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Lis Rhodes

By Lisa Le Feuvre


'Only the permitted is really visible in a culture that equates real with visible; the unreal becomes invisible; I see is synonymous with I understand; reality cannot explain itself'
Running Light (1996, 15m)

To attempt to write about Lis Rhodes' work is difficult – her engagement with the failures and power structures of language make any simple description of her films impossible. These are not films that one can describe from the outside: they demand an engagement of the senses and intellect. Language is at the heart of her work and is active as a site of exploration.

Lis Rhodes investigates how language can produce perceptions, interactions and social relationships. While firmly rooted in the history of experimental film, Lis Rhodes' films cross into performance, photography, writing, and political analysis. Performance can be seen in her early collaborations with Ian Kerr (Rumour Shock for the Lab.R, 1974, Cut A X, 1976, Bwlhaictke, 1976), as well as in her expanded cinema work when the viewers themselves become performers (Light Music, 1975). Photography appears a number of times, where the still image becomes animated through both its repetition (such as Orifiso, 1999), and through its re-representation (for example in the use of blown-up photocopies in Pictures on Pink Paper, 1982). Political analyses occur explicitly (for example in the discussion of the condition of migrant labourers in Running Light, 1996) and implicitly (such as the description of female experience in Pictures on Pink Paper).

Lis Rhodes brings a strongly political agenda to cultural practice through interrogations of the languages of film, through slippages between textual, visual and aural language, and through exposing power imbalances. This commitment is also seen in her involvement within the actual culture of avant-garde filmmaking itself. During the mid-1970s she programmed the London Filmmakers' Co-op, and was an instrumental force in the setting up of the feminist distribution and filmmaking collective Circles. Circles was set up, with Felicity Sparrow, to address how the work of women filmmakers effectively 'went missing'.

Lis Rhodes' commitment to the issue of visibility can also be explicitly seen in her withdrawal from the exhibition Film as Film, at the Hayward Gallery in 1979. Lis Rhodes was initially the only woman invited to become involved in the planning of the exhibition, and in response to the lack of women's representation within the exhibition committee, Annabel Nicolson was asked to take part. Together Lis and Annabel decided to concentrate on researching the history of female filmmakers. They were joined by other key women filmmakers - Felicity Sparrow, Jane Clarke, Jeanette Iljon, Mary Pat Leece, Pat Murphy and Susan Stein. The group made the decision to undertake an act of resistance to this gender imbalance by withdrawing from the exhibition but including in the Hayward catalogue a series of articles - 'Women and Formal Film'. By challenging the didactic and closed nature of those artists and filmmakers selected to present work, the group asserted an objection to the lack of institutional engagement with feminist film practice.

This essay considers Lis Rhodes' work through the structure of language, looking to languages of film, of power, as well to unarticulated histories.


"Meaning is not in things but in between"
From Pictures on Pink Paper (1982, colour, sound, 35m)

Both words and images rely on their relationships to each other to create meaningful communication, with the spaces between language a realm of miscommunication as powerful as language itself. Take a well-known phrase such as 'I can see what you are saying' - it means, of course, 'I understand'. However, is it possible to see what is being said? These shifts between different modes of language are important in Lis Rhodes' films - as she says in her article for Filmwaves magazine, 'Flashback from a partisan filmmaker' (Winter 1999) with reference to A Cold Draft (1988): "sounds are affective. Images are instructive".

A Cold Draft begins with a blank screen with a voice over, which becomes silent as an image and the hand written title appear on the screen, then shifting from colour to black and white as the voice reappears. Making marks directly with the hand represents an act of thinking through or working out. Communication through speech, hand writing or typing involves a different set of thought processes.

Moving between colour and black and white, blank screen, hand drawn images, handwriting, photographic stills, speech and sounds A Cold Draft layers visual and spoken language. This film portrays the surveillance of woman deliberately certified as insane by unknown overseers. The woman as a hysteric is a notion that has returned throughout history. From witch burning to the birth of psychoanalysis women have been regarded by patriarchal society as being 'naturally' sedate and quiet individuals, and any deviation from this was down to dysfunctional madness, rooted in a female irrationality and closeness to nature opposed to culture. The unspecified control of this woman can be inferred to stem from power relations created through assumptions, which form language. Language can become the creator of perception through its structures and assumptions. Definitions of the 'objective' will always be subjective. Objectivity and subjectivity are not binary opposites, they work in terms of one another. One subjectively decides what will be the objective marker, which then exists as a comparative tool by which subjectivity is measured.

In Pictures on Pink Paper voices of three women describe experiences of domestic life, gradually becoming identifiable as belonging to specific individuals. Different generations are represented in the voices of the three women, and also in the generations of images used. Here, Rhodes engages with the representative quality of the images - throughout the film photocopies and super 8 film are blown up and re-presented. This film seeks to find a female voice, but avoids generalisation of a single narrative through the interweaving of these voices. In Pictures on Pink Paper the authoritative voice is slipping between appearing to be one woman's voice and thoughts, to the experiences of three different women. Minnie, a Cornishwoman, narrates the past, Kate imitates accents and voices, and Lis Rhodes' voice becomes identifiable as the filmmaker. This film asks how women's oppression can be articulated without mimicking that very expression and language which produces the unbalance. In spite of being structured around these voices this film denies narrative structure - even time here is broken down. Pictures on Pink Paper highlights the gaps between and explores language as a creator, rather than a symptom, of gender relations. It seeks to ask how a female voice can be found without reducing all female experience to a generalisation.

As with many of Lis Rhodes' films, Pictures on Pink Paper looks to the ways in which women are associated with nature. The alignment of women with nature and men with culture is embedded within language: unlike French and Spanish the English language is non-gendered grammatically, yet the female pronoun is regularly used for 'natural' objects. Language is powerful: we become inscribed within language, and Lis Rhodes challenges these assumptions by problematising language.


"I thought, and indeed I think, that Light Music was motivated as much by conditions as by intentions - i.e. where you are, who you are and your wherewithal . . . The gender bias in the canons of classical European composition certainly provided a reason but not the film."
Lis Rhodes, Shoot Shoot Shoot symposium, 2002

Assumptions are based on assumptions rather than fact. If a film, for example, is articulated as being 'good' after a number of times it will come to be so. But perhaps these qualities are not solely a characteristic of culture; they extend into society as a whole. Culture after all is a product of society existing within visual, textual and aural meaning. Meaning, however, is not just in language - it is in the spaces between language. Language is after all a set of representing symbols that require to be understood in terms outside of the spoken words themselves. Even in the most casual conversation it is easy not to actually say what one means, and to be understood in a different way than intended.

Orifso (1999, colour, sound, 13m) focuses on specific geographical sites as symbols of power relationships, looking to lines of demarcation. Beginning with traces of the erasure of memories the film moves to two locations, firstly, a road in France sitting between the Occupied Zone and Vichy. Even though there are no immediate indicators of historical significance on this road, it is in a landscape scarred by conflict. The camera shifts to streets signs in the area, named after individuals deported from France to Germany.

Memorial stones listing the names of entire families and an identity photograph of someone condemned to Auschwitz underline that this is a location steeped in history. Can a landscape act as a memorial? As streets named after specific people identified as being deported to Germany become a part of the everyday landscape their existence becomes normalised, and it is easy to forget their significance.

Secondly the so-called 'ring of steel' in the city of London is depicted. A tight security ring was created around the city's commercial centre in response to fears of terrorism in the 1990s - roads became narrowed and police lookout points became scattered around the border. The original justification for the protective line has become no longer relevant, yet it still exists and its effect on movement has become normalised. One has to ask what is being protected here - it could only be the power structures of capitalist society.

Language holds its power not just in its existence, but also in its invisibility. If memory cannot be turned into language a story or a situation cannot be communicated. Running Light communicates through spoken language the invisible situation of migrant workers - a scenario that "cannot be seen therefore cannot be said with any accuracy". The situation of forced labourers is recounted, individuals who cannot have any communication outside of their workplace as they have no idea where they are. Running Light describes how groups of workers live 22 to 3 rooms, where the air is better outside than inside, and there is no guarantee of payment, and when it does appear the payment often is turned over to the crew leaders in return for alcohol. This information is communicated through the soundtrack, through a number of voices describing a situation where the invisibility is rationalised as an inevitable result of an economic system. "They have got to have that cheap labour - you've got to have a pool of quite cheap workers."

Based on a power structure rooted in fear the atrocities of these migrant camps remain unspoken. The camps exist within the powerful nations of America and Europe - individuals without papers become trapped in situations close to slavery. Men become manual labourers, and women prostitutes. The workers are required to pay off debts before they receive an income, but these debts never become paid.

In her Filmwaves article (winter 1999) Lis Rhodes states "records tend to record the symptoms not the causes". In Running Light and Orifso she moves beyond the symptoms and their assumed inevitability to question normalised power.


'Sounds are affective. Images are instructive'
Lis Rhodes, from Flashback from a Partisan Filmmaker in Filmwaves #6

The relationship between film and its audience is based on a convention of a passive audience who sit and receive the sound and image that make up the film. Film is a form of communication that, like language, relies on established codes and references - moving image, narrative, and conclusion. Lis Rhodes' films rely on the viewer's engagement. The film is not the only thing at work: the viewer's own interaction and translation is a key element.

Photographic representation is important in Lis Rhodes' films - she interrogates the construction of images, and how that construction is based on conventions. Orfiso for example uses a photograph of a road in France, A Cold Draft shifts between stills, and Pictures on Pink Paper repeatedly returns to an image of a countryside path leading to a five bar fence. The semiotician C S Pierce writes of photographs: '[they] are very instructive, because we know they are in certain respects exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature.' In the same way as the words 'here' or 'there' operate within language, a reference is required in photography for the visual referent to become meaningful. Like the fingerprint or bullet hole, the photograph is fundamentally linked to the physical presence of what it signifies or represents. We are all aware that the photograph may reflect the surrounding world - but that mirroring is a subjective marker, photography does not equal truth. Film is constructed from a series of still images, and Lis Rhodes utilises photographs as symbols of this failure of a single image to be objectively representative.

This engagement in the languages of film is extended in the expanded cinema work Light Music (1975, b/w, sound, 25m, 2 screen installation) where the image of the film is a musical score, drawn using pen and ink. Within film the use of an optical sound track is common - but this phrase 'optical soundtrack' is surely contradictory. How can one combine something optical with sound? A series of horizontal and vertical lines literally represent the sound here. What can be perceived visually is a representation of what can be heard, whereby the noise corresponds to the spaces between the lines appearing on the screen. This work is designed for the audience to move away from the position of a static viewer, to move in and out of the screening. This creates a set of social relations against the definition of traditional film - the film becomes a collective event where the audience are invited to make interventions into the work itself.

As Lis Rhodes states, conditions and intentions motivate her work. Conditions of film, of unequal power relationships and motivations of making the invisible visible. By injecting doubt into assumptions, she engages with film in cultural, critical political and social contexts.

Lisa Le Feuvre is a writer and curator. She is Associate Lecturer at Birbeck College and lecturer at Chelsea School of Art.

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