Lis Rhodes in Conversation with Anna Gritz

Anna Gritz

17 Feb 2012
The following interview is based on an email exchange between Lis Rhodes and ICA Assistant Curator Anna Gritz.

The following interview is based on an email exchange between Lis Rhodes and ICA Assistant Curator Anna Gritz in the months leading up to Lis Rhodes' exhibition at the ICA.

Lis Rhodes: Dissonance and Disturbance is on from 25 January to 25 March 2012. The exhibition includes films spanning Lis Rhodes’ career, from Dresden Dynamo (1972) and Light Reading (1978), to the Hang on a Minute series (1985). A Cold Draft (1988) and two of her more recent works, In the Kettle (2010) and Whitehall (2012), are presented as a single installation. The exhibition is accompanied by a selection of stills from Lis Rhodes’ films.

Anna Gritz: I would like to start by asking you about the installation of In the Kettle, Whitehall and A Cold Draft – the format is unique in your practice. The works are shown in a two-screen installation conceived for the gallery space, with a shared soundtrack for all three films. Does this presentation suggest a commonality between them, a shared objective or aim?

Lis Rhodes: The conjunction of A Cold Draft, In the Kettle and Whitehall is of ‘local’ events, some of which took place very near to the ICA itself: Carlton Gardens, Pall Mall, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Mansion House, Threadneedle Street and further east to the margins of the Lea Valley. This ‘geography of disturbance’ is what makes this screening particular. The passage of time between the films, in fact 24 years, is almost irrelevant. It is the duration of the provocation by political and economic conditions which is the source of ‘disturbance’. The ‘shared soundtrack’ includes the original voice in the 1988 soundtrack of A Cold Draft.

A Cold Draft is drawn from (a drawing of) the conditions produced by ‘liberal’ economics in the UK in the 1980s. The account may be fictitious – ‘truth is reckless, certainty a sham, but such is faith in repetition that line by line certainty is drawn’ – but the events are the result of the imposition of private ownership.

The economic system promotes ‘freedom’ and ‘the individual’, while it holds to neither. It does not allow for any alternative interpretation. The result is the privatisation of political power. Hence In the Kettle and Whitehall, where the police were used to protect the financial establishment, to harass protesters and to cause, intentionally or not, the death of a passer-by. And why Gaza? Is it not one of the most serious and iniquitous of ‘kettles’?

As Sonia Bridge remarked after seeing the films, ‘...In the Kettle (is) getting into the particularity and grain of injustice...’.

AG: Were you concerned that the shared thematic of resistance might draw attention away from the individual struggles presented in the three films? Are you afraid of such generalisations or do you wish to draw attention to a common language of dissent in all three expressions of resistance, despite their difference in subject?

LR: I will begin with a generalisation. Resistance is many and different actions, and can apply to many and different political movements. It depends on a changed perception of ‘authority’.

And now, to be specific: the Education Maintenance Allowance was introduced to enable 16 to 18 year olds to continue their education. Its withdrawal (to pay back a debt that had nothing whatsoever to do with the EMA or the 16 year olds it was to help) is not aimed at a single personal case, though it does affect individual persons.

It is aimed, by excluding large numbers of persons, at a whole class of people. And this class no longer accepted (on 9 December 2010 in Whitehall) the authority of government to impose this cut.

Emily Dickinson put it so succinctly: ‘I took one Draught of Life/ I’ll tell you what I paid/ Precisely an existence/ The market price, they said’.1

AG: When you and Felicity Sparrow first founded the women’s film and video distribution company Circles, and started touring films nationally, you presented the films in the form of programmed packages.

LR: Circles came into being through discussions between Annabel Nicolson, Felicity Sparrow, myself and women artists from the London Filmmakers Co-op throughout 1979. There were questions raised by the absence of women from film histories – for instance, Alice Guy (still barely recognised), whose first film was made for Léon Gaumont in 1897.

Circles was formed in November 1979 and included films, video, tape-slide and performance works. In early 1980, the first edition of Circles’ catalogue was produced by Felicity and printed by Only Women Press.

AG: The first package you toured nationally was titled ‘Her Image Fades as Her Voice Rises’, which included films by Joanna Davis, Alice Guy, Germaine Dulac, and your own Light Reading. It can be read in many ways as an introduction of Circles’ objectives and as a narrative of the rise of the female filmmaker. The package functioned both as a legacy for the women filmmakers working at the time and as a potential destination for the ones to come.

LR: I don’t think we thought of the films or the programme notes as either legacy or potential destination, but rather in terms of seeing in relation to each other four films made over a period of approximately seventy years.

AG: You stated in the accompanying programme notes that ‘this will be a subjective gathering of threads of meaning, drawing attention to the spaces between four films that are dense with connections and difference’.

Voice and image, the active and the passive appear as the guiding themes of the package. Laying bare the existing schism between the female author and subject, the programme allowed the films to create a new narrative based on the context in which they were shown – an alternative to the dominant one, in which women could hardly recognise themselves. In this context, the unmade bed in Light Reading always makes me consider the awakening of the female subject as a violent act that leaves behind bloodstained sheets.

LR: The image in Light Reading is the ‘scene of a crime’. I think the question is: whose voice is heard, whose image is used by whom, and whose meanings are meant? As Felicity writes in the programme notes, ‘We’ve shifted the “facts”... but they needed shifting – like my carpet they gather dust – and that begins to obscure the patterns that make facts mean’.

The crime is committed in the sentence – ‘...words already sentenced – imprisoned in meaning’ – and so in Light Reading words must be broken apart. Traces of an alphabet remain. Print slips. To quote Auli Hakulinen, ‘...language contains, communicates and perpetuates the ideologies of those in power, but in a way that appears natural’.2 The forms and the sense of the ‘natural’ are fractured, but there is still control of meaning.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett wrote: ‘In 1850 Lord Brougham’s Act enacted that in all Acts of Parliament words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed to include females unless the contrary is expressly provided’.3 The ‘contrary’ became apparent following an action in the Court of Common Pleas in 1868, where a group of women ratepayers claimed to be placed upon the Parliamentary register. The Court dismissed their claim: ‘The word “man” in an Act of Parliament did not apply to “privileges granted by the State”’. This judgement established as law that ‘the same words in the same Act of Parliament shall for the purposes of voting apply to men only, but for the purposes of taxation shall include women’.

‘Her thoughts were framed/ her image outside the frame/ reframed – by whom/ in whose frame’.

There are at present several women’s groups (End Violence Against Women, Equality Now, Object and the rape charity Eaves) attempting to get the Leveson Inquiry into press standards to investigate the relationship between pornography and violence towards women as portrayed in the media. ‘What she saw as subject/ was modified/ by how she was seen as object/ she objected’.

AG: Jacques Rancière defines the ‘police order’4 as organisational systems that structure our everyday interactions, regulating what is allowed and what is not. Like codes of conduct, these systems determine who may speak and who may take part in what he calls the ‘distribution of the sensible’, implicit laws that organise modes of perception. For Rancière, the political exists only in opposition to a previously constituted political order – more precisely, it is the disturbance of this order. The political is realised when the parts of society that were formerly not included in the partition of the sensible claim their right to speak and become part of a public discussion.

I recognise in your films a desire to disturb the dominant order, employing film as an aesthetic medium that can make the previously unseen or unheard visible and audible. Would you support this observation and, if yes, how do your films relate to activism?

LR: It is the particular political economy here that has made inequality inevitable. The gap between the wealthy minority and the majority of people has been widening since the 1970s. I’m afraid it’s worse than a ‘desire to disturb’. It’s a demolition job that’s required.

As Foucault suggested, the job is not ‘that of proposing solutions or prophesying, since by doing that one can only contribute to the functioning of a determinate situation of power that...must be criticised’.

It is difficult to imagine that an artist or writer can be the voice of the ‘previously unseen or unheard’. She or he can only be a critic of the conditions that ensure that there will be those ‘unseen or unheard’ – who are many – most of the time.

Brief as the interval is now, representation comes after what it is representing. The ownership can and probably will change. The replaying happens in a different place and time. ‘The taking away of the image is dangerous – the danger is of not taking it away’.AG Do you consider your films as generally negotiating this rupture between action and compliance? Can they be considered a call to arms? I would be interested to hear where you would place your more recent films such as In the Kettle and Whitehall in this tradition and within the overall development of your own films. Do they continue an ongoing effort or do they explore a new direction?

LR: In the Kettle contains a paradox. Experience framed in conjecture, as participant, as questioner. ‘To stand still at an angle to expectations...’. Not a call to arms, I think.

AG: Is the audience on your mind when you are making your works? And do you think your works are accessible without any knowledge of the events behind them?

LR: Audiences are not of one mind. There is no reason to suppose that there is an audience at all. But I think that there are many differences of experience and perception depending on whether the film is being shown in Leeds or New York, Tokyo, Dortmund or Bethnal Green Road. So audiences bring themselves, their experiences, to an event.

The marketing of art is well known. Whether ‘art’ should address such questions as the market itself is becoming more difficult, as English funding of the arts is being passed into corporate hands – that is, privatisation of the arts. You can do anything you like except what is not wanted. Control of the visible is economically defined.

To return – the question suggests that the audience might be known. Sometimes that will appear to be the case, but even if they are on my mind, will this affect accessibility? Is the pressure of the cuts evident, for example, in the entrance charge of £12, concessions of £10 for all the evening events programmes at the ICA? By my calculation, this is about 20% of a single person’s jobseekers allowance for a week, and students are simply in debt.

Is it possible to imagine that there can be no knowledge of F16 bombers, investment bankers or the police? Also I think that it would be unlikely that an audience would have no knowledge at all of exploitation. The question might be more precisely posed as to whether governments have any thought for the conditions that their actions are creating.

AG: ‘The ultimate film goer would be a captive of sloth’,5 Robert Smithson once prophesised. Unable to distinguish between films, he would be a caught in an endless blur of shapes and colours, and relieved from the burden of understanding, he would be left with pure perception. ‘All films would be brought into equilibrium – a vast mud field of images forever motionless’. I am curious how such a statement could relate to your films, which developed from a primarily abstract language to an increasing use of documentary footage taken from very particular political circumstances. Would it be correct to assume that your political concerns concretised over the years, or would you say that the formalist films follow a similarly tangible political agenda? How closely do you feel aligned to the struggles represented in your films, or are they more case studies of a general language of dissent? And at last, do you agree with Smithson that the influx of filmic imagery could lead to a reduction in the perceived content?

LR: It’s difficult to feel much affinity with Robert Smithson’s A Cinematic Atopia, in which he also writes: ‘Actually, I tend to prefer lurid sensationalism. For that I must turn to some English director, Alfred Hitchcock will do. You know, the shot in Psycho where Janet Leigh’s eye emerges from the bathtub drain after she’s been stabbed’. Ideologically awash with content for him as ‘he’ is the cinema-goer. Is this the concrete mixer, or simply the concrete? As for ‘pure perception’, I find this inconceivable.

All re-presentation is an abstraction of one sort or another. Abstraction is also re-presentation. The ‘visual abstraction’ of, say, Dresden Dynamo could be said to be documentary. A film made without a camera. It was an attempt to make a material connection between what is seen and what is heard. The image is the sound.

The proposition that political concerns ‘concretise over the years’ is difficult to refute, but must be argued against. Conditions are always changing. What is ‘concretised’ is the idea that there is only one way – and that is that. Reality cannot explain itself. Different conflicting interests surround it.

I have no means of measuring my closeness or distance to the ‘struggles’ in my films. I am amongst many, as are many. Am I in the case study? Ask the Metropolitan Police photography department; or perhaps don’t.

AG: In the exhibition, you present alongside the films a selection of film stills or ‘notations’, as you refer to them. Referring to the stills as notations suggests a system of ciphers that describe circumstances outside of written language. Systems of transcription are used apart from their designated purpose; in films like Dresden Dynamo, the optical soundtrack of the projector translates colours and abstract patterns into sounds. Can you elaborate on this strategy, its relation to the use of images and to composition in general?

LR: In Dresden Dynamo, Print Slip and Amanuensis, the optical soundtrack is used to make a material connection between seeing and hearing, i.e. notation without translation or interpretation. The optical track mechanically reads a sound in response to the mark or image printed on it.

I see the ‘stills’ on the staircase (which, with the exception of Orifso, are taken from films made between 1971 and 1978) as notations. They show the connections between the sound and the image that cannot be seen in the films when projected.

AG: As part of the exhibition, you also produced a publication that occupies an interesting position between a work and an exhibition catalogue. It features scripts from your films, some of which are shown in the exhibition, and independent writing in support of the thoughts presented. I detect a similarly fragmentary style in your writing as in your use of images. Can you tell us a little more about your writing process and how closely it is tied to the films you are working on at the time?

LR: I think writing is an image. I think reading is a series of images which can be heard. Writing, like drawing, deals as much with the invisible as the visible; not what is seen but what is seen through – the condition itself, not the evidence for it.

No work stands alone. It cannot. What is begun elsewhere is continued here and there. Here and there will turn up later on. In some works, images came later and were spread behind the words which were already there. In other words, images were suggested or heard.

None of these processes strike me as unusual. I mean they seem a pretty common way of working. But I do often wonder whether the end can be an end, and where a beginning could have begun. The tying of image to word, even when the image is a word, needs more rope than I have to hand. Meanings run about. Definition requires the establishment of an Establishment; an economy of meaning for the 1%?

AG: How do you find the subjects of your films? And how do you move from one work to the next?

LR: The making of a film simply raises more questions. It doesn’t provide answers. I wish it did. The questions are the subjects. Forensically, historiographically, I, or someone, might investigate a particular ‘interval’ between one work and the next, but this might not indicate anything other than a diary of events.

The second part of the question holds more of the answer than the first. Conditions change. Perhaps the subjects move. In that movement one film has not ended and the next has already begun. Films are not completely made in the order in which they appear.

AG: Would you say that there are groups of works within your oeuvre that negotiate similar concerns over and over again? Do you sometimes rework source material in different films?

LR: On the question of reworking, in most cases I think I find that concerns which were prominent in the past are still with us. It is almost inevitable that the persistence of the same system of economic conditions will ensure this happens. History is now, not then.

AG: You often speak of rhythm and composition when you talk about your work, and when reading your writing one wants to draw parallels to poetry. To what degree is the writing for films an independent process that exists outside of the films?

LR: Replacing and displacing words out of time, the autonomy of writing, and the mixing of voices in the question could all be heard from the perspective of sound editing.

In the composition of sounds and the mixing of voices (often, but not always, my voice, perhaps because I write the texts) each track is taken apart, composed apart. Played on piano wires several metres long in Riff, heard in the street or composed on a synthesiser in Orifso – the rhythm may be the image, could be the sound, might be the text. Images and poetics move across and through – slip equally from – the apparently recognisable to a different familiarity – of colour and movement.

And so back to words. A piece of writing might be thought of as autonomous. I write in phrases not paragraphs. Voice between sounds – sounds under the voice – sounds over sounds over voices. The composition of a soundtrack is the breathing of writing, the writing of breathing, at the comma.


1 Emily Dickinson, I took one Draught of Life, 1862.

2 Auli Hakulinen, Language and Language Use: is Finnish a gender neutral language?, 1992.

3 Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Women’s Suffrage,1912.

4 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, Politics and Philosophy, 1999.

5 Robert Smithson, A Cinematic Atopia, 1971.

This article is posted in: Exhibitions

Tagged with: Film, interview, Lis Rhodes, Talks