‘You are being led into a space / this space was made for black trans bodies / who were wrongly archived or never archived at all’ are the opening lines of a text placed adjacent to the entrance of artist Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s performance and VR installation, the opening work of Cinema Paradiso: Shorts Programme, an evening of expanded film, video and experimental sound performances held at Paradise Works to launch HOME’s fifth Artist Film Weekender, curated by artists Jenny Baines and Chris Paul Daniels. While the archive has placed black trans bodies out of historical time, Brathwaite-Shirley’s installation — ‘You are being led into a space’ (2019) — restores their agency, creating a new time and space for their voices to be heard. As the narrator to the accompanying VR film states: “it’s not that I didn’t exist before, it’s that I was buried.”
At first, the room is experienced as a physical installation. Flowers are scattered onto a floor suggesting a ceremony has taken place. The viewer is seated in a chair and a VR headset and earphones placed upon their head. Suspended in a new reality, images shift and coalesce. A host of eyes hovers above, two alternating rows of oversized figures move clockwise and anticlockwise in a circle. At one point I felt I was suspended above a cloister or a vault. The audio reifies the sense of unease, underlined by a narrator who repeatedly states “you need to leave.” Since the archive is unable to act as a safekeeper for black trans lives, Brathwaite-Shirley has assembled an installation to disorientate the viewer, rightly seeking ‘to centre them’, not us.
Their imaginative work sets the tone for the films and performances to follow. Maria Anastassiou’s film examines dislocation and belonging in her portrait of Tilbury, Essex. It is a transient place where seafarers and refugees have arrived for generations. Filmed on a hand cranked 16mm Bolex camera, the colours of the landscape are enhanced in the resulting footage. The browns of the featureless distribution centre overhanging a quiet cul-de-sac, the faded reds and greens of stacked shipping containers that signify the town’s periphery but also its economic centre. Interspersed are voiceovers and portraits of Tilbury’s inhabitants, many EU residents, unable to obtain clear information about their futures in a post-Brexit Britain.
The title of the film ‘Way My it Did I’ (2019), Frank Sinatra’s infamous song in reverse, is a reference to the opening and closing scenes of the film where the song is heard being sung by Filipino seafarers onboard a docked ship. While seemingly detached from the other people in the film, their voices, and the song itself, provide a kind of Greek chorus to the images and stories relayed here. The themes of ‘Way My it Did I’ are reflected in Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s extraordinary stop motion animation, ‘The Burden’ (2017), where residents of a retail park perform ‘cheerful musical turns’ while awaiting the immanent apocalypse. They are also in the artist Jasleen Kaur’s work ‘YOOROP’ (2017) where scenes from Indian cinema featuring European settings, such as the Eiffel Tower, Swiss Alps and Canary Wharf, are interwoven together to explore how ‘Europe-ness’ has been constructed from an alternative perspective, echoing the reverse gaze of Anastassiou’s film.
In Kerry Baldry’s triptych ‘PUNCH’ (1993), ‘3 HEADS’ (1990), and ‘BODY’ (1991), rendered in 16mm, intimacy and emotionality are explored via overlapping images of body parts in contortion, their exaggerated gestures reminding me of Billie Whitelaw’s 1973 performance of Samuel Beckett’s Not I, where only the actor’s lips and mouth appear accentuating each syllable against a void-like background. In Mary Stark’s exploratory, experimental work-in-progress films, the experience of new motherhood is focused on. Tendered in both digital and analogue formats, the first two films present the labour of caring for her baby infant son. In the first work, ‘Changing Your Nappy’ (2018), Stark seems to offer a reclamation to the way new mothers, and the process of care, continue to be placed out of historical time. The film focuses on the repeated act of cleaning her son’s soiled nappies, each scene punctuated by the careful process of its disposal, with the work affectively presenting how time is experienced differently for new parents, and therefore must be marked as such.
For her final work, a collaboration with the artist David Chatton Barker, Stark performs a piece entitled ‘Bone Speaks Memory of Flesh/Lady of the Barrow’ (2019), another kind of reclamation that feels almost talismanic. The ‘Lady’ of the piece is a Neolithic woman whose bones have been miniaturised onto film stock by the artists. This film is shared amongst the audience, who pass it carefully to one another, as the bones are threaded through a camera. In an accompanying text read aloud by Stark she describes them as ‘rough jewels’. Followed by Kelly Jayne Jones’s live performance ‘There is a mountain called Mount Awe. It has quantities of gold and jade but no stones’ (2019), where the consciousness of mountains, their ‘multiverses’ are evoked in an immersive sound performance, there is a satisfying way to how these two pieces on time and ephemerality speak across to one another.
Cinema Paradiso: Shorts Programme was held at Paradise Works on 28 November 2019. It was the opening for HOME’s Artist Film Weekender 2019.
Isabel Taube is a writer and researcher based in Salford.