Uneasy Entanglements: Films and Videos by Peggy Ahwesh
by Leo Goldsmith
“Don’t ask me how these all go together,” Peggy Ahwesh writes to me in an email about this program.
But then the question of how things go together — through assemblage, montage, bricolage, and all the other -ages — lies at the heart of all Ahwesh’s work. Some things, fragments, ideas assemble arbitrarily or of their own accord; some through happenstance or free association; others by necessity or brute force. And it’s these entanglements and intersections that bind Ahwesh’s films and videos together with a web of subtle connections.
Heterogeneity of style and form has been noted in nearly everything that’s been written about Ahwesh’s work — indeed, partly because it’s both her defining feature and one that’s difficult to write about. Dovetailing with the seemingly off-hand manner in which she approaches forms and formats and media, this heterogeneity makes Ahwesh’s particular authorial position hard to track, and deliberately so. There is the sense in all of Ahwesh’s work of a certain resistance to both tendencies of 20th century American avant-garde cinema: the authorial consistency and Romantic subjectivity characteristic of the poetic post-Deren tradition on the one hand, and the anti-authorial stance characteristic of post-Warhol tradition on the other.
Instead, Ahwesh’s work has wended its own way, asserting a mode of“non-technique as technique,” as Lia Gangitano has termed it. This makes for a practice that is truly “experimental,” to use a term resoundingly rejected by filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, evidenced in part by the breathless array of moving-image formats in which she’s worked: Super 8, 16mm, VHS, Pixel Vision, even thermographic camera, inter alia. It is in this sense that Ahwesh’s experimental practice represents the truest rejection of a phallomonolithic avant-garde, which has so often ossified into categories or even genres – minimalism, found footage, lyrical autoethnography, and the like. There are traces of most of these and more throughout Ahwesh’s career, not lightly taken up as hip reference points, let alone sustained as traditions to be carried over into avant-garde eternity, but as tools, scraps, fragments of a lost civilization—or, pace Tom Gunning, of a “minor culture.”
This program draws upon a suitably promiscuous approach to formal categorization—hybridizing, contrasting, trying on, and discarding genres and sub-genres and disciplines including CG animation, found footage, travelogue, dystopian sci-fi, gothic horror, experimental ethnography, essay film, the supercut, psychogeography, literary adaptation, historical reenactment, and lyrical portraiture. Narratives arise and subside; literature and theory – say, Bataille or Lacan – might be enlisted, then dropped off, or deliberately misread and manhandled. In the work of other filmmakers, these practices may be taken to represent staunch, top-down aesthetico-politcal positions; in Ahwesh’s work, they suggest a much more open process, one that involves the spectator in an exploration of associations. The cinema as a liminal space, a zone of entanglement.
Nocturne (1988) departs from what seems like a fairly linear psycho-Gothic horror narrative, with shades of Dreyer’s Vampyr and Mario Bava, via an elusive process of assemblage that seems to continually remake itself throughout the film’s short running time. The story, involving a woman (Anne Kugler, exuding a very 90s kind of sulky vampishness) and the corpse of the lover she’s murdered (Bradley Eros, mostly naked), is subject to intercessions in the form of abrupt shifts in image quality (from grainy, sepulchral 16mm to the near-abstract pixellation of PixelVision), fragmentary references to texts by Kathy Acker, Sheridan Le Fanu, Laure, and The Doors, and hallucinatory visions of the deceased’s spirit returning to seduce his former lover at night.
“Creatively parasitic”: this was one of the defining characteristics of the “minor cinema” with which Tom Gunning associated Ahwesh in his famous 1990 essay, and indeed, Nocturne identifies this as a near-universal logic. “Beneath the beauty of nature’s world is one single and ugly truth: life must take life in the interest of life itself,” intones a sampled voiceover melodramatically, as blocky low-res images of bugs and spiders – scenes from The Hellstrom Chronicle, a 1971 David L. Wolper-produced sci-fi/horror/faux-documentary about the coming insect insurrection, which Ahwesh has rephotographed with a PXL-2000 – interject a more generalized sense of nature’s necessary cruelties, its drive toward apocalypse. All the while, the film persistently maps and remaps these connections – from Wolper to Acker to Laure to Ahwesh – a chain of associations, homages, thefts.
Just as Ahwesh’s penchant for reference and citation suggest a network of shared fascinations waiting to be unveiled, her work with direct appropriation is usually marked less by critique than by simple curiosity. As always, the critique is embedded in the mode in which the parts are taken up, assembled, and thereby transformed. Here, this is most evident in a pair of companion pieces – Lessons of War and Thought Bubbles – each made of dozens of short CG-animated reenactments of recent events made by an online Taiwanese news agency. These animations – which Ahwesh gleefully describes as “really tacky” – are uncanny both for the plastic stiffness of the human figures and for their slightly queasy relationship to headline news. Cartoon jet fighters hovering over a map of Gaza, an ersatz Obama gesticulating robotically, a CG remake of the Collateral Murder video—all rendered in the kitschy aesthetic of an airline safety video.
Lessons of War is the more sustained of the two: existing both as a multichannel installation and a single-channel work of consecutive episodes, the video is a series of five rapid-fire presentations of obscurely linked, but deeply menacing and suggestive images: a woman dreams of drones; bombs explode; buildings collapse; crowds are violently dispersed by the riot squad; and money flies into the briefcase of a businessman standing next to an Israeli flag. The imagery’s meaning, at once so absurdly overdetermined, is made much more uncertain in Ahwesh’s montage, offering multiple positions for the spectator. Ahwesh: “You can read it horizontally if you want and follow the episodes, or read it vertically like the chaos of daily news or the chaos of impressions of things—so it makes other narratives.”
Its companion piece, Thought Bubbles, is even faster and still more disorienting. Essentially a supercut of comic book-style “thought bubble” sequences, the video compiles more than forty short clips into a minute and a half of literal stream-of-consciousness. The animated figures first visualize images of pure absurdity (puppies, birthday presents, an armadillo, a Canadian passport, a roast turkey), which then give way, of course, to images of mounting terror and mayhem (fire, IEDs, assault weapons, hijackings, infidelities, a dead alligator). In the video’s brief running time, images conjure other images, and weird connections – two lattés? – force the spectator into some kind of surrealist flashcard quiz. As in Lessons of War, the images’ rapidly accumulating uncertainty of meaning produces a certain tense comedy, which in turn asks the spectator to keep working. And so while these works could be read as critiques of the outrageous spectacle of global events or the preposterous nature of global news media, they’re more interesting for the task they set out for the viewer: to engage in a more participatory mode of watching and sense-making — to do something more useful, or simply something more, with these odd semiotic scraps.
Ahwesh’s appropriative, referential works also frequently take the form of a “tribute” – or even a tributary – drawing upon, then departing from, what came before it. Thus, her 2009 video Bethlehem takes up something of the spirit of Bruce Conner with entirely original footage: an homage that carries on Conner’s project, acting as a kind of translation, in the Benjaminian sense. Similarly, Neither Day Nor Night, a new work, is identified as “indebted to” Jalal Toufic’s book, (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film—and indeed the video does imply a sort of obligation, or some less material debt.
Like her recent two-channel work Kissing Point, Neither Day Nor Night was shot in the West Bank, a region which Ahwesh has been visiting for many years, often under the auspices of the partnership between Al-Quds University and Bard College, where she teaches. While Kissing Point was a more meditative double-dérive in the service of experimental cartography, the new work instead emphasizes the banal, the everyday: construction sites, roadside hovels, empty living rooms. With its lingering sense of the quotidian and interstitial, the video hints back to some of Ahwesh’s earliest films in which she’d document friends and moments and places where people would hang out and do nothing. Except here the sense of “doing nothing” has more menacing overtones, and the locations are less vibrant sites of social interaction than transitional spaces — spaces that, via Toufic’s writing, become explicitly linked with Limbo, with the threshold of the underworld.
In (Vampires), Toufic links the vampire’s supernatural capacity to walk through walls with both the space-time ellipses of film editing and the “tunneling” of subatomic particles in quantum physics. In turn, Ahwesh’s work correlates this sense of the mutability of physical space with the supernatural geography of the West Bank, which requires its own forms of (sometimes literal) tunneling on the part of its denizens. Ahwesh’s camera lingers on portals and entryways, walls and wastelands, corridors and stairwells and alleys, as if to emphasize this landscape as a liminal zone between life and death.
But lest that sound brutally essentializing, Ahwesh’s attention quite characteristically wanders elsewhere, too: to toy stores and supermarkets and scrapyards, to night streets where guys hang out next to cars smoking, people walk through with shopping bags, to kids and stray dogs and cats and goats, to large posters advertising smart phones and urban renewal projects. Toufic is a useful guide, and his metaphor is a powerful tool, but it never takes charge. The dérive, after all, is about free will, free association, the right of movement, if not of return: “Ghosts and vampires do nothing but free associate.”
So, how might we put these images together? What form should they take, and what should we get out of them? Maybe the point, then, is not to ask, but to follow the threads wherever they might lead.
Leo Goldsmith is a writer and curator based in New York. He is the co-editor of the film section of The Brooklyn Rail, and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University.
 Lia Gangitano, “Warhol’s Grave”, in Steve Reinke and Tom Taylor, ed. LUX: A Decade of Artists Film and Video. XYZ Books, Toronto (2000): pg. 307.
 Tom Gunning,”Towards a Minor Cinema: Fonoroff, Herwitz, Ahwesh, Lapore, Khlar and Solomon.” Motion Picture 3 (1990): 3