count   info articles artists


Yvonne Rainer


Dear Shu Lea and Kathy:

After nearly platzing with embarrassment upon reading the transcript of our six-way discussion of August 13 (why did we have so much trouble finishing our sentences?). I have ferreted out some topics that may, in being addressed, question and/or illuminate my particular methods. Some buzzwords emerge along with more substantive material: inter-racial/ethnic collaboration, audience, community, multiculturalism, permission, anxiety, motives, privilege, money.

For the sake of our readers I should again recapitulate the two incidents which seemed to be key for you, Shu Lea, in initiating this "symposium": (1) My words at the plenary session of the "Viewpoints" conference (Hunter College 1986) and (2) the subsequent acrimonious and defensive interchange between Coco Fusco and Berenice Renaud-and-me in Screen following Fusco's critique of the "Sexism, Colonialism and Misrepresentations" film series and conference (Collective for Living Cinema 1988)1. Regarding the former: I called for a utopian future of media collaborations between people of color and whites. This came up in the context of admitting to the naivete of my third film (Kristina Talking Pictures, 1976), in which two Asian- and African-American performers were used more for their interesting screen presences than for their racial or cultural specificity. (Should this be called a "memory of underdevelopment?")

Coco Fusco's essay severely, and with some justification, took two very different and ambitious events to task for their oversights and organizing premises. One instance involved screenings and panel discussions around African and African-American representation, and the other, of which I was a co-organizer, a broader range of films and aesthetic and cultural positions. The essay produced a heated defense from Berenice and me, followed by a rebuttal from Coco, all published in yet another issue of Screen. Without dredging up the exact panoply of arguments, let me say that certain salient issues seem to have emerged from this, along with problems that are not going to be disposed of very readily. All we can do is keep trying to clear the air. Which is exactly what you've both set in motion.

OK, second guessing – based on published print, hearsay, direct responses to Privilege, intuition, common sense, along with our prior six-way discussion – second-guessing some primary deterrents to "clear air," my interior dialogue begins thus: "what does this white bitch think she's doing, fooling around with black viewpoints in her last film? She's gotten a lot of professional mileage out of this. She's probably making scads of money running around with this movie and talking about race. The nervy ponc! She gets all this credit for being brave... what's so brave about her?! What about all those people of color who have to scrape and sweat to get their work done, let alone the problems of getting it shown. She doesn't have any trouble at all. Look at all the grants she's received. And now she's found a whole new playground to mess around in before she's even earned her stripes: Before it was race and now it's dykes. Now that she's come out she can appropriate all the underprivileged causes as her own. But she's got it made: she doesn't have to struggle. It's not as though she's young and unknown... she can sleep with whoever she wants, no sweat, no penalty. She's reaping all the benefits of being a lesbian without any of the tsuris. She acts like the struggles of others are her oyster. She exploits the struggles of others by making them equivalent to her own. And why now? Why is she only just now waking up to her previous disregard for racial difference? Where has she been? Has "multiculturalism" opened the way for all these honkies to move in on and make hay out of the lives of "Others"? Where do they get off? And meanwhile, outside of the fringe culture market the same shit goes down. Whose interests does this kind of work serve, anyway?"

Here I go again putting words in the mouth of an imagined alter-ego of color, this time around a young African-American Jewish Lesbian. If such a person can be stereotyped, I've probably gotten the vernacular totally wrong (who ever heard of the expression "nervy ponc"?). Rendered more politely:

How and why can I, a middleaged, middleclass, white, lesbian, lapsed heterosexual presume to speak the struggles of those with whom I do not have precisely the same things at stake?

Stated so badly it almost seems like a dumb question, one that must be put into perspective by further questions: If you are no longer of reproductive age, do you drop out of the fight for abortion rights? If you are a man, do you not speak out for women's right to control their bodies? If you are not HIV-positive do you not take a stand against the government's foot-dragging policies around AIDS? If you are white do you not express your revulsion at the neo-con defense of white racist behavior on university campuses parading under the First Amendment?

The answers to the above are self-evident to anyone who sees her/himself as a progressive. The ticklish part is when those in more advantageous positions – white, first world, with more money, behind the camera, rewarded, institutionally legitimized – represent the "struggles of others". The debates around documentary and ethnographic film have amply delineated the problems inherent in the invisibility and supposed neutrality or objectivity of the filmmaker, who is ipso facto empowered. For me, the documentary format is daunting for these and other reasons. The combination of the inevitable authoritativeness of its "truth" along with my directorial discomfort as an intrusive, voyeuristic manipulator – always with a card up my sleeve, a disingenuous candor, a veiled agenda – puts me in a position of bad faith even when my agenda is not entirely known to me until long after the shoot. And yet I continue to be fascinated with the "speaking subject" so to speak, and, more to the point, the presentation of the self in front of the camera. The illusion of authenticity contained in the illusion of spontaneity is compellingly persuasive and as such has its necessary place in the political documentary. The always tempting, ever retreating ideal of the "real," however, can be deployed for something other than the enlistment of the experiential as an argument for social reform. Like fictional narrative conventions, the "talking head" can be utilized to create a provisional space of recognition and identification to be opened up for political dialogue.

I could go on at greater length about this, as I have in the past, but the point that is more relevant here is that for me the representation of "the struggles of others" is inextricably bound up with formal options. The idea of "collaboration," which seems at the heart of your agenda for this symposium, Shu Lea, comes into play here. Rather than collaborating in the traditional sense of co-director, co-editor, etc., I collaborate with others' writing by staging interchanges of quotations. Granted, this is a somewhat one-sided notion of "collaboration." Aside from occasionally seeking permission, I rarely communicate with the authors whom I quote. But there is something to be said for the re-contextualizing of theoretical and literary material to symbolically empower, and restore the dignity of, disenfranchised characters. The Puerto Rican alleged rapist in Privilege quotes Eldridge Cleaver and Frantz Fanon; the lesbian character quotes Judy Grahn and Joan Nestle; the African-American filmmaker utters synopses culled from Caste, Class, and Race, by Oliver Cox, an African-American Marxist historian. Broadly speaking, no one is original. Much of the phraseology and syntax of this epistolary essay might be traced to literary sources and conversations encountered in my mid-adolescence through mid-30s. A lack of confidence in my fiction-writing talent and skills may have been one factor that initially propelled me into the area known in the art world as "appropriation," a term which became canonized in the postmodern "death of the author." But when I began to think about racism and sexism as possible companions in a film, it was the eloquence and power of writers of color, of lesbian writers, of those whose subjectivity was at risk, that moved me to put their words into the mouths of those of my characters who lived on the other side of social privilege.

Gloria Anzaldua has written:

"Some white people who take up multicultural and cultural plurality issues mean well, but often they push to the fringes once more the very cultures and ethnic groups about whom they want to disseminate knowledge. For example, the white writing about Native peoples or cultures displaces the Native writer and often appropriates the culture instead of proliferating information about it. The difference between appropriation and proliferation is that the first steals and harms; the second helps heal breaches of knowledge."

It may be too early to establish whether what I have done is harmful or healing, and, needless to say, I would certainly prefer to "proliferate" than "appropriate" knowledge. A more urgent issue is whether the voices of the people of color in Privilege have been pushed "to the fringes" or crowded out, by the menopause narrative of the white protagonist. It is true that the mainly white audiences who attend screenings are more inclined to discuss female aging and sexuality than racism after seeing it. This may be due more to their discomfort with the latter than to any structural imbalance in the film. It is up to me to lead discussions in another direction without covering over differences between respective inequities.

Which brings up the another area of potential "displacement:" In our increasingly dire economy of scarcity, will a white woman's rap on racism be used as a substitute for the voices of the people she is rapping about? In this case I rather doubt it. Much of the "professional mileage" I am deriving from this film is coming from its reputation as "the menopause movie." As for my motives, they are no more opportunistic than those of anyone else who makes feature-length films. I want to make powerful work that makes people squirm, that makes them confront facets of their social conditioning that they may be ashamed of. (Yeah yeah, I know you can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink.) What kinds of people? In the past they were "women" and "men." In Privilege they were "whites," "young women," and "men." In the future they may be "heterosexuals." All mythical categories, I know, that break down into unquantifiable variations and permutations across class, race, gender, etc. But that's my method: As a woman I argued – and argue – with that part of myself that was/is a "lover of men;" as a white person I challenged – and must continue to challenge – the residues of the white bigot within; and as a lesbian I will probably re-enact the education of the hetero parts of myself.

Another vexing question is "why now?" Why did I not try to grapple with the racist elements of Jenny's story years ago? The bare outlines of that story had certainly been on my mind for years, and for sure, events in the U.S. forced me to think about racism long before making Privilege. Reading Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Eldridge Cleaver, and Malcolm X laid bare for me the bromides of melting-pot America. By 1970 the ArtWorkers' Coalition, in its efforts to involve museums and galleries in protest against the Vietnam War, was raising issues of racism and sexism, both of which, unfortunately, got subsumed under the more overriding anti-war agenda. Even before this I heard first-hand reports from white friends about the Freedom Buses and registration of black voters in the south. Sure I was aware of racism, but not close to home. I saw my black colleagues in dance and music, few as they were, as equals, not as exceptional cases, not as people who might have had a harder row to hoe than I. The very fact that they were in my line of vision was reassurance that I didn't have to think about racism close to home. It's odd but true: racism remained an abstraction, the problem of other whites, the problem of "Amerika."

(Interjection: When does self-examination override historical chronology to become reactive breast-beating, defensive self-promotion? In explicating her work, what tone can a white filmmaker adopt that will not siphon off attention from those who have more difficulty getting in? Can white confessional speech accomplish more than reinforcing white guilt? My worst – irrational, I hope – fear is that, because I am in the position I am, whatever I say will be on the backs of, at the expense of, people of color.)

And then, as institutional programming policies belatedly began to respond to pressure from the funding agencies, notably the film section of the New York State Council on the Arts under the direction of B. Ruby Rich, I began to see independent films by African-Americans: Julie Dash's Illusions, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, Monona Wali's Grey Area, Jackie Shearer's A Minor Altercation, Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts, Camille Billops' Suzanne, Suzanne. These films and more, with their diverse styles, richness of experience, subtlety of detail, evocations of the ordinariness of everyday pain inflicted by social hierarchy – brought home to me more than any previous experience the realities of everyday life in a racist culture. This was the real beginning of thinking about how the fabric of my own life as a white person was implicated, shot through with the by-products, and benefits, of racism. And once I realized this – that my own life was implicated – I began to act on the urgency – and give myself permission – to deal with racism in my work and find the words, and images, to shape Jenny's story.

(Wow! By writing the foregoing I've just reconfirmed my faith in the power of cine-video. Thanks for the opportunity.)

All first-person narratives make a hero out of the narrator. After working so hard to "de-center the subject" in her film work, the repressed ego-in-question returns with a vengeance when she tries to account for that work. Because she wants to make sure YOU GET IT. Where will she go from here? Will she find a way to include people of color in her films who are more than voices of truth or victims of racism, yet retain their cultural difference? Does all difference always have to be dramatized as contention to qualify as drama, to not be boring?

I am still white. I will always be white. And my newly-found lesbian identity cannot, as a marker of social stigma, be made analogous to black identity. As a white lesbian, stigmatized or not, I shall never "know" black experience. As a white person I can only heed the advice my feminist voice offers men: Listen, read, examine your privilege, open your ranks. If you venture to speak, don't expect to be congratulated. And especially if you are a white heterosexual man, don't whine about feeling left out. This is between you and your shrink and can have no useful place in public debate.



1 The articles referred to included: Coco Fusco's "Fantasies of Oppositionality" appearing in both Screen, Vol. 29, No. 4, Autumn, 1988 and also in Afterimage, Vol. 16, No. 5, December, 1988; and "Responses to Coco Fusco" by Berenice Renaud and Yvonne Rainer appearing in Screen, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1989.