If a Bear Knocks on the Door
Dani and Sheilah talk about ‘calling people in’ so that they don’t feel so alone, so that they feel buoyed by the bravery of others; they talk about wanting, needing to feel understood, guided, seen. They didn’t say all this to me, or not exactly – these are my words. They called me in for my words. I didn’t know them, but I answered anyway. Sometimes people call and you find a drooling bear at the door. Other times you open the door and find that the caller’s already out in the field, beckoning – Hey, we’ve crossed this river, do you want to see what we’ve found? Yeah, I do.
I’m writing this in clumps because their writing came to me in clumps, and I think of their images as coming in clumps too. A clump isn’t a stack because it’s not vertical. The way I think of a clump, all the parts are touching. And clumps are messy, related to body and earth. Clumps of hair, clumps of blood and mud. A clump has to stick together, otherwise it’s no longer a clump.
When I think about clumps, I think about conception and gestation and abortion – you know, clumps of cells that some call a life. Dani and Sheilah made a trilogy of movies that is about, among other things, what it means to call something into life, what it means to attend to the lives we’re already in, how to respond to the elements we’re made of and in which we find ourselves. Sheilah says the trilogy was supposed to end in a conception; instead, it bears witness to disagreement and disappointment, along with a lot of beauty and water and blood. She kicks that metal pot down the road like a big ‘fuck you’ to a thing that won’t hold. Its counterpoint is rock: rocks don’t leak. Is a rock alive? And how does their camera change how we feel about that.
Dani and Sheilah wonder whether making art helps you to feel more, to go further into your feeling, or whether it staves off feeling, distances you from it. It seems clear that it can do both. It all depends on whose feelings, and what feelings, we’re talking about. Making an image can distance the maker from a feeling in the moment in order to give a feeling to a viewer later, or for the maker to contemplate later. The maker may feel fascinated, but the viewer feels repulsed. The maker may feel high seriousness, but the image gives off camp. Or vice versa. In the case of Dani and Sheilah, there isn’t only one maker (and there’s never only one viewer), so there are a lot of feelings to go around. We know that they agreed on the images they included, but we aren’t always sure they mean them in the same way. That tension is exciting, like a Neapolitan sandwich in which the viewer gets a stripe.
Often they stage something like an argument, whether it’s via avatars on the phone debating whether to have a kid, or in interviews in which they say things like, ‘I disagree’, or ‘I gotta jump in’, or on camera, when they pummel each other to the Kill Bill soundtrack. Sheilah has said the videos were a chance to see who had the better argument, about bringing another kid into a damaged world. But the viewer isn’t tracking arguments. The viewer is feeling. The viewer is feeling the overlapping but distinct orientations toward the world that the artists seem to want very much to convey to each other and to us. It feels like they get so much about each other that the things they don’t get threaten to become chasms. This is not uncommon. One of these orientations might be, ‘Some of us stay busy with the work of ordinary devotion / resilience / triage / sustenance while others luxuriate in despair’; another might be ‘If you don’t feel despair you’re not facing reality.’ The first prioritises amelioration; the second hopes to obviate pain by confronting it. ‘You can’t get around hurting people’, says one of their avatars, a line which, in its context, is part of an argument as to why the speaker doesn’t want to have a child. Freed from its context, however, it offers no obvious prescription for our choices or behavior. It could just as well be followed up by something like, ‘and since that’s an inevitable part of our being in relation, we must accept it and develop robust practices of accountability and repair’. The trilogy plucks both strings to make a chord.
‘Use artifice to strip artifice of artifice’ is a phrase Eileen Myles taught me (I know now it comes from filmmaker Carl Dreyer). I don’t know if Dani and Sheilah know this phrase but their work knows it. They bevel ‘honesty’ with artifice – going so far as to discuss the term and its relation to art on camera – but they never wink at it. In Future From Inside, they sit up in bed together, entwined, and Dani says, ‘You were bringing up something important: that you’re not going to blame me forever about it’, and Sheilah, distracted by her phone – which is filming them that very moment – responds, ‘I’m just looking at our video.’ They know that anything they have to tell us about honesty and grievance and aggression and forgiveness in a piece of art will already be thick with artifice, so they go headlong into that sluice.
Dani and Sheilah have said that their trilogy was supposed to be about healing, but it didn’t end up that way. Something different happened. This seems right – in the making, the plan never holds, but rather reveals itself to have been a pretext for opening up to things we could not foresee. Opening up is different from healing. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different. And here we might note that each of the videos features a foundational opening, or penetration. In Strangely Ordinary, This Devotion, it’s the slicing of Dani’s head; in Come Coyote, it’s the insemination; in Future From Inside, it’s the eye-drop ritual. These scenes have the power to evoke (at least in this viewer) some ugly memories, from head stitches to various misadventures in gynecology. But they also evoke many not-so-ugly, even joyful things, like making a baby, having sex, waking up, making art, giving birth, practicing magic. And so we find ourselves in a bumpy symphony of opening and leaking and wounding and inserting and incorporating and stitching and holding – activities revealed by the filmmakers to be a family affair.
And a bloody one. In addition to a mosaic of head wounds, from the slit in Dani’s head to the bloody bandages around the head of the father in Purple Rain (a film sampled in Strangely Ordinary) to the blood pooling under Dani’s head after Sheilah smashes it against a rock, there’s period blood, vomiting blood, blood swirling in water, and that damn cat with a bloody twig in lieu of an ear. Some of this bloodletting is ‘natural’ (menstruation, illness), some is the result of injury (self-inflicted, ritualised, and/or inflicted by others); some ‘real’, some overtly artificial. Of all the dangers here conjured, however, there is one threat that never makes it onto the screen: that posed by the misogynists and patriarchs and homophobes who stand, as they have long stood, ready to punish, hurt and prohibit the lesbian world-making to which Dani and Sheilah here pay homage and enact. I’m glad these forces get no presence in the work – really, why bother? – but given the moment we’re in, I find it hard to banish them from my mind entirely. Just this morning I heard a well-known white supremacist in Idaho extolling (in what is now approaching a mainstream programme) what he feels sure will follow the overturning of Roe v. Wade: ‘They’re gonna ban sodomy! They’re gonna ban gay marriage! They’re gonna throw gays off roofs! Women lose, God wins. Christ wins. We shall have our theocracy soon.’
Which brings us to the inoculation.
In March 2021, I wept with gratitude as I hung my left arm out my car window and a young man in army fatigues said, ‘Hello ma’am, my name is Harvey, and I’ll be vaccinating you against COVID-19 today.’ Lots of people were understandably like, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a little prick. Just go get the fucking shot’ – but to me it felt like a big deal, to drive to this mega-site and trust young Harvey to inject me with a novel vaccine for a novel virus, especially a shot that would, 12 hours later, render me unable to bear light or walk across the room. In the weeks and months that followed, my partner and I joked from time to time about how funny it would be if, ten years down the line, we discovered that we HAD been microchipped. Don’t worry, we know we weren’t, but our joke spoke to the kernel of anxiety and awe we felt about the fact that we’d chosen to trust, despite all our related distrusts (of government, of Big Pharma, of young men in army fatigues). Our trust may have been a la carte and well-reasoned (we want to live!), but it still felt extraordinary to join with all these other trusting bodies, our arms hanging out of our windows, all of us prepared to take an unknown substance into our muscle mass in service of our conjoined survival. This felt markedly different from showing up at a protest, organising in a basement, donating money, or writing books. It felt different because we were pierced.
I don’t know when Future From Inside was made, in relation to the pandemic – I know Dani and Sheilah were working on it in 2020, and the video is dated 2022, so it’s possible that they had all this in mind when they conceived its drops-of-glacier-water-into-eyes finale. Or maybe it was just prescient. Either way, it has felt meaningful to me to watch it during this time. It’s as if they created this parallel theatre of inoculation in which we get to contemplate what it means, or what it could mean, to be penetrated together, and in service of what. Within the narrative of the video, the volunteers are becoming people who can live in a world without water (I think!). But mostly, it looks like a bunch of women having a good time, participating in a ritual of waking each other up. Drop after drop, waking each other up. We presume it’s just water, that no harm is being done, but it’s still hard to watch, since the eye is so vulnerable, and we feel kinesthetic sympathy with the open eyes anticipating the drop, and then with the wincing, blinking, absorbing. Is this a hazing? The creation of a new species? An alteration of the code?
I’m writing this at the start of a new era in the United States, an era we will call ‘post-Roe’. Among the many things this new era will make excruciatingly clear is that you can’t have everything. If you choose to prioritise clumps of cells and embryos and fetuses over the bodies and lives of the people who house them, you’re choosing to wage war against pregnant people. This war will be waged – is already being waged – through neighbours turned against each other, courtrooms, jail cells, terror and bloodshed. Some actively want that war (‘women lose, God wins’); others buy into the fantasy that it can be made gentle. Perhaps they think that it can be made gentle because we will eventually be tamed and drained and put back in our place – that, by choice or by force, we will relinquish our autonomy and submit to their regime. They are wrong. We will echolocate and inoculate, we will build worlds that hold. We will nourish each other with our devotion, invention and friendship, even as we know we can’t get around hurting others and being hurt. We will animate the network of fungal glitter under our feet, communicating our warnings and our bravery. I will listen closely for transmissions from Dani and Sheilah. I will watch what they choose to show me, laugh with them at a dog chewing on a strap-on, stand up for our queer families, search with them for that sliver of moon in a smeary daytime sky. I will follow their bear across the river.
FERVOUR FOR THE STRUGGLE
INTENSE HEAT AND HAPPINESS
IN THE BREASTED TORSOS
THE PHOENIXES THE
THE WOMEN AFFIRM IN
ALL ACTION IS OVERTHROW Monique Wittig
Leonora Carrington, The Debutante and Other Stories (Madrid: Silver Press, 2017)
Anne Carson, Cassandra Float Can. In Float (New York: Knopf
Publishing Group, 2016)
Dana Luciano and Mel Y. Chen, Has the Queer Ever Been Human? In A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies: Queer Inhumanisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015)
Moyra Davey, Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001)
Donna Haraway, Children of Compost. In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)
John Keene, Punks: New and Selected Poems (New York: Song Cave, 2021)
Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 1984)
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Melville House UK, 2016)
Chantal Akerman, Je Tu Il Elle (Belgium: 1974), film
Dane Komljen, All the Cities of the North (Serbia: 2016), film
Gunvar Nelson, Oona (USA: 1969), film
Jayro Bustamante, Ixcanul (Guatemala: 2015), film
Claire Denis, Beau Travail (France: 2000), film
Rungano Nyoni, I am not a Witch (UK: 2017), film
Barbara Hammer, Dyketactics (USA: 1973), film
Steve McQueen, Deadpan (UK: 1997), film
Bi Gan, Kaili Blues (China: 2016), film
Beatriz Santiago, Marché Salomon (Haiti: 2015), film
Dani and Sheilah ReStack have embarked on an artistic relationship that is formally and emotionally adjacent to their domestic lives, a quotidian zone they share with their daughter Rose. Both artists have established careers on their own. Neither Dani’s video work or Sheilah’s multimedia performance and installation work could exactly prepare us for the force of the women’s collaborative efforts.
– Michael Sicinski, Cinema Scope, 2017.
ReStack collaborations have shown at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Iceberg Projects Chicago, Toronto International Film Festival, Images Film Festival, Toronto, Lyric Theater, Carrizozo, NM, The New York Film
Festival CURRENTS, Leslie Lohman Project Space, Gaa Wellfleet and The Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. They have received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Hanley Award. They have been residents at The Headlands and the MacDowell Colony.
Maggie Nelson is the author of several acclaimed books of poetry and prose, including On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (2021), The Argonauts (2015), The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), Bluets (2009), The Red Parts (2007), Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007), and Jane: A Murder (2005). She writes frequently on art, and in 2016 received a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. She teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.