Uranium Hex, Sandra Lahire, 1987
Anne Sexton’s intensely confessional poems deal with ordinary women’s bodies, with mothers and housewives. In her poem “The Breast,”1 Sexton ends with the line, “I burn the way money burns,” articulating the possible equivalence of processes (and affects) between the exchange of money for commodities and the reproduction of workers as a necessarily unwaged exchange that takes the form of unpaid care labour. In this last line, Sexton suggests the complex and contradictory nature of female desire and its structurally dictated dual role – as lover but also care-giver and mother.
Sandra Lahire, Uranium Hex, 1987
The poem unknowingly anticipates a quite different object, Sandra Lahire’s Uranium Hex, the first in a trilogy of films made in the mid ‘80s that explore women’s work in Canadian uranium mining towns. Although separated by almost two decades, both poem and film are concerned with the irrevocably gendered experience of capital, albeit in strikingly different ways. And while Lahire’s films are far from Sexton’s lyricism insofar as they take a more openly experimental and militant approach, both artists use their own bodies as proxies in an attempt to quite literally vocalize and visualize the unseen corporeal violence etched by the continual subsumption of race, gender, and class under capital.
Uranium Hex opens with a hovering circle of light that ghosts across smoggy darkness. It’s accompanied by a clunk, a hiss. These first few jolting frames set the pace and audio-visual relation to follow, illuminating the mine as shadowy blue against the stuttering rumble of mechanized metal. A women in miner’s garb is superimposed over the darkness, her helmet under a circling red siren that signals hollow laughter as vehicle lights retreat into the black. The title – URANIUM HEX – burns across the image as Sandra Lahire trespasses across the frame and a twanging folk-song breaks into a pneumatic hiss.
The frenetic camera of this opening sequence echoes the relentless rhythm of work at the Elliot Lake uranium mine. Broadcast on Channel 4 television in 1987, this was the heyday of the new terrestrial station with a mandate for presenting minority programming2. An eleven-minute short—part documentary, part kaleidoscopic essay film—it was shot on 16mm and video in Ontario and the artist’s studio in London. Conceived to focus on the women’s work in relation to the mining company, the devastating damage caused by the extraction process to the miners themselves, and the disastrous effect of the uranium tailings that contaminated groundwater, the film traverses not only the mining communities and the relation to women’s work, but also the poisoning of first nations lands which the Canadian government had written off as “National Sacrificial Areas”. Transparent and acid-colored shots layer time directly on time, the active camera crackling with anxiety. Densely layered close-ups and in-camera superimposition generates the rigid tempo of company time, with regular temporal shifts as the image dissolves into slow external tracking shots of miners’ housing bathed in light and of innocently sparkling waterfalls. As time goes on, these exterior shots become sharper and highly colored with the slow seep of the chemicals poisoning the land.
One of several films made during the 1970s and ‘80s focusing on women’s relation to factory and mining struggles in Ontario, Canada—others include Joyce Wieland’s Solidarity (1973), and the less famous Une histoire de femmes by Sophie Bissonette, Joyce Rock and Martin Duckworth (shot during the INCO miners strike of 1978-93)—they developed a complex vision of women continually pushed to the side of the labor movements with which they were inextricably linked as wives, mothers and workers. The films, along with others made by women across Europe and the Americas during these years, focus on critiques of how even allegedly radical labour movements reproduced a hierarchy of “legitimate” concerns that consistently framed the issues and modes of struggle posed by women as secondary to the cause at hand.
However, rather than taking the familiar direct-cinema or documentary approach characteristic of many feminist solidarity films of this time—with talking heads employed to embody and give voice—Lahire puts her own body center-stage, engendering a direct, “asymmetric” solidarity4 with her subjects. The film inscribes on a single body the pervasive trauma of life in and around the mine, the radioactivity rendered as an x-ray scorching through flesh. The image of the artist as miner forms a double – a false image, yet one that stands in for all workers, male and female. With this technique, Lahire visualizes an acerbic image of the process of extraction. Like Sexton, she presents a latent critique of the assumption that capital is predominantly a category that governs the commodity and the delimited experience of waged work. Through explicit temporal shifts in the edit, she explores instead the underlying unwaged process of reproduction under which women, and particularly housewives, are sublimated. Although enunciated through different means than Sexton’s, Lahire eloquently describes the same process by superimposing her own body onto the lives of the mining communities, exposing or burning her image into the film.
In Uranium Hex we primarily hear, rather than see, the processes of unwaged reproductive work and the care so often rendered invisible. The female mine workers and miners’ wives whose voices are collaged throughout the industrial soundtrack are never visible, trapped off-screen. Using this gesture the sonic articulation intertwines the usually discrete categories of production and reproduction, the waged and unwaged. We hear the collective in the familiar language of mining folk songs, but by using renditions by an adult male as well as by a child, Lahire closes the gap between work and domestic time by treating it simply as “company-time.” Of course, one can’t ignore the simple and often-used strategy of developing an image of a silenced community through talking heads and women’s speeches, but Lahire takes a different approach, utilizing background noise, industrial recordings, and an artist-narrator. Like switching channels on a radio or distracted television watching, the pace, volume and timbre pitch in and out of focus. In fact, the very model of the single speaking subject is not operative here. The issue is not that one cannot isolate a unified message – we might easily imagine a form of solidarity that was not predicated on reduction to a central category, like the wage – but that the group functions as an amplification of sorts. It is through the polyvocal that the small and otherwise hidden labors of support and care become audible precisely as noise – not as a discernible content that could be placed in a political program based on the clear division of political time, family time, and work time, but one that, if attended to, seriously erodes the coherence of that division.
In Canada, this raising of voices in the more literal sense saw widespread popular support during the 1970s for factory and mining strikes following long years of strike bans and militant protest across North America. With it, movements of feminist autonomy spread across Canada, following movements for women’s labor struggles that peaked in the 1930s and 1950s and were continually galvanized by key Québécois figures such as Lea Roback and Madeleine Parent. Although predominantly Anglophone, Ontario had a substantial francophone population and influence from its Québécois neighbors. Canada organizations’ such as Fédération des femmes du Québec (which expelled its Anglo members in 1971), published the manifesto Women of Québec Arise! and was followed quickly by the founding of the Women’s Center in Montreal in an attempt to integrate feminists from all sides, Anglo, Francophone, Marxist and Socialist5. Crucially, in 1973, the Confederation of National Trade Unions passed a women’s mandate, and following that, the Canadian Advisory Council on the status of women was launched in Ottawa.
Although there were some joint Anglophone/Francophone feminist organizations in these areas, the Francophone focus on questions of nationalism and Catholicism remained in the foreground for many of these women. As a result of the abortion struggles and self-health movements, including the arrest and imprisonment of Dr. Henry Morgentaler6, these women started a sustained transatlantic dialogue with feminists in France and Italy, increasing awareness of the Wages For Housework (and subsequently Wages Against Housework) movement and the writings of Leopoldina Fortunati, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, Selma James, and others.
Lahire was hardly alone in her work of translating and extending these struggles and theories into moving image and artist film practice. She travelled to Elliot Lake with artist Tina Keane against the backdrop of the successive British miners strikes. Etched into the national consciousness through broadcast media, films and videos made by Women against Pit Closures, miners wives support groups and feminist filmmaking co-ops, such as The Other Side Video Collective and Sheffield Film Co-op pervaded7. A decade prior, Barbara Kopple shone a light on the Appalachian miners of Harlan County, the region where the filmmakers of Kentucky’s AppalShop, Elizabeth Barret and Anne Lewis, continue to produce shorts documenting women’s lives in mining towns to this day8.
I burn the way money burns is a series focused on moving images made during the 1980s from LUX and Cinenova’s collections. These are films from a wide cine-geographical landscape that share forms of vision and highlight the continual sidelining of women’s work, waged and unwaged alike, as well as a gendered, propriety relation to workers struggle. In common with Lahire’s approach in Uranium Hex, many of them stress a collaged and polyvocal relationship to sound design. In addition, whilst positing a wide variety of techniques, the films discussed and presented over the course of this series examine strategies to make visible the real difficulty of representing domestic labour and unwaged time, offering innovative representations of the banal and quotidian “flood” or “tide” of women’s work9. Finally, they consider how the distribution of such films by broadcast media also played a role in engendering the development of wider audiences of feminist struggles.
In The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Labor, Prostitution, and Capital, Leopoldina Fortunati wrote: “What image does the process of production and reproduction conjure up? It presents itself as a photograph printed back to front. As mirror image of the process of commodity production.”10 In asking after Fortunati’s “image” of production and reproduction, how do these films move past simply giving voice to women involved in labor struggles towards reflecting a more complex grasp of the plurality of conditions confronted and lived by women under capitalism – or perhaps, as Hito Steyerl succinctly puts it, towards “the vocalization, verbalization or visualization of political protest”.11
Victoria Brooks is is a curator and producer based in Troy, NY. As Curator of Time-Based Visual Art at Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute she is currently producing new commissions with Rosa Barba, Lucy Raven, Charles Atlas, Germaine Kruip, Tarek Atoui, Patricia L. Boyd, Isabelle Pauwels, and Bloopers: Michael Bell-Smith, Sara Magenheimer and Ben Vida, among others. Recent projects include Time Squared, Ken Jacobs; Peradam, Robert AA Lowe + Sabrina Ratté; The Artists Theater Program, Erika Vogt, Math Bass, Shannon Ebner, Lauren Davis Fisher, Mariah Garnett, MPA, Silke Otto-Knapp, Flora Wiegmann, Adam Putnam, and Mark So; The Jaffe Colloquia, a new series of interdisciplinary seminars centered around the conditions of, and perspectives on, time-based arts, and Frieze Film 2013 – Erika Vogt, Patricia Lennox-Boyd, Peter Gidal, Oraib Toukan and Petra Cortright, five artists’ videos for Channel 4 television. Prior to EMPAC, Brooks was a London-based independent curator, co-founding the itinerant curatorial platform The Island with Andrew Bonacina, co-curating Serpentine Galleryʼs monthly artist-cinema program with Nicola Lees (2009-13), and producing Canary Wharf Screen (2011-13) for Art on the Underground. She was also adjunct curator for New York radio station ARTonAIR.org (2010-13), and in 2011 initiated a yearly series of performance, film, and music events for Calder Foundation, New York.
CINENOVA is a non-profit organisation dedicated to distributing feminist films and videos. For more information on the CINENOVA Collection please see: http://www.cinenova.org/
1 Sexton, Anne. “The Breast” in Love Poems (Houghton: 1969)
2 It is noteworthy that during these Thatcherite years Channel 4 commissioned Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs, as well as films by feminist filmmakers such as Tina Keane and Lis Rhodes.
3 I presented a comparative analysis of these three Ontario-based films in my paper Destroy yourselves as our bosses, presented as a two-part talk with Evan Calder Williams at Courtisane Film Festival in April 2014 as part of The Fire Next Time section on afterlives of the militant image.
4 By using the term “asymmetric solidarity” I wished to make a distinction with the original etymology of the word solidarity as a form of quite literally sharing debt. Thus, taking into account the discrete difference between Lahire’s replacement of the bodies of the women of Elliot Lake with her own image in solidarity, and the alternative approach taken by, for example, miners wives collectives who often put the camera directly into the women’s hands.
5 For an overview of Québec feminist groups, the Clio Collective and FLF history see Janine Marchessault’s essay “The Women’s Liberation Front of Québec” in Public 14: Québec (Fall 1996)
6 The pro-abortion physician Dr Henry Morgentaler, who died in 2013, was imprisoned in 1973 for performing illegal abortions, and later freed and opened more clinics when the new Parti Quebecois government took power. Mongentaler was a key figure in the striking down of Canada’s abortion law by the Supreme Court in 1988.
7 For links and in-depth research, screenings and events around the miners strike of 1984-5, see artist Margareta Kern’s research Strike 1984. Kern presented a screening and series of workshops with Patrick Staff as part of “The Factory Cinema” program in Stages for a Revolution at Whitstable Biennale 2012, which I co-curated with Andrew Bonacina.
8 Coalmining Women (1982) directed by Elizabeth Barret is held in the Cinenova Collection. Several related films on work, feminism and race by Barret, Anne Lewis (Justice in the Coalfield,1995) and Susie Baker (Clinchco: Story of a Mining Town, 1982) are available from Appal Films, Kentucky.
9 The reference to the “flood” or “tide” is a translation of an Italian term used briefly in the text “On the construction of Feminist Committees” in <> (Marsilio eds, 1975). In his translation of this text, Evan Calder Williams claims this term as a key category in thinking about domestic work. The text will be published in his forthcoming book of previously untranslated feminist and radical Italian texts, Against the Flood: The Italian Critique of Gender and Capital (Verso, 2015), along with a critical introduction co- authored with Maya Andrea Gonzalez.
10 Fortunati, Leopoldina The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Labor, Prostitution, and Capital (Autonomedia, 1996) p69
11 Steyerl, Hito. The Articulation of Protest (2002) trans. Aileen Derieg for republicart.net – http://republicart.net/disc/mundial/steyerl02_en.htm