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Of Gerbils and Men: Politics, Satire and Passion in Some Films of Joyce Wieland
Robin Curtis

Joyce Wieland is likely the North American woman whose work is most often mentioned in passing in avant-garde film historiography. She remains, only a few years after her death in 1998, and twenty five years after her last major film, at best a footnote in the history of avant-garde film, and utterly unknown as a visual artist outside Canada; this, despite the fact that she was equally active as a filmmaker and a visual artist, completing 20 films in her lifetime and exhibiting continually until the onset of her illness with Alzheimer's in the late 1980s. Indeed she enjoyed the bittersweet distinction of being the first living woman to mount a solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa in 1971. Her greatest achievement was perhaps the completion of her narrative feature film, «The Far Shore» in 1975, during the earliest days of the Canadian feature film industry; it was however, in essence, her last film. Wieland developed an interest in film in the 1950s while still working as a graphic artist at a commercial animation house in Toronto. Following her move to New York City in 1962 with her then-husband, Michael Snow, she felt an increased affinity for the medium. Despite having been well established asan artist in Canada, having already had her first one-woman show in 1960, she nonetheless felt overwhelmed by the aggression of the burgeoning New York art world. Although she continued to produce non-time-based visual art throughout her nine year stay there, the work was never exhibited in New York. Instead she became a fixture of Jonas Mekas' Film-Makers Showcases, a connection that would continue until, in 1970, she proved not to be one of the two living women whose work was included in the Anthology Film Archives' «nuclear collection of the monuments of cinematic art.» [1]

Structural Film

Despite this rebuff, and as uncomfortable a fit as the affiliation may be, she has remained a peripheral member of the structural film canon, having first been placed there by P. Adams Sitney in 1969 in structural film’s inaugural text (which appeared in «Film Culture»), although her work subsequently garnered a mere mention in the more readily accessible version of Sitney's text published later in his «Visionary Film.» [2] This situation has persisted into the present: her name

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was mentioned only in passing three times in David E. James' «Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties,» which, given the exemplary broadness and eclecticism of James' approach, would have been an ideal context for a more detailed consideration of her place within the arts of that decade. Ultimately Wieland is a figure both perplexing and paradoxically very much representative of several struggles going on within and between the art and film worlds in the 1960s.

The Here and Now

Allan Kaprow's astute description in 1958 of what he judged to be a turning point in the future of the visual arts two years after Jackson Pollock's death, speaks to much that is at the heart of Wieland's many projects, as diverse as they may appear. Wondering, quite literally, «what do we do now?» Kaprow suggested a fresh engagement with a wide range of material: »Pollock, as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness ofForty-second Street. Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other sense, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard-of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies; seen in store windows and on the streets; and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents.» [3] From the disaster motif prevalent in her work in the early sixties to the fusion of the solemn with the ridiculous, a great many of precisely these elements came to play a significant part in both the visual and time-based art made by Wieland through the 1960s and 70s. She took a keen interest in the space and objects, the delights and hazards of her own everyday life, focusing often on the domestic sphere, its instruments and implements, its techniques and its tactile sensual pleasures, all

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symptomatic of the feminist slant to her work. Similarly, she investigated the «here and now» implied by the Canadian nationalism which was budding throughout the 1950s and raging like a (courteous) wildfire by the late 1960s. Northrop Frye has written that the conundrum of Canadian identity cannot be addressed through a simple examination of self, but rather that the Canadian sensibility has been «less perplexed by the question ‹Who am I?› than by some such riddle as ‹Where is here?›» [4] Wieland' s work takes up the task of specifying the place from which meaning emerges, in both an individual and a geographic sense. Finally, formally, her work was often rigorously sparse, obliquely pointing out the various repercussions of the filmic dispositif, yet was never without humour. It is these three features in combination, Wieland's focus on the specifics of the domestic sphere, her insistence on the difficulty of defining «where is here?» and her inclination towards a reductive aesthetic, have contributed to a body of work that, in its eclecticism, seems to continue to be largely illegible to critics and scholars alike. [5]


While the historiographies of art and film have neglected Wieland’s work, it would be misleading to suggest that she was unknown to and under appreciated by all her contemporaries. Annette Michelson, for instance, a key ally for the most successful of the structural filmmakers, was an early supporter of Wieland's. In conversation with Giuliana Bruno in 1986, Michelson described her own interest in avant-garde film upon her return to America in 1968 and her concomitant growing interest in work done by women as being partially contingent on her discovery of Wieland. Yet, despite quite a passionate affinity for Wieland's films, she neglected to ever do her the honour of producing an extended analysis of her work. [6] It seems to be a somewhat disconcerting passion that Wieland's films arouse, disarming in its blunt enthusiasm. Indeed this passion is what separates Wieland from her fellow structural filmmakers and is what makes her work so difficult to penetrate analytically; for while there is a structural coolness to many of her films there is equally an ardent, nearly raw insistence on the relevance of the specificity of time

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and space, on the significance of the place from which meaning emerges for the expression which results. The emotion of these works apparently confounds attempts to distil their discursive qualities. Their passion seems to encourage most observers to take a group of films at face value that palpably resist being reduced to simple exercises in political affirmation.

Film Historiography & The Two Avant-Gardes

I would suggest that the root of the difficulties with Wieland's films lies not in the works themselves but with the manner in which they have been integrated into film historiography. In his influential text, «The Two Avant-Gardes,» Peter Wollen established a nearly unbridgeable division between two tendencies within avant-garde film of the 1960s and 70s. That which he termed the «Co-op Movement» was North American in origin and was most closely linked to the traditions and imperatives of the art world in that it sought to apply Greenbergian criteria for modernist painting to an examination of a medium which is composed, most fundamentally, of light, celluloid and time. [7] This has led, in Wollen's estimation, to an essentialism, anontology not of the profilmic (as is the case in the realist project, à la Bazin) but of the nature of the cinematic process, or what he there terms «pure film.» It is no coincidence that this is the title given by David E. James to his chapter on structural film. Indeed James' «Allegories of Cinema» in its entirety can be considered an expansion of (and response to) Wollen's model, applied to American film in the 1960s. [8] Predictably, Wieland's work is located (by James) on the «Co-op Movement» side of the paradigm, within the context of «pure film.» But what is Wollen's other option? He traces a line from the Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s through to the avant-garde narrative filmmakers of 1960s and 70s Europe (such as Jean-Luc Godard and Straub-Huillet), the common denominator being a simultaneous emphasis on the signified of images, on the significance of the profilmic in a realist sense, and the calling into question of the apparently self-evident relationship between signifier and signified. Thus focus switches here from the dispositif of the medium as defined by the rarefied contemporary art world to that defined by a film with an audience, created for mass agitation. A consideration of the

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1933 (Wieland, Joyce), 1968

process of signification is key in both cases – but to radically different ends. Regarding Godard's «Demoiselles d'Avignon» Wollen writes, «it dislocates signifier from signified, asserting – as such a dislocation must – the primacy of the first, without in any way dissolving the second.« [9] But what are the means of such a dislocation? In how many ways may it be brought about? At the close of his text, Wollen yearns for a convergence between these ostensibly so different methodologies, never suspecting he may have overlooked it. Although Wollen underscores the fact that the division between the two avant-gardes is not simply drawn along the lines of the absence or presence of political commitment, it is clear that divergent relationships to the referential qualities of filmic images are at issue here – and by extension, their divergent potential to affect political enlightenment. What is lacking for Wollen is a film that combines an investigation of the filmic dispositif in both the most mechanical and the most social sense, and at the same time does not disdain the attention of a mass audience. I would like to offer the example of several of Wieland's films as a corrective to this divide, in thehope that it will be a first step towards more detailed analytical investigation of her oeuvre.


The film «1933» made between 1967 and 1968 offers a street scene shot in New York City in the late 1960s from a loft window on the second floor. This shot, filmed mostly in fast motion but occasionally slowed to normal speed, is repeated in its entirety 10 times and is accompanied by dissonant raucous music, evoking the silent-film-like humour in fast motion human movement. Clear leader is inserted between these individual shots: its whiteness is twice obscured, each time by a frame or two of blackness, or more rarely of pinkness, suggesting something more to come, which never materializes. Onto this image the Arabic numerals 1933 (or 1 - 9 - 3 - 3) are superimposed, hinting at a wealth of combinatory possibilities between image and text and pointing out the inclination of the viewer to historicize and contextualize even on the basis of the most minimal of signifiers. Does 1933 refer to a moment of particular relevance in modern European history? Does it instruct the viewer to apply this particular

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knowledge of past events to the image of the present, as if we were entering into a historical drama, turning the image of the film's present (which is identifiable as such) into a representation of the past? It was of course a not uncommon practice in the historical narrative films of the 1960s to embrace visual anachrony wholeheartedly. Without the benefit of historical knowledge, the superimposition in this case can also simply function as a signifier of nostalgia, of the eternal influence of the past on the imagination of the present. Of course we might also assume that 1933 refers to the address of the building in which the loop was shot. Or finally, is the text in this image simply an arbitrary combination of four Arabic numerals, which lead us down the garden path of conjecture? »1933» is among Wieland's most ‹structural› films. While it does not resist easy analysis as energetically as several other examples I'll cite here, it serves to point out Wieland's concern with the representability of the here and now in an unproblematic fashion and more specifically, to point out a strategy common to nearly all films discussed here: the juxtaposition of written language and image. In Wieland's work these two systems competefor attention, with each calling distinct processes into play. In the gap between the kinds of knowledge, or rather, the kinds of experience each may produce, is the suggestion that the filmic image always makes a visual but not necessarily an easily legible impression. This problematic is taken up explicitly in «Rat Life and Diet in North America,» from 1968, which is her first film to employ the political rhetoric of the day. «Rat Life and Diet in North America» In this 14-minute film, «Rat Life and Diet in North America» (1968), subtitles are superimposed over images of gerbils and cats in domestic settings ranging from a kitchen table to the screen of a window and the garden beyond. Inserted into the documentation of the banal adventure of a band of gerbils loose in the house is the familiar photograph of the dead Ché Guevara surrounded by uniformed men. What is most remarkable about this film is its (shameless) juxtaposition of a political tale with real-life referents, with images that could not be more quotidian, thus coupling a fictional narrative about American military aggression against Canada with the eternally tentative movements of gerbils. «Rat Life and Diet in North America»

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is perplexing in that it ostensibly makes a mockery of its own political content: it is impossible to overlook the breech between the seriousness of the film's texts and the frivolity of its images, affected again by means of the orchestrated collision between image and written text. The film begins with an intertitle, «This film is against the corporate military structure of the global village,» a rhetorical gesture certainly not without precedent in the films of 1968, and is followed by titles which are superimposed over the images of the gerbils such as: «Political Prison«; «1968«; «Full Scale Rebellion is Carried Out«; and «Some of the bravest are lost forever» which juxtaposes a gerbil lying on its back with the photo of Che. Clearly, words and images are not redundant support for one another. Later, trite images of bucolic landscapes are contrasted in rapid-fire succession with the titles «Canada,» «Organic Gardening» and «No DDT being used» which themselves alternate and flash as if to advertise an attraction at a carnival, yet only carelessly promote their own content, sometimes even appearing upside down. These contrasts and conflicts between image and written text foreground the processes ofvisualization brought into play when one reads a text and, particularly when the text includes a proper name (such as «Canada»). By alternating between naïve illustration and outright contradiction, in their interaction with the film's textual intertitles and superimpositions, the film's images both illustrate and critique such simple associative pathways – common linkages which may well stand in the way of the complex perception needed for political change. I would argue however that the film does not efface its political content by questioning and poking fun at how that content is transmitted. Indeed, to quote Wollen (on Godard) once more, «it dislocates signifier from signified, asserting – as such a dislocation must – the primacy of the first, without in any way dissolving the second.» [10] Such a separation of word from image does not merely point out the meaning of language for the process of visualization: it insists as much on the haptic qualities of the image as on the graphic qualities of letters and numbers on the screen that would otherwise escape such a direct translation into signification.

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Reason over Passion / La Raison avant la Passion (Wieland, Joyce), 1969The Far Shore (Wieland, Joyce), 1976Solidarity (Wieland, Joyce), 1973

»Reason over Passion / La Raison avant la Passion«

A fellow member of the structural film canon, Wieland's friend and occasional collaborator, Hollis Frampton, also took up the examination of the impact of competing language systems on the experience of film viewing. Frampton generated the alphabetical permutations for Wieland's next film «Reason over Passion / La Raison avant la Passion,» which offers 537 algorithmically determined combinations of the letters in the title, [11] Pierre Elliot Trudeau's most characteristic motto. Combinations of these letters are superimposed over a fast-motion trip through the landscapes of Canada. [12] In tracing the contours of those landscapes from one coast to the next, Wieland points out the hugely varied specifics of the «here» of Canada while continuing to contest any simple conclusions about individual passion for the landscape and political behaviour. «Reason over Passion» also introduces two further strategies that become increasingly important in Wieland's films over the following years: firstly, the linguistic displacement inherent in bilingualism [13] and secondly, the problematic relationship between the body as a source of experience and the translation ofthat experience into meaningful expression, a preoccupation that is introduced by a motif common to Wieland's work in all media: the mouth as the source of expression. In «Reason over Passion» she silently sings the Canadian national anthem, with the camera trained on her mouth; the motif reappears in her lithographs and quilts of the period and is reintroduced, transformed, for the last time in her narrative feature film «The Far Shore.» «Reason over Passion» is widely considered her last «structural film;» after 1969 Wieland's filmmaking becomes formally radically hybrid, mixing documentary, avant-garde and agit-prop with wild abandon. Directly preceding her narrative feature Wieland made two shorts, «Solidarity» and «Pierre Vallière,» both of which have received little critical attention, and are usually considered idiosyncratic examples of straightforward political documentation, with only modest links to the aims of the avant-garde. I would suggest instead that they are most fruitfully read as works that hover between the concerns and methods of documentary and those of structural film, both taking up the problematic translation of experience into representation.

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Visceral Experience and Representation

While often considered a self-evident basis for meaning-production, particularly in the context of the historiography of minorities, the notion of «experience» was seldom submitted to scrutiny until it became a key component of more recent interventions made within various disciplines through the filter of gender studies. That experience requires translation in order to be related is precisely the argument made by historian Joan Scott in her much-debated critical assessment, «The Evidence of Experience.» According to the traditional notion of the manner in which experience is gained, «seeing is the origin of knowing. Writing is reproduction, transmission – the communication of knowledge gained through (visual, visceral) experience.« [14] Thus experience was traditionally conceived of as a process of selection but not one of interpretation. Such an approach both naturalizes identity and thus, by extension, difference as well. Further it decontextualizes resistance by locating its source within «the nature» of certain individuals and simultaneously disregards the manner inwhich these identities have come into being. Thus, according to Scott, «The evidence of experience, whether conceived through a metaphor of visibility or in any other way that takes meaning as transparent, reproduces rather than contests given ideological systems – those that assume that the facts of history speak for themselves …« [15] Scott instead proposes that experience itself be conceived of as an interpretive process, which in turn requires interpretation in order to be transmitted or communicated to others. Recall that «visual, visceral» experience is the initial moment in this process with the precise relationship between these two types of experience remaining unclear, a feature of relevance to a consideration of the relationship between experience and its visual representation. How may we escape the apparent self-evidence of a visual representation of the body? Tracings several permutations of the term experience in historical and literary disciplinary contexts Scott herself finally arrives at the irreducible link between language and experience. She writes: «Experience is a subject’s history. Language is the site of history’s enactment.» [16] Scott therefore proposes that one

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consider the manner in which language is appropriated, situated and contextualized in the creation of subjects and thus of knowledge. But what is the status of the body in relation to discourse and how may one clarify the distinction between «discourse» and «experience?» Moreover, how may one still conceive of agency in this context? In her response to Scott entitled «History after the Linguistic Turn,» Kathleen Canning insists on the historical contingency of subjectivity but equally on the relevance of the material world for these processes. She follows Regenia Gagnier's suggestion «that examination of material culture (as the social space in which discourses are located) necessarily leads one to the body, that the body is located at a crossroads between material culture and subjectivity, and that bodily experiences of desire and deprivation shape subjectivity in important ways.» [17] Films are, of course, particularly suited to the task of locating the historical subject in its specificity in time and space, yet run the risk of making this contextualization seem self-evident. Indeed, how may the body, this point of juncture, this site of production that is itself produced, betranslated into representation without suggesting an essential relationship between visceral experience and subjectivity? In Wieland's case a strategy of visual reductio ad absurdum addresses this conundrum. While the majority of Wieland's films demonstrate an interest in the interaction between a body and its surroundings, both «Solidarity» and «Pierre Vallières» are unique in her oeuvre in that they focus explicitly on the relationship between experience and representation by employing radically selective framing techniques. When considered in the context of the talking head political documentary, or as a corrective to mainstream news, these two films represent an increasing localization of Wieland's perspective, a focus not unlike the developments going on contemporaneously within both the Newsreel collectives and the feminist documentary. However the formal characteristics of both of Wieland's films also suggest a discursive intervention. What do we understand from images that ostensibly document social events or statements given by individuals, that is, the images common to news broadcasts? The relationship between political statement (verbal or in

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the form of a written text) and the body that undergoes experience in society tends to be taken for granted, and yet it functions as the visual guarantor of the authenticity and validity of the statement given. In Wieland's works the separation effected through the visual reductio ad absurdum denaturalizes the relationship between visceral experience and political (or other) discourse, suggesting, on the one hand that the words spoken are not equal to the experience had by the body and on the other, that the reception of the products of experience’s translation into language is equally fraught.


The 11-minute film «Solidarity» documents a strike at the Dare Cookie factory in Kitchener, Ontario. A single shot of the feet of the workers walking through grass is combined with the voice of a female striker relating the issues at stake over a loudspeaker. Throughout the entirety of the film the word SOLIDARITY is superimposed over the image. The film resists the inclination to show the faces of the strikers focusing instead on the state of their various shoes, the hems oftheir pants and their stockings, all showing traces of having stood for long periods in the mud of a field. This framing highlights the wear that is visible on the feet and shoes and speaks implicitly of the traces of class and physical exertion. This relatively simple example demonstrates a strategy that is put to more complex use in «Pierre Vallières» leaving 3 distinct levels of information to each stand in isolation.

»Pierre Vallières«

A member of the FLQ (Front de Liberation de Québec) often considered its chief philosopher, «Pierre Vallières» was best known as the author of «Les Négres blancs d’Amerique,» an autobiographically-based description of the stunning extent of Québecois oppression. Wieland conducted and recorded an interview with Vallières on three rolls of film shortly after he was released from prison in the United States. His health was poor; the rolls are allowed to run to their full extent while Vallières speaks spontaneously on three topics: the degree of economic exploitation in his region of Quebec; the meaning of race for the history of oppression in Quebec and the relationship

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between racism and sexism. Subtitles translating Vallières’ Joual-tinged French into English are superimposed onto the image, pointing out the shortcomings and displacements of this means of making the unfamiliar familiar. Until the end of the last roll of film, which continues for some minutes after Vallières has finished speaking and pans over to the landscape visible out the window, the camera is exclusively focused on Vallières' lips and mouth in a tight close up. While the sensuous, viscerous quality of the mouth in these images is prominent, so too is its social significance: poor teeth suggest a childhood without privilege. [18] The manner in which lips, tongue and teeth interact to produce the language which is spoken on the film’s soundtrack and the presence of the ethnically-demarcated Québecois body behind that orifice are of course elements which are directly related to the experience of oppression narrated in the film's voiceover. Yet, through the radically reductive framing of the image, the relationship between these individual elements is denaturalized, poised on the verge of ridicule. The unusual proximity of the speaking subject of the film to the camera doesnot suggest an unbroken line connecting the body to the rhetoric that it produces, or to the undisturbed reception of that rhetoric by the viewer. Measured against the talking head aesthetic of conventional political documentary, Wieland’s unusual framing of her subject offers too great a proximity to the ‘source’ of the film’s content. The effect is disconcerting and has often been said to weaken the power of Vallières' words. [19] Further, the temporal structure of the film is defined by that of a roll of 16mm film stock, cutting Vallières off in the second reel and continuing after he has finished speaking in the third, privileging a representation of the constraints of 16mm filmmaking over the performance of the speaker. Thus once more a conflict is introduced between the film's aesthetic and its overtly political content, between signifier and signified.

»The Far Shore» and beyond

Much work must still to be done to begin to address the rich idiosyncrasy and passion of Wieland's oeuvre. In closing I would like to draw attention to a pivotal moment in Wieland's work, a key scene in «The Far Shore.»

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This nationalist romance imagines a context for the mysterious death of the proto «Group of Seven» painter Tom Thompson by linking him romantically with a Québecois woman married to an English Canadian boor. In this dramatic feature passion is key: both the passion for another human and the passion for a landscape, a homeland. In the scene in question, which incidentally is often represented in stills for the film, the lovers speak across the table to one another, each holding a magnifying glass to the mouth. I imagine that the Francophone woman speaks French; the Anglophone man, English. It is impossible to say for sure, since no words can be heard, for it should come as no surprise that while the sources, the mouths and the bodies, of this passionate exchange are emphasized, we never learn what it is that they are saying.

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