The Views of the Feminist Archive
Alexandra Juhasz / Pitzer College
I have forcefully objected to oppositional labels like “first wave” and “second wave,” for these only rehearse male-conceived dualistic Cartesian symbolic systems wherein things are with “this” or “that.”
Marlene Doktoczyk-Donohue, “The Waitresses in Context”1
So far we have regarded all films made from natural material as coming within this category [documentary]…They all represent different qualities of observation, different intentions in observation, and, of course, very different powers and ambitions at the stage of organizing material. I propose, therefore, after a brief word on the lower categories, to use the documentary description exclusively of the higher.
John Grierson, “First Principles of Documentary”2
John Grierson, considered the father of documentary, looked scornfully on the “lower categories” of the form, so base, they did not even deserve the name. In so doing, he programatically rehearsed a “male-conceived dualistic Cartesian symbolic system wherein things are with ‘this’ or ‘that.’” The kinds of films Grierson disdains are those commonly made by the mothers of feminist video, artists of the 1970’s Los Angeles Woman’s Building, “the capital of cultural feminism, where the spiritual and the political met and rowdily merged.”3 Lucy Lippard continues:
In 1973, when it was founded, a women’s community was something new and very appealing. To visit the Woman’s Building then was like vacationing at a wonderful, healing resort… It provided not a room of one’s own but of our own, and sharing did not always come easily to all the fledgling egos occupying it. As the Building became “home,” the community was also “family”—a situation that was at once comforting and threatening. Leaders—though there weren’t supposed to be any, and no one wanted to replicate the psychological tensions of the mother/daughter relationship—encouraged ego-expanding ambition along with community, and the two were not always compatible.4
At the heart of the radical feminist art education invented and refined at the Building over fifteen years was videotape. And their extensive video archive—holding “different qualities of observation” of Goddess rituals, coming out workshops, consciousness raising circles, all admittedly, even proudly “snip-snaps of some utterly unimportant ceremony”5 —has recently moved to posh patriarchal digs at the Getty Research Institute.
“I’m Joy. I’m from Kansas. I came here because I heard about it, and there’s nothing like it where I’m from. No feminist support community and I’m anxious for that.” “I’m Lyricon Jazzwomin McCaleb. This is my 2nd year. I’m nervous. I quit smoking. I hate microphones and now I have a camera to go with it. I think I’ll die. I’m a visual artist. I came here because I was a grape turning into a raisin.”
“First Day Feminist Studio Workshop,” Nancy Angelo, 1980
Alongside this hour or so of taped introductions, the collection includes sloppy recordings of art shows and poetry readings (the camera as often as not on the floor as the speaker’s face), unidentified footage shot for tapes never finished, fully realized art video, cable access television programs, and random tapes donated to the Building by indiscriminate feminists from across the country. This hodge-podge of 250 tapes also comes in a wide range of original formats, includes work from 1973-1991, and is identified in the cataloge only by the esoteric titling found on the tapes’ original labels, often without dates or authors.
In the 1940s, Grierson was attempting to explain how using the camera to record this kind of “natural material,” the stuff of daily life, does not become a documentary until it is edited and organized into an argument, aestheticized and made into art. However, for the seventies feminists of the Los Angeles Woman’s Building, this record keeping, these documents of daily practice, this process was their art, one messy but still coherent project, where neither tautology nor priority is given to the “this” or the “that,” the “lower” or “higher.” In its time, at the Building, video played a central role in a unique feminist art education organized around the dangers of female representation and its associated pleasures of self-realization. Video was at one and the same time a favored method, medium, and record. Thus, all the work is the work; all the process is the process; everything was taped; and 250 videos were shelved and saved.
Viewed today, the Woman’s Building’s incongruous archive of process displays a continuingly relevant project of women’s visibility: a theory and practice for being seen and remaining remembered through video. While film has often been used for this function since its inception, the Woman’s Building made and archived their work through unique feminist commitments to process and knowledge, producing an anomalous and invigorating archive. In his work on early documentary, Tom Gunning makes provides media scholars of other periods and archives a critical vocabulary for understanding “primitive” work. Gunning notes that the actualities of documentary’s “prehistory” have gone under-studied because they are thought to be merely “descriptive,” “uninterpreted,” “too raw, too close to reality, and bereft of artistic or conceptual shaping.”6 Rather than discarding the earliest forms (like the first feminist video), as most are wont to do for their embarrassing lacks and “snip-snaps,” Gunning chooses to carefully enumerate their distinct stylistic subtleties. “This Urform of early nonfiction film I propose to call the ‘view,’” he writes.7 The Woman’s Building’s video practice evidences a unique documentary video view where the collective, the circle, and the archive form a distinct and lucid feminist project.
Gunning describes the first of two prototypical view films as the tour: “the view of the tourist is recorded here, placing natural or cultural sites on display, but also miming the act of visual appropriation, the natural and cultural consumed sights.”8 Interestingly, the women at the Building shot a large number of such tours: several of the Building itself, and many more of the shows they put on there. “1893 Historical Handicrafts Exhibition” (Produced by the Woman’s Building, 1976) tours this exhibition by following two women, Ruth Iskin and Sheila de Bretteville, as they move in a circle, clockwise, stopping before each panel, and discussing minute historical details as well as their exacting curatorial thinking. Yet oddly, and revealingly, the viewer cannot see what they describe, given that the entire video is shot in medium long-shot. Thus, the women are the focus of our tour, and in particular their shared curatorial work and political analysis. More over, unlike more traditional tour films, “1893 Historical Handicrafts Exhibition” exhibits a complicated relation to time as well as to place. The video records two women in the present “touring” illegible pictures from the 1976 Woman’s Building art show about an exhibition from 1893, while standing in the Woman’s Building of their present, lecturing, in direct-address to putative students in the future. Hence, mutuality is enacted in Woman’s Building tour videos across multiple registers: in terms of point of view of the guide (who is a multiple subject referring to their own expertise), and also in relation to temporality, all at once (Woman’s Buildings’) past, present, and future.
This is evidenced again in “Constructive Feminism: Reconstruction of the Woman’s Building 1975,” (Sheila Ruth, 1976). This tour is guided by one woman: “The Woman’s Building is a public center for women’s culture.” And so, this feminist view—of mutual and multiple spatiality, temporality, and visuality —begins. She continues:
When we speak of the Woman’s building we are not just talking about the physical building. But the physical space has been part of our process: taking responsibility for the creation of the kind of environment we need to produce our work and the space we need to make our work public.
While we see a video image of the entry desk, we hear the voice of founder and teacher, Sheila de Bretteville, describing the decisions made, practical and philosophical, about the function and meaning behind the Building’s construction. Our guide then diligently takes us to each room and area of the Building, from bottom to top, meeting a different woman who narrates the work done on that space, as well as the feminist principles there embodied. Says one: “A part of Feminist Education is not only to create one’s art but also the wall in which the piece will hang. This is about ownership… We want to work and play. It gives us another way of being together, building our community and working together.” The organizing theory of this collective view is reiterated by de Bretteville later during the “tour”:
The experience that you always have at the Woman’s Building is that while you are seeing one thing, you can, out of the periphery of your vision, see something else going on and in that way never feels like one thing is happening at a time. There are many points of view existing concurrently.
In this way, the Woman’s Building video archive begs us to consider the strange logics of archiving process. Gunning, again on early documentary, proves an able guide to the more contemporary if still “primitive” documentary media practices under consideration. He describes the second, more temporal form of early documentary as “a view of a process,” records of “the production of a consumer good through a complex industrial process, the creation of an object through traditional craft, or the detailing of a local custom or festival…the most fully developed narrative pattern is the transformation of raw materials into consumable goods.”
The circle of consciousness-raising and the videos it inspired directly contest the patriarchal, linear project of industrial production with its predictable plots (and products). In First Day FSW, 1980, as I demonstrated earlier, that year’s body of students introduce themselves to each other, and us, by passing the camera around the circle. There is a similar structure to “Feminist Studio Workshop—student self-portraits,” (FSW Students, 1979) although it is more figurative. All 24 participants introduce themselves, but then produce a short, rudimentary autobiographical video with the help of their classmates. “Julie James. I am seed. I am heart. I am healing. I am power. I am smooth. I am alive. I am dark red. I am pulsing. I am magic. I am clearing. I am self.” “Laurine DeRocco. I was 5 years old, heard my baby brother’s cry and knew there was no more time for me.” And so on. After the tape ends with the group joining together in a rousing class portrait culminating with a chant, “Feminist Studio Workshop, 1979-80,” and a loud “YEAH!” a quick fade to black bumps us against an unanticipated snippet of yet another circle. We accidentally fall into the last five minutes of a consciousness-raising meeting of a group of deaf women (perhaps the other tape was taped over this), who speak together (we hear through an interpreter while they sign) about the role of affection in their lives, and end their meeting (and tape) with a group (circle) hug.
Their process led to no product (other than its video documentation), but rather to affection, collectivity, and self-expression. But, I’m starting to bore myself. That’s their theory, and it is represented in everything they made. Where patriarchy, and its documentary see linear, singular, goal oriented processes resulting in commodifiable products and places, Woman’s Building video produced and preserved a multiple, messy view of the development of collective experience, voice, and growth en route. In the 1970s, women at the Building augmented their feminist art making and education with video recordings (now archived) to allow for a permanent record of their developing theory of process: a multiple, collective point of view reverberating and transformative in and across people and places, the present as well as the future. At the Getty Research Institute today, watching their compelling if confusing and often outsized archive of process, I am wowed by the complexity and originality of their view.
“The Views of the Feminist Archive” is part of a larger essay, “A Process Archive: The Grand Circularity of Woman’s Building Video,” which was commissioned by Otis College through a Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA, 1945-80 Research Grant, and will be published, with other commissioned essays, as part of the catalogue for the 2011 exhibition, Doin’ It in Public. For more information on Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building, click here.
Please feel free to comment.
- Marlene Doktoczyk-Donohue, “The Waitresses in Context,” in Jerri Allyn and Anne Gauldin, eds., The Waitresses Unpeeled: Performance Art and Life (Los Angeles: Spectrum Digital, 2008):17. [↩]
- John Grierson, “First Principles of Documentary,” in Forsyth Hardy, ed., Grierson on Documentary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966):145. [↩]
- Lucy Lippard, “Foreward,” in Sondra Hale and Terry Wolverton, From Site to Vision: The Woman’s Building in Contemporary Culture: 2. Published on-line: http://womansbuilding.org/fsvcontents.html. [↩]
- Lippard, 2. [↩]
- Grierson, 145. [↩]
- Tom Gunning, “ Before Documentary: Early nonfiction films and the ‘view’ aesthetic,” in Daan Hertogs and Nico de Klerk, eds., Nonfiction Film History 3 Uncharted Territory: Essays on Early Nonfiction Films (Amsterdam: Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1997): 8 and 24. [↩]
- Gunning, 14. [↩]
- Gunning, 15. [↩]