Cultural Rebels: Female filmmakers from Gotham to Gothenburg on body politics and the female gaze - “Body as Playground” at Howl Happening

Beth B Visiting Desire sleeve. 

By COCO DOLLE, October 2021 

Tessa Hugues-Freeland and Johanna St Michaels have followed up on the 2020 curatorial “Body as Playground, Body as Battleground'' with a special event at Howl Happening in New York. An iteration of the curatorial exhibition presented at Konstepidemin in Gothenburg, Sweden, the film screening brings the female gaze to the audience through a selection of eight short films spanning 50 years. It begins with New York feminist pioneer Carolee Schneemann’s iconic film, “Meat Joy”, and is followed by a variety of female American and Swedish feminist filmmakers.

“Firstly, she was a pioneer of female openmindeness, she was very much for female perseveniness as a performer and a filmmaker” Tessa Hugues-Freeland explained her reasoning for opening with Carolee’s piece during our interview. “I chose this piece because it is visceral, but also because it shows different aspects of sexuality that can be forceful, empathic and unibitied. This is prevalent in her work.” 

Following Carolee’s piece, Gunvor Nelson’s legendary black and white enticing burlesque film ends in a surreal tableau à la Buñuel, Barbara Hammer focuses on lesbian sexuality, “Visiting Desire” by Beth B features Lydia Lunch getting her nipples sucked on, and “Soi Meme” by MM Serra depicts female sexuality in a romantic settings reminiscent of 1974’s softore cut film “Emmanuelle”. “Belle De Nature'' by Maria Beatty explores mother nature and sensuality, “Smorgasbord of Sin” by Johanna St Michaels treats transsexuality and entertainment.

Nick the Dick in Smorgasbord of Sin by Johanna St Michaels.

Built on a long term friendship, Tessa and Johanna met in New York in the early 90s. Scouted by Isabella Rossellini’s agent, Johanna started modeling for TV commercials by day which gave her the freedom to act and create obscure films at night. Both artists were thriving in the downtown art scenes. Tessa was making experimental films on female pornography and punk culture while curating art events. She gave Johanna her first picture show at CBGB Gallery in 1994. Twenty years later, Johanna curated Tessa’s work in an old art center in a former hospital in Sweden. For “Body as Playgroud”, their joint curatorial angle and conversation is intentionally highlighting different flavors and aspects of female sexualtity in film, from cross-dressing, to stripping, entertainemet, burlesque, masturbation, submission, dominance and voyeurism. 

Both exhibition and film curatorial were produced against the background of an accelerating image culture, particularly because of the overlapping of private and public spheres in digital media. This comes at a pivotal time in the United States. Alongside the #MeToo movement to hold sexual predators in the public sphere accountable, the fate of abortion accessibility is coming into question. Anti-abortion laws in Texas and other Republican led states pose the first real threat to overturning Roe v. Wade. On the other hand, Swedish culture seems to be more open-minded and progressive toward women’s bodily autonomy. 

Tessa Hugues-Freeland, PLAY BOY.

In 2009, the Swedish film institute supported the production of a porn film made of a collection of thirteen short films of female pornography made by Swedish activists and artists and produced by Mia EngbergCalled “Dirty Diaries” this controversial and original piece became a pivotal work in Sweden creating stir and outrage at use of government fundings. The film is a compilation of short films made with a Nokia phone that was passed around between female and queer people documenting their sex lives. 

Johanna’s films, both documentaries and feature films, focus on outcasts and individuals creating a stir in their respective environments. Themes of cultural identity, displacement and female territories create the ground of her stories, such as “The Blonde Panther,” about a Swedish Flamenco dancer trying to fit the macho world of dance, or “About Dina'' about her scrupulous modeling agent who embezzled many of her client model’s earnings. “The Penthouse North '' is about a former Beauty Queen holding on to her image of Beauty Queen.

Tessa’s work is more experimental and surrealist. Her films address complex issues of sexuality and pleasure. “Many people today have developed sophisticated emotional filters to deal with any emotion that may be uncomfortable.” Tessa prefers to work around feelings of discomfort. Set in New York city, “Play Boy” was one of her first Super8 film made in 1984 at the time when sex shops on 42nd St were switching from film to video (VHS) tapes. Tessa went in and out of the shops and was given many films. She decided to create a film from these and present it like a peep show. It is a very dense film, focusing on romance, voyeurism, and violence. 

At the end of the event at Howl Happening, Johanna performed a live piece called “Spilled Milk”, depicting her journey through the beauty industry. The audience participated with the artist during the climax of this performance, raising masks of her face meant to question identity and beauty, over their heads. WM

  

Coco Dolle

Coco Dolle is a French-American multidisciplinary artist and writer based in New York. Former dancer and fashion muse for acclaimed artists in the early 2000s including Alex Katz, her performances appeared in Vogue and The New York Times. While attending Louise Bourgeois' Sunday Salons, Coco developed her personal practice. Her works have since been featured in solo exhibitions at the Oregon Contemporary Art Center and Mary Ryan Gallery. Over the past decade, she has curated multiple concept feminist exhibitions and was featured in Forbes. Her column for WhiteHot Magazine “Cultural Rebels: The Art of Defiance” pays homage to outstanding artists and their idiosyncrasy. Follow her on instagram.

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