Peggy Ahwesh’s Cinema of the Real (full text)

Published in the catalogue for Berwick Media Arts and Film Festival 2017

“The very winds whispered in soothing accents, and maternal Nature bade me weep no more. Then again the kindly influence ceased to act – I found myself fettered again to grief, and indulging in all the misery of reflection.” The absorbed contemplation of the eponymous character in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins Peggy Ahwesh’s The Falling Sky (2017). A prelude to the journey that will end in a confrontation with his monster, this is a film that confronts the stupefied scan of an eye across click-driven web content with another way of seeing. A series of crude animations culled from TomoNews US, a Taiwanese news-outlet geared toward the North American market, are reorganised into an uninterrupted flow of data and economic transactions, pollutants and shifting weather patterns. If algorithms arrange the production and consumption of data within a tight feedback loop, the film un-anchors images from exactly that system. It is a gesture that disturbs the deadening gaze of viral marketing dressed up as current affairs, is lyrical in effect yet provides the audience with little solace.

Then again, in their rejection of narrative tradition, Ahwesh’s films never have been about redemption. Instead, her cool blend of fact and fiction, structural and documentary genres, has produced an astonishingly diverse body of work. Through formal experimentation, experimental subjects take form. For an artist who came of age among the political concerns of feminism and the subversive attitudes of punk, avant-garde film offered the magical promise that meaning might float free from convention. Martina’s Playhouse (1989) is a mercurial and exuberant concentration of the remarkable energy that characterises the first decade of Ahwesh’s career. The film shows Martina, the daughter of the artist’s friend and much-missed performance artist Diane Torr (1948-2017), rehearsing the signs and symbols of girlhood. Martina’s performance provocatively reverses the norms of acceptability. This is a film totally undermining of authority; the viewer can never be sure who is doing what at whose request. If this describes a home movie without the father, as Ahwesh once explained of her early work, it is also the dark eroticism of the Marquis de Sade or the heterogeneous insights of Georges Bataille mediated through the fantastic fairy tale worlds of Angela Carter. In this sense, Playhouse is a blueprint for later works, such as the Colour of Love (1994) and The Star Eaters (2003), all of which are exemplary of Ahwesh’s sensibility. Exploding the Oedipal foundations of narrative, each abandons the image to catharsis rather than linearity.

Ahwesh inherits from a non-illusionist tendency in experimental cinema carved out by figures such as Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits and Stan Brakhage. Rather than privilege form, however, structure and content fold into one another. The films are a record of their own making in the sense that they engage with the political and social conditions that govern visibility. Add the influences of Bruce Conner and Jack Smith to Conrad and Brakhage and you begin to get at the irreverence that underpins Ahwesh’s innovative approach. In this way, Ahwesh finds allies in the work of contemporaries like Tina Keane, Leslie Thornton and Su Friedrich, whose films occupied one “end of the spectrum” of the new queer cinema that B. Ruby Rich characterised in 1992. This last point is thrown into relief at a time when queer artists’ moving image is again headlining programmes at film festivals internationally. Sympathies with Keane or Friedrich can be seen in works such as The Vision Machine (1997). The complex piece is an accumulation of minor textual references such as sexist jokes and anecdotal evidence that gather to the point of incoherence.

The trick with Ahwesh’s work is to realise that its heterogeneity can also be placed on a continuum. Works like She Puppet (2001), which features a repeated and ecstatic image of Lara Croft in death throes, are best understood in the context of her many experiments with found footage. Her recent attentiveness to the circulation of images on populist web platforms is illuminated by the traces of popular cinema found in The Scary Movie (1993). This film riffs off key tropes and stock sound effects from horror movies. Owing a little to George Romero, who Ahwesh and her collaborators Natalka Voslakov and Margie Strosser worked with after she finished her training under Sharits at Antioch University, her exploitation of footage or themes from popular culture produces films that look askance at reality or, more precisely, the psychoanalytically inflected realm of the real.

It was with Strosser that Ahwesh produced one of her most ambitious explorations of this psychic character of reality. Strange Weather is unlike many of Ahwesh’s works since it features actors in the story it tells of a group of crack addicts. Created using PixelVision, a toy camera marketed by Fisher Price, the work hinges on drugs as both word and concept and the addict as, to borrow a phrase from Derrida, an “exile from reality”. The film presents an ethical quandary about the exploitative nature of documentary that plays upon the filmmaker’s uncertain status as voyeur or participant. Like Martina’s Playhouse, the viewer is left wondering what they’ve got themselves caught up in as an experience without foundation in fact unfolds before them like a badtrip. At present, in a world awash with information of ambiguous provenance, the real returns, or is returned to us, as a desire, a wish. Something like Ahwesh’s cinema of the real does to remind us that such a moment might require invention, experimentation rather than a misguided search for truth.

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