“We have expanded. We have filled an emptiness in ourselves by creating one in somebody else.”
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
Women, letters, their histories and writing are mapping our future. To you, Grandma Jenna says and a yellow glowing sphere is traced by fingertips. Under the touch the sphere’s opacity decreases: inside an old woman struggles reading a list with a magnifying glass in her kitchen. For a short moment the voiceover stops to let her address Jenna frailly: ‘How can you help me?’ It is a splinter of the closeness between girls and their Grandmas and the unexpected moment of familiar intimacy overtakes us.
Letters was conceived out of anger and distance from New York where Occupy was in full force, at the grave of the French philosopher Simone Weilin Kent. A series of five videos about closeness and distance, it addresses the contradictions of the people who influence us most: our fathers believing they resolved the Mystery of Women, grandmothers who embody woman’s physical decline and the women, like Weil, who we admire but who, unlike the men, weren’t just allowed to be. In Letters, relationships between image and voiceover break, narratives collapse, but the voice envelopes and directs its content – underscored by disco soundtracks and Phil Collins.
Eileen Myleen’s introduction to Chris Kraus’s epistolary autobiographical novel entitled I Love Dick begins with her resentment of unwillingly identifying with the female protagonist of Francois Truffaut’s Woman Next Door – the predictable fate of a woman who ruins herself for a man. But these are the stories that made us, as we are drawn to them, as we are repulsed by them. ‘Hold me!’ Jenna whispers with us when we speak. We don’t know how to distinguish between external and internal voices or how to recognize the one that’s truly ours.
‘Woman ought to find herself, among other things, through images of herself already deposited in history and the conditions of production of the work of man, not on basis of his work , his genealogy’ Luce Irigaray writes in An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Chris Kraus does exactly the opposite; she writes hundreds of unrequited love letters to a man called Dick she meets for one evening only with her then husband philosopher Sylvere Lotringer. The man in question, art critic Dick Hebditch, responds once, in writing, to her husband.
It’s arguable whether Chris Kraus succeeds in escaping of the central figure of an elusive man in charge of female identity but her defilement causes a gender norm to transform into contradictory and unsettling power dynamics. In Carl Dreyer’s words she creates ‘the artifice to stop artifice from artifice’; female abjection taken to its extreme – it weaponises ‘femaleness’ into something where its meaning is emptied, reversed and reinstated by the writer.
‘Writing to you is, like, the worst thing I can do,’ Jenna says in Letter to Osama Bin Laden while we watch a pair of (our) legs clad in jeans rubbing against each other – the shot is composed from the eye level, unfocused, pixelated. The voice punctuates the footage, which becomes skin-like, resembling Hannah Wilke’s thumbs carefully pressing chewing gum sculptures on her barren upper body to distract from her nipples; they become targets, bullet holes or a shield.
Unlike Chris Kraus, Jenna translates her fantasy into a role reversal. Behind a microphone her voice becomes the Other, the voice of the Enemy of the State. Animated twin towers swirl together to disclose as a couple; geopolitical strategies and heteronormative intimacy are shown as intrinsically intertwined.
Julia Heyward in her ritualistic performance Shake Daddy Shake, part of Three Evenings on a Revolving Stage at New York’s Judson Memorial Church in 1976, spoke in an exaggerated southern drawl about her father, her voice lending the character a hypnotism which suggest it may inhabit her. Jenna removes herself from the stage and allows images to enter her voice and in the reverse her voice morphs with moving image, re-defining her bodily presence. Even though we get a glimpse of the artist several times in the series, it is her voice that embodies and is the bearer of her presence, where identity is mutable through character adoption and technology.
This mutability is in the conflation. In the speech of her Freudian psychoanalyst father, who ‘talks, talks, talks and talks’ about the century of the self, we decipher imagined polytonal dialogue about the intergenerational conflict, ideology, American power, patriarchy and paternal love. From the conflation emerges a polyphonic voice, which Jenna ultimately remains in control of. ‘I don’t want to be silent’ they repeat together in a disharmonic duet. Jenna Bliss’s presence multiplies yet again, reinforcing the obfuscating nature of the screen and camera and the fluid identity play they facilitate.