Georgina Le Breuilly
Unseen Object, Observed Subject: Racialized Embodiment, Labour, and Performativity in American Experimental Film
Taking the representation of racialized embodiment as its focus, this thesis explores the aesthetico-political conditions of filmic inscriptions of race in the work of three key figures of experimental filmmaking across generations: Maya Deren, Chick Strand and Kevin Jerome Everson. By developing a narrative of racialized embodiment that spans early poetic abstraction to contemporary formal experimentation grounded in social realities, I argue that race is a consistent yet uninterrogated preoccupation throughout experimental film history. Through these case studies I demonstrate that experimental film’s performative capacity affords it a unique ability to contest the objectification and spectacularization of the racialized body within dominant modes of representation. By racializing established film concepts such as lyrical abstraction, the close-up, and slowness, I show that not only is race an important yet underdeveloped lens for analysing experimental film, but moreover, that experimental film provides a crucial context for understanding the visual processes of racialization.
My thesis combines textual analysis with a mapping of the ideological, political, historical and aesthetic conditions that structure representations of racialized embodiment. Situated at the intersection of experimental and ethnographic film, my analysis is focalised through the thematic lenses of labour and performativity. I examine Deren’s inadvertent exoticizing gaze and the modes of performance and abstraction that mark her footage of Haitian Vodoun; Strand’s reflexive portraits of expropriated female labour in Mexico; and Everson’s investigation into the historical and cultural role of labour in Black life in America, and its potential to provide sites for self-determination and contestation. I evince the evolution of experimental film’s response to the dominant paradigm of in/visibility that marks these representations, at turns inadvertently reinforcing and intentionally subverting the spectacularization and objectification of the racialized, labouring body. I ask: how do these practices negotiate the remedying of invisibility with the violence of hypervisibility?