In 1997, the ICA invited American queer feminist critic, curator and funder B. Ruby Rich to curate the fourth ICA Biennale of Independent Film and Video. The season toured across the UK for two years and was comprised of 26 new short films spread across three programmes, from new political avant-garde film and video works to commercial TV adverts and popular music videos. Significantly, Rich’s curatorial advocacy acknowledged and championed the talent of many British feminist filmmakers whose work subsequently went on to receive international artistic and commercial acclaim. The roll call of women filmmakers is outstanding: Clio Barnard, Sonali Fernando, Tina Keane, Carol Morley, Jayne Parker, Sarah Pucill, Allison Murray, Miranda Pennell, Lis Rhodes and Sarah Turner.
This was not the first time Rich’s feminist film scholarship and self-coined ‘curatorial advocation’ had touched the UK film landscape. Her longstanding engagement with British feminist film culture grew roots in the 1970s, during which she attended several editions of the Edinburgh Film Festival. Linda Myles, the then festival director, and feminist film programmers and academics Laura Mulvey and Claire Johnston and film theorist, Peter Wollen were instrumental in organising, theorising and programming radical feminist and avant-garde film seasons and symposia. They were incubators of ideas and went on to establish a new discourse around feminist theory, the avant-garde and cinema. At the invitation of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Rich attended the festival in 1976 and returned in 1979, documenting these encounters in her definitive book Chick Flicks (1998).
Rich’s seminal 1992 Sight & Sound ‘New Queer Cinema’ article, which linked queer activism and film aesthetics, marked her return to the UK, this time at the invitation of the ICA, to give the keynote speech at their 1992 ‘New Queer Cinema’ conference. Entitled ‘Histories and Histrionics’, part queer cultural reportage and part feminist call to arms, Rich focused her post-NQC interest in ‘New Lesbian Video’, a queer feminist interventionist practice of ‘re-visioning’ popular cinema exclusively for lesbian audiences. Calling attention to the ongoing gender imbalance in relation to historicising the past, she argued, “If the gay male project is archaeological, then the lesbian approach is probably alchemical: making gold out of dross, making something out of nothing.” This new hybrid cinema of lesbian wish fulfilment saw lesbian fan films such Queen Christina, Blond Venus and All About Eve get a lesbian reading against the grain, as filmmakers took control of technology, changing, chopping, and re-editing the film narrative to suit the visual pleasures of lesbian spectators. Rich called this ‘post-modernism with a purpose’: a queer feminist strategy that connected the politics of film history with the contemporary lesbian public sphere.
Consequently, the ICA’s 1997 curatorial invitation to Rich was historically and culturally significant – perhaps they knew that if anybody was going to sense change in the air, it would be Rich. 1997 was a significant year for the UK. It was the dawn of a New Labour ‘Third Way’ centrist government after 18 years of Tory rule; a decade into the YBAs and the neo-liberalisation of the art world; Britpop; the establishment of the National Lottery; and the international domination of British commercial cinema with films divided into ‘empire’ Four Weddings And A Funeral or ‘underclass’ Trainspotting – both smashing domestic and global box offices. Revisiting Rich’s ‘Prologue to an Exhibition’ essay for the ICA’s catalogue reveals a captivating historical account of her long engagement with British film friends (including Laura Mulvey, Sally Potter and Isaac Julien) and colleagues within the feminist avant-garde community. She even considered moving to London in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, but instead chose San Francisco.
Cutting through the mainstream media noise, Rich unleashed her razor-sharp transatlantic feminist curatorial eye and critical scholarship in order to draw national and international attention to a fresh crop of moving image work bursting with new queer feminist film and video. Severed from the ideological binaries of the past, this was a new feminist cinema that, as she saw it, expressed a pronounced restlessness through exploring hybridities of class, race and gender; the old avant-garde orthodoxy was dead. She remarks, “This is a time of hybridization, not of orthodoxies. It’s a time of contamination, not purities.” In the new energy flowing through UK film production, she smelt the young and the restless: “the pure mixes with the impure, the formal with the improvisational, the raw with the cooked.”
Rich championed the work of three of the young queer feminist filmmakers she had located in this moment: Carol Morley, Sarah Pucill and Sarah Turner. Club des Femmes has also programmed and written about these filmmakers’ work, without a doubt thanks to Rich’s feminist curatorial and critical advocacy from the late ‘90s. So it is with gratitude that we direct our attention to their work that Rich selected for the ICA Biennale and hear, in the filmmakers’ own words, how Rich’s legacy helped shape their own practice and a feminist moving image culture at large.
Image courtesy of Cinenova
Programme: ‘Drama Degree Zero’
Sheller Shares Her Secret Dir. Sarah Turner, UK, 1994, 7mins, 16mm
Artist, academic and curator Sarah Turner is currently enjoying a UK theatrical release of her fourth feature film Public House (2015). One of her earlier shorts Shellar Shares Her Secret (1994) is a drama about a young girl who exacts revenge on her disciplinarian father. Included in a wilfully eclectic programme named ‘Drama Degree Zero’ (together with an Adidas TV ad featuring the boxer Prince Naseem by Andrew and Stuart Douglas and a Polaroid TV ad by Michel Gondry), Rich remarks on a striking regeneration in the use of the dramatic genre, a ‘back to basics’ approach mutating across the borders of the art and commercial worlds. She writes, “[Turner] scores a little girl’s transgression to the kitsch pop song of the period whilst undercutting any saccharine potential with an act of defiance that refuses potential.” The filmmaker’s nascent feminist act of defiance, her irreverence and wit continued into subsequent experiments in her film and curatorial practice. Her recent film Public House, documenting a ‘post-Occupy’ south London community’s fightback against gentrification, brings her performative drama full circle and points to her engagement with film as a strategy of resistance, and the revolutionary power of feminist cinema. In March, Turner introduced a Club des Femmes-hosted Being Ruby Rich warm-up screening of Lynn Hershman-Lesson’s feminist art documentary !WAR. Later, Turner wrote the following for us:
Ruby Rich was/is a cultural visionary, and as such, was/is a cultural mentor to queer filmmakers – or, in fact any filmmaker that values a position of otherness and difference as a useful lens through which to view the world. Ruby’s irreverent engagement in the world would have been a huge source of support to my younger selves (when she championed one of my early films, Sheller Shares Her Secret) – and I’d value it even more now!
Image courtesy of Sarah Pucill and LUX, London
Programme: ‘Electric Transformations’
Backcomb Dir. Sarah Pucill, UK, 1995, 5mins, 16mm
Sarah Pucill’s early film practice explored positions of feminism and the unconscious, with a particular focus on the domestic space constructed within a framework of feminine subjectivity. Backcomb was her third short film, described by Rich as ‘creepily surreal’, commenting that “Disney would unlikely be knocking on [Pucill’s] door anytime soon.” In the film, Pucill focused in rigorous close-up on the drama of domestic disruption. Hair, embroidery, milk, china, a knife are utilised as feminised metaphors denoting a claustrophobic and contradictory environment of constriction and release, of self and other. Rich included the film in her second programme called ‘Electric Transformations’, which was comprised of mostly avant-garde work. The films show a “determination to unsettle the audience’s assumptions, to play with genres, to ambush us with surprise or discomfort.” She called for audiences to get active (in the Mulveyan sense), to reposition themselves or they’d miss the point.
Pucill’s most recent moving image work explores the queer feminist history, literature and photography of Surrealist artist Claude Cahun. In two films – Magic Mirror (2013) and Confessions to the Mirror (2016) – her practice continues to inspire for its formal engagement with a queer feminist language in cinema and a deep commitment to the materiality of film. Pucill reflects back to 1997:
I remember being very exciting that Ruby Rich had selected my film, Backcomb for the ICA Biennial. She wrote something that I thought was great. She had identified how the film “unleashed the demonic in the form of two of femininities mildest tokens: hair and embroidery” which said precisely what was relevant and yet which I hadn’t been able to put into words myself. I was really thrilled to be part of something that Rich was curating. She was curating artist film in a way that acknowledged a feminist and queer agenda that didn’t or hardly existed at that time in London.
Researching the curatorial history of the ICA Biennale also draws attention to what Sophie Mayer has recently written in a article for Sight & Sound, calling attention to an alternative feminised view of curation, “Curation – from the Latin curare, to care – shares this feminisation with other caring labour; writing a history of film curation would also shine a light on the attentive, supportive and intellectual work of women in bringing films to screen.” 1997 might have been the year of Brit Pop, New Labour, lad mags and Saatchi macho excess, but this is another cultural history of London which tells the narrative of Rich’s feminist support, care and curatorial activism that championed many young feminist artists and filmmakers. Rich’s ability to see and understand this political and intellectual moment can be seen in her legacy today within the UK’s queer feminist moving image landscape.
Credit: CAMP: Cannon and Morley Production
Programme: ‘Direct Address’
I’m Not Here Dir. Carol Morley, UK, 1994, 14mins, 16mm
Financed by the Arts Council (although it is a wonder how this satirical bombshell of a short was financed by such a notoriously orthodox funding body), described as, ‘a film about shop assistants and boredom’, the film’s selection by Rich for the ICA Biennale was a mark of honour. Morley recalls:
It was an important marker in my filmmaking years when B. Ruby Rich curated my short film, I’m Not Here. Rich’s inclusion of my film was truly encouraging as I started out on the long and twisted road of filmmaking. Her selection of my film made me feel recognised as a filmmaker and I felt part of something bigger. It really did make me feel I’d somehow found my place. It helped to give me the impetus to carry on.
Morley and her producing partner Cairo Cannon are perhaps better known now for their recent award-winning features Dreams of A Life and The Falling, but their earlier shorts are acerbic bites of feminist social commentary, and worth seeking out. I’m Not Here was Morley’s third short and, as with Dreams of Life, she took her inspiration from a newspaper cutting. This time it was about the actor Alec Guinness, who wrote a letter to The Times complaining about the lack of attention shop assistants gave to customers. The letter was printed under the heading ‘I’m Not Here’. Selecting the film for inclusion in her third programme entitled ‘Direct Address’, Rich called attention to the pressing concerns of the everyday: “social, aesthetical, ideological, racial.” Singled out as, “some of most scathing social satire you’ll find anywhere, and the hippest”, Morley caustically describes the film as being about shop assistants and boredom, but it is also about capitalism and the exploitation of a feminised labour force barely acknowledged – the historical parallels to Sheffield Film Co-op’s 1982 film A Question of Choice do not go unnoticed. Rich’s curation in this third programme is intrepid and visionary as she focused in on ‘a powerful vision of hybridity’, programming Morley’s Baudrillardian satire alongside a Guinness ad by Tony Kaye with new films by Lis Rhodes and Sonali Fernando that reflect metaphysical journeys into the past, into ‘bone-deep subjectivities of other lives.’
To re-engage with Rich’s 1997 curation for the ICA Biennale; to read the critical essay that reflects her signature personal and political investment; to imagine sitting in the ICA cinema where the Biennale programmes were first screened, or watch them later at another ‘Regional Film Theatre’ (as independent cinemas were known in those days) as the Biennale found its way across the UK for two years (hard to believe by today’s cultural exhibition standards), has been reflective and offered the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate Rich’s mark on the UK. Reading about this history has shone fresh light on Rich’s intervention in the critical and curatorial routes by which feminist filmmakers and films are (and continue to be) brought to international attention. Rich closed her prologue by warning of a worrying trend in less diverse sources of film funding being available; the impact, she acknowledged, was reflected in the films shown, and a reminder that at such an historical moment ‘what we produce counts’ in terms of film, video and critical scholarship. These pointers could not be any more prescient for our current political moment.