All filmmaking that is worth the name, regardless of its apparent construction, is a process of making through community; on screen, behind the camera, and in the intention of all its makers. There is such a thing as society.
Manifesto for Coexistence in Film and Life
Andrea Luka Zimmerman
What is in the pause between a moment where we are held together by the sound of a voice and the silence that follows? What is in the pause between the formation of a thought and finding its fitting articulation; between each wave approaching the shore like a proposition and the chorus of pebbles gathered in its wake; between the stretch of time from one historical moment to another? An inescapable network of mutuality? Or as artist and curator Kirsty Russell asks in placing two provocative and different filmmakers side by side; who is working to support us in these pauses as we try to reckon with this gap between Martin Luther King’s conjuring of a shared justice, rolling down like water, and the realities we face?
These are the questions that remain after attending Working in the Pauses in Aberdeen, a LUX Scotland screening that ties together Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s Civil Rites and Alex Martinis Roe’s Our Future Network by the small thread of Russell’s introduction, in which she confesses that both have been part of her thinking on the difficulty and necessity of public speaking. Before speech, Civil Rites opens with music, on a haunted scene of trees wrapped in mist and the protest sounds of a single harmonica. The screening also ends with music, not of a lonely beckoning cry that signals the tone of Zimmerman’s poignant cine-poem, but of collective song as a group of women in Our Future Network, harness joy and desire into a chorus of acknowledgement. It feels fitting that the screening should end on this celebration of acknowledgement, the act of showing one has taken notice. It highlights the relational practices, structured by careful, generous attention and deep listening, that permeate both films. Despite the difference in tone, as the women sing ‘You are a magician from outer space, you give us everything we need’ it’s hard not to be reminded of Martin Luther King, whose call to activism and resistance, provokes Zimmerman’s filmic response. Acknowledgement, song, and memory are also bound together in Dr. King’s 1967 speech to Newcastle, where he asserts that the award of an honorary degree in civil law from the University, will remain dear for ‘as long as the chords of memory shall lengthen’. King cites the practice of law as a set of rites and rituals that can, by repetition, change hearts, giving us an ethical means to relate to each other in our differences. But how long are the chords of memory and how will our future networks play them?
Zimmerman’s Newcastle offers both hope and failure in the wake of King’s dream of mutuality. The first crossing is of an ocean, the sounds of which echo through Civil Ritesalongside silent texts, diligently listing moments of protest, from suffragette hunger strikes to more recent bedroom tax and anti-war demonstrations, that form the fabric of the city. We have work to do to align this list that remembers with the more mundane visual geography of the film, recording a homogeneous concrete backdrop, a sequence of forgetful shopping spaces. In the dark before dawn, a bin lorry collects rubbish, as our gaze meets each deserted cityscape, empty apart from the occasional maintenance worker cleaning light fittings with long sticks or blasting pavements with waterjets, prompting the question – who is this cleansing labour for, couched within an architecture not sensitive to context or memory?
Where texts offer quiet and persistent resistance to these architectural erasures the stillness of these scenes are also layered with voices, often female, offering a more vulnerable and sometimes doubtful kind of public speech, that reflects Hannah Arendt’s assertion that to face up to such cleansing of differences we must not fail to think. Zimmerman makes space for this struggle to think, refusing the comfort offered by a unified and singular call to justice. These diverse and dissonant voices, given time through Zimmerman’s painstaking interview process, reflect on the still grave and urgent problems King raises on the shores of Newcastle in 1967: racism, poverty and war. We are given no easy answers. Instead we’re reminded that there is still a deficit of Black professors in education, of support in the aftermath of war and of change in pockets for people on the streets. Recognising a multitude of different injuries, one voice asserts that if we go to the hospital like this, without being able to see the deepest wounds, some will not make it home. Between text, voice and image Zimmerman sets up an uneasy relationship. Rejecting the unity and violence of monuments she makes space for a patchwork of moments and thoughts that testify to the complex nature of both leadership and public space. In the silences the filmmaker works a kind of ritual, handing over authority to different voices. These show us public space as a moving set of relationships. We will have to work this out together, navigating between like jellyfish on the waves.
There is a gap between Civil Rites and Our Future Network, a change of tone. My struggle in writing this gap is similar to the one both filmmakers face; to articulate the threads of commonality that run between the films without losing sight of differences in consciousness, the politics of collective difference. The first calls for a dialogue on the possibility of collective action, listening deeply to lonely voices pulled and pushed by bootstraps and roots in the struggle for social change. The second offers a response and a moment backstage to rehearse this call for collectivity. We are given a number of pragmatic propositions that help us imagine future networks, resilient to the systematic sense of oppression that structures the first film.
These propositions create an architecture of encounter that hones its focus on relational intelligence. As part of this we are told architecture matters; at points Martinis Roe’s voice floats above these consciously directed collective scenes, she tells us ‘spaces shape relationships, and relationships are where social structures are reproduced but also where they are changed’. What is this architecture of change? As tables and chairs shift into smaller and larger groups or are abandoned for floors and outside spaces I see a stripped back architecture, in process and moving. I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s assertion that we need a room of our own, a place of retreat that can offer support for creativity. We are invited to bring a set of personal references to this room, stories of women, archived in traces, who we relate to and draw inspiration from. The film shows hands holding and passing these traces around, another kind of architecture that plays on the chords of memory to build strength.
To this room I bring a book I read recently, Memoirs of a Spacewoman, set in the future, in a place of ever unfolding worlds and expanding differences. In the face of these differences its writer, Naomi Mitchison, points to communication as the science of this pioneering future. This science is embodied by the Spacewoman who shifts between relational modes, departing from a one size fits all mono-cultural language, towards a deep listening practice, involving her whole body, deeply vulnerable in its meeting with other consciousness and yet brave as well.
I add Mitchison’s Spacewoman to this community of words derived from personal experiences because her writing celebrates encounters with difference in a way that resonates with the network in the film. With them we are invited to share these personal things so that we may start by affirming our unique perspectives. These become the basis for a new political project that works because of rather than despite difference, building solidarity through careful listening and acceptance of the other for what she really has to offer. In that way, without demanding that we share the same identity, we are able to make space for other lived experiences.
By saying no to the kind of identity politics that insists on commonality Our Future Network makes room for something else. For me this room looks a little like a library with moveable shelves of catalogued and uncatalogued potential. Through experimental propositions the network rehearses a set of support rituals to carry each other out into a more complex public space, with affirmative introductions. There is a sense that we are energised and refreshed by a feminist sensibility that spins in circles, like yarn, between each unique voice. In this way we are gently bound together, our stories created in the resonance between bodies in space.
In 1978 artist Jenny Holzer alighted on the manifesto in the search for a new discursive art form. She was drawn to it for its uncanny ability to hold together an ‘inflamed rant, no good end and a deeply felt description of how the world should be’ (Holzer, 1989). In this respect Civil Rites and Our Future Network, held together in the dark, are quietly manifesto like, raging against a single way of seeing and having to be seen while offering a utopian architecture of carefully constructed spaces that allow us to find support and give authority to each other. A manifesto can be an instruction manual, a poem or cry that acknowledges all the wounds that have brought us to the hospital. It asks to be voiced, becoming embodied words that resonate, a call that raises a response. When it’s done right it has the potential to make a group sing together and heal, performing a kind of miraculous hosting that can help us take small steps towards imagining a different world.
Caroline Gausden is a writer and discursive curator based in Glasgow. She has a practice based PhD in Feminist Manifestos and Social Art Practice from Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen and currently works as a development manager for programming and curating at Glasgow Women’s Library.
This text was commissioned as a response to Working in the Pauses, a screening curated by Kirsty Russell that took place at the Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen on Sunday 20 January 2019. Both text and screening are part of LUX Scotland’s pilot programme of events in Aberdeen, supported by Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Funding Programme.