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Our Bodies, Ourselves: The Performance of Feminist Film

These films offer us critical vision about women's space and our deepest desires.
Molly Hankwitz

While attending Crossroads 2016, SF Cinematheque's annual film festival here in San Francisco, I saw the short film Pryings (1971-2014)  by Nishat Houssain and was struck by its emotional intensity and difficult subject matter. I made an effort to meet up with the director afterwards in order to ask her about the intentions of the film. She quickly offered that the film was “not about rape” although many people ask her that. (Indeed, having just seen it, I had asked her that.) It is fair to say, my question wasn't completely off base. One experiences this film with difficulty -- the intrusion of a man’s body overpowering and invading a woman’s body through the simple, relentless act of his trying to pry her eyes open. The filmmaker informed me that it was a re-enactment of Vito Acconci’s 1971 performance, Pryings and was made as a final project for her art history class.

In the original performance, Acconci is documented continuously trying to pry open Kathy Dillon’s eyes with his fingers. (Dillon was his girlfriend at the time.) He repeats this action over and over and Dillon squirms uncomfortably resisting his persistent efforts. The piece is without dialogue while their heavy breathing makes up the sound track. Both performers are fully clothed. In Houssain’s film the performance is re-enacted. ("Pryings" was never scripted, but Acconci eventually wrote a list of instructions.) Houssain, a young, pretty woman with dark hair, performs Dillon's role, and she used a young, white male friend, Andrew, to do Acconci's. A camera person recorded the action. The piece was re-created explicitly after Acconci's work allowing the prying actions to dictate subsequent responses and emotions and the camera to record them. Houssain’s film differs, however, from Acconci’s single-take video document. Houssain’s film is made as a film and is divided into two distinct parts. Part One is a tour of the darkened, vacant basement where the performance also takes place. This sequence acts as a preamble for the rest. By including the footage of the dark, empty location Houssain adds uneasy suspence to the next scene in which she defends her closed eyes from prying.

Part One was shot by Houssain herself, whereas Acconci is never behind the camera but is only tape recorded by it. We don't see Houssain in Part One, but are conscious of her breathing and a menacing movement of the camera. In the second Part of the film, the re-enactment takes place as close to the original piece as possible. Houssain's partner performs the "prying" and she in turn responds. We are aware of the basement space as a set for the performance, and the presence of a third-party videographer. Again, the sound track is their heavy breathing only and both parties are fully clothed.


There was something sexual about this film in a way that can only be suggested by two young people in a physical embrace, constantly, tormentingly touching of each other to the sound of their heavy breathing.  It is almost an analogue for the sex act while nothing explicitly “sexual” happens on screen. The overall effect of this audio-visual experience upon me, especially the brutal soundtrack and my witnessing her responses, was to feel uncomfortable and annoyed at the intensity and invasiveness of the man's gestures. Watching it was in fact to view a very private act; something I would ordinarily never witness and I felt much as I do when in the company of strangers or a group of unfamiliar animals; slightly titillated and at the same time, vulnerable. There was discomfort, suspense, irritation; occasional pleasure and relief from the movement. I felt on her side and I wanted him to stop controlling her. I was disturbed by the near sadism of his actions and by the unequal role-playing of male dominance and woman’s loss of power. She was definitely uncomfortable, at times assertive and successful, at times exhausted, and provoked but not passive. She squirmed and I wanted to squirm away with her. The heavy breathing on the soundtrack is physical and animal-like throughout as he tries to achieve his goal of getting her eyes open, and she works at keeping them firmly closed. The scene is tightly-cropped and emotional. It’s not metaphorical. Houssain says adamantly of her films, “I don’t make them with an audience in mind. I make them for myself.”

Acconci and Human Eyes

Vito Acconci is, of course, a brilliant and original artist. I had the good fortune to have met him several times while a student of architecture at Yale and while living in New York City. His artistic spark, I would argue, has been the uncanny use of a simple idea about the body and physical action to express everything humanly possible about interaction. In earlier performances, Reception Room (1972) and Seedbed (1973), he managed to disturb onlookers with live masturbation and pimple-gazing, producing a profound discord regarding public and private.

The act of prying open someone's eyes has an intense, intimate effect on that person. Eyes are vulnerable and valuable and need careful protection; they have an almost autonomous life and are a sacred point of entry for the exterior world to penetrate our souls, while also purveying intentions such as control and seduction. Given this, to pry open another person’s eyes is inevitably transgressive and highly invasive behavior because it disturbs the power and value and ownership of that person to her own eyes. To become the receptor of such perverse and  intimate attention, in Acconci's performance, means being very close and trusting with the partner, as well as invaded by fingers. But, even if you know the person well, it goes against a basic set of physical defenses in the body and as a performance it goes against and tests trust between the two partners. Houssain’s re-enactment, then, like Acconci’s original performance, expresses invasion of physical privacy and talks about boundaries and trust between two people.

On the big screen or even on a monitor, to witness this power struggle, as it takes place between performers of opposite sex, is to witness "gender"and power at work before you. Different meanings would have been conjured if it were, for instance, two men on screen, or two women, or a parent and a child, and even then, age, color of skin, and other factors would come into play. Houssain's film, like the original performance, is very much an expression of power and desire.The weird prying motion and the woman's visceral response says,“Yes, touch me, but, no, please, not like that.” This is one's choice with one's own body, yet, the man still controls her through touching, specifically, her eyes. I was reminded briefly of Lynne Sachs' early short, Drawn and Quartered (1982) which was made with her then boyfriend on the roof of the San Francisco Art Institute. In the film, a man and woman (who is Sachs) are assembled into a split screen each filming the other's naked body. What transpires visually is essentially short, clips of their bodies which emphasizes difference in their hair, muscles, chests, legs; gender, the cameras and their simultaneous pleasure in looking are a kind of semi-erotic, not-erotic play on screen and to be naked on film is to be vulnerable. To be naked for an audience on one's own terms and not made naked by someone else is an empowering and transgressive act. The social order of patriarchy has been criticized for preventing women from enjoying their nakedness; for preventing our seeing equality and trust between the sexes. In Sach's film, the nakedness levels many conventions of sexual oppositions found in conventional "nude scenes", as does a camera put in the hands of both subjects who are also equally present in the frame. 'She' is present in the spectatorship of 'him'.

In Pryings (1971-2014) the two performers support each others’ bodies in a tight grip. Their mutual exhaustion at the struggle over her eyes, is both tender and tense. The man-woman struggle speaks of gender, power, and humanity which manifest through our seeing and hearing and performing actions of touch, rather than through the overt construction of a film idea, but the battle of wits, the embrace, the close-cropped emotion is something akin to what Sach's was exploring, at least in terms of the spatial workings of gender, power and the body.

Performance History

In the changing decades of the 1960s and 70s, bodies, boundaries; public and private space were often explored in art. Conceptual and performance artists like Acconci and Chris Burden did this with their male bodies, but women conceptualists did as well. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965) explored vulnerability and boundaries with audience. Holding pairs of scissors, audience members were invited to approach and cut off pieces of Ono’s clothing. Not only did she become undressed by them, but she trusted them to use scissors on her while she was blindfolded and seated. Laurie Anderson’s Fully-Automated Nikon (Object, Objectified, Objectivity)(1973) is a series of photographs the artist made of men who harassed her on New York City streets. When objectified, she “shot back” at the perpetrator. (I tried this once and nearly had my camera broken). Houssain and Sach's films touch on similar themes.

Finally, concerning bodies and feminist filmmaking, I want to talk about Portland filmmaker Vanessa Renwick’s beautiful film, The Yodeling Lesson (color, 3 mins, 1998). In this piece, Renwick directs a fully-clothed woman (Portland artist Moe Bowstern) to ride her bike to the top of a long hill, then coast down, hands-free, completely naked. The setting is a tangle of freeways. The film accomplishes several goals as a work of feminist art. First it resists conventional images of naked women in a radical, transgressive gesture: her exhilarating naked downhill coast. Lone naked women have long been passive, prone, vulnerable seemingly longing for the camera but are rarely shown as active agents of their own naked joy. In Renwick’s film the “lone naked woman” type is unclothed but not “naked”; she is active and delighted despite the fact that she might fall off. Secondly, the performance exists for no one but the camera and the woman on screen. Thirdly, no one man or woman, but especially woman, is supposed to do this naked biking thing in public. (Except for a group of men and women in SF who do it every year.) Nudity in public generally is illegal. Naked women are historically dangerous and “illegal” without spectators. To make the film, then, meant a surreptitious performance; a risk on the part of the makers. It is therefore intensely private, and then again, when projected extremely public and powerful. Finally, within the culture of feminism, The Yodeling Lesson is about uncontrolled, liberated bodies and the imagination. It is an experimental documentary that sets up and captures this private performance, documents it happening, makes it a fact, but then, transcends the mere act as a metaphor for all kinds of meanings in the pleasure/spectatorship of womens’ bodies.

I love it that The Yodeling Lesson exists at all. I love that it is made by women playing and enjoying themselves free from all societal constraints such as clothing, which hem us in, when we are outdoors. Freedom to celebrate our bodies as naked, joyful creatures in public space is curtailed by society while historically --as feminists have railed on time and again-- naked women have been routinely objectified in advertising and art.

The Yodelling Lesson, by contrast, is a film which expresses sheer exuberance about physical effort and about the reward of pleasure which comes after the hard climb to the top of the hill. It is a brief but extremely powerful moment of ecstatic freedom to ride naked down the hill on a bike. Who would have thought?  To my mind the palpable joy expressed is both the essence of and the representation of...a liberated space. While an actress, not Renwick herself, performs this scene, it is Renwick's directorial imagination which brings it about.

To conclude, the making of space is about, as architect Louis B. Kahn once stated, the possibilities of desire not the presumptions of need. Each of these films tips the scales, offering a greater sense of womens' desiring bodies in their own kinds of spaces while expressing the vulnerability and exuberance of space that women make.

I chose to write about them because they offer us critical vision about our bodies, our desires, and ourselves.

Molly Hankwitz, Ph.D. lives on the Left Coast,USA, and works and writes about art and social issues.

Drawn and Quartered
Vanessa Renwick and the Oregon Department of Kickass

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