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Annabel Nicolson
Reel Time, described above, is perhaps the most celebrated of Annabel Nicolson's film performances. Unlike many performance artists of the 70s, whose actions were often created or re-staged for the camera, Nicolson was fiercely resistant to having her work documented.

The work remained 'live', unknowable unless you were there. The few photographs that exist of Reel Time are iconic, evoking rather than depicting the dynamism of the lived experience, and as such have often been used to illustrate the vibrancy of experimental film in the 70s. The piece is both conceptual and essentially filmic, highlighting the concerns of contemporary Structuralist filmmakers - the physical nature of the film medium and its means of visibility via the light emitted from projection sources. With its finite yet unpredictable duration and its actively engaged audience, it was Expanded Cinema at its most exemplary. However few commentators have considered its proto-feminist aspect: bringing together the domestic sphere of sewing and the public space of performance. The Singer sewing machine (invented some 45 years before the Lumières' Cinematograph) is both a familiar household object and potent symbol of women's hidden labour in the home and in sweatshops; by contrast the film projector, traditionally hidden above and behind cinema spectators in a closed-off box and operated by male projectionists, symbolises a vast male-dominated entertainment industry. That these two differently gendered machines could be thus linked was at the time revelatory, anticipating future ground-breaking work by feminist art practitioners.

Nicolson, who was one of very few women working in the Film Co-op during its early years (it did not employ female technical staff until the late 70s), was often daunted by the vagaries of the Co-op's film equipment: "The sewing-machine piece came about almost by accident... the idea came almost unbidden. The sewing machine was just part of my environment, on the table in my studio... it was something that I liked, something I knew how to use, and there were endless frustrations with film and with equipment and things not turning out how I hoped... and the idea of putting the film through the sewing machine was... it stopped it being so intimidating... by bringing the film together with the sewing machine it made it something I could deal with."

Reel Time's place in Nicolson's oeuvre is interesting in that it echoes the tactile nature of earlier productions like Slides, which includes sequences of sewn film, and later performances using light from various sources and an intense engagement with the physical space. The involvement of the audience, reading or otherwise participating, is also a hallmark of all Nicolson's live-action work, whether film-projection events or site-specific performances. Programming films for the Co-op Cinema (a post she held several times), encouraging artists from various disciplines as well as new filmmakers to present work, writing, publishing Readings, a magazine devoted to ephemeral time-based work, collaborating with musicians and working with women artists were to follow. Nicolson was also a founder member of Circles, an influential feminist distribution organisation, established in 1979 to promote women's film, video and performance. Female subjectivity, hinted at in Reel Time, became the focus of Women and Creativity (tape recordings, first presented at the 1978 Hayward Annual) in which various (unidentified) artists talk about their ways of working - audience members were encouraged to participate with reflections of their own experiences. The tension between public and personal space, between introspection and action, were further developed, often collaboratively with other women, like the Menstrual Hut in Concerning Ourselves (1981) which literally created a private meditative space within a public art gallery. Finally, there are resonances with the activity of sewing in later solo performances: In the Dream I Was Wearing Something Red (1981-82), in which words in red thread are literally sewn and enmeshed within the fabric of fine white cloth; and exhibited work: Works in Cloth (1986) and Of the Cloth (1988) in which the inscribed fabric is used as a metaphor for exploring the experience of being female.

Documentation of Reel Time by Annabel Nicolson, 1973
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