New Feminism: Sex, Sickness and Videotape

In one of our unfinished conversations, Vanalyne Green wrote to me that ‘Saddle Sores’ was a very hard work to make, but this difficulty very rarely breathes through her autobiographical video essay.

In past few months we’ve arranged a Skype meeting several times. But we were out of luck; Vanalyne’s outline froze in the L. A. morning sun while I watched a Skype graphic roll and roll. In a way, there was a comfort to the network failures as if it confirmed I was reaching to the pre-millennial and pre-digital, to the time when analogue video technology, tapes and bulky TV monitors were at its heyday.

The focus of ‘I turn the images of my voice in my head’ has been recent feminist art practices as well as the relationship of the body and technology. Feminist film and video emerged from women’s movement in the seventies when the infrastructure of women-run media centres and collectives in the U.S. provided not only women but also the poor and the people of colour with access visual technology for the first time.

‘Sex, Sickness and Videotape’ is a tribute to video as a medium which empowered women to make and break the rules of self-image, instead of reproducing the images that had been handed to them. Similar to Vanalyne Green’s engagement with video, the artists and writers who contributed to this project deconstruct and rebuild their practice in the response to challenges and possibilities of the current technologically mediated society.

Hana Janečková

01 Saddle Sores

02 Hana Janečková: In Sickness in Health

‘Saddle Sores’ (1998) is set somewhere familiar, but it is not the geographical location that builds a feeling of closeness. The scramble of styles – appropriated footage of John’s Ford 1956 western ‘The Searchers’, analogue video effects and the intimate feel of a home movie, resemble in parts, while watched on a computer screen, a YouTube confessional.

The camera pans jerkily across a friend’s kitchen like footage from a mobile phone as Vanalyne reminisces lightly about her failed romance with a cowboy. In a similar unfocused style it captures personal conversations, while driving and in cafes, and steadies itself at the horror and embarrassment in the artist’s friend’s faces, who were asked to look at images of the people after they contracted herpes.

Shortly after, Vanalyne interjects almost playfully, to depart from the personal to her politics: ‘Is Romance Sexually Transmitted Disease?’ she asks in a large white font on a black background. For Vanalyne, ideas are like viruses. Even before the attention economy of social media became the norm, shared emotions, ideas and stories could be made ‘viral’ (and monetised at profit) in the news and media, as a mass psychological form of contagion. Romance accelerates the contagion. Adding a sickness to romance, it creates a potent and heady mix of trials and tribulations – in the hope that the shared suffering may lead us to a shared self-recovery.

In her book ‘Cold Intimacies: Making of the Emotional Capitalism’, Eva Illouz writes: “In the therapeutic narrative the choices that seem detrimental to us serve some hidden need and purpose. It is here that narratives of self-help and suffering connect for, if we secretly desire out misery, then the self can be made directly responsible for alleviating it.” Vanalyne dismantles a redemptive arch of suffering and healing through love bit-by-bit, the romance is over before the diagnosis becomes evident.

Pain. It had a taste to it, it was metallic and bitter” she tells us of her first symptoms. We don’t see her face as she speaks but an electrically blue object pierces the screen in our direction as if breaking through jellified membrane. It pokes, twists and hovers in the white body-like mass.

It is our internalisation of prescribed and self-policing definitions of desire, sexuality and body that ‘Saddle Sores’ expose anew. The body in the age of Instagram can be only shown if bodily manifestations such as menstrual blood, sweat, pus, semen and hair are not just safely out sight but also outside the limits of conversation. Body, illness and romance must be aestheticised to make themselves presentable, in accordance with the dictated community guidelines.

Australian blogger Belle Gibson cut out gluten, dairy and caffeine to cure herself of cancer, after being given only four months to live. Thousands of her followers watched her miraculous recovery documented by her Instagram account, downloaded her health app and bought her recipes book from Penguin, hoping they could get better, too. Before being revealed as a fraud, Gibson had shared (and monetised) her self-professed trauma with images and selfies using feminine tropes of purity: flowers, tasteful arrangements of ultra-healthy foods, gently lit hospital scenes and bit of Photoshop. Gibson’s followers have fed on the therapeutic narrative, looping through the compassion/desire/consumption chain which was marketed with images of conventional feminine cleanliness and propriety.

It is here that ‘Saddle Sores’ align the concept of purity to its core motif. In the ‘Searchers’, Ethan Edward’s long hunt for his abducted little niece is not really driven by his need to save her but to kill her in a racist revenge. In his eyes she has been polluted as a native American’s squaw. In a 2011 work by the British artist and animator Ben Wheele, the title character ‘Decoration, a cervical cancer, gendered as an older male, takes on the shape of a baroque vase, settling in the womb of the young girl to kill her.

Like in the ‘Searchers’, ‘Decoration’ tells us, it is ‘out of love’ attacking her at the moment when she becomes sexually active, in order to prevent the contagion of sex. To free us (and herself) from the binary of clean/dirty, Vanalyne tells us calmly about the sores appearing on her vagina. Then with a bit of hesitation, she reminds us Cowboy’s Bob clean crisp cotton shirts, good posture and the rosy skin that seduced her.

In a final bid to find an explanation for her bad luck, Vanalyne instigates an interview with the herpes infection inhabiting her vagina. Unlike the outspoken cancerous tumour ‘Decoration’, Herpes refuses to comment and then it goes silent, opening the door to shame. And shame, as Vanalyne says in her film, is always experienced in relation to a community, while it is most acutely felt in silence. Vanalyne, ever thoughtful pauses a for bit before she shares with us the happy ending with her dreams full of blood and pus – the story of her vagina that will go on even after her tape is finished.

03 Woman's Building

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Judy Chicago, Sheila Levrant de Brettevile, Arlene Raven - founders of Woman's Building; Courtesy of Otis College Archives

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Woman's Building, Los Angeles 1973; Courtesy of Otis College Archives

After running the first feminist programme at Fresno University and CalArts, Judy Chicago, Sheilla Levrant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven looked for a space free from the traditional male dominated structures. They founded the Woman’s Building in 1973 as a collaborative centre dedicated solely to educating women artists.

For Vanalyne Green, Suzanne Lacy, Lynda Benglis and other artists of her generation video become the medium of choice, new and cheap allowing to explore the personal content and using their own bodies in their work. Hundreds of videotapes were produced in the Woman’s Building and most of them are unknown.

04 Vanalyne Green - Biography

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still from A Spy in the House that Ruth Built (1990) Vanalyne Green

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still from Saddle Sores (1998) Vanalyne Green

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still from Saddle Sores (1998) Vanalyne Green

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still from Saddle Sores (1998) Vanalyne Green

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still from Saddle Sores (1998) Vanalyne Green

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still from Saddle Sores (1998) Vanalyne Green

Vanalyne Green (b. 1948) studied art at Fresno State University, in the first feminist art programme started by Judy Chicago, and then at California Institute of the Arts with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. Her video practice developed from performance, examining autobiographical and personal concerns such as addiction, family trauma and body issues.

She has screened her video work extensively, including The Whitney Biennial (1991), American Film Institute, Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Videotheque de Paris, The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, The Guggenheim Museum and many others. She has received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council of the Arts, and a Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome (2001–2002) and others.

Green was a member of the ‘Feminist Art Workers’ (along with Cheri Gaulke, Nancy Angelo, Laurel Klick, and Candace Compton), a performance art group based in Los Angeles and often associated with the Woman’s Building. In New York, she was a founding member of the pro-choice, pro-sex agit-prop group ‘No More Nice Girls’. Later in Chicago, Green was a founding member of the collaborative group ‘Feel Tank Chicago’. Recently she has worked on the ‘Voting Project’ and ‘Still a Feminist XX’. She has been active internationally in art education, influenced by her experience of Judy Chicago’s programme with its emphasis on personal content over formal concerns and her community based teaching models. She is currently the chair of the art department at Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles.

05 Hana Janečková - Biography

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Hana Janečková is artist, writer and curator living in London and sometimes in Prague. She co-founded Artycok.TV London in 2010. She graduated from the Chelsea College of Art&Design (2011). She was awarded Gilbert De Botton’s Award in 2011 (GAM Award), Red Mansion Award in 2012 and in 2014 she has curated a commission by Cinema6 (with Julia Tcharfas and Anna Galkina) and exhibited internationally.

Her writing appeared in Frieze, Springerin, Romboid and others. She has recently completed experimental novel ‘The Cottage’. ‘I turn the images of my voice in my head’ is part of her long term ongoing collaboration with Artycok.TV and her research into the presentation of feminist art in different cultural contexts.

06 New Feminism - I turn the images of my voice in my head

”New Feminism – I turn the images of my voice in my head” is a regular online presentation of work by a generation of artists responding to the on going fourth wave of feminism. Author of the project is Hana Janečková. Screenings of artists’ moving image will be accompanied by commissioned texts from curators, critics and theoreticians writing about the influence of feminism, technology and new media on contemporary culture.

What has happened recently to your body? Are you proud to be male or female? Can you be a feminist if your avatar enjoys wearing pink? Do you think gender is a capitalist concept? If so, do you think it existed in the former Eastern Block? ‘New Feminism – I turn the images of my voice in my head’ has been made possible by the kind support of Artycok TV. We would like to thank to all the artists and writers involved and to Artycok’s editorial teams in Prague and London.

07 Exhibition credits

Author of the Project / Curator: Hana Janečková
Author of Texts: Hana Janečková
Online Exhibition Concept: Hana Janečková and Lenka Střeláková
Editing and Realization: Lenka Střeláková
Translated into Czech: Hana Janečková
Published: 20. 5. 2015