An over attachment or excessive engagement that goes beyond the intellectual
Last summer I participated in a project called Group Affinity at the Kunstverein München,1 working with Cinenova, a collectively run feminist film distributor based in London, UK. I became part of a group of artists, curators, writers, and educators that took up residence at the Kunstverein to investigate notions of affinity alongside four other collective organizations. The model of affinity groups, where a small number of activists work together on direct action, was a very loose point of departure – nothing was especially direct about our actions over the next two weeks. Upon arrival, I was almost immediately uncomfortable. I came into the group having read the inches-thick reader, the .pdf printed out, flagged, underlined, and placed in a navy blue binder. I was ready to get down to some important WORK. It quickly became apparent to me that it wasn’t clear what that work would be. We made many lists and a schedule of sorts, and wrote a question for ourselves on a large piece of newsprint – something along the lines of “what could a feminist film distributor be today?”
In between figuring out what we were doing, we spent much of our time curled up on the gallery floor watching many films from the Cinenova catalogue. The more I watched, the more my own anxiety about the ”work” grew. The films we were screening – Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege (1990), Heiny Srour's Leila and the Wolves (1984), Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Reassemblage (1982), Barbara Hammer’s Dyketactics (1974) – had such gravity and urgency. In contrast, my own position felt privileged and removed: I had the luxury of watching the Cinenova catalogue with a group of engaged and knowledgeable individuals, including members of the Cinenova working group itself. I felt so deeply for the films we were watching and also for the experience of viewing them together in a group but I couldn’t figure out how to articulate my relationship with these important feminist images and the politics they represented. I felt awkward about falling into the pitfalls of romanticism and nostalgia. At the same time, I was compelled by the notion of the affinity group: I wanted to know what we were going to DO with this material NOW. Yvonne Rainer’s opening monologue from Privilege rang in my ears: “…And whose fault is it? It is ours because we are pathetic. We haven’t got any guts. And I say this advisedly and with deep sorrow, and I’m one of you. And I haven’t got any guts either…”2
In the months since my time in Munich, I have followed Cinenova’s many projects closely, including Bodies Assembling at Auto Italia SE, an artist-run space in London.3 Through this series, I was introduced to the article “Fans of Feminism: Re-writing Histories of Second-wave Feminism in Contemporary Art” by Catherine Grant, which has provided a critical tool for navigating my earlier experience in Munich. In “Fans of Feminism,” Grant introduces “the fan” as a potential method both for relating to feminist histories and for repositioning these histories. Of course, the negative connotations of being a fan must be acknowledged. Grant states:
To be a fan of something often indicates an over attachment or excessive engagement that goes beyond the intellectual. The idea of a fan of feminism will, for some, conjure up negative associations: of obsession, of embarrassing desire and of a loss of perspective.4
Grant recoups the potential of the fan by positioning her in relation to media scholar John Fiske’s “excessive reader” – an agent whose engagement goes beyond the intellectual. According to Fiske, shifting from scholar to fan allows “for the desire of the reader to be incorporated into the study of the object of interest, rather than remaining separate from it.”5 Excessive reading allows an engagement without irony or distance; here attachment and desire lie bare. The subject position of a “fan of feminism” resonated with my particular situation in Munich because it speaks to a deep emotional attachment to ideas and objects and the need to traverse a wide variety of feminist narratives without being beholden to them. As Grant asserts:
…approaching this work through the model of fandom, the engagement with feminism as a historical project also allows for a consideration of how feminism can continue in the present. Being a fan of feminism does not replace being a feminist, but articulates a particular relationship to histories of feminism.6
The “fan of feminism” designation is contentious in that it can suggest a weak or superficial engagement with the material. Furthermore, the notion of fandom could be seen to interrupt a continuum of feminist art and scholarship, making an artificial distinction between “then” and “now.” However, I suggest that there is potential in the distance (or lack thereof) in fandom. I found that being a fan of feminism complicated my relationship to the sometimes overwhelming magnitude of feminist histories in a productive way – as a fan I am neither a dutiful (or rebellious) daughter or a detached archeologist, thereby affording me some agency in the way I apprehend these histories, allowing room for an unironic political representation. As a fan, the “generational” model of feminism can be addressed without either adhering to or disavowing it.
“Fans of Feminism” draws heavily on the potential of cultural theorist Henry Jenkins’s idea of the “rogue reader” – a fan who, in their intimacy with the material, rewrites the material that has inspired their desire.7 The rogue reader is involved in writing fan fictions, through re-performance, re-enactment and reframing. As a fan, I am less interested in restructuring or recreating the texts, images or objects that I love; the creative potential of feminist fandom is not of primary importance. Instead, I am concerned with the fan’s remarkable ability to generate networks of individuals and communities with similar concerns and interests. This is apparent in pop culture fandom – conventions, meet ups and message boards. Historically, the development of these types of networks has been an objective of independent film and video distribution, especially within artist-run culture. However, Cinenova’s recent activities go beyond the traditional pragmatic needs of distribution. Cinenova is creating situations where the nurturing of networks takes on an increased critical dimension. This practice has responded to a need felt by feminist artists, scholars and fans who are operating as part of a tradition of networking-building feminist art production and political engagement through practices such as reading groups and zine culture.
I was not able to be in Toronto for Cinenova: All Hands on the
Archive, a multi-part project that took place during February 2012. However, I was observing closely from afar, thinking of the films that were being screened and the discussions sparked. The Cinenova: All Hands on the Archive project clearly reflected the network-building nature of Cinenova by stretching out across diverse institutions across the city of Toronto – The Feminist Art Gallery (FAG), The Power Plant and the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU). As a fan and a member of this network, I received audio recordings from small-group discussions and a series of chain letters from Helen Reed and Hannah Jickling’s “enabling” session, the final installment of An Audience of Enablers Cannot Fail, the eight-part series of small-group screenings of work from the Cinenova collection that were activated by facilitated conversation and performative interventions. I was particularly struck by Reed and Jickling’s project Veronica 4 Rose, FAG 4 U in which they encouraged participants to write a letter to their fellow watchers following their screening at FAG. The letters were distributed in a chain letter fashion – one contributes a single letter only to receive many in return. The chain letter is a mirror of Cinenova’s distribution structure; functioning as an index of the network, the chain letter both represents and helps to create. The handwritten anonymous letters clearly state the importance of developing a collective network of feminist fans, a need at once nostalgic and immediate. The timeliness of this project is felt in many of the contributions. One letter speaks to:
the search for belonging, the longing to be part of a collective and the persistent déjà vu of feeling like you missed the perfect moment of collectivity… for another more perfect time, more political fashion, more lesbian haircuts. But still, I strive to love you now.8
Other letters identify an “ache for collective resistance” and ask for a “site of rigorous involvement.” Another letter states:
…we want to belong to a movement, feed off the energy of struggle and make connections with one another… This is soon coming upon us for new collective movements, new revolutions and new films and video art about this work…
This letter urges, “Be prepared, either as a participant, observer, activist or other producer/witness.” I relate to the urgency that the chain letters bring about through the idea or promise of collectivity. It is an insistence I felt during my three-week stay in Munich.
I read “Fans of Feminism” many months after the Kunstverein project finished, so my true fan-girl identity remained undefined during my time there. In Munich I expressed my fandom in perhaps the most mundane way possible: in an effort to address the question of “what could a feminist film distributor look like," I attempted to construct a strategic business plan for Cinenova. It seemed like the best idea at the time: we wanted to work on genuine concerns around preservation and organizational capacity for Cinenova. In reality we actually did very little direct or obvious work in-between the time spent watching films and talking, eating, drinking, and dancing. In retrospect, it is almost painfully obvious that the business plan was beside the point. It is clear now that the question about feminist film distribution was being answered every day in Munich. Cinenova’s recent projects at the Showroom and Auto Italia SE in London, at Kunstverein München, at The Power Plant, FAG and the AGYU in Toronto, and others demonstrate what a feminist film distribution platform is and can be.9 Through these initiatives, Cinenova developed an international network of fans (or enablers, participants, advocates) through a unique method of embodied distribution that not only disseminates films, but, importantly, acts as a model for viewing that involves small-group screenings and discussions, which establishes and reasserts the generative social space of cinema. In my experience, this methodology, drawing on aspects of “fandom,” is creating an ever-growing web of enablers, participants, advocates, and witnesses. It is a network that I continue to encounter as a fan of feminism – a speculative, conflicted but ultimately useful position.
1. Group Affinity, curated by Bart Van Der Heide and Binna Choi, organized by the Kunstverein München and Casco, Office for Art Design and Theory, took place from 1–14 August 2012. The project included five collectives: Chicago Boys, Slavs and Tartars, Andreas Müller and Susanne Pietsch, Grand Openings, and Cinenova.
2. Yvonne Rainer, A Woman Who…: Essays, Interviews, Scripts (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999): 285.
3. Bodies Assembling took place at Auto Italia SE from 3–11 December 2011, for more information visit http://autoitaliasoutheast.org/projects/bodies-assembling/
4. Catherine Grant, “Fans of Feminism: Re-writing Histories of Second-wave Feminism in Contemporary Art” Oxford Art Journal 34 (2011): 265.
5. Grant, 269.
6. Grant, 286.
7. Grant, 266.
8. Each of these quotes are attributed to anonymous letter-writers who took part in Helen Reed and Hannah Jickling’s project Veronica 4 Rose, FAG 4 U as part of the Cinenova screenings and discussions at the FAG.
9. This thought came directly out of a series of conversations with curators Shama Khanna and Caroline Thomas in October 2011 in London.
Sarah Todd is a Vancouver-based curator and writer. She curated exhibitions at various art centres including Vtape, the Toronto Free Gallery, XPACE, and InterAccess in Toronto and the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver. Currently, Sarah is curator of media art at the Western Front, Vancouver.
Image: Cinenova's Group Affinity work space at the Kunstverein München, August 2011. Photo by Emilia Muller-Ginorio.