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Speculative Fiction: Practicing Collectively

Back and Forth Collective (Mei Homma, Natsumi Sakomoto, and Asako Taki), Jennifer Clarke, Fionn Duffy, Sarah McWhinney

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Back and Forth Collective (Mei Homma, Natsumi Sakomoto, and Asako Taki), Jennifer Clarke, Fionn Duffy, and Sarah McWhinney, Speculative Fiction: Practicing Collectively (still)2020.

Artist Cinemas presents Speculative Fiction: Practicing Collectively
Back and Forth Collective (Mei Homma, Natsumi Sakomoto, and Asako Taki), Jennifer Clarke, Fionn Duffy, Sarah McWhinney
2020

25 Minutes

Artist Cinemas
Week #5

Date
May 17–23, 2021

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Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Back and Forth Collective (Mei Homma, Natsumi Sakomoto, and Asako Taki), Jennifer Clarke, Fionn Duffy, and Sarah McWhinney’s Speculative Fiction: Practicing Collectively (2020), on view from Monday, May 17 through Sunday, May 23, 2021.

Inviting critical feminist perspectives from practitioners based in Scotland and Japan, Speculative Fiction: Practicing Collectively was produced using digital spaces as platforms for experimental collaboration, whereby knowledge-sharing and mutual learning are meant as explicitly feminist acts. Made in 2020 and partly under lockdown, the film departs from the familiar ideas of domesticity, everyday labor, and care in the context of feminist practice, in order to reflect on a time when conditions have forced a reorientation and reorganization of social and work life—online and inside the home.

The film is presented here alongside an interview with some of the project members including its curator Rachel Grant, conducted by artist duo Ruth Beale & Amy Feneck.

Speculative Fiction: Practicing Collectively is the fifth installment of Faraway, So Close, a program of films and interviews convened by Koki Tanaka, and comprising the sixth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Faraway, So Close will run from April 19 through May 31, 2021, screening a new film each week accompanied by an interview with the filmmaker(s) conducted by Koki Tanaka and invited guests.

Speculative Fiction project members Jennifer Clarke, Fionn Duffy, Rachel Grant, Mei Homma, Natsumi Sakamoto, and Asako Taki, in conversation with Ruth Beale & Amy Feneck

Ruth Beale & Amy Feneck (RB & AF):
The film is multi-vocal, and includes intimate personal moments, but is presented as a single piece. Could you talk about co-authorship as a feminist practice? Why is this an important way of working for you?

Speculative Fiction (SF):
We understand co-authorship as a critical attitude towards current competitive structures within the art world which prioritize the visibility of individual names and success. We believe it is urgent to build platforms of collaboration that promote generosity, co-learning, sharing, and experimentation.

Multi-vocality relates to what can emerge when we respect the multiplicity of experiences. Encouraging numerous articulations (of experience) requires making space for difference. This is one of the ways we hope to practice feminism. Sharing intimacies, or making private life public, was crucial to us.

Several members of the group are caregivers while maintaining part-time and full-time jobs. In each of the places we come from, society continues to expect women to engage in reproductive labor, while the stigmatization of that labor persists. By consciously bringing our voices together, we are adding to rich histories of female labor and women working collectively. This is important, as not only does it build a sense of solidarity between ourselves, but also—we hope—makes space for other voices with a diversity of lived experiences and knowledge to join this conversation too.

RB & AF:
In our podcast True Currency: About Feminist Economics, we interviewed psychotherapist and author Lisa Baraitser, and talked about the ideas in her books Enduring Time (2017) and Maternal Encounters (1989). She describes a state of time particular to care, experienced through repetition and maintenance work. Could you talk about time, in terms of care, repetition, and maintenance in your film?

SF:
Yes! Baraitser’s book gets at the quality of experience(s) within maintenance work, in ways that chime with how it’s addressed in the film. The earlier part of the film deals directly with how a mother experiences her own materiality through the agentive capacity of breastmilk, and how this connects to income, safety, and healing. It explicitly calls on notions of maintenance, endurance, and care. The Japanese word we chose to translate “maintenance” is iji-suru, which can mean to improve as well as to sustain. But for us the most complex of these terms, especially in Japanese, was the notion of endurance, which has been, and is, a key concept for some of us in our artwork and writing—how time is lived and felt.

The peculiar quality of time conveyed by the film, and in the experience of making it, goes far beyond the sense of individual time. It is about enduring repetitive labor, or bodily care work, towards growth. The film offered, in its collaborative aspect, a way of holding space for each other. So, Baraitser’s sense of “enduring time” is explicit: valuing the time of care and what we labor for. The elements of repetition are part of the structure too, as texts are repeated in the last section of the film. We had a clear focus on maintenance labor, showing a washing machine and repetitive tasks such as breastfeeding, cleaning, and cooking. The time of care is depicted as never-ending, ongoing, giving, and tiring, but also happy and joyful, much like the love-hate relationship between child and mother.

These are political and sensitive topics. Breastfeeding in public space is still controversial and regarded as inappropriate behavior in many societies, including Japan. In our editing, we wanted to shed light on the everyday labor that is normally hidden or discomfiting.

RB & AF:
Ursula Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (1986) was a starting point for the development of this film project. In her essay, Le Guin talks about why the first human tool not is not the spear, but the container, or gourda vessel for gathering, holding, and sharing. The essay has been influential as a feminist proposal for re-framing human history away from the narrative of the male hero into a story rooted in shared existence and collective endeavor. Could you tell us how some of this thinking was visualized in the film, and how it influenced your way of working as a collective?

SF:
Le Guin’s “carrier bag” became a metaphor for how to hold space for one another during the filmmaking process—something porous and plural that could hold complex things in relation to, and in tension with, each other. It became a way of acknowledging that this process would not be linear and opened up possibilities for gathering conversations, shared research, experiences, and skills that would inform and support us individually and as a collective.

It also became instrumental to us in articulating the frustrations of containment—and confinement. We shot footage of domestic spaces and objects by way of visualizing the home itself as a sort of container. This relates to the experience of living under lockdown, but is also a reaction to the external pressures felt by many people to conform to certain expectations of femininity and domesticity.

We also considered the information held within different bodies—for example, the seed of an avocado—and the journey our food makes to reach us, then pass through us to others. Chimako Tada’s poetry was particularly influential on our attitude towards the human body as a vessel, and what it means to inhabit that body or container. Thinking about the isotopes that we collect in our bones—a tangible marker of the migration of food—and the cultural significance of foods like rice, injera, and milk created oscillations between micro and macro, body and society. This is reflected in the imagery we collected as horizons began to emerge towards the end of the film, with footage of moving water and the sky.

RB & AF:
This is a very transnational project: the film fuses together places, languages, and experiences from the UK/Scotland, Japan, and Indonesia. What connections and differences did you find in the everyday struggles, politics, and labor of women in each country?

SF:
The conversations we had over the course of the project were a way of trying to understand the wider socio-political context of these geographies. The project is transnational but our positions are always subjective: they carry certain privileges and remain lived experiences.

In the Global Gender Gap Index used by The World Economic Forum, the UK is ranked 21st among 153 countries, Indonesia is ranked 85th, and Japan sits at 121st. There are very specific geopolitical concerns in each of these countries this in relation to the everyday struggles, politics, and labor of women. In the UK context, there’s a sense of acceptance of feminism, because at least at the policy level there has been progress towards equality and protection. Women’s rights in Japan are not as protected on the legislative level, and therefore the political lives of women in Japan have very different concerns. Japan is one of the few industrialized countries where it is illegal for married people to have different surnames, and the age of sexual consent is thirteen. In Indonesia, domestic workers represent the single largest group of female salaried workers contributing to the households of others—whether in their own country or abroad. This is informal, precarious work that is open to exploitation.

While the political framing and marked differences between these places are important, our common ground remained in finding connections in our everyday experiences. Statistics do not take account of the more elusive cultural dynamics at play between these geographies. Despite perceivable progress in some areas (to a greater or lesser extent), it is depressingly clear that the everyday experience of those who identify as female is continuously bracketed by misogynist culture, and by policy that does not do enough to protect or educate. The ideas of shame around hierarchies of labor, what work is valued or seen as “productive” and what is not; the gendered relationships to safety, for example where women are not supposed to stay with a group and not walk alone late at night, as several recent tragic cases (in the UK) recently, have highlighted—these are just some of the issues that persist. The ways in which gender is performed still go unnoticed and are often internalized, becoming the responsibility of women, rather than calling for change in the societal and cultural contexta that inform them.

RB & AF:
When you started working on this film, not everyone knew each other or had worked together before. What role did the social exchange of “getting to know each other” play in the filming and editing process? What did it lead to and why was it valuable?

SF:
The constellation of relationships that constitutes this “we” or “us,” as a collective—and indeed, as a work—emerged entirely through a process that felt like a friendship. Working together was fundamentally about an ethos of sharing, one that was carefully constructed, facilitated, and supported. Perhaps by accident, the process of making the film lent itself to forming social bonds. The first section of the film comprising short, individual scenes was a way of introducing ourselves and our thoughts to each other; whereas for the second section, we started forming groups and collaborating on scenes, and thus needed to touch base more often in-between meetings. This laid the groundwork for friendship to develop. The group used English to communicate; however, we were aware that meaning and nuance would sometimes be lost for half of the members as this was not their first language. The images thus became a tool with which to convey those meanings and intricacies, and functioned as a translator of our personal thoughts and feelings.

RB & AF:
The coronavirus pandemic has precipitated a crisis of care, in which women have been more adversely affected. How did it affect you as women and mothers? How did the pandemic influence, compromise, or create opportunities for your project? Do you see a way of expanding and continuing your practice in these current times?

SF:
Although the film can certainly speak to the context of the pandemic, it was meant to be made through online collaboration all along, so it wasn’t a response to it or a compromise to working together physically. The group was made up of women who had been furloughed, others who were teaching online, or were primary caregivers, or heavily pregnant, or a combination of these circumstances. The reorganization of education, work, and social life into the home brought about by the pandemic meant that work meetings came with multiple, at times joyful interruptions. The invisible labor, costs, and struggles of how parents manage childcare and work were made visible through screen. We were therefore careful towards each other about deadlines, division of responsibilities, and workload.

The pandemic has brought our relationships with our communities into sharp focus. As the virus moves through the population, the decisions we make and the movements we take affect the health not only of our own households, but of society as a whole. Care must expand beyond the limits of our private lives—and the wider movement from the physical to the virtual in fact highlights the various privileges and limitations we each face.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Category
Film, Feminism, Labor & Work
Subject
Documentary, Domesticity, Video Art, Art Collectives, Motherhood and Reproduction, Digital Humanities, Health & Disease, Food & Cooking, Immaterial Labor
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