“Let us think seriously of the difference between repetition and insistence.”
— Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetition” (1935)
1. Viewing a photograph
A little more than two minutes into Elisabeth Subrin’s video Swallow, we see a shot of Subrin herself, dressed in a fly-collared shirt and jumper; her outfit mimics that of a woman pictured seconds previously in a bit of surveillance-like footage from a 1970s educational film about “abnormal behavior.” This image is a paused video frame, re-taped off a monitor so that a black bar rolls across, an interruption reminiscent of Joan Jonas’s 1972 videotape Vertical Roll, making the screen a cage that impedes our vision. Subrin’s face looks slightly downward to her left, cigarette held over shoulder, like the melancholic figures on the covers of midcentury pulp novels. The soundtrack is Harrison Ford’s voice, taken from a scene in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in which his character Deckard examines a photograph by issuing verbal commands to a computerized photo enhancing device. As with Deckard’s machine, a grid of thin lines has been superimposed by Subrin upon the frame. She zooms in on her own image, camera hand-held and erratic, while Deckard’s computer clicks and chitters, as if her getting closer to the blurred pixels would reveal something beyond them.
This moment sticks in my mind more than any other when I remember Swallow. I cannot completely say why, from the intense collage of hundreds of audio and visual sources compiled, recut and refigured by Subrin, this specific image so vividly survives. In one sense it epitomizes the way in which Subrin has always put herself into all of her work, which spans nearly two decades of film, video, installation and photography—but never in a straightforward manner, always dismantling and refiguring the conventions of autobiography. Her personal hand is there not only in the product but just as importantly in the process: initially trained in an experimental film program, she hews to a Deren-Brakhage-Rosler production model of directing, writing, editing and shooting her own work (or at best working with a minimal crew), managing every aspect from conception to distribution.
Perhaps another reason it lingers in my memory is because the source material differs somewhat from the rest of Swallow, whose fragmented narrative structure sews connections between the legacy of second wave feminism, eating disorders and the cultural categorizing of depression: among samples from PJ Harvey, women’s liberation marches, medical films and Faye Dunaway in Network, the citation of a big-budget movie so fervently canonized by sci-fi fanboys seems at first anomalous to both Swallow and Subrin’s body of work as a whole. Like reports of the disquieting actions of Swallow’s unseen subject, the fictional Sarah Marks (whose family name suggests both expressive scars and hollow ciphers), Subrin’s Blade Runner-ed photograph speaks to me with this strangeness, not unlike that ineffable point of disturbance in photographs Roland Barthes called the punctum. Subrin has said she aspired with Swallow to create a barrage of these angular moments. It is as if every second in the work feels potentially out of place, a work that hangs together through its tensions rather than its cohesions.
Information seeps in from beyond the frame. In Blade Runner, Deckard is able to do what Subrin’s editing (or any real-world photo examination) cannot: snake around corners, go past objects, search frozen space in three dimensions, looking for evidence. One is reminded that Christian Metz in his article “Photography and Fetish” describes Barthes’ punctum as “the only part of a photograph which entails the feeling of an off-frame space.” The punctum adds an unseen dimension, moves us beyond the frame, if only speculatively. Likewise, Subrin’s work is charged with this perpendicular quality: a quivering tension in every shot, each second filled a unspoken meaning. In her notes for the making of The Fancy, which navigates around the life and work of photographer Francesca Woodman without ever presenting her photographs directly, Subrin includes the following quote from Metz’s essay: “The spectator has no empirical knowledge of the content of the off-frame, hallucinating it, dreaming the shape of this emptiness.”
Photographs have another resonance in Blade Runner: they can be fabrications, owned by android replicants in order to support false human memories: for the replicants, these photos are beautiful, cherished lies that comfort by standing in place of truth, allowing their owners to hallucinate entire childhoods that never existed.
A second appropriation from Blade Runner occurs later in Swallow, as Subrin’s voice says “You know you’re an imposter, in Sarah’s country.” It is a brief image of a female replicant, shot by Deckard’s gun, falling through the frame of a window in a street-level shopping arcade, her see-through plastic rain slicker surrounded by a splintering cloud of glass.
2. Fall to pieces
Photographs are paradigmatic emblems for Subrin (who began as a student of photography), referenced in the fixed-frame cinematography featured prominently in The Fancy and Lost Tribes and Promised Lands. Shulie’s art-student protagonist presents photographs to her professors; Subrin’s feature screenplay Up chronicles the dot-com-era arc of a digital photo archive. In an early video, Evidence Acquired Without Consent, Subrin returns to the 19th century motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, animating and restaging them to analyze the representation of women at the historical cusp between photography and cinema.
Photographs function as fragments of reality—or as Hollis Frampton called them, “incisions in history”—that speak of an existence beyond the frame, paradoxically both as evidence of the objective past and a jumping-off point for subjective meanings. As such, photographs operate as synecdoches for cinema and video, and in Subrin’s work, all historical artifacts can be looked at and experienced as fragments. Subrin presents the act of discerning between history and subjectivity as a necessary yet inherently impossible task, a project we are asked to undertake despite the knowledge that our findings will always be incomplete. Engaging with stories of women’s lives, Subrin embraces the contradictions between the empirical needs of feminist historiography and the radical unsurety of postmodern thinking. (The collisions between the personal now and the political then reach back all the way to the videos Subrin made as a student in the late 1980s, like Is A Lie and Interference, which mix footage of 1960s protests with gnomic performances by the undergraduate artist.)
The artist’s most sustained—ruthless, even—examination of the problem of the photograph as fragment occurs with The Fancy. Neither Woodman herself nor her photographs are ever shown, but rather approached through as series of oblique performances and references: a list of titles of Woodman’s photographs, written in a forgery of the photographer’s own curlicue script; women in casual clothing circa 1999 acting out Woodman’s self-portraits; images of decrepit, unpopulated rooms approximating those found in her photos; a slideshow of recreated props from her work, shot as if they were evidence of a crime.
Both The Fancy and Swallow attempt to speak for a female subject who herself cannot. In the case of The Fancy, this project responds to two obstacles: Woodman’s suicide at age 22 in 1981 (on the eve of Reagan’s inauguration, as the video notes), and the subsequent management of her estate by her family, who tightly control the output of Woodman’s photographs to the art world. Though Subrin presents The Fancy’s simulated evidence with near-affectless precision, the accumulation of items bears its own emotional weight, prompting viewers to ask questions of Woodman’s life that cannot be answered except through our own speculative leaps into a biographical void.
Woodman herself, we are told, “fancied herself of the Victorian era, and passionately collected and inhabited its detritus for her photographs.” The Fancy, in turn, inhabits the detritus of Woodman’s own era, the 1970s, evoked through a makeshift archive of things like an old jar of Vaseline, a reel of magnetic audiotape, a red-white-and-blue “76” bicentennial fabric patch—fragments of another era, collected together, attempting to conjure the past.
3. Systems of order
Because they are incomplete, fragments call out for a system of ordering, a way of understanding. When considered through the rubric of history, fragments read as evidence. When viewed through the context of psychiatry, fragments appear as symptoms. The former system tries to tell what happened. The latter, how it felt.
Lists, catalogs, files and archives are found everywhere in Subrin’s work, in the enumeration of symptoms of depression from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in Swallow, or the warehouse set Subrin constructed for the fabricated detritus of Woodman’s life. The original student film that forms the basis of Shulie lay unseen for years in the collection of Kartemquin Films; in Up, the main character works in a stuffy academic photo archive at Harvard. In her narrative film The Caretakers, its memoirist protagonist spends her first hours at the MacDowell colony mounting storyboards, dramatizing the artist’s process as organizational effort; a key point in the story pivots on the colony’s “tombstones” bearing long lists of signatures of attending artists—many now famous, some otherwise forgotten.
The flipside of order is chaos, mismatching, disorganization—another state that reoccurs in Subrin’s work. The opening shots of Swallow show a hand rummaging through piles of clutter, and the abovementioned DSM symptoms are presented out of order. Verbal descriptions of Woodman’s photographs in The Fancy are paired with recreations of completely different photographs. Scenes and ideas from Michelangelo Antonioni’s never-produced mid-1960s screenplay Technically Sweet are cut up and reorganized for Subrin’s installation Sweet Ruin, which employs outdated 16mm film stock to mimic the look of unused B-roll and test shots, as if made from discarded footage.
How actions, fragments, symptoms can or should be organized is a central concern raised through Subrin’s work, not only speaking to her resistance to standard narrative structures—a legacy of her education at Mass Art, cradle of avant-garde cinema—but also questioning received concepts of mental illness. Medicine speaks of “mental disorders,” and in everyday language, we might say “She’s a mess” versus “She’s so together.” The idiosyncratic forms taken by her work, defying easy genre classification, become a means to claim her own organization on the materials, and to defy the simple dichotomy of order versus disorder.
A formal diagnosis under bipolar terms: Subrin’s work simultaneously elicits the energy and surface intensities of manic modes with the philosophical gravity, the unbearable ontologies of the depressive morass. Her work becomes a utopian fusion of these two poles, a desire for a bifurcated emotional identity to work, if only in art, as an ordered, meaningful whole.
4. Repetition, against history
Sweet Ruin, which begins with the cyclical drones of cicadas, includes the following bit a dialog appropriated from Antonioni’s script:
Let’s recapitulate. I am somebody who has come to the conclusion that after a while all stories are similar. That the same story repeats itself. No. There’s always a difference. No. It is this time. There is a difference.
The most basic order that can be imposed upon materials is repetition: doing the same thing again creates a structure in time. This act of returning to the past, then remaking and replaying it, mentioned in passing in The Fancy, serves as the basis of both Shulie and Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, played through with the ambivalence expressed in the above quote. Sweet Ruin is filled with doubles and echoes: a looped work presented in twin screens, it features actor Gaby Hoffman performing dual roles—parts written by Antonioni for Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider—shooting off a rifle and lounging in frustrated summer languour. In its iconic use of a girl and a gun, this meditation on love and violence satisfies Godard’s famous minimum requirements for a movie, but thereby comments on the gendered conventions of 1960s art-house cinema. In doing so, Subrin imposes her own difference on Antonioni’s words.
Shulie remakes, almost shot for shot, a 1967 film by four male graduate students that interviews 22-year-old Shulamith Firestone—not yet the feminist author of The Dialectic of Sex but rather an undergraduate art student in Chicago—in an attempt to create a portrait of the “Now” generation. Completed in 1997, Shulie is remarkable for its attempted fidelity to its unseen original material (and melancholy desire for political time-traveling) but it is the anachronistic markers of its era of production that jump out at us, destabilizing the illusion: a Starbucks cup in one shot, the glass-curtained modern skyline of Chicago, a flyer on “sexual harassment in the workplace” at the post office. And now, looking at Shulie ten years later, we experience two layers of history at work: 1997 dressed up in 1967 drag. “In the ironic nature of style cycles and the repetitive rituals of post-adolescent malaise, Shulie’s fashion and attitudes were predictably familiar,” Subrin remembers in her 2007 essay “Trashing Shulie: Remnants from Some Abandoned Feminist History,” “But I yearned to inhabit her reality, to feel this moment of pre-‘68, before the haunting political and social revelations of her era, to say nothing of my own.”
As a feminist project, Shulie reclaims history, but not in the heroic manner of Firestone’s generation. Subrin’s take is more cynical—if we define cynicism as a mood of lowered expectations of the world, an unsmiling kind of humor—for what Shulie reveals not progress but the recognition of more of the same. Under scrutiny, the past feels too much like the present, echoing our own era in the all-too-familiar the clumsy unwitting racism of white liberals, the male dominance of the art world, and the feckless nostalgia of street protest. Presenting an awkward fragment from both Firestone’s life and 1967 in general, Shulie is fabricated evidence (like Sweet Ruin, which returns to the same time period), but perhaps a real symptom. As a rebuilt moment from the past, it recalls a faked ruins dotting a 19th century estate—a structure known, in architecture, as a folly.
Lost Tribes and Promised Lands presents another revisitation, this time of Subrin’s own filmmaking. In 2001, in the days following the September 11 attacks on New York, Subrin took a battered 16mm Bolex camera out into her neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, shooting houses and storefronts that had then become suddenly and compulsively festooned with American flags and other accretions of patriotic paraphernalia. Nearly a decade later, with the same camera, on the same date and at the same approximate hour of the day, she attempted to retrace her own steps, now only half-remembered and largely conjectured from the 2001 footage itself: alienated from her own work by time, she approached it as a found object. She combined the two reels into a double-screen loop, allowing for a visual comparison between then and now.
Once again, Lost Tribes expresses a longing to go backwards, to hold on to the past as a way of making sense of (or perhaps to stop) the ongoing flow of time. We see there is a difference: some buildings remain largely the same, many have changed only superficially, while others have completely disappeared in a decade of aggressive gentrification. A makeshift memorial has become a permanent commemorative plaque, delis have transmuted into chic bistros. A window that once displayed a flyer of Osama Bin Laden with a target drawn on his forehead now bears in the same spot a handwritten sign advertising soft-serve yogurt. In some shots, the same building appears canted in the frame first to the right, then to the left, both mirroring and opposing its own temporal twin.
Presented in installation at Sue Scott Gallery, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands is projected behind a wall made from the kind of battered wood found covering urban building sites—always salvaged from past projects, never truly new. It is a material that signifies both construction and demolition, and a barrier to easy viewing; it recalls both a temporary shelter and a martial barricade.
Lost Tribes seems far simpler in its structure than works like Swallow or The Fancy, but its implication are no less profound, raising the question of whether progress occurs even if time inexorably passes. Its silent, infinitely looping structure works not simply as a gallery default mode, but as an instance of significant form. In its presentation and subversion of a hope for eternal return, it hearkens back to a line spoken by Firestone in Shulie—then an aspiring art student—which should be read now with a complicated and bittersweet irony, cutting to the existential core at the heart of all of Subrin’s work:
I want to somehow catch time short and not, not just go, go along, or drift along in it. The essential reason for, for anyone to make an artistic creation is to surmount the fact that they're constantly, um, an animal organism that's just sort of going along in time and growing older, with a past and a future and so on, and to somehow transcend that. In an art world, you can do anything. You can make the world exactly as you want it.