What does it mean to speak from this place of the feminine, an unruly force, an abject object of fantasies of patriarchal control? It is an act of resistance but, or even because, occupying it is also unbearable. The feminine, literally, too much to bear. Perhaps this is why Lahire felt it a subject suited to the scale of poetry, a form that Plath describes as “a tyrannical discipline, you’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you’ve just got to burn away all the peripherals.”4 Of all her work, the Living on Air trilogy represents Lahire’s most sustained encounter with the poet, exhibiting what the filmmaker’s partner, the artist Sarah Pucill refers to as
Mayer and Robertson, p. 224. Sylvia Plath interviewed by Peter Orr in The Poet Speaks: Interviews with Contemporary Poets, London: Routledge, 1966. [Accessed at https://www.modernamericanpoetry. org/content/1962-sylvia-plath-interview-peter-orr on 16 January 2001]. This line features in the soundtrack of Lady Lazarus.
a “‘lived’ understanding of Plath’s texts.”5 Pucill’s idea of a lived reading of a text invokes citation as an embodied practice, and resonates as much with Pucill’s approach to filmmaking as it does Lahire’s. In Lahire’s Lady Lazarus, the protagonist, played by Sarah Turner, makes contact with Plath through a Ouija, or “talking”, board. The film imagery occupies the psychic landscape of Plath’s poetry — a bell jar, a carousel, undulating waves — as well as physical sites that Plath inhabited during her life. The film visits the grave of Plath’s father, a dilapidated childhood home, and Smith College, the poet’s alma mater. Drawn into Plath’s orbit, the protagonist engages in the temporal anachronisms of camp as she chooses outmoded fashions from outdated magazines and drives a 1950s-style vintage car. As the séance progresses, the film enters the internal structure of a building. “One year in every ten I manage it,” Plath’s voice reads, in a line from the eponymous poem that continues: Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. Coins are placed on the eyes of our Plathian reader, a pre-emptive payment to Charon. Here, as in the other two films in the Living on Air trilogy, to live in Plath’s work is to inhabit the poet’s proximity to death. As Plath speaks through the body of the films one wonders whether, like the protagonist acting as a conduit for the poet in Lady Lazarus, the lines could as well be spoken by Lahire. This convergence between filmmaker and poet is not straightforward, however, given the complexity with which Lahire imbued identification as a psychic category, one intimately connected to her understanding of lesbian desire. In her essay “Lesbians in Media Education”, written while she was still a student at the Royal College of Art, Lahire transcribes and compiles interviews with women artists who she has asked to reflect on their experience in formal education settings.6 These statements are rendered as a series of paragraphs at the beginning of the piece. Following from one to the next without being attributed to any author, the words
Sarah Pucill, “Sandra Lahire: Lady Lazarus and Johnny Panic”, Vertigo Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2002 [Accessed online at https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/ volume-2-issue-2-spring-2002/sandra-lahire1/ on 16 January 2021] Sandra Lahire, “Lesbians in Media Education”, in Hilary Robinson (ed.), Visibly Female: Feminism and Art Today, London: Camden Press, 1987.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
of various individuals become a single voice that gives testimony to the experience of lesbian identity. Yet, by speaking as one, the text embodies difference too and articulates intersecting experiences of oppression, for example of Black lesbians, Jewish lesbians and lesbian mothers. The device employed in “Lesbians in Media Education” is a feminist reworking of the Marxist resistance to fragmentation and reflects the influence of Rhodes, who experimented with multiple voices in her own writing at this time.7 Through the conceit, Lahire conjures a lesbian continuum, Adrienne Rich’s idea of the “range through each woman’s life and throughout history—of woman-identified experiences.”8 For the filmmaker this “lesbian lens” is a “women’s circle of discourse,”9 invoking the name, Circles, of the feminist film and video distributor that Rhodes founded with Jo Davis, Felicity Sparrow and Annabel Nicolson, and which Lahire was involved with in the 1980s. (Reading the text now, it also calls to mind Sarah Turner’s moving description of Lahire’s “laughter echoing through those spaces” such as Circles and the London Film-Makers’ Co-op.10) Countering the fetishization of the female body in visual media by “turning negation back on itself,”11 the essay goes on to theorise a method of filmmaking that “[builds] up a dialogue with aspects of herself, with doubles or twins or alter-egos, as Sylvia Plath does by her writing of The Bell Jar.”12 Lahire illustrates this idea with reference to Jeanette Iljon’s Focii (1974), a film in which identification and desire is blurred as a woman separates from, and has an erotic encounter with, her reflection. “Now we are thinking of two women imaging together,” Lahire writes, “lips speaking together, maybe in conflict but so making a discourse in and of and for itself, not embedded in one certain psychoanalytic schema of construction of femininity.”13 With the exception of Arrows, the way that Lahire works with multiple voices in “Lesbians in Media Education” to strengthen “the network
See Lis Rhodes and María Palacios Cruz (ed), Telling Invents Told, London: The Visible Press, 2019. 8 Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, Signs, Vol. 5, No. 3, Summer 1980, p. 648. 9 Sandra Lahire, “Lesbians in Media Education”, p. 276. 10 Sarah Turner, “Sandra Lahire 19 November 1950 — 27 July 2001 in Memoriam”, Vertigo Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2002 [Accessed online at https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/ vertigo_magazine/volume-2-issue-2-spring-2002/sandralahire1/ on 16 January 2021] 11 Sandra Lahire, “Lesbians in Media Education”, p. 275. 12 Sandra Lahire, “Lesbians in Media Education”, p. 277. 13 Sandra Lahire, “Lesbians in Media Education”, p. 276.
through which we will bring about material changes” is different to the way that she works with sound fragments, especially Plath’s voice, in her films.14 In the essay one finds, with recourse to lesbian desire, ways of understanding identification that disturb distinctions between self and other.15 Referencing Plath in order to do this, Lahire’s early attempt at theorising the dynamics of internal and collective voice illuminates the way that the poet enters her later works. In “Lesbians in Media Education”, various accounts of personal experience are interwoven within the text. In her work with moving image, voice is a material that is woven into the fabric of the film. Plath, who composed her later poems to be read out loud, speaks her writing that happened, as Jacqueline Rose writes, “along the edge of language where words fill with an orality they have only partly subsumed.”16 For the Living on Air trilogy, Lahire worked mostly from recordings of Plath reading her poetry at the British Council on 30 October 1962. Lahire was given permission to use these recordings by Olwyn Hughes, sister of Ted Hughes and accessed them through the National Sound Archive. As well as poetry, the recordings feature an interview between the poet and Peter Orr, the head of the British Council’s recorded sound department at the time. Plath tells Orr how, unlike doctors or midwives or lawyers, who she suggests are engaged in “an area of practical experience,” a poet “lives a bit on air.” And yet, of poetry, she says, “I don’t think I could
Living on air
Sandra Lahire, “Lesbians in Media Education”, p. 281. This is pertinent to the series of photographs by Sarah Pucill through which I first encountered Lahire as a student, almost fifteen years ago now. The portraits show the two artists within a series of overlapping gazes, facilitated by mirrors and frames. The images counterpose likeness of features or physicality with formal devices that work to defamiliarise and abstract. Pucill restages these photographs in Stages of Mourning (2004), a film that meditates on the loss of her lover and creative partner and which conveys both the irresistibility and strangeness of images. There are the ways we live in images. There are the ways we live in images with/as others. “I have been interested in how the lesbian gaze disrupts traditional psychoanalytic theories that cannot accommodate the simultaneity of identification and desire,” writes Pucill of the series, suggesting that this gaze allows the subject to be “in two places at the same time.” Here is the lesbian gaze as echo, an idea that demands more time than I am able to give it in this essay. See Sarah Pucill in Kate Newton and Christine Rolph (eds.) Masquerade: Women’s Contemporary Portrait Photography, Cardiff: Ffotogallery, 2003, p. 102. Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992, p. 34.
live without it. It’s like water or bread, or something absolutely essential to me.” Excerpts of this interview feature in Lady Lazarus. For that film, Lahire also worked with magnetic tapes of Plath recorded at Stephen Fassett’s studio on 13 June 1958 and on 22 February 1959. 17 These were some of the earliest tapes that Plath made (another was for the poet Lee Anderson in April 1958) and include the poems “Ouija” and “Point Shirley”, lines of which appear in Lahire’s film. Pucill describes how Lahire worked with the tapes, laid down on the tracks of a flatbed editor so that the sound was compiled in much the same way as the image, from sequences of fragments spliced together. In the psychoanalytic sense, Lahire’s use of the recordings of Plath deepens the relationship that all language bears to orality. As Rose writes in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), “in her commentary on the process of writing, Plath constantly underscores this physicality of language… At one crude or basic level, not to be able to write is to be physically sick. No less basic (no less crude), language and orality run back into each other, their connection made literal — writing as biting, sucking, vampire-like on the substance of life.”18 This is poignant for a filmmaker who undertook a profound examination of anorexia in her films. It is also significant for a poet whose work is too often dogged by biography. In an article dedicated to Lahire, Rose, who was her doctoral supervisor at the time of her death, discusses a line in The Haunting that distinguishes her book on Plath from a biography.19 Rose explains that she made this distinction because Plath’s estate disputed elements of her analysis. Yet the caveat is not meant as a means to avoid retribution. In stating that her own book is not a biography, Rose asserts the difference between a life and the work, a difference that the estate’s unease fails to acknowledge. Biography, Rose argues, functions in the opposite direction to fiction or poetry, in which life becomes a point of departure rather than an intend-
These recordings were produced as part of a collaboration between Fassett’s studio and the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University, where Lahire accessed the tapes. Christina Davis, Curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, provides a useful account of the collaboration in “‘Archive of the Mouth’: Tracing Baez, Plath, Sun Ra, Sexton, et al back to a single pivotal recording studio” [Accessed online at: http://woodberrypoetryroom.com/?p=3044 on 16 January 2021]. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, p. 31. Jacqueline Rose, “This is not a biography”, London Review of Books, Vol. 24, No. 16, August 2002. [Accessed online at: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v24/n16/jacquelinerose/this-is-not-a-biography on 16 January 2021].
ed destination. In the relationship that Plath’s work bears to life, one understands that writing floods a space of feeling where speech often fails. With reference to Plath’s poem “Daddy”, Rose shows how the poet has “taken an act of rage and turned it into a moment of recognition.”20 Inhabiting Plath’s poetry as an echo, where the voice sounds simultaneously from the speaker and from elsewhere, Lahire occupies this same gap in intelligibility. In Lahire’s films, Plath’s words are lit up by fireworks, are bathed in flames, or are flooded with water. They represent an extraordinary reading of Plath that the narrative trap of biography can’t manage. If this is the function of poetry, as Rose suggests, Lahire infuses experimental film with the same promise.
p. 56 Lady Lazarus, props list from proposal, Sandra Lahire, 1991. Courtesy of Sarah Turner. p. 57 Lady Lazarus, description of visuals from proposal, Sandra Lahire, 1991. Courtesy of Sarah Turner.
20 “This is not a biography” [online]
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Living on air
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Little Deaths by Sandra Lahire
Orgasms owe their name to the Greek “oragao” meaning “swell”. Dilating rings of sensation are held in by the fragile frontiers of a being. So swelling becomes intensity, just as the sun’s rays may be focused by a lens to form a point of burning, of fire eating air. In Lady Lazarus (1991), a film inspired by Sylvia Plath’s poetry, the woman is a phoenix and a resourceful survivor who squeezes through the fire and ash of death itself — to make a theatrical comeback, to come. On the soundtrack, Sylvia Plath describes a poem as a vortex of the vast: you’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you’ve just got to burn away all the peripherals... as a poet one lives a bit on air. A poem, a short gallery film or an expanded cinematic moment... each may resonate far out of its small space. The Greek “poiesis” means a “making” rather than a representation. In the poetics of film, the disembodied camera-eye acts like Sylvia Plath’s spirit — Ariel. She is an incorporeal “I”; a quicksilver shapeshifter darting into all things, even the micro organisms of decay. She can feast on the void and swell erotically out of constriction. Ariel is the horse that fuses with her as she rides suicidally straight into the “eye” of the Sun. Plath’s poetics could be used to inform filmic perspectives such as the microcosm of the frame and the spaces it implies outside its boundary. Her voice is a sound miniature, framing the “mothbreath” of her baby wakening her ears to the “far sea”. In the chapter “Miniature” from The Poetics of Space, Bachelard writes: “the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” A lens and a montage of lensed images acting as this “narrow gate” and as Plath’s intensified “I”/eye. If you try to film mercury globules, when they are projected on the big screen they become white-hot milky ways and cosmic collisions. At the level of poisoning our fingers they are ungraspable mirror balls that ping off tiny reflected worlds and wiggling selves. In a search for “a poetics of film”, I will look at filmic scale, lenswork, mirrors, mercury and blood in two contemporary short films.
The first of these is Cast (2000) by Sarah Pucill, a title with a multiple explosion of meanings. It is a site where creamy fluid hardens. Light is cast making a giant shadow from a tiny doll, someone is cast in a role. I see Cast from the personal viewpoint of having made films out of anorexia. Like a hollow cast of herself, the anorexic embodies the abyss that food and language conceal. Feasting on film or mirror images of herself, she fasts her way into the fragility of a bone china doll. Making a bone miniature of herself, she becomes incorporeal and flies out of the power systems that code her body. In Cast the child’s concentration causes her doll to expand her gaze. The doll looks back, enlarging the child. The doll is charged with affectivity for different beings. The bond with the mother is replayed; this “poesis” or “making” moves beyond a straight reflection of physical objects in space, beyond conceptual thinking. As a practicing poet, Plath saw how the power of a poem comes through a tiny physical space. A door opens and closes. The glimpse in-between swells into a psychic landscape. In Pucill’s film there is a nexus of gazes between women of different ages and sizes, and between their own body casts as well as dolls. A seamless pan joins dolls being pulled out of a drawer with the women made up as dolls, lying on a beach by the sea’s immensity. The film asks how, within the nature of film, a spectator can travel visually in a different body or into a different scale of space. As each woman sits in the other’s lap, their distinct eye views of their own bodies become “fused/confused”. There is a little death of each self. Two rocking chairs re-occur in Cast. They are mini and life-size. They sometimes rock empty, or they bear two women who are by turns together and apart, living and hollow. The rocking cradles the child and the woman in a suspended animation. This is a pivot between one time and another... waking and sleeping... between the tangible, the projected image and the mirror. In the looking glass, the film journeys from the child’s scale and time to the adult continuum. Like film itself, the mirror divides spaces and times; but it also fuses child and adult. In Plath’s poem “Mirror” she gives voice to the mirror:
Living on air
The woman often comes searching my reaches for what she really is... In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman... Rises toward her day after day... In Cast the mirror also serves to fuse an erotic gaze between two women. The beach scene at high tide pinpoints a site of buffeting between those ultimate masses of solid and liquid. At low tide, this expands to a sheeny intersoaking of sand and sea... an ungraspable mirror that condenses the sun into a small disc wobbling in water. Here is an ejaculation-as-microcosm... Johnny Panic is one of Sylvia Plath’s selves. S/he sits on her like the dummy of a ventriloquist. S/he is the elusive smile of a Cheshire cat who sparks off her sexual perversity in the body of language. My film Johnny Panic (1999) is a collaboration with Sylvia Plath’s story of that name and with her related poetry, in particular The Bell Jar. The film Johnny Panic, adds panics and dreams to the case histories kept by Sylvia Plath when she was a secretary of the mental hospital where she had also been a patient. Plath believed “one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying — like madness, being tortured...” In her own subjection to Electro Convulsive Therapy she found herself in the eye of an electrical storm — of an atrocity that both spins out and implodes. The American electrocution of the Rosenbergs is concentrated into the microcosm of her cauterised braincells. Defying the aims of Freudian doctors, with their studies on Hysteria, she serves solely as secretary to her alter-ego, Johnny Panic. Together they funnel the case histories of patients like her from all over the city into their “Bible of Dreams”. Her dream “thefts” are a scaled-down parody of the paranoia around the miles of files under McCarthyism. Through one long night she says; “page by page, dream by dream, my Intake books fatten.” In her own dream of dreams she is up into the glass belly of a helicopter. This glass belly beams into her an infinite semi-transparent lake where all the dream props of all the dreamers of the world are sogging around. Lenses used include fish-eye, anamorphic, shallow depth of field and deep focus. The film set is formed of a hinged hexagon of mirrored or clear white hospital screens. The screens contain live action as well as projections of film. So there are mini-actions vignetted within the whole camera framing. The set becomes: the secretary’s office; a surgeon’s operating theatre; a circus tent for stunts of knife-throwing and ventriloquism; an ECT chamber; a psychiatrist’s cubicle; and even a cell in a beehive. It also forms a lifesize version of the Bell Jar into which the woman feels sealed. Into this
Bell Jar, as if into the pinhole camera of her brain, converge New York viewpoints from helicopter to subway. Inside the giant Bell Jar is a “normal” bell jar containing a foetus in formaldehyde. Inside the fragmented reflections in the wriggling mirror screens are seen the mini-worlds in the mercury globules. Through a peephole the woman is surveilled by the Clinic Director. At the same time in her Bell Jar, the Phallus is scaled down to “turkey neck and turkey gizzards.” At the “climax” of the film, the Director of the Clinic catches her stealing his case-histories. She is strapped down for ECT. But instead of being cauterised, her mind is fused in high voltage with Johnny Panic, in a paroxym of clarity. She is examined with a beam of light pointed into her eye. Physical eyesight begins and ends in an iris, but the immensity of the imagination is not depended on eyesight. The poet/patient further splits herself into a surgeon’s viewpoint. She carves open her own abdomen and is dwarfed by her own garden inside: “I am so small/In comparison to these organs!” After her subjection to ECT, her body and language appear to shrink. She becomes the person in the Bell Jar, blank and stopped as a foetus. Confusing the limits between her innards and her surroundings she is both allmouth and maggot, speaking and shrinkwrapped. The mercury globules and blood corpuscles appear as both the quick and the dead. As decay, the dead are the dazzling mutations of myriad micro-organisms. The worms on Lady Lazarus are shown as orgasmic “sticky pearls”. Like Sarah Pucill’s mirrors, this body-as-garden is a microcosm for embodiments to go and come...
Originally published by Make: the Magazine of Women’s Art, no. 83, Mar-May 1999. Republished by luxonline in 2005.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Eruption, rupture, suture and disruption by Sarah Pucill
In a video of Sandra talking to camera which she asked me to record in my flat, she discussed some ideas she wanted to explore for her PhD,1 her plans for the thesis were to explore the place of visual art and Surrealism in the poetry of Sylvia Plath. The PhD, which she sadly was unable to complete, would also examine the work of some women artist filmmakers in relation to the feminine and the lesbian. Sandra’s own films, which embrace these themes, would be part of this. I quote: The idea of eruption is a volcano, a breaking in the boundary of skin, or the Earth, the root of the word is rupture. I have these notes: eruption, rupture, suture and disruption, all of which apply to the way that images emerge in the poetry of Sylvia Plath and the films of Sarah Pucill who has the same initials as Sylvia Plath. Eruption is part of the film as poem, where events unfold without verbal commentary. The film as text becomes the camera speaking, if it is done purely with visuals. And if it is done with sound it becomes a dialectic between sound and silence, where the spaces are occupied rhythmically by the silences in relation to the image which is perceived by the seeing eye. The fractured subjective eye, the psychic ”I” experiences a dialectic, a lively interchange back and forth between the sound, the silence and the visual which perhaps only hieroglyphics as a verbal language have been able to do.
Eruption, rupture, suture and disruption apply very much to the language of Sandra’s films, which are tightly woven, produced frame by frame as a film poetry of montage. The “camera speaking” resonates with Sandra’s mode of filmmaking, often a hand-held camera. Michael O’Pray described her films having a “with gloves off approach.” Her camera was part of her body. An open mouth to capture what is in front of it, the vital moment. Her method was impulsive; she calculated the aperture reading not from a light meter, but from the position of the sun in the sky, the status of clouds and time of year. She knew what she needed to film for the edit, and what she wanted to overlay or juxtapose it with. She worked with certainties: The plan decided in advance. Her film language incorporated much super-imposition in frame which she did either as an “in camera” process on 16mm film, only possible on a Bolex camera or in post production on an optical printer. She was especially skilled at both. The former (she taught me) involves shooting, re-winding and shooting again. With the optical printer, she was able to overlay still images (35mm slide transparency) with 16mm footage or Super 8 footage. This method is calculated frame by frame (24 frames of each second of film) where each frame of film is sutured to either another film frame or a still image. Sandra’s use of the word hieroglyphic speaks, to the frame by frame construction method that her work with the optical printer entailed. She used the word “stitch” to describe the way in which Plath’s voice is incorporated into her films. A frame by frame embodiment of her voice per syllable to Sandra’s layering of images and sound. Forming a tapestry of word, light and sound, of embedded combinations, forcing a fusion between the two art forms (literature and filmmaking), each frame a hieroglyphic shape as an intermedial signifier between word and image, light and sound. This entails also a co-authorship between artists alive at different times, yet sutured across time, enforcing a “speaking” of Plath’s voice inside Lahire’s camera.
Sandra was studying at Queen Mary University with Jacqueline Rose and sadly died before completing it.
Living on air
Arrows (1984) Superimposition of image was core to much of Sandra’s early films that employed animation techniques with live action. Her first landmark, highly condensed film, collages drawings, animation (2D and 3D), live action, and photo-collage of magazine cut outs. In between the two dimensional animation, is live action of Sandra (first clothed then naked) and a caged bird. Sandra’s voice overlays the film, adopting different points of view. First fellow sufferers of anorexia lead us into their space of feeling alone, frightened, isolated, in pain and unable to communicate. We then hear a man’s voice shouting exercises for women to loose weight, to which cut up and cut out magazine images of women’s body parts appear to move through animation technique to the orders of his instruction. The montage has impact, both comical and macabre. The orchestrating of two-dimensional body parts as “movements to keep trim” is mixed with drawings of ribs and bones, and still photographs of Sandra’s face and body and an X-ray of a skeleton. Sandra then inhabits the voice of the cosmetic surgeon who practices in London. She reads Monsieur Le Bon’s method: “He marks out the areas from which fat needs to be removed, then under general anaesthetic he injects a liquidising solution which helps dissolve the unwanted fat pads in the area… then aspirates it with a suction tube rather like a vacuum cleaner.” The sarcasm is inflected with the acknowledgment of the mechanics of internalised oppression, but also how easy it is to play the game from the puppet master’s perspective. The political is active. There is a breaking in a boundary between the anorexic sufferers who through the filmmaking process are no longer isolated, whereas the once empowered surgeon is. Then later Sandra performs a speech of distress: She cannot get help from anyone, no one is listening or cares (her therapy centre), revealing her helplessness, confusion, rejection and isolation, all her words. A symmetry of scale matches the close-up of the owl’s eyes with Sandra’s camera lens. The bird claws are scaled to parallel Sandra’s outstretched fingers as she rotates in a confined space, unable to escape, whilst we hear feathers flutter at cage bars. Both Sandra and the bird take everything in but are unheard despite the noise they are making. Then Sandra speaks of the pleasure and excitement of being only seven stone (she was tall and large boned), as she feels younger, more interesting, and looks better. This jars with her earlier expression of distress, helplessness and confusion that we assume is related to not being able to eat and which, added to the inhabiting of Monsieur Le Bon, ruptures any sense of a coherent voice. Finally we hear selected lines of Plath reading her poem “The Thin People”, which examines the power and impact of witness-
ing starvation. Sandra’s animated figures correspond to “the people in the mud hut…” as these words from the poem are read out, whose presence haunts the onlooker as a ghost long after their death. Sandra’s mouth is open, replacing the earlier image of her camera lens “open”, but as with the wise bird, her body is unable to escape her cage and eat. The collisions of point of view create eruptions of a schizophrenic world that speaks as much of relations between men and women in Western cultures as between those who are protected with enough food to eat and those who are not. The splitting of her own mind-set speaks of the condition of the environment she has digested, thus reflecting directly the sickness of the social world.
Night Dances (1995) Night Dances is (for me) Sandra’s most pleasurable film. In it Sandra writes her own script that is interspersed with lines from poems by Plath as an accompaniment to Sandra’s text, a life-long appreciation of the poet’s words, already woven as an underlay into the body of Sandra’s own vocabulary. This is enriched with Sandra’s haunting music score, “Displacement” that includes fragments of Schubert, Gershwin, and Yiddish themes. The film starts with a night shot, a silhouette of a woman (Sarah Turner) lying at the bow of the sail boat that tips up and down to the rhythm of the water, night air and a mesmerising piano playing. We are told the filmmaker’s mother was “… the one solid spaces lean on, envious” — a line from Plath’s poem “Nick and the Candlestick”. Then we see Sandra playing the piano overlaid with the water surface, her back to us, composed, as if behind the scene, orchestrating our emotions whilst offering her image to us. Characteristic of Lahire’s film language, this piano playing, a lesbian couple (Fran Hegarty and Cécile Chich) dancing, underground cityscapes, catacombs and close-up “parts” of all these including the boat and water, return intermittently throughout the film. This follows the form of music where a phrase repeats in different guises. The optical printer is the instrument upon which the film is made, which largely consists of super-imposed interwoven 16mm film shots. Words by Lahire and Plath are embraced with light and sound, forming a rich tapestry with the piano score and aural effects. Beginning as a collaboration with her mother and ending as a film of mourning after her sudden death, the film takes us for a rocky ride on an unmoored boat. It is an aesthetics of raw emotion swinging between ecstasy and descent, rising to a point of collapse, erupting into a crashing dread, then a fast fall. The hardness of metal is audible as its weight clatters and clangs. Patterns of architectural abstraction, rectangles and lines appear as unidentifiable shapes
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
of light, then graduate to identifiable part objects, then objects that register as a “thing”, as the actual world comes and goes. Upside-down boat and piano fragments, hammer and strings, sail ropes, inside and outside, upright, upturned, object parts enmesh as catastrophic disintegration. The body is lowered into the ground, a spade shuffles soil into the underground hole. The screen goes black. Similar shapes coalesce; the coffin is juxtaposed with the same scaled piano key, and ground tile of the catacomb, rectangular blocks, followed by rectilinear marks in the road. From musical discord, sparkles of light and sound crashes, there is explosion, fireworks, a Catherine wheel in slow mo. This then breaks into a celebration. We hear Sandra’s voice, “after you died we became lovers.” From heartbreak to “a party to be had,” there is champagne, the lovers waltz, rejoice in music and dance, the end is a beginning. Underground shots of catacombs and rail stations where lesbian lovers meet offers a subtext, a love in hiding maybe also a life — the night itself is that of hidden love. Sparks of light flash in the sky, and bounce on the river surface with the women and night air. At its centre, the solid of the boat, the underground. Beneath the surface of the ground what is solid is submerged in water whilst the couple dance as an exorcism with the waves. The music, wind, water, and words, gradually lift up and through the erupting catastrophe. From the prolonged tension of an upturned landscape comes resolve and stabilisation. Sandra plays the piano now upright classically posed, a whole image, enchanting us with her playing, the same fingers that turned the lens, wrote the script and threaded the printed weave of sound light. There is virtuosity2 in the hand-fabricated composition and synthesis of all the parts. Night Dances steers a path between energy and matter: the pure flow of strings and waves, both planetary elements and ingredients of film, with its crystallisation as material form. Out of the darkness comes a warmth that soothes the pain; the exhilaration from the cold and dark, the after effect from having been dipped in iced water. A key line of Sandra’s in the film is “Tears and joy live in every letter — more than time can tell.” Is this Sandra speaking of the building brick that is the base and basis of what she has composed in this film?
My use of the word “virtuosity” arises out of recent conversations with Nina Danino for a collection of interviews that she is compiling. Danino used this word to describe work by women experimental filmmakers at the London Film-Makers’ Co-op in the 1980s and 1990s, as a hands-on method of filmmaking where technical skill is part of the artistic language.
Sandra’s first film, Arrows and penultimate film Night Dances, bookend all her films that were hand-made by Sandra who did all the camerawork and more.3 Arrows and Night Dances both speak directly from Sandra’s life experiences of anorexia and bereavement head on, and whilst highly personal, her writing in both is in company. In these first and penultimate films, Sandra’s private voice is most clear, if not loud. The cross disciplinarity of composition (music, sound, text and visual weave) reaches a height of virtuosity, and through that the trail of a journey of overcoming. Sandra’s spirit and her films have had an immense impact on me and my filmmaking. I was simply stunned when I first saw Night Dances, which impacted our partnership in life. She refused to be “straightened out” by the rules of conformism in her artistic practice, in which, for her, the aesthetic and politic were conjoined. Her collaborations with a dead artist (the words she used in reference to Plath) was the major influence of my two films in dialogue with Claude Cahun.4 The Arts Council of England demand “a new departure” for each funding proposal. Sandra believed in sustained research to acquire depth. I’m with Sandra.
Sandra’s final film Johnny Panic (2000) was mostly shot in a studio. Magic Mirror (2013) and Confessions to the Mirror (2016).
p. 63 Eerie, photocopied storyboard, Sandra Lahire, 1992. Courtesy of Sarah Turner.
Living on air
p. 64-65 Night Dances, photographic still, Sandra Lahire, 1995.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Living on air
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
The Fairies Banquet A visual fugue of eye, tongue, fingers Sandra Lahire on Swollen Stigma Sarah Pucill’s film Swollen Stigma (1998) suggests a sexual tumescence polymorphously displaced onto imagery of unfolding flowers, plucking, deflowering, and coming with red petal juices. A precise edge of pleasure/pain is evoked by the woman tonguing flower orifices and pinpointing nerve endings on her own skin. Swollen macro shots of her eye’s pupil fuse the viewer with the woman who has visions of her phantom, a fragile doll-like woman. The construction of both women caught in each other’s gaze looks out to implicate the viewer. Eye and lashes are fingered in a microscopic language that speaks a state of trance. Eyelash tugging, a seemingly slight action, is camply magnified; the sound of this becomes preternatural. The she-phantom is a kind of pupilla (diminutive of pupa, puppet: from the tiny reflections up-side down at the back of the retina), who hovers between flight and earth. First she appears inverted in a chair, then she is hanging and swinging up-side down.
inversion Tears, drinking glasses, looking glasses and the lens of the eye — play with the film projection beam. One woman encloses another bend in the pupil of her eye. Through this hole, which is the focal point, passes the inverted woman. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, she falls into a hole; either it is very deep or she falls very slowly, “then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards.” The woman in Swollen Stigma is drawn along many intricate corridors of the mind. She relishes inversion, both optical and sexual. Tears swell and optically merge one woman with her phantasm, her remembered passion for another woman. They fuse in a language of light and liquid. This intensity has swollen the skin itself and made the fluids pour out and change colour and seep and soothe old wounds. The world outside is brought closer optically, so that social classifications and commodifications of the body are permeated and undermined by the microsmic eruptions in the film.
There is a powerful dialectic between a construction and a leap outwards. The diaphanous but confined wing beats signal to take a risk, to move out of paralysis. In this way “social stigma” is transformed to joy in the sexually perverse “swollen stigma”.
plucking from a skin of light The main emphasis of the word “pluck” in the film is “uproot”. This highlights the in-between state of contact/absence in the relationship of the women. The doll-like woman hangs uprooted and haunts the woman who is rooted in her home. To pluck also relates to deflowering, breaking the skin and stripping bare the pores. There is a jouissance of the surface as a screen and as a skin, a layer over a face. The skin which is the film emulsion absorbs the shape shifting rays of light over ceramic surfaces and in the tinctures that permeate and transmute in colour. The woman’s lips and tulips display osmosis between their insides and outsides as if their skins were turned inside out. The private becomes public in a turning inside out, or eruption, in an ongoing scenario. The viewer oscillates between joining her point of view and seeing her in full shot as if her mental furniture has seeped out of her. Our need for a tangible unified subject is dissolved into layers of possible differences or identities. Both the woman and film surface itself “feel” what the body, hand and objects are tracing. Film and skin are fused. Drops of water glide down a luminescent white bowl, as if expressed from a nipple. Blood and milk drops flower out into water, into the film surface. Red galaxies swell in the clear water. A white Milky Way spreads like ectoplasm. The plucking from the skin is pain, separation and uprooting. This sensitivity punctures a numbness. Plants, matches and tears are filmed as if tattooed on her skin. She is so close up she appears to be closing a wound, stroke by stroke, around her eye. By touching her skin she partakes of these memories of her flesh. Away from a linear narrative, the skin enacts an unfolding modest presence.
Living on air
iris in Lipsticked petals, stamens, body hairs and tears are edited with the woman and her female phantom. She opens door after door, moving ever inward as if to the centre of a labyrinth. By super-imposition she opens the cupboard for food and she opens a woman’s legs. In a pacing related to mesmerism and trance, the woman passes through corridors and garden of her darkened house. In a nightmare of pursuit, she could be chasing herself into a crypt of repressed desire, or seeking the nourishment of a former life which continues to haunt the walls. When the camera is at a low angle, the emphasis is on her head, on her power as the “seer”, but also on her confinement by the ceiling. Swollen Stigma plays with the bottom of the frame; the phantasmic woman is vulnerable and subservient on the floor space. Space off-frame is used to associate the phantom with a lurking hallucination. She may be behind a closed door or behind the camera itself. The viewer sees the iris in the pupil of the woman looking and shares her telescoping point of view. This iris, in effect, suggests the squeezing in of passage ways and her intense concentration. The entranced woman is static at the start of the film. When she leaves her chair she is repeatedly tugged back into it. This image of being frozen to the spot exchanges with the phantom, who is released from a kind of rigor mortis when hands dig frantically in soil. The phantom begins as pallid. There is a sense of blood having been drained. Blood goes down the sink, later a drink of milk turns back into vital blood. Crucially these are all spectacle. Eyelids sip and suck like lips on the flowers. There is a precise imaging of the swollen stigma as clitoral. The stigma column of the flower is female, the female phallus is enclosed by her eye’s pupil.
deflowing and devouring Sarah Pucill’s kitchen is a microscosm, a looking glass world in which anything can happen. Human desires are displaced onto fragile insect appetites and onto proboscises in flower genitalia. The woman becomes intoxicated on the colour transmuting fluids. Through her mouth she sucks in milk and ejaculates blood. It is as if her womb has joined with her stomach. She engenders herself by drinking from the memory of the breast and by giving birth to blood. Swollen Stigma enacts a devouring female gaze. It creates a world of playful domination and submission. There is a power imbalance between the woman who is looking and the bone-china doll woman who hangs topsy-turvy in a sub-
servient “looked at” position. First the fragile woman’s beauty is at an arrested, non-feeding stage. But later, the “pupa” bites back and eats lilies lustily, drooling. There is a political bite in two women seeming to eat and drink each other at a fairies banquet. They are not reflecting “reality” but seeing with their own incandescence. The non-verbal discourse of eating, plucking and deflowering is slowed down and microscopically sensitised. This raised a question of how the anorexic highlights what it is to partake in a community of language. She needs visibility and a fed body. How far is the exchange of liquids in the film to do with gagging and compulsively sucking up the other woman? The strongly-bodied woman seems to devour the delicate phantom woman. In the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, groups of intimates sample minute fruits, enjoying their sweet ephemeral pleasures. As they taste these fruits and one another, their bodies are simultaneously devoured. In the Victorian era painting, The Fairies’ Banquet by John Anster Fitzgerald, the magical creatures are incorporeal, yet they physically eat petals from a plate in a forest, a place for dreams which could as well be a kitchen. Looking through the lens of Victorian decadence, the film Swollen Stigma is fantasical and excessive, yet exquisitely ordered. This brings to mind the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley. Also it recalls the lesbian erotic, yet drugged states caused by juices from fruits in Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market”. In the film lipsticked lips and fingers touch the throats inside flowers. Flowers should only be looked at. This foregrounds notions of the artificial as precipitated by Oscar Wilde whose “Art for Art’s sake” encompassed the unnatural both in artefact and in sexual practice. On his lapel he wore a white carnation poisoned green with ink.
a match burning in a crocus In defiance of Freudian psychoanalytic theory which reduced female sexuality to a lack, the film offers polymorphous nerve-endings in hairs, flower stamens and plant roots. With a hovering violence these create a speakable lesbian territory. Likewise the Victorian fairy painters conjured a language from Shakespeare’s perverse love play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queen Titania of the fairies, the sexually ambiguous Puck and all the mercurial and rascally creatures stage an excess of desire which threatens to disrupt a Darwinian order of the survival of the fittest. Titania passes between the strongholds of the lunar dream and waking senses. Puck’s petal juices dropped on her eyelids enchant her into a passion for the first creature she sees when her eyes open. When eyelids close, as petals of a rose close,
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
there is a screen for inner meaning. Swollen Stigma unveils a powerful magical realm that has often been occulted, where tulips light up and two women fuse in luminescence and in wet surfaces. Glowing with a penumbra of inner light, the life in Swollen Stigma partakes of a magical feast. The fairy glade at root level is part of the dark labyrinth of the film. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream this level of undergrowth exists far from the sun which is the plane of enlightenment rationality. Titania’s Queendom is at midnight when reflection and refraction conjure up the “Others”. Here fireflies, glow-worms and phosphorescent fairies shine out. In Pucill’s film, as in Virginia Woolf ’s image of the “match in the crocus,”1 the self-illuminating flower enacts a seeing by her own light. The timeless media of mesmerism and séance are on a continuum with digitised imagery in their potential to enflesh a life that has been repressed. This is part of a strategy, of lesbian visibility. The Oxford English Dictionary states the ambiguity of the word “canny”. It means not only “known” and “homely” but also “endowed with occult powers.” The homely ritual of flower arranging maintains its tender pacing as it slips into dismembering of lily throats.
into the limelight The end of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of electric light and flight. The entranced woman in the film projects light just as in the nineteenth century Magic Lantern staged limelight images out of a deep void. There is a play of contradictory aspects of the female subject in language. In a dynamic of disintegration, objects are isolated from the false coherence of “realism”. The scientific determinism that would turn people into cyborgs is still in the 1990s challenged by the continuous flux of the willed imagination. The film’s non-verbal interior monologue selects and rediscovers social existence. Convulsions of radiance grant a respite from total or totalitarian neutrality. Swollen Stigma refuses any narrow vision of the outside world as a threatening place. The political bite of the film lies in its nourishment of fantasy which is the lived inner dimension of the subject’s social life. The film proposes a lesbian imaginary which takes a leap into rootlessness, into a risk and a displacement. Swinging inverted is an action that is continuous with the social sense of uprooting. Ulrike Ottinger’s film Madame X: An Absolute Ruler pro-
poses an outward journey. Her ship of lesbian fools takes them on a fantastic voyage of vision which is not just an escape; equally Pucill’s film acts as an inner voyage where layers of accumulated codings may transform each other rather than simply being rejected as outmoded. Whilst the metaphors of flower genitalia and a woman’s mouth amid vessels and body fluids are revealed, the essentialism caught within them is equally refused by the material process of the film text, which makes meanings slip and seep. To this end there is oscillation between positions, between there being one woman remembering her past selves and there being two women in a relationship. The film refuses to lead the viewer through a “realist” story, thus implying the question, “whose realism?” Instead we draw ourselves along to confront the mechanism of narrative itself. Voyeurism is denied in favour of the viewer’s mirror identification with the entranced woman whose past passion insistently flares into the moment. What is proposed is a portrait of one and of two women — but not simply a psychological portrait, also a structural one. This portrait is a site of speaking which is the centre of a woman speaking within herself. A non-verbal lover’s discourse confronts the other, the absent loved one, who gradually comes to sentience and into lustful bodily appetite. Pucill’s “Pupilla” or doll is thrown away and picked up again, mimicking a mother’s absence and return. She devises a language to delay the drop from absence into death. Both women eat an absence which is marked by the flowers and both speak a silence. The absent one acts like a fairy princess by haunting the lover at the interface between the realms of optical science and phantasmagoria. Fairy tales endure when physical facts and their linear stories become ashes and dust. The phantom woman comes to life eating. You eat what you are, and speak what you are. This reverses the lockjaw that has gagged the lesbian body of language. The lesbian phantom’s voice is enfleshed. She has a mouth at her feast of fire flowers.
Originally published by Coil Magazine in 1998. Republished by luxonline in 2005.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway: “a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed.”
Living on air
Johnny Panic, film stills, Sandra Lahire, 2000.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Living on Air. A Trilogy of Films by Sandra Lahire Interview and review by Gill Addison
Sandra Lahire has recently completed Living on Air, a trilogy of films inspired by the writing and voice of Sylvia Plath. The festival Handbags and Hardware opens with the world premiere of Johnny Panic, the final chapter of Living on Air, and offers the first chance to see this compelling and beautiful trilogy in its entirety. A project spanning nine years, Living on Air profiles, responds and concludes within three skillful intelligent films the work and life of Plath, who is portrayed as a writer, woman and independent soul free from the constraints that the literary establishment wishes to impose upon our memory of her. In 1991 Lahire made Lady Lazarus, which sets out and introduces Plath’s life and poetry. Lady Lazarus also begins to outline Lahire’s creative concerns with film itself and the project which later evolved into this trilogy. Her interest in Plath began in response to both a personal bereavement and an image of someone’s silhouette standing by the window of the house in which Plath had died. This haunting image stayed with Lahire and was later to reappear as a reoccurring image within Lady Lazarus. This image is more than a motif, and for Lahire it acts as a link to Plath, and as her touchstone within the film. “I had always been interested in the double edge between life and death” says Lahire, and Plath “is the only poet that I think has travelled in a personal landscape of death, while at the same time writing in a language that is completely of life: trees growing rings, horses galloping.” The film combines images of Plath’s home in Massa chusetts, and themes from her poetry. Images and themes reoccurring in the later films creating an index of symbols, signs and metaphors. The postcard images of places of importance to Plath: her grandparents house, her college and her own portraits are hauntingly combined with Plath’s own voice from both interviews and readings of her poems. Throughout Lady Lazarus, visual images of the text
from Plath’s poems and journals punctuate the screen images. These create a layered film, both physically and metaphorically, with Plath’s voice leading and navigating through the complex imagery. Lahire wanted to experiment within film “to see if people could just sit together in a cinema and close their eyes, and go on a journey.” It was particularly important to Lahire that she use Plath’s distinctive voice as a means of evoking her presence through the film, but also because her readings infuse her poetry with a powerful and vivid resonance which pierces through the visual experience of the film. “I wanted the audience to be able to close their eyes and listen to the film.” Night Dances was made in response to the need to work within a less controlled funding environment. Of the three films Lahire feels that this is her film. Two female couples glide and dance throughout the film, which is set in London. The women’s journeys take them from the Thames and through cemeteries, accompanied by a haunting piano music. Night Dances’ imagery is abstracted and less grounded as a translation of Plath’s poems and her life. Again Plath’s voice is used, but edited skilfully... words are repeated and isolated, ending in abrupt silences. Night Dances is more of a response to Plath than Lady Lazarus, and it is an intensely personal film for Lahire, whose mother helped make the film, but who died while it was still in production. The final film of the trilogy is Johnny Panic. Within this film Lahire deftly combines the fictional aspects of Plath’s writing with the stark reality of her life. Johnny Panic is a filmic and poetic text that evokes and adds to Plath’s own dreams in the story “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”, and which grounds Plath’s own recorded statement: “one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying — like madness and being tortured...” Dramatic lighting, a heightened sense of rich colour achieved through the use of 16mm film and an enclosed set,
Living on air
further evoke Plath’s text and influence upon the films and upon Lahire. As Lahire herself states: “Plath was a very colour separated person in her text: black and white, blood red and cornflower blue, gold and purple. There is nothing in between. I can’t be bothered with that myself, because it’s too much the proper film aesthetic that you’re supposed to get, with all the shades in between. I do prefer really extreme saturated colours.” Johnny Panic is a complexly constructed film, both visually, practically and metaphorically. The set of Johnny Panic serves as many different spaces: the doctor’s clinic, the secretary’s office, the mind. The screens even act as the pages of Plath’s books, with images back-projected onto them. “For the economy of filmmaking I felt that a clock-work Bolex gives a very specific aesthetic and an enclosed set and light sources suggest images and voices coming out of a black void; and this directly relates to how memory works. Coming out of the black spaces of the mind. Zooming through the space only to disappear again.” As in all the films’ imagery, character fragments of text and themes reoccur, yet like Plath’s work these are reworked. Lahire saw this shape-shifting as intrinsically linked to cinema. “When you go around all her work the same images come up again and again in different guises. It’s really shape-shifting in the sense of taking on a form — from becoming a tiny grain of rice in a pot that is being boiled, and
then shooting herself off to becoming Ariel or an arrow. All these different forms and dynamics suggested to me a cinematic eye. They can be created with things like jump-cuts and flash-backs, zoom, point of view; and yet not every thing has been discovered, not all is up there to be defined, but some kind of bottomless depth.” Although presented as a trilogy, the films can be equally enjoyed individually. While Lahire’s films are undoubtedly inspired by and responses to the work and life of Sylvia Plath, the evolution of this work shows as much about Lahire’s practice as it does about Plath’s work. The films consider and sensitively represent the work of Plath in a new and refreshing light, without appearing as simply illustration. All three films astutely straddle the personal and the theoretical, while at the same time being a truly aesthetic cinematic experience. Sandra Lahire’s Living on Air will be screened at 7pm on Thursday, 10 February 2000 at the Lux Cinema, as part of Handbags and Hardware, the festival of women’s film organised by Cinenova. Thanks to Sandra Lahire.
Originally published in Filmwaves, Issue 10, Winter 2000.
p. 72 Necropolis, ‘lights / colours’ page from proposal, Sandra Lahire, 1992. Courtesy of Sarah Turner. p. 73 Necropolis, ‘lighting’ page from proposal, Sandra Lahire, 1992. Courtesy of Sarah Turner.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Living on air
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Sandra Lahire by Sarah Turner, Lis Rhodes and Sarah Pucill
Sandra Lahire, 19 November 1950 - 27 July 2001 in Memoriam You kept laughing So did you But it wasn’t funny Then why were you laughing? I was laughing ‘cos you were laughing But it wasn’t funny No, but you kept making me laugh Oh So why were you laughing? Because she looked like a Bridget Riley painting with egg on it You can see it now can’t you? A striped vertical monotone, subverted by a kind of yokey blob. Sandra Lahire and I had just come out of a meeting at the BFI. Before your imaginations run with this, let me be clear; I’m describing a jumper not a person. I can’t remember now if it was a policy or a production meeting as it’s Sandra’s irreverent humour that reverberates. A clear and haunting echo. And, as I write this I’m haunted not only by the loss of Sandra but by the loss of her laughter echoing through those spaces: I mean BFI Production in Rathbone Street, the London Film-Makers’ Co-op in Gloucester Avenue, Cinenova distribution (formerly Circles) and the Lux Centre, the monolith that formed through the merger of the LFMC and LEA. The haunting isn’t just for the fabric of those buildings, important though they were, as the loss that echoes in our current traumatised but atomised silence is the loss of collective practice; of thirty years of dissent and debate. For we didn’t, of course, just giggle in those meetings; we lobbied and discussed and produced collectively. Sandra was the only person who could have persuaded me to put maggots in my eyeballs. I performed in Lady Lazarus for her — then later that evening we’d stay up all night recording a soundtrack for one of my films. We’d go up to the LFMC to work on her optical printing and there we’d find Alia and Tanya Syed negotiating the Print Processor,
then Lis Rhodes or Tina Keane would drop by to discuss all of our editing strategies. Sandra’s output was prodigious; her films are as exacting as her use of metaphor, and if her approach to form was irreverent her content was deadly serious. From her brilliant first film Arrows, a meditation on anorexia and cultural constructions of body image, through to her Plutonium films and the Sylvia Plath trilogy, Sandra’s vision as a filmmaker was as precise as a scalpel cutting down to bone. When Sandra died this summer from complications that arose from her long struggle with anorexia, I was forced to think again about anorexia and all the attendant cultural assumptions that it has. Many of these are so explicit in their negativity I won’t digress into listing them here because I still find myself thinking of something else. That “something else” is the work of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre. For Lefebvre we are only truly “present” in what he calls extreme “moments”; individual or social crisis, the first flight of love or impending death. Call it crisis if you will, but Sandra lived that intensity in “moments” that spanned her work, her friendships, her loves. And in that, I’m sure of this: it wasn’t a death force, it was life affirming. Sarah Turner is a filmmaker and curator. She collaborated with Sandra on the Sylvia Plath trilogy. Sarah currently lectures in screenwriting at the Southampton Institute.
Sandra’s letters to Lis Rhodes July 26th 1990 Another chapter in the pulp novel? Have been to my sister’s these days, and getting a reception from her children which, considering my moods, I don’t deserve. But maybe because they are so raw they don’t see or remember these things, maybe being with them makes one pleasanter in the first place. I love the summer sunlight. It is very super 8 inducing. In fact today I will sell my original old Beatles record and get some super 8 in Camden. Smith College have sent me a welcoming letter, opening the Sylvia Plath collection for me and my camera. In fact
Living on air
the only remaining obstacle to making this film (if you don’t want to sell records to buy super 8) is the BFI who have still not handed over a penny, even for all the pre-production. Their continuing bureaucracy, whereby you must be on call, has made it impossible to do waitressing etc. On the bright side, however, everyone else gets paid union rates. May 16th 1991 If this film did not contain the voice of Sylvia, I would not get so steamed up. But I am hardly in the “mine-all-mine” auteur bracket here, and I’d better carry out my job properly. In a sense the BFI will be buying Plath’s voice off my back. I did the negotiating, collected all the material and of course all the overtime. Of course I love the editing etc. But the point is there are no royalties for Lady Lazarus for us girls who made it. Horrid and ironic, isn’t it? May the curse of Plath descend on 29 Rathbone St. if they do not handle her with respect. March 28th 1993 Lis, I might not have all your bluesy sound ready next week because I’m deeply, by my standards, investigating improvisations which I will record. I really wanted to say to you that I was brought up near a railway track, can’t get much more bluesy than that. It was the staff building for my grandparents as my grandad worked at the Clapham Junction of Copenhagen. They helped my mum when she had TB in the 1950s. At first I wanted to go to Copenhagen to film there, still could stay with family, but now I know why I like the graffiti titles so much when I made Terminals. It was by the overground railway near Brick Lane. Ruth Novaczek saw those credits on walls much later from the train. Lis Rhodes is an artist who lives and works in London.
Lady Lazarus and Johnny Panic Lady Lazarus A fairground scene provides the backdrop and key to the film which spirals round in kaleidoscopic fashion. A helter skelter energy of visual and aural images with Plath’s poetry and conversational voice, and a lifetime’s skill of in-camera Bolex super-imposition is perfected to dazzling effect. High contrast effects of sparkling light reflected off glass or water, or direct from fireworks, candles or tungsten bulbs provide the hallmark palette of a Lahire film. This mesmeric and haunting quality is at its peak in this film, the first of the Plath trilogy. Sandra was interested in the magical power of film to entrance and hypnotise but equally in the way in which those who are dead come alive
by their presence in the moment of the film’s projection. The poet comes alive through Sandra’s editing of Plath’s recorded voice, which is inseparably joined to the filmmaker’s hallucinatory choreography. Johnny Panic Johnny Panic draws primarily on Plath’s short story of the same title as well as incorporating texts from Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, her journals, and poems. Sandra adds to Plath’s short story by staging her own seven dreams. This was the only film she made in a studio with sets and camera crew which gave Sandra the opportunity to explore a different way of working. Her former in-camera super-imposition effects are developed into stage sets with film projections. As in Lady Lazarus, the film theatricalises a staging of inner conflict with a kind of camp, or Gothic self-consciousness. While both films tackle the taboo subject of suicide, Johnny Panic goes further in treading difficult ground. The desire both to have and to get rid of pain coalesce in an unnerving weave of unstable emotions. Fear, panic, loss and despair are given voice. The flight from pain by its re-enactment in representation as suicide and as poetry is articulated in carnivalesque side-show mood; horror awakening passion, that in turn evokes horror. Whether a theme tune, the poet’s voice, or scraping glass, the sound strikes a raw nerve. Yet Plathian themes of persecution are countered by her defiant speaking voice, looking back at the audience and telling how it is. Fear is faced head on, the demons being exorcised as the film threads through the projector. Reading aloud was for Plath the optimum experience. Her poetry and particularly her reading voice is empowering to listen to in its assertion of a powerful female subjectivity. The sophistication of her language and its sardonic self-aware tone are commanding. In a similar way Sandra’s filmic language and “lived” understanding of Plath’s texts are what make her films powerful. The films give a public voice to levels of despair that “healthy” minds might hide or even censor. Easy binaries of good/bad, healthy/unhealthy are overturned in Sandra’s Plath trilogy. In particular, Johnny Panic unleashes an elaboration of pain, fear and loss that is exposed in its raw state. Suicidal desire is extreme. The film brings this into sharp focus. It shocks and disturbs because of its articulation of horror, yet through its formal elegance an authority and dignity is retained that is hauntingly beautiful. Sarah Pucill was Sandra Lahire’s partner during the five years of making Johnny Panic. She is a filmmaker who lives and works in London. The three texts were published together as a tribute to Sandra Lahire in Vertigo Magazine, Spring 2002.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 1984, 16mm, colour, 15 min
Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 1986, 16mm, colour, 20 min
Alison Fox played the dulcimer. Sylvia Plath read her poem “The Thin People”. Thanks to the women that replied to a letter about anorexia in Feminist Art News and the Women’s Therapy Centre. Made at St. Martin’s School of Art.
With Frankie Earnshaw, Inge Lahire [Madsen], Maria McMahon, Cathy Morley, Kate Novaczek. Sound effects: Inge Lahire [Madsen]. Clarinet: Giora Feidman. Contact: Zohl de Ishtar (Women Working for a Nuclear free and Independent Pacific)
Arrows uses a combination of live action and rostrum work to communicate the experience of anorexia and to analyse the cultural causes of the condition. “I am so aware of my body,” we are told on the soundtrack, whilst images of caged wild birds are intercut with images of the rib cage of the film’s subject, the filmmaker herself. Taking the camera into her own hands, and revealing this process to the spectator by using a mirror, the filmmaker shows herself in control of this representation of a woman’s body. The film ends with Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Thin People” which speaks of people who starve themselves, and people who are actually deprived, locating the condition of anorexia firmly in Western patriarchal culture. (LUX)
Terminals exposes women’s corporeal vulnerability to techno-patriarchal culture through a filmic exploration of the working conditions of female workers at nuclear power stations. Voices of women describe their heightened exposure to the risks of lung cancer, miscarriage, Down syndrome or neurological damage, while deeply affecting images and sounds attempt to give tangible form to this intangible threat. Echoing the way that the nuclear workers’ bodies are harmed by exposure to radiations, the filmstrip is constantly overexposed, burned to the point of the image’s near-disappearance. (programme notes for From Reel to Real, Tate Modern 2016) The “work faster” ethic is written on the door to the terminals. Hazards to fertility or risks of cancer are not criteria in setting “acceptable” levels of exposure to radiation at work. At the Visual Display Terminal, women are staring directly at a source of radiation. Bomb tests and waste disposal are the white man’s cancer imposed on the people of the Pacific. (Sandra Lahire)
Edge Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 1986, 16mm, colour, 12 min Synthetiser and sung by Kate Bradley War and violence against women in videos and on the news. This short, named after Sylvia Plath’s last poem, is about the woman who is a daughter; icy, perfected and petrified for the patriarchy. She is also a mother drawing her two children with her into this death-in-life. Edge is the irony, which is the poet’s defiance. And it is the blade… how far can those controllers go with their instruments and armaments and still act as though our pieces and feelings can be stuck together again? There is no illusion of the woman’s “resistance”. Yet in this theme of woman as medical and war guinea-pig the silent scream becomes audible in lines of poetry and song. (Sandra Lahire)
Plutonium Blonde Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 1987, 16mm, colour, 16 min With Maria McMahon. Andy Ironside — use of studio at “Diverse Reports”. Voices of Rachel, Sarah, Stephen Knight and Mark Sheehan. Sound: Arne Nordheim. Help & advice: Inge Garner Lahire [Madsen], Mary Samuels, Socialist Environment Association, Noski Deville, Tina Keane. Part of a trilogy of films on radiation, this dystopic collage frames the fractured narrative of Thelma, a woman working with the monitors in a plutonium reactor. Plutonium blonde, a color reference usually used in beauty products, becomes the reality of the female body in the chemical factory. Through phonic collages of casual conversations and children’s lullabies that are disrupted by the fumes of factories and the threat of a nuclear war, Sandra Lahire’s film confronts
Living on air
the viewer with difficult questions around the damaged bodies that inhabit a chemical reality and the female identity during such a crisis. (Mariana Sánchez Bueno) In Plutonium Blonde (1987) narrative coherence enters with the very first image, a figure, supposedly the eponymous blonde, deliriously operating switches, then soon enough engineers operating what we assume to be a nuclear power plant, white boiler suits dropping control rods into cuboid voids to the accompaniment of playground song. The colour set conducts nauseating swerves, as if induced by a giant electromagnet, bleached-out, indigo-toned. As toxic as the colours are, they still hold an allure. Colour is an active participant, asserting the images with a sort of consistency and disturbance. And colour signifies an invisible atomic danger. Through colourisation, naturalness and reality gain ambiguity. Lahire combines the labour force of the nuclear plant with the laboured production of femininity, treating both as nuclear processes (reactions); the colourisation or dyeing of the film acts as a transmitter between the two. As Marina Grzinic contends, “There is no difference between the politics of the medium and the politics of the topic; both are reunited in a clash of layers within deadly light. Radioactivity is deployed as a radioactivity of the film image in itself.” And turns everything against itself: “Even the drinking water — you can’t drink it to save your life.”(Kerstin Schroedinger)
Uranium Hex Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 1987, 16mm & video, colour, 12 min Research & invaluable help: I. Garner Lahire [Madsen], Fred and Anna-Maria, Claudette Wilkie, Lis Rhodes, Dr. E. Becker, Winona Laduke. Voices of Denise Hawrysio, Bill Burns. People of Elliot Lake: Linda Wilkins, Mary Jane, Manon. Women in Film: Sandra Lahire, Emina Kurtagic. Children: Rachel, Sarah, Stephen and Daniel Knight. Strings: Noski Deville. Sound equipment: Noski Deville, Nick Gordon-Smith, John Wynne, Derek Taylor. 16mm camera: Sandra Lahire. Video camera: Tina Keane. Production help: LFMC, Four Corners, Filmatic. Produced for the Arts Council of Great Britain and “Illuminations”. Editor/Director: Sandra Lahire. Using a kaleidoscopic array of experimental techniques, this film explores uranium mining in Canada and its destructive effects on both the environment and the women working in the mines. A plethora of images ranging from the women at work to spine-chilling representations of cancerous bodies are accompanied by unnerving industrial sounds and straightforward information from some of the women. (luxonline) Uranium hexafluoride is a highly poisonous, colourless, crystalline, radioactive matter which is used in the uranium
enrichment process to produce fuel for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. Uranium Hex proceeds in a similar soundcolour-visual collage with a repetitive layering. At once projecting her materials into a nuclear future with hundreds of thousands of years of half-life and exploring the destructive effects of radiation on bare skin, Lahire herself notes, “I am working on acid-coloured printing and video performance techniques, treating voices and fields of industrial sounds as well as making local speech come to the foreground of the composition.” (Kerstin Schroedinger)
Serpent River Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 1989, 16mm, colour, 32 min Advice and help: Peter Johnson, Gilbert Oskaboose, Beatrice Meawissiga, Mary Ann Beaudry, Linda Wilkins, Barbara Fazekas. Children: Donna Allison, Amy Cameron, Hazim Sheikh. Contacts: Claire Dimock, Bob Manuel, Denise Doiron. Production: LFMC, Four Corners. Thanks to: Gina Gables, Nick Gordon-Smith, Moira Sweeney, Shahnaz Hussain, Suzy Ilbrey, Carol Salter. Guitar Composition: Paul Joseph Battah. Guitar Player: Jo Robbins. Frequency Generator: Alfred G. Lahire. Hands with X-rays: Elaine Burrows. Editing Help: Lis Rhodes. Sound Recordist: Inge Madsen. Editing/Camera/Direction: Sandra Lahire. Produced for the Arts Council of Great Britain and Channel Four Television. Beautiful but often violent images are interwoven to create an experimental documentary about the hazardous existence of the Serpent River community living in the shadow of uranium mines in Ontario, Canada. Serpent River is the final part of a trilogy (see Uranium Hex and Plutonium Blonde) of anti-nuclear films in which the filmmaker makes visible the invisible menace of radioactivity. (BFI Player) People, the landscape and natural resources all bear the scars. A matterof-fact narration by a woman miner and a radiation expert lend emphasis to the film’s unconventional and evocative images. (Cinenova screening)
Lady Lazarus Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 1991, 16mm & video, colour and b&w, 24 min With the voice of Sylvia Plath and performance by Sarah Turner. With special thanks to Olwyn Hughes. Assistant camera: Robin Sheppard. Production Assistant: Helena Bullivant. Camera & Lighting: Sandra Lahire and Nicola Baldwin. Sound Editor: Anna Ksiezopolska. Executive producer: Kate Ogborn. Producer: Gill Henderson. Edited &
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Directed by Sandra Lahire. A BFI production in association with Channel Four Television. Sylvia Plath introduced her Lady Lazarus reading by saying: “The speaker is a woman who has a great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the phoenix... She is also just a good plain resourceful woman.” In this film Lady Lazarus is a woman irresistibly drawn towards Plath’s voice. She becomes a medium for Sylvia, as in a séance, as the film travels between Massachusetts and Camden. Bringing together the poet’s voice with a kaleidoscope of rich images, Sandra Lahire’s film explores a cinematic alphabet for Plath’s own readings of her poetry and extracts from an interview given just before her death. (LUX/BFI Player)
Eerie Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 1992, 16mm, b&w, 1 min In collaboration with Sarah Turner and Helena Bullivant A magical film loop, combining a Berlin Lesbian decadence with falling in love in a cablecar, high above the slopes of Mount Pilatus. Inspired by German expressionist filmmaking, with in-camera dissolves. (Sandra Lahire) Part of a longer (unmade) film called Necropolis.
Night Dances Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 1995, 16mm, colour, 15 min “Displaced” piano-playing by Sandra Lahire, based on fragments of Schubert, Gershwin and klezmer themes. Featuring Inge Madsen, Cécile Chich, Sarah Turner, Fran Jacobson and Sarah Knight. Inspired by Sylvia Plath’s “The Night Dances”. Funded by the Arts Council of England Night Dances is for my mother, who died whilst helping me to make this piano musical. The Dance of Death is bound to life — Lechaim — as we whirl together by Hebrew gravestones. A dreaming woman is ferried through our decaying city. This is the age of the Personal Computer — the Private Catacomb for the switched-on elite. Its dark doorways are for the wandering homeless… true survivors. (Sandra Lahire) “Such coldness, forgetfulness. / So your gestures flake off - / Warm and human, then their pink light / Bleeding and peeling / Through the black amnesias of heaven. / Why am I given / These lamps, these planets / Falling like blessings, like flakes [...]”
Night Dances borrows its title from the Sylvia Plath poem cited above. An overlaying of light and dark imagery accompanied by a piano creates a visual dance that invites the viewer to meditate on the dualities of darkness and brightness, on love, illness, life, and death. The relationship with a mother and the relationship with a lover become a ritual of memory and reality invoked by performance and archival recreation. (Mariana Sánchez Bueno)
Johnny Panic Sandra Lahire United Kingdom, 2000, 16mm & video, colour, 46 min A Maya Vision International Production for the British Film Institute and the Arts Council of England. Inspired by Fragments of Sylvia Plath’s Journals, The Bell Jar, Poetry, and her short story called Johnny Panic. With Nicola Winterson, Cécile Chich, Ali Bye, Lynn Caral, Sarah Turner and Liane Harris. Conceived, Edited and Directed by Sandra Lahire. Produced by Sally Thomas. Director of Photography: Jonathan Collison. Art Director: Janice Flint. Sound Recordist: Barnaby Templer. Still Life Camerawork & Editing Advice: Sarah Pucill. Sound Design: Steve Felton. Thanks to Andy Powell, David Leister, Belinda Parsons, Helena Bullivant, Kate Forrest. Special thanks to Rebecca Dobbs & Olwyn Hughes. The final film of Lahire’s Plath trilogy, Johnny Panic is also her longest and most ambitious. The film arises from and shares its name with the writer’s posthumously published short story, and borrows liberally from the broader body of her work to create a loose patchwork of institutionalisation and revolt. Articulated through dreams, Johnny Panic darts between recollections of familial trauma and the prosecution of the Rosenbergs in Cold War-era New York to unleash a vision of dread, and a resounding dignity in spite of it. (Mariana Sánchez Bueno)
The information on cast & crew has been retrieved from the credits of the films themselves. Sandra Lahire’s films are distributed by LUX and Cinenova (both in London). www.lux.org.uk www.cinenova.org
Living on air
p. 79 Artist’s statement, Sandra Lahire, 1994.
the films and words of Sandra Lahire
Colophon Published on the occasion of the programme dedicated to Sandra Lahire at the Courtisane Festival 2021. This publication was compiled, edited and published by Courtisane and the research project Their Past is Always Present at Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola. Edited by María Palacios Cruz and Charlotte Procter With the help of Paula González García and Mariana Sánchez Bueno Copy editing by María Palacios Cruz and Mariana Sánchez Bueno Series editor: Pieter-Paul Mortier Graphic design by Gunther Fobe Printing by Graphius Thanks to All the authors, Steven Ball, Cinenova, Benjamin Cook, Julia Cortegana, Hannah Knight, Pablo La Parra, LUX, Michael Mazière, Carlos Muguiro, Sarah Pucill, Felipe M. Retamal, Lucy Reynolds, Lis Rhodes, Clara Sánchez-Dehesa, Sarah Turner, Mark Webber The group of students who participated in the research project Their Past is Always Present in 2018/2019: Elizabeth Dexter, Paloma Hernández, Agustín Ormaechea, Jugatx Otero Bilbao, María Laura Ríos, Alfredo Ruiz, Carlos Saldaña, Andrea Sánchez, Mon Sisu Satrawaha Images courtesy of Cinenova Distribution and LUX, London. The publisher has sought to observe the statutory regulations in respect of copyright, but has been unable to ascertain the provenance of the reproduced documents with certainty in every case. Any party believing they retain a right in this regard is requested to contact the publisher. Courtisane is supported by the Flemish Community / Vlaamse Gemeenschap, Stad Gent, KASK / School of Arts www.courtisane.be Elías Querejeta Zine Eskola is supported by Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia www.zine-eskola.eus