Elisabeth Subrin

File Under “Heroes”

Lia Gangitano

... the compulsion to repeat must be ascribed to the unconscious repressed.
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principal

Repression goes hand in hand with the advent of capitalism and the bourgeois [...] we affirm repression.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1

Thank you Freud and Foucault for supplying this linguistic chain that aptly suggests the difficult task of formulating the collapse of depressive symptoms, sociopolitical conditions, and formal strategies that characterize the film and video work of Elisabeth Subrin. To provide form for astute historical subjects through non-narrative, experimental techniques (layering, reiteration, repetition) and render this form inseparable from matters of content is the conceptual scenario that motivates Subrin's work. Constituting minor histories, her accumulated films and videos challenge the limits of valid historical subject matter and legitimate interpretive methods. Her works "submit as historical evidence the daily, often unremarkable but excruciatingly familiar female negotiations with language, subjectivity and power." (1)

Issues addressed in Subrin's recent projects can be viewed in embryonic form in early works such as Is a Lie (1988, her first video), Interference (1989), and Evidence Acquired Without Consent (1990), that assemble disparate histories, intimate and political, in an effort "to make culture at least partly accountable for female disorder." (2) Footage of Civil Rights demonstrations, home movies, Muybridge motion studies and soundtrack recitations of Simone de Beauvoir articulate a self-conscious generational problem, cyclic in nature, for the feminist artist: art or activism?

We haven't done the geometry
. (3)

Against a backdrop of Free to Be You and Me encouraging graphics, Are You There God, It's Me Margaret?, feminist slogans, and Carole King's voice, Swallow (1995) delivers characters experiencing similar dilemmas, whose manifestations are starkly located on the body, scrutinized and examined with Bladerunner-esque precision. Harrison Ford's voice accompanies the grid that superimposes itself on our heroine's face. Linking the adolescent experience of anorexia to larger social forces, the tape tracks the parallel lives of two white suburban girls in order to "explore problems in defining and detecting symptoms of depression in a culture that, itself symptomatic, can rarely distinguish between a good, productive girl and a depressed one." (4)

"My depression points to my not knowing how to lost - I have perhaps been unable to find a valid compensation for the loss? It follows that any loss entails the loss of my being - and of Being itself." (5)

"Sarah could not endure the possibility of failure [...] we watched it like tv." (6)

Knee sox nearly every day, fake happy phone conversations, "Name that Feeling," and applause posit little miss perfect against the world of evil school teacher, mean witch, power bitch, and the revolutionary sounds of girl guitar. Sciency voiceover drones about "abnormal" behavior: watch for pessimism, frequent crying, loss of self-esteem, neurosis, suicidal tendencies. The layering of mixed messages creates a collage reminiscent of Martha Rosler's "Bringing the War Home," where picture-perfect views from Home Beautiful are intruded by realities of the Vietnam War. "Recent feminist history is evoked as a swirling social field, a kind of imaginary, where 1960s history and culture, inarticulate and mythic in a young girl's mind, could be seen to have latent, distorted meanings later in life." (7) 1980s rhetoric of "careers" replaces 70s notions of "consciousness," but it still doesn't explain a generation of starving feminists. Depression (and its anorexic performance) is defined as a language disorder: "there was no word for it, but I knew what she was talking about... " (8)

No matter how many levels of consciousness one reaches, the problem always goes deeper.
Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution

We see the Chicago skyline, real Mies van Der Rohe, fake Mies van der Rohe, and Shulie (1997) begins. A shot-by-shot, line-by-line recreation of a suppressed 1967 documentary about a member of the Now generation, the film uses conventions of 60s direct cinema to explore the residual impact of social movements and the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction form. That this particular documentary featured a young art student who would later become a significant author of a groundbreaking radical feminist manifesto is rendered minor detail. However, the scarcity of such a document, in its original form, is highlighted by its reenactment. The film's embrace of the premature - just before becoming an identifiable subject - is part of its objective. Often the most radical conceptual maneuvers are comprised of artists' willful attempts to do impossible things, to inhabit spaces they cannot go. To place a camera, thirty years later, in the exact location where someone else's has been, is an excruciating exercise in failure - an accomplishment time does not allow. Why this rigorous attempt seems so poignant, so sad, remains unclear to me.

"Mimicry, I am more and more certain, is the fundamental performance of this cultural moment. At the heart of mimciry is a fear that the match will not hold and 'the thing itself' (you, me, love, art) will disappear before we can reproduce it. So we hurl ourselves headlong toward copy machines, computers, newspapers, cloning labs." (9)

Bad wig, bad paintings, a Starbuck's cup all tell us that we are looking at a copy with ambiguous purpose. Its early working title, Semiotics of the Kitten, suggests the peculiar temporal conflation that characterizes the gap between Martha Rosler and Kim Gordon. Fixation on the 60s, second wave feminism, and its collision with the present in terms of aesthetics, retro fashion, and tacit non-identification with dominant culture become kind of embarrassing. "The question about being part of a generation... " Cut to fake hippies, face painting, puppets. The Chelsea Girls is on the marquee, 60s political messages are worn on baby tees. But the problem of shapelessness outlined by an actress reciting the words of a young woman in the late 60s is no different than it is today. Belong, to any generation, is at best retroactive. "I care about the now, sure, after a good day of work, I like to go for a walk." (10)

"It will be a history read differently, at once the same in the Real and an other in the Imaginary. These narratives, these myths, these fantasies, these fragments of evidence, these tail ends of history do not compose a true history. [...] On the level of fantasy, it will be fantastically true: It is still acting on us. In telling it, in developing it, even in plotting it, I seek to undo it, to overturn it, to reveal it, to expose it. (11)

"The importance of immobility and silence to photographic authority, the nonfilmic nature of this authority, leads me to some remarks on the relationship of photography with death." (12)

The Fancy (2000) is a collection of static shots, roving shots, stills masquerading as moving pictures, and moving pictures reeanacting from still photographs. Its subject is authoritatively recited, read from books. This is all you can know about the dead photographer Francesca Woodman. The space she occupied, the space outside the frame, is unavailable. Of 500 negatives, 107 are published. Reorganizing the available historical documentation about her life and work insinuates nothing more than her photographs themselves suggest. The Fancy links the concept of the off-frame (13) with issues of repression, repetition and trauma in Woodman's work and life, "reenacting the compulsion to repeat something emotionally and visually repressed." (14)

Mirroring Woodman's preoccupation with collecting and reordering cultural debris, Subrin, however, chooses to emulate forensic evidence and crime scene photography to depict Woodman's festishistic Victorian registry of props, locations, equipment. An index that shifts from 19th century object (pearl necklace, garter belt, stuffed fox) to present day abject (Maybelline blue eyeshadow, Vaseline, rubber glove) levels time through it's packaging of evidence in hermetically sealed and labeled plastic bags. A structural document that habitually breaks its own conventions, the intrusion of disturbing factual and theoretical commentary belies inherent formal limitations. Innuendo operates in retrospective, burdened replicas of Woodman's words and images.

"This particular nightmare is of a woman turned into a legend that won't turn back into history." (15)

Woodman's biography is an ensemble of residences (in the US and Europe), enrollments in educational institutions, and her recorded dissociation from a physical landscape - as evidenced in her journals and photographs. Available documents demonstrate a complex sexual identity, unproblematized economic and racial privilege, and a mature, unapologetic longing to disappear: bridges and tiarras, Girl with Journal, Girl with Weed, Some Disordered Interior Geometries, On Being an Angel. A profusion of classrooms, lab rooms, art studios, darkrooms emerge as slide show inventories of dead things and emptiness. Diagrammatic views, crop marks, terse descriptions elicit the lush coldness of National Geographic: "stuffed raccoon, a fox, feathers and birds and herself in the case." (16)

Contemporary women in street clothes perform poses from Woodman's photographs. A voiceover reads goodbye to a fine sorceress, talks about witches in forests and another cycle of history. I'd like to say thank you, Colorado, for giving us Columbine and Jon Benet, with which to understand the real traumas of youth amidst idyllic mountain ranges. And also Abigail Solomon-Godeau, for pointing out, with the help of Bob Dylan, the artist's position as prodigal daughter, with living testimonial that "[a]lienated from language, from culture, from image, from body, the woman artist nonetheless manages to speak." (17) And lastly, George Woodman, for the prescient metaphor: "a dragonfly would sew a girl's lips together if she ever lied." (18)

... and that chair, it would look like a nice chair... It looks really violent... I don't know what you're supposed to think of that chair. (19)

(1) Elisabeth Subrin, "Trashing Shulie: Remnants from Some Abandoned Feminist History," eds. Steve Reinke and Tom Taylore, Lux: A Decade of Artists' Film and Video (Toronto: YYZ Books/Pleasure Dome, 2000): 190.
(2) Elisabeth Subrin, unpublished artist statement, 1997.
(3) Swallow, 1995, voiceover.
(4) Elisabeth Subrin, unpublished artist statement, 1997.
(5) Julia Kristeva, "Psychoanalysis - A Counterdepressant," Black Sun (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989): 5
(6) Swallow, 1995, voiceover.
(7) Subrin, unpublished artist statement, 1997.
(8) Swallow, voiceover.
(9) Peggy Phelan, "Introduction," Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories (London and New York: Routledge, 1997): 12
(10) Shulamith Firestone, as performed by Kim Soss, in Elisabeth Subrin, Shulie, 1997.
(11) Hélene Cixous and Catherine Clément, "The Guilty One: Sorceress and Hysteric," trans. Betsy Wing, The Newly Born Woman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988): 6.
(12) Christian Metz, "Photography and Fetish," ed. Carol Squiers, The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography (Seattle: Bay Press, 1990): 157
(13) Christian Metz, "The character who is off-frame in a p hotograph, however, will never come into the frame, will never be heard - again a death, another form of death. The spectator has no empirical knowledge of the contents of the off-frame, but at the same time cannot help imagining some off-frame, hallucinating it, dreaming the shape of this emptiness.": 161
(14) Elisabeth Subrin, unpublished email, 2000.
(15) Catherine Lord, "What Becomes a Legend Most: The Short, Sad Career of Diane Arbus," ed. Richard Bolton, The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1989): 111.
(16) Voiceover in Elisabeth Subrin, The Fancy, 2000
(17) Abigail Solomon