Panel > Humour in Experimental Video Practices

Saturday, 11:45 am – 1:15 PM
OCTOBER 17 2015


PANEL CHAIR: Tess McClernon

“Portapak Pranksters: On the Risks of Feminist Humour in Early Video Art”

Cameron Moneo (PhD candidate, York University)

> There is a joke that goes you can tell you’re watching a piece of early performance video art by the way, at the end of the tape, the performer gets up to turn off the camera. While this is a (slight) exaggeration, it points to the relative lack of sophistication in first-decade, single-take, lo-fi black and white Portapak video, which can make performance videos of the period look “dated” by later tech-savvy standards. Among notable examples of early performance video are several satirical works by feminist artists; these include Susan Mogul’s Take Off (1974), Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), and Nina Sobell’s Hey, Chicky!!! (1978). My paper considers how the feminist humour of these videos exposes them to further risks of datedness: the risk of outmoded political expression (Rosler’s tape, for example, consciously reflects the fashion of Godard’s Maoist period), and the risk of a prank that loses its sting.

My paper will think through the logic of datedness, not to redeem the “freshness” of the political humour of Mogul, Rosler, Sobell, et al., but rather to reconsider one of humour’s challenges to art: functionality. If, as with other technologies, the functionality of humour is seen to depend on its novelty (a “stale” joke being one whose time has come and gone), the deliberate risk of feminist performance video humour is that of creating in a (then new) mode and medium with the possibility of a failed future. Drawing on failure/risk theories as well as statements from early performance video artists, this paper argues the importance of humour and Portapak video to a feminist defiance of art’s sacred formalisms (e.g., Kantian functionlessness). Sooner than seeking the “last laugh” (perhaps another formalism), these videos might be seen to admit a process of provisional success, in awareness of an open, different future.

“‘Uncontrollable Mirth:’ Humour in the Films of Marie Menken”

Angela Joosse (SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, McGill University)

> In a 1965 interview, a mature Marie Menken was addressed by a young P. Adams Sitney: “Few would dispute that your films are very feminine, that is, light and joyous. Do you feel that this is a proper expression of your complete personality?” To this Menken replied, “Absolutely yes. I want to impart hilarity, joyousness, expansion of life with an uncontrollable mirth. I try. Get it? While we have life we are superior to death, but watch out: death might be closer than you know. And that is our end. If I can postpone death even for one minute, I have been successful in my art and so is all art, for art postpones death. Nothing feminine about this, but just a universal for all, no matter who.”

New York avant-garde filmmaker and visual artist, Marie Menken (1909–1970) was one of the founding mothers of experimental film in North America. Her films often contain elements of humour that lead to joyous expression, disquieting reflection, and nuanced critique. In this paper I would like to demonstrate how Menken’s cinema uses humour to reflect on well-worn cultural conventions and roles including gender. Furthermore, her films tend to engage with laughter in the face of tragedy. Her film Hurry! Hurry! reflects on the limits of life itself, while Go! Go! Go! condenses the temporal flows of post-war New York city to offer a tragi-comic perspective on the entrapments of modern life. The question of the femininity of Menken’s cinema is also at stake in this discussion, and I would like to offer that consideration of humour in her films help problematize and explicate the difficult question of a feminine aesthetic.

“Sovereign Laughter: Humour as Resistance in Thirza Cuthand’s Colonialism: the Second Coming

Lisa Aalders (MA student, Concordia University)

> Theorizing the political potency of humour in feminist art must take into account other intersectional specifics such as race if one is to avoid universalist claims. With this in mind, I am interested in looking to video artist Thirza Cuthand and her work Colonialism: the Second Coming (1996) to think about how humour operates in video as a feminist tool of agitation and as well as an instrument of indigenous sovereignty. In the video, Cuthand imagines the narrowly avoided invasion of Earth by extra-terrestrials, seeking to colonize Earth upon being beckoned by the pale phallus of Cuthand’s vibrator. My particular interest in this work stems from the way that it uses the intimate quality of video to playfully describe some of the key intersections between feminist and indigenous struggles. It is a work whose use of humour on the one hand serves to destabilize popular understandings of Canadian history as well as create a new account of history, one rooted in the experiences of indigenous peoples and the struggle to survive colonialism. From this perspective that sees humour as both a critical and generative tool, I approach Cuthand’s video as a work of visual sovereignty. As theorized by Michelle H. Raheja, visual sovereignty is an understanding of sovereignty that deviates from its typically understood terms as a question of legal and political struggle. Looking instead to the realm of culture, visual sovereignty suggests sovereignty may be asserted by challenging the history of Western representation of indigenous peoples and by creating a space for self-representation and self-determination. With this in mind, my paper will focus specifically on humour as a productive tool used to build and maintain visual sovereignty. To do this, I will examine how Cuthand’s use of transgressive humour emerges from the lo-fi, make-do quality of her videomaking with additional consideration given to how her use of video allows for the self-determination required for visual sovereignty. Understanding this as a feminist imperative as well as an indigenous one, my paper seeks to consider the complicated role humour plays in re-thinking and re-asserting the terms of indigenous sovereignty.

“Coming Full Circle: Kitchen Bitching and the Bitchin’ Kitchen”

Margot Berrill (PhD candidate, University of Illinois)

> In her canonical feminist video of 1975, Semiotics of the Kitchen, Martha Rosler takes on the “joy” of cooking, a notion that is clearly the antithesis of her fuming character. Rosler’s satire, with her political agenda at the forefront, is the satire of the idea of experiencing joy in the domestic rituals of cooking. This paper introduces a theory of kitchen humour within a contemporary feminist context. Elements include the perturbed relationship women have with the domestic sphere as both a site of oppression and a site of resistance; the performance of domestic rituals, such as (but not limited to) food preparation; and the use of humour such as satire to bring attention to the problems of socially prescribed gender normativity.

With a side-by-side comparison to the actions and words of Julia Child in The French Chef, examples have been found that emphasize the humour in Child’s performances, with attention given to Child’s enjoyment in the occasional mishandling of meat, and problematizing the satire of this chef who herself embodied many feminist ideals.

How has this translated to feminist humour in contemporary popular culture? A case study is brought though an examination of Nadia G.’s Bitchin’ Kitchen (2010-2013), a funny television cooking show staring Nadia Giosia that relied heavily on riot grrrl feminism, punk aesthetics and a highly self aware performer. Giosia, a feminist activist of a different bent, does seem to relish the joy of cooking while simultaneously rejecting many gender norms.