Encountering Bodies: VALIE EXPORT’s Cinematic Experiments

by: , October 5, 2023

© …Remote…Remote… (1973), dir. VALIE EXPORT. Courtesy sixpackfilm.

A woman is sitting on a chair, a glass bowl filled with a milky substance wedged between her thighs. Behind her, there is a large black and white photograph of two children affixed to a white paper backdrop. ‘With an Exacto knife, the performer first cuts the cuticles around her fingernails, but soon it becomes clear that this is not a cosmetic but rather a destructive activity as the knife burrows deeper and deeper into the skin surrounding the fingernail. Blood begins to flow profusely and is periodically washed off in the bowl of milk held between her knees’ (Mueller 1994: 47). At one point, she also gnaws at the skin around her nails, which have already been bitten to the quick.


Fig. 1: © VALIE EXPORT: ...Remote…Remote… (1973). Courtesy sixpackfilm.


Watching moving images created by artists of the 1960s and 1970s can be a challenging experience. The feats of endurance demanded of an audience by the mere length of Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963) or Empire (1964)—with run times of almost five and a half and over eight hours respectively—spring to mind. Besides these two notorious examples, reputed to be unwatchable (Hoberman 2019; Carroll 2019), this especially applies to works by artists associated with performance and body art at that time, who used and explored the body—mostly their own—as artistic material, often subjecting it to exhausting or painful exercises in the process. Focussing on bodies, performance-based moving image works—with their often-visceral intensity—call for a closer examination of the relationship between these bodies and their images as well as of how these imaged bodies engage their audiences. I am thus going to take a closer look at bodies on screen and—to use the apt description put forth by ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall in The Corporeal Image in an essay central to my argument—‘the disturbances they create’ (2006: 13), with the body already introduced, the cut, poked, bitten and bleeding body of VALIE EXPORT’s ten-minute …Remote…Remote… (1973) as my main subject of analysis.

A Body of Cinematic Body Works

The Austrian artist and filmmaker’s body of work offers an array of intriguing examples for the task of exploring the nexus between body, image, and spectator. Her cinema-related performance pieces and experimental short films of the late 1960s and early 1970s in particular involve bodies and their corporeality in various, often quite confrontational ways. Central among these bodies is the female body as one of the prominent sites of contemporary feminism’s contentious debate, resonating throughout women’s art at the time, and a recurring subject as well as artistic material in VALIE EXPORT’s œuvre—a body that is marked (with a tattoo), wounded, and displayed, even offered up to the audience in live-performances, moving images, and photographs.

In her early cinema-related ‘Aktionen’ [actions]—a term the artist preferred to ‘performance’ at the time—she has staged or is said to have staged direct and partly hands-on confrontations of an actual body, breasts or genital area exposed to touch or sight, with members of the audience in a cinema setting. For Tapp- und Tastkino [Touch Cinema] (1968), one of VALIE EXPORT’s most well-known pieces, she took to the streets with a curtained box representing a miniaturized movie-theatre in front of her bare chest, while a companion invited passers-by to reach in and touch her breasts for the set time of twelve seconds. The spectators-turned-users of what the artist has hailed as the ‘first true woman’s film’ had to face her looking back at them, while also being watched by the bystanders in broad daylight (Mueller 1994: 18). The notorious Aktionshose: Genitalpanik [Action Pants: Genital Panic] (1969) reportedly saw VALIE EXPORT parading a pair of pants with the front and crotch cut out through the rows of seats in a cinema, displaying her pubic area right under the spectators’ noses. [1] Both works thus rather aggressively addressed questions of cinema spectatorship and women’s representation as passive objects for a voyeuristic male gaze.

In Adjungierte Dislokationen [Adjoined Dislocations] (1973), the body becomes material to the very act of filming in that it serves as a mobile support for two cameras facing in opposite directions, one strapped to the front and one to the back of VALIE EXPORT’s upper torso. Bending her body every which way while walking through different environments—a room and a staircase, urban streets and places, open nature—her movements inscribe themselves into what the cameras record, representing, in a sense, the images’ very substance, their body. The artist’s body has thus become a ‘corps-caméra,’ a term coined by Belgian filmmaker Luc Dardenne, which is interpreted by Joseph Mai in a way that also seems to apply to Adjungierte Dislokationen: ‘The “body-camera,”’ he writes, ‘suggests a reciprocal relation between both terms, one in which vision is not an independent entity but is reseated in the body’ (2007: 136). In Adjungierte Dislokationen, however, the embodied vision described by Mai is decidedly not one of eyes, but of the body itself, a technologically aided body, exploring its being-in-an-environment. The images originating from this corps-caméra are shown together with a film of the camera-equipped body’s movements in a ten-minute triple projection. According to VALIE EXPORT’s typewritten notes on the project, this arrangement results in the environment appearing as an extension of the body, merging into what she—using a self-coined compound—has termed the ‘Umgebungskörper’ [environment-body] (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien 1997: 94-95).


Fig. 2: The corps-caméra in action. © VALIE EXPORT: Adjungierte Dislokationen (1973). Courtesy sixpackfilm.


Made the same year as Adjungierte Dislokationen, …Remote…Remote… is rather more conventional in as much as it is an actual film, intended to be projected on its own in a movie theatre or a cinema-like setting. This also applies to Mann & Frau & Animal [Man & Woman & Animal] (1973), a nine-minute short, which is notorious for its central black and white sequence of a woman pleasuring herself with a jet of water in the bathtub, shown in inquisitive shots of her genital area with the camera repeatedly moving in from a middle distance to extreme close-ups. The body thus exposed is VALIE EXPORT’s own, as the glimpses of the tattooed garter strap from her Body Sign Action (1970) high up on one of her thighs reveal, while her face never enters the picture. Mann & Frau & Animal then switches to colour, again showing the artist’s pudenda, legs spread wide, in tightly framed full-frontal shots, smeared with a white mucus first and then with a red viscous substance, while the camera keeps closing in. The film ends with the image of a colour photograph of the exposed genital area in a developing tray, onto which blood has dripped from a hand—a juxtaposition of photograph and moving image that reoccurs in several of VALIE EXPORT’s films, most notably in the repeated and increasingly erotically charged encounters of a body with its own life-size photographic images in Syntagma (1984), a seventeen-minute experimental short, which has been the subject of an in-depth analysis by Kaja Silverman (2000: 8-24). In both Mann & Frau & Animal and …Remote…Remote… the body is ostensibly both subject and material, which is reflected in the artist’s self-devised labels that have been affixed to these films: ‘Avantgarde Film’ [avant-garde film] and, more pertinent here, ‘Film Aktion’ [film action] (Assmann 1992: 323; Husslein-Arco, Nollert & Rollig 2010: 161). [2] Its characterization as ‘Film Aktion’ already hints at why, despite formally being a fairly straightforward film when compared to others of VALIE EXPORT’s moving image works of that era or even her later feature films, …Remote…Remote… merits a closer look.

Facing up to VALIE EXPORT’s Body on the Screen

Confronted with …Remote…Remote… even seasoned cinephiles, scholars of film and the visual arts—as well as audiences accustomed to the often-difficult fare offered by certain genres, arthouse, underground, or artists’ filmmaking—exhibit reactions usually associated with films that are regarded as unbearable to watch. Fidgeting and squirming, averting one’s gaze or covering one’s eyes number among the common expressions of discomfort (boredom included), while walking out during the projection counts as one of the strongest manifestations of discontent or disapproval of a work of cinema (cf. Frey 2014). In the case of …Remote…Remote… all of these have been either witnessed by me personally—always in the context of highly specialized events like artist’s presentations or academic conferences, whose audiences were presumably aware of what to expect—or reported by others in reviews or remarks on screenings. Feminist film scholar, filmmaker, and film programmer Renate Lippert, for example, has pointed out that the film was perceived as aggressive and often met with ‘Entsetzen, Unverständnis, Verachtung’ [dismay, incomprehension, disdain] when shown in women’s film programmes in the 1970s (1985: 74). Art historian Katharina Sykora has noted that it was viewed as an ‘Akt der Gewalttätigkeit’ [act of violence] directed at the audience when screened and discussed in a workshop at the women art historians’ conference in Berlin in 1988 (1989: 365).

In portraying how …Remote…Remote… has been perceived in terms of an aggression against the spectators—even almost an assault on them—Lippert and Sykora’s accounts manage to convey the remarkable intensity of the feelings provoked. The reported reactions, in both cases coupled with a critical disapproval of the film, were, however, expressed in rather specific and already historical contexts: the heated discussions about a gendered specificity of women’s artistic expression, and the representation of women’s bodies, especially bodies violated in their integrity, among German-speaking feminists in the 1970s and 1980s. [3] Even so, the question arises if the rather strong responses to …Remote…Remote… have been and continue to be solely or primarily provoked by the peculiar auto-aggressive version of a manicure described above, a mundane act of beautification turned into—or, as Sykora suggests (1989: 360-362), revealed as—what in its deliberate and painstaking execution amounts to a ritual of actual self-harm. Drawing on the categories set forth in the introduction to Unwatchable, a recently published collection exploring the eponymous notion, I would argue that in the case at hand the reported and witnessed reluctance or refusal to watch on the part of some audience members is not only, or even mainly, attributable to reasons that could be classed as ‘ethical, political,’ but also, if not more so, to ‘sensory and affective’ ones (Bear, Hennefeld, Horak & Iversen 2019: 3). And I would, at this point, also like to underline, that these sensory and affective reasons apply even though the act of self-harm is not directly witnessed, but faced on a screen. Indeed, it might even be that they apply because of that.

Between Aktion & Film

Synopses of …Remote…Remote…, however, often tend to read as if they were referring to a live performance, as does the one I provided earlier, largely quoted from Roswitha Mueller, author of a substantial monograph on VALIE EXPORT. Mueller, otherwise an astute commenter on the artist’s cinema-related and moving image works, offers an interesting case in point when she mentions …Remote…Remote… alongside Mann & Frau & Animal in the context of her analysis of VALIE EXPORT’s live-performances: ‘[b]oth are, in a sense, performances for film,’ Mueller states (1994: 44). While she acknowledges the fact that …Remote…Remote… is a work of cinema by pointing to a cut from one of the photographed children’s eyes to those of the artist—an edit she interprets as establishing a connection between the subjects of the background photograph and the woman seated in front of it—Mueller continues her account of ‘the action itself,’ which is reproduced above, without further references to cinematography or editing, exclusively focussed on what happens in front of the camera instead (Mueller 1994: 44-47).

VALIE EXPORT did enact some of her major performance pieces—Eros/ion (1971), Kausalgie [Causalgia] (1973), both referred to as ‘Körper-Material-Interaktion’ [body material interaction], and Hyperbulie [Hyperbulia] (1973)—around the time she created the two short films mentioned but had already been involved with cinema and experimental filmmaking for a number of years. Attendances at international avantgarde film festivals, as well as her membership in the Austrian Filmmakers Cooperative (which she cofounded) further attest to a keen interest in the medium and the exploration of its properties and potential. More importantly, the beginning of VALIE EXPORT’s artistic career is marked not only by her cinema-related body works but also by a series of seminal Expanded-Cinema-pieces that examined the very material of the cinematic experience and how it operates in a number of different ways. In the first of the five parts of Cutting (1967/68)—to name just one example—‘opening, a documentary,’ executed in front of a live audience, VALIE EXPORT cut out the windows in an image of a multi-storey façade projected onto a paper screen, thus, incidentally, rendering the title’s pun self-explanatory (cf. Mueller 1994: 19-21; see also the chart reproduced in Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien 1997: 54-55).

On the subject of …Remote…Remote…, it is also instructive to consider the artist’s own classifications that have already been mentioned above. The term ‘Film Aktion,’ appearing hyphenated in its more recent iteration (Husslein-Arco, Nollert & Rollig 2010: 161), signals a hybridity, something that is both performance and film, and thus not simply an action which has been documented cinematographically, but a work in which the filmic rendering, foregrounded by the other label, ‘Avantgarde Film,’ has been an integral part of its conception—as is quite unambiguously the case with the films and videos of contemporary colleagues like Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman as well. For …Remote…Remote…, the description of the action thus has to be supplemented with a description of it as filmed.

Facing up to …Remote…Remote…

In the film, conspicuous editing combines with a cinematography that makes use of zooms in and out, short pans and tilts, always executed rather slowly, with the camera placed either straight across from the artist or slightly to the side. With the exception of a small number of medium long shots showing VALIE EXPORT seated in front of the large photograph of the two children affixed to a paper backdrop, her body at the centre of the screen and facing us, the majority of the shots are of the tightly framed variety—medium close-ups, close-ups, and extreme close-ups, which enable us to experience the procedure and the damage done at first hand. Even though …Remote…Remote… is moderately paced, the back and forth between shots of differing sizes creates a sense of suspense. By increasingly closing in on the artist’s fingers, the camera conveys a relentlessness that further ratchets up the tension.

When VALIE EXPORT first sets to work on her fingers about two and a half minutes into the film, for example, we watch her from a safe distance in the same medium long shot that introduced the set-up at the beginning, her body again facing us, but her eyes now cast down, focussed on her busy hands, instead of looking out. After about one minute, a sudden cut to a close-up from an angle provides a clear view of what she is actually doing with the box cutter previously seen with its blade resting on the rim of the bowl between her legs. Guided by the right hand, this blade is now digging into the skin beneath the nail of the index finger, already quite frayed, then cuts into the cuticle of the middle finger, followed by scraping and then again cutting, scraping, and tugging at it repeatedly, before moving on to the next finger, while the resulting tears and lesions have already started bleeding. Later, a shot that has the lower half of the artist’s face at the top of the screen looming over her still busily cutting and tugging hands is replaced mid-action by an extreme close-up of the upper part of just one finger with a badly bitten nail, already bleeding from its base and a horizontal gash underneath. The metal blade enters from outside the frame to poke into and rip open the already existing wounds, getting caught on their edges or on pieces of skin in the process. The camera moves in even closer onto the tip of the implement, its slightly ragged and blood-stained edge catching the light as it pushes deeper into the raw flesh. Then, again in an extreme close-up, the bleeding finger is lowered into the milky liquid, withdrawn, and pushed back in, causing red streaks to fan out while penetrating the white surface.


Fig. 3: Sharp metal blade meets bleeding flesh in tightly framed close-ups. © VALIE EXPORT: …Remote…Remote… (1973). Courtesy sixpackfilm.


This is framed by an interplay between moving and still image, between the artist and the children in the larger than life-size photograph behind her. The identifying connection pointed to by Mueller and other commenters on …Remote…Remote… is first suggested when VALIE EXPORT’s face appears right next to that of the little girl, both pairs of eyes directed straight ahead, looking out from the screen, during a slow zoom that starts, immediately after the titles, on the toddler’s photographed face and ends in an overview of the setting. The suggestion of a bond is deepened shortly afterwards by again showing artist and girl side by side, directly followed by a series of cuts and short pans between extreme close-ups of each one of VALIE EXPORT and the children’s eyes. A similar alignment occurs towards the end of …Remote…Remote…: As the artist finishes biting her finger and slowly lowers her hand, the shot widens from a close-up to once more take in the face of the little girl looming next to her. The film then cuts to an extreme close-up of the girl’s lips, slightly opened and revealing some missing teeth, followed by a close-up of the toddler’s mouth before cutting back to the medium long shot of VALIE EXPORT sitting in front of the photograph, back at cutting her cuticles. After having dunked her hand into to bowl of milk one more time, she suddenly disappears from view. The camera zooms in on the part of the black and white photograph that had up to now been obscured by her body—the intertwined hands of the children, holding tightly on to each other across the rail of the cot.

Throughout the film, dull knocking sounds can be heard—slightly irregular, but repeated monotonously, thus enhancing the ritualistic quality evoked by the performer’s intense concentration as well as the slow and deliberate movements of both herself and the camera. The repetitive and ritualistic aspect plays into Andrea Zell’s psychological reading of …Remote…Remote…, linking the artist’s actions to self-harming behaviour in young women, the root cause of which is often ascribed to childhood trauma (2000: 90-94). This is supported by the mere presence of the photograph of the two children, its array of cots with metal railings in the background indicating an institutional setting. Regarded by some commenters as picturing the artist at a young age (e.g. Lippert 1985: 75; Sykora 1989: 360), it has been identified as an image from a police archive relating to a case of child abuse (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien 1997: 102; Zell 2000: 86), thus rendering the connection suggested between them not so much autobiographical than general. In a short text frequently published in catalogues of her work, VALIE EXPORT herself suggested the externalisation of past experiences as the film’s subject, a turning outward of the internal through a tangible, corporeal manifestation of the metaphorical psychic wound (Szely 2007: 120-121). In light of this, the film’s title with its repetition of ‘remote’ and ellipses reads like an incantation, that unsuccessfully tries to conjure away a troubling past literally cutting its way. Further possible readings are suggested by the milk and the blood—both powerful symbols as well as bodily fluids associated with fertility and motherhood—or the painful parody of a manicure complete with finger bath, signalling an underlying auto-aggressivity, both physical and psychical, in women’s adherence to imposed and harmful beauty standards (cf. Sykora 1989: 360-362). None of these, however, manage to fully account for and even less to contain or quell the discomfort, displeasure, and even disgust that …Remote…Remote… continues to provoke, while at the same time being strangely fascinating, compelling in its own slow, relentless, and, indeed, also unsettling and off-putting way.

Cinema’s Corporeality

Sensory and affective responses, ranging from attraction to repulsion, are the ‘disturbances’ that David MacDougall—as quoted at the beginning of this paper—refers to: the disturbances created by bodies on screen. It is not the bodies in and of themselves, the pro-filmic bodies, which are responsible for these disturbances, but the bodies as they are appearing on film. This is indicated by the following remark, opening the author’s ruminations on the subject: ‘Films …’ MacDougall writes, ‘are littered with bodies, and although these bodies are in one sense ghostly and evanescent, they are also in many ways, to our senses, corporeal’ (2006: 13).

In light of works like …Remote…Remote… and other performance-based artists’ films, this notion of corporeality in conjunction with the filmic image—which would be a corporeality of the filmic image—appears as quite seductive. The etymology of the very term suggests that there is something bodily, a tangible presence, a certain aliveness even to the image. Sometimes referred to as ‘film’s body,’ it also surfaces in the writings of film theorists inspired by the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty or by Gilles Deleuze. Foregrounding the sensory aspects of film (and also video), Laura Marks’ The Skin of the Film, published in 2000, has been cited over again—alongside Vivian Sobchack’s ‘phenomenology of film experience,’ The Address of the Eye, from 1992—as fundamental to a recent shift in thinking about film. Martine Beugnet’s study of the New French Extremity’s ‘cinema of sensation,’ first published in 2007, represents another case in point, as her own definition of her subject (and also her aim) succinctly proves: ‘The cinema of sensation is an approach to filmmaking (and, by extension, to the analysis of film) that gives precedence to the corporeal, material dimension of the medium’ (2012 [2007]: 32).

Like Beugnet and Marks, MacDougall also deplores the subjection of film and its images to language, owing to the prevalence of semiotics and psychoanalytical theory in film-theoretical discourse. [4] His main concern in doing so, however, is neither primarily to dispute certain established traditions of film theoretical thinking, nor—I would venture to guess—to proclaim a turn in academic film scholarship. Rather, it has to do with what MacDougall has been trying to achieve with his own filmmaking, namely, ‘to use images in an academic discipline’ (2006: 1). What he is therefore after is a validation of a kind of ‘thinking’ with, or, more precisely, in images. The notion of other, more experiential, sensory and sensual forms of knowledge that this entails is also present in the writings of authors like Beugnet and Marks—most prominently so in the latter’s already mentioned The Skin of the Film, which posits intercultural film- and videomaking as the practice in which these are most radically explored, in that it manages, for example, to conjure up memories of touch, smell, and taste.

A palpable corporeality of film’s images seems to be the means for being able to tap into or to experience these different forms of knowledge and the new meanings that arise from them. This palpability of cinematic corporeality, in turn, appears to be brought forth by images that reveal themselves as such—images that disrupt the narrative flow, images that are divested of their photographic representationality and tend toward the ‘formless’ (the French l’informe), in Beugnet’s terms (2012 [2007]: 65): blurred images, grainy ones, over- or underexposed shots, superimpositions, extreme close-ups are just some of those she and Marks both point to—images, in short, that, initially at least, defy easy readability (Beugnet 2012 [2007]: e.g. 65, 67, 74; Marks 2000: 172-176). Some of both Beugnet and Marks’ descriptions of such instantiations of corporeality bring the notion of photogénie to mind, as found in writings of theorists and filmmakers of the French avant-garde of the 1920s: an elusive affective quality cinema is able to impart even to inanimate objects. Characterizing it as ‘a fleeting moment of experience or emotional intensity—a sensation—that the viewer cannot describe verbally or rationalise cognitively,’ Constantine Verevis explicitly relates photogénie to the Deleuzean notion of sensation in his entry to The Deleuze Dictionary (2010: 250).

Touching Images

What Beugnet calls an ‘aesthetics of sensation,’ as it is set out in the face of work by filmmakers like Oliver Assayas, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, or Philippe Grandrieux, seems to some extent predicated on the disruption of the codes and conventions of narrative cinema. She has, however, suggested that this aesthetics of sensation is, essentially, a defining feature of experimental filmmaking: ‘seeking to destabilize the visual field and to bring the attention back to the materiality of film,’ as Beugnet put it in an exchange with Laura Mulvey, ‘avant-garde and experimental cinemas have always explored ways of rendering the film image more tactile, less immediately “readable”’ (2015: 195). This focus on the tactile ties in with Marks’ concept of a haptic as opposed to an optical visuality, that she develops (on the basis of a body of cinematographic and videographic films which can be classed as moving image art) in The Skin of the Film, and revisits in the first chapter of touch (2000: 127-193; 2002: 1-20). ‘While optical perception privileges the representational power of the image, haptic perception privileges the material presence of the image,’ Marks writes about the two contrasting modes of viewing (2000: 163). In the haptic mode—something akin to which MacDougall addresses under a different name—the process of viewing, refigured by Marks as embodied perception, turns into an encounter, with ‘the viewer responding to the video [or the film, B.F.] as to another body and to the screen as another skin’ (Marks 2002: 4). This kind of response is invited by images that draw attention to their materiality with, for example, marks of deliberate destruction, signs of accidental decay, or the digital or electronic manipulations that video allows as well as with the other strategies for obscuring and obstructing an image’s legibility that have already been enumerated (Marks 2002: 9).

In regard to VALIE EXPORT, the notion of the haptic in connection with cinema immediately brings Tapp- and Tastkino to mind, a veritable touch-cinema, that is premised on a physical contact, and actually enacts what Marks claims for the sensuous engagement stimulated by images that foreground their materiality, namely ‘a critique of mastery, the mastery implicit in optical visuality’ (2000: 184). In contrast to the critically distanced spectator brought to light in the wake of 1970s screen theory—a spectator enabled by distancing devices or experimental film practices to see through, as it were, the spectacle put on by the cinematic apparatus—, in a haptic cinema, Marks claims, ‘it is through a desiring and often pleasurable relationship to the image that this critique is bodied forth’ (2000: 184). This is decidedly the case for a work like US-artist Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1964-1967), a film of her and her partner engaged in various sexual acts, the material of which has been elaborately manipulated—painted over by hand, scratched, exposed to the elements, etcetera—after having been captured by a highly mobile camera that Ara Osterweil has characterized as ‘a tactile participant,’ contributing to the ‘experience of sensuous abandonment’ granted by the film (2015: 144). Indeed, the central conceit of Marks’ Skin of the Film finds itself embodied in Schneemann’s film in the fusing of human skin and celluloid film, the visible marks of the latter’s materiality appearing like blemishes on the lovers’ bodies and vice versa. VALIE EXPORT’s hands-on touch-cinema, however, despite playing on desire, has a rather pronounced didactic and cerebral strain, especially when viewed in the context of her contemporary Expanded-Cinema-pieces, already touched upon above.

As far as VALIE EXPORT’s films are concerned, it is Syntagma, in which the physicality of the image, its body, is almost excessively played up, as I have described in some depth elsewhere (Filser 2019: 81-89). This is quite vividly realized in a sequence that stages the encounters between a naked female body and its own life-size images, in which parts of this body are seen against the background of a series of black and white photographs of these self-same parts, echoing their poses or touching them. At one point, we even see the woman engaged in some sort of an embrace with her imaged self. The images of this body doubling a picture of itself, however, are themselves still images projected onto a sheet. In its creased and partly crumpled state, this piece of cloth exhibits a physicality that is in turn conferred on the screen which Syntagma is playing on. In …Remote…Remote… the instances of images pointing to their materiality also involve a photograph, the black and white picture of the children, that, as a slightly raised edge reveals, consists of four prints assembled to form one continuous image. Its visible seams as well as flecks of light reflected by the shiny surface of the photographic paper, and the photographic grain, exponentially enlarged by the extreme close-ups of details in the prints, however, foreground the materiality of an image that is clearly presented as such from the start, serving, as it does, as the background for another body. Its haptic qualities thus seem to chiefly serve to mark it as a photograph (with all the assumptions that this entails) and therefore differentiate it from the body of the artist in front of it, which is neither obliterated nor consumed by these manifestations of its materiality. Instead, the haptic quality that the images of this other body also attain, seems predicated on an unobstructed, unobscured visibility. This necessitates finding another way to grasp the corporeality of the image—one that allows the affectivity of the imaged body to be accounted for—to then be better able to assess, what is playing itself out between …Remote…Remote…’s bodies.

Associations of Bodies

MacDougall’s delineation of a corporeality of the filmic image, set out in an essay entitled ‘The Body in Cinema,’ provides a framework to address the problems just raised and to further explore the relation(s), or, rather, associations of bodies and image that VALIE EXPORT’s film actions and other performance-based moving image works involve. He conceives of this ‘corporeality’ as just such an association, encompassing ‘the body in the film,’ ‘the body of the spectator,’ ‘the body of the filmmaker,’ and ‘the body of the film,’ the latter, although discussed last by MacDougall, being at the centre of the relations of the bodies just named. As an ‘“open” body capable of receiving all of these,’ this body of the film constitutes the site at which they all converge and where the associations between the bodies of filmed subject, spectator, or filmmaker as well as between these bodies and itself—the image on screen—play out (MacDougall 2006: 29-30). MacDougall does not provide a unified or rigorously argued theory, though. His text is rather a string of erudite observations drawing on writings from film theory, art history, anthropology, philosophy, and sociology amongst others—observations of which I will highlight those most pertinent to a film like …Remote…Remote….

As far as the body in the film is concerned, it hardly warrants mention that …Remote…Remote… has a body engaged in an activity that could—regardless of the peculiarity of its execution—easily be included in MacDougall’s list of ‘mundane acts such as spitting, scratching, shaving, cutting the nails.’ These, as well as ‘commonplace bodily experiences’ like excretion, menstruation, and masturbation—both prominently presented in Mann & Frau & Animal for exampleare, as MacDougall points out, rarely ever seen in either fiction or non-fiction films (2006: 19). The aspect of transgression that is associated with ignoring such socially or culturally mandated restraints no doubt contributes to whatever affect—be it pleasure, discomfort or revulsion—this might engender in a spectator. This does not specifically pertain to the screen, however, but can be extended to the stage or the gallery floor (notwithstanding that art audiences are expected to be more forgiving of transgressive acts). The impact of the action in VALIE EXPORT’s film actions is thus accounted for, but not the intensity this impact has.

Having already previously referred to the somatic and visceral reactions—‘shock, flinching, faintness, sexual arousal, and even vomiting’ (MacDougall 2006: 18)—that, for example, genres like pornography and horror are apt to provoke, MacDougall commences his reflections on the body of the spectator by noting that all films are designed to affect and elicit bodily responses from their audiences. This happens at the formal level, the level of representation, and the level of a diegesis that seeks to incorporate the spectator into the world unfolding on the screen. One classic example, combining the formal and the representational level, is the close-up of a face—any body part, I would add—which, according to MacDougall, creates a proximity to the bodies of others usually only experienced in moments of intimacy. The effect this has on the viewer is described as ‘a sharp sense of intimate exposure of the film subject and a secondary sense in the film viewer of personally being exposed by witnessing the other’s exposure’ (MacDougall 2006: 21). This, I would argue, would also be the case, regardless of shot-size, when being shown subjects like the ‘commonplace bodily experiences’ mentioned above, as well as—depending on personal bias—nudity, sexual acts, and a number of other activities bodies are involved in or subjected to. It does quite accurately reflect the heightened discomfort experienced during screenings of Mann & Frau & Animal and may also pertain to …Remote…Remote….

In …Remote…Remote… we are repeatedly brought intimately close to the artist’s face, but even more so to her hands and fingers, which representationally figure, what is achieved on the formal level: Due to the heightened proximity it affords or—in our case—inflicts, the close-up also endows the filmic image with a ‘quasi-tactility’ that is grasped by a ‘“prehensile”’ vision,’ as MacDougall terms it (2006: 22). Such a way of seeing, he explains with a view especially to ethnographic films, ‘allows us to incorporate objects into our own experience in ways that may reflect more directly the experience of those who handle them’ (2006: 23). What is described here, is some kind of synaesthetic transference of sensations, which would go a long way towards explaining the inability or refusal to watch the parts of …Remote…Remote… in which the blade is ripping at skin and digging into wounds, its gleaming hardness meeting soft, exposed, and bleeding flesh. This process of incorporating experience—a bodily taking-in and living-out—is portrayed as similar to what happens during an encounter in real life. MacDougall at this point refers to the unconscious mimicking of facial expressions, bodily postures and the like, that takes place in such situations, and quotes Merleau-Ponty’s characterisation of this phenomenon as a ‘postural “impregnation” of my body by the conduct I witness’ (2006: 23). He also points out that this not only encompasses a motor response but, as has already been proposed by Charles Darwin, also an emotional one, which is triggered by the former. Simply put, MacDougall—also drawing on ethnographic accounts of the uses of religious images—describes the relation between spectator and filmic image as an encounter between two bodies, in which one reacts to the other, regardless of whether there is a human body in the filmic image.

Despite only being mentioned in passing, another peculiarity of film viewing earlier touched upon by MacDougall also needs to be noted, since it seems pertinent to understanding how a work like …Remote…Remote… acts on its viewers. It is the ‘“oneiric” view’—the term is Edgar Morin’s—which MacDougall posits as the oft overlooked spectatorial dimension of photogénie and describes as ‘a private perspective suspended somewhere between privilege and paralysis, with all the power to see but an incapacity to act’ (2006: 17). His conjecture is that this may account for why watching a film often makes for a more intense experience than directly witnessing the event would.

So far, there has been no need to spell out in greater detail in what ways the observations drawn from MacDougall’s text pertain to …Remote…Remote…. Its affective impact has been accounted for as resulting from the transgressive nature of the action, and the intensity with which this is felt as rooted mainly in the intimacy and tactility of the close-up, that enables us to vicariously partake in and experience what we are shown. What still demands a brief elaboration is the body of the filmmaker, that makes itself felt as some kind of ‘residue’ in the filmic image (Mac Dougall 2006: 26). In a certain sense, the presence of the filmmaker’s body is anything but residual in VALIE EXPORT’s film since the body in it is also the body of its creator. MacDougall’s prime example of how this body is incorporated into the image, though, is the movement of a hand-held camera, presumably—as is quite common in ethnographic and verité-style documentary filmmaking—handled by the filmmakers themselves. This is carried almost to extremes with the corps-caméra of Adjungierte Dislokationen, the very subject of which is this body’s movements and its embeddedness in its environment making themselves felt not so much in, but as the image. To a comparably much lesser degree the camera in …Remote…Remote… also draws attention to itself due to the deliberate way in which its movements are executed. [5] It does not, however, impart to the image the strong sense of a human presence and interaction which MacDougall foregrounds by writing about camerawork mainly from an experiential perspective. In …Remote…Remote… there is something insistent at work, intent on making us see. This makes itself felt, for example, in the camera diagonally panning upwards from the box cutter in VALIE EXPORT’s hand to the face of the girl in the photograph, then moving to the left while also drawing slightly back to present artist and girl next to each other.

Closing (in), Looking Back

The image of VALIE EXPORT next to the girl in the photograph brings us back to the question of what is playing itself out between these two bodies, the body of the artist and the body of the photograph, across the body of the film. To better understand their relation, it is again instructive to introduce an example in which the association of bodies appears almost exaggeratedly tight. In the first 44-minute part of Vito Acconci’s black and white Conversions (1971), the US-artist—in an attempt to ‘feminize’ his body—is seen removing the thick coat of hair on his chest by burning it off with a lit candle and then trying to form breasts by squeezing and pulling at the exposed skin. While he is thus at work, the camera mostly stays up close to the artist’s upper torso, slightly quivering from time to time, while often focussing in on one obtrusively protruding nipple. The candle is brought up to and across this over and again, causing the hair to melt into black clots dotting the skin, tiny puffs of smoke wafting up, making us almost smell the singed hair. What the spectators are implicated in, in this case, is actually more than an association: It is a becoming-body of the screen through an amalgamation of the flickering flame, the slight trembling of the camera, and the movement of the folds of skin being stroked, pulled and pinched, but even more so of the grain of the Super-8mm-film, the visible pores of the skin and the scorched hair, that, curling in upon itself, sometimes makes it seem as if the skin of the film itself is starting to melt.

There are moments of close associations of bodies in …Remote…Remote… when the body in the film almost merges with the body of the film like in the extreme close-ups of the bleeding finger or the mouth, in which the criss-cross of lines on the skin, the fine hairs around lips and chin, the ridges of the nail or the bite-marks around it provide texture to the screen. Notwithstanding the powerful visceral instantiations of corporeality that it achieves, in VALIE EXPORT’s film, again, there is a cerebral, critical strain. The foregrounding of the materiality of an image within the film—that of the photograph—troubles the relation of body and image. There is an interesting back and forth happening in the encounter of the body in the film with this photograph; both are acting upon each other. The marked difference between the still image of the children and the moving, acting body of the artist in front of it, which is established right from the beginning and even further played up by the fact that one is black and white and the other in colour, enhances the latter’s presence, its corporeality, which in turn brings out the stillness of the photograph and its corporeality as a picture even more. The cuts from VALIE EXPORT’s eyes and her mouth to the eyes and the mouths in the photograph early in …Remote…Remote… and towards its end, however, not only confirm an identificatory connection between performer and children, but also almost paradoxically insinuate an equivalence concerning the nature of both body in the film and filmed photograph: stripped of spatial contextualisation, framed almost identically and—in the case of the pairs of eyes—connected through similar panning movements, they tend towards seriality. That the artist’s body, despite its haptic presentness is also just an image, albeit a very powerful one, an image, moreover, more elusive than the one of the children, is spectacularly demonstrated by it suddenly vanishing from the scene at the end. At the same time, the identity between the artist and one of the children, suggested by the very same cuts, but also the closing in on their entwined hands after the artist has disappeared from view, reopens a gap—the gap between her present body and the shadow of a past one. In …Remote…Remote… the body on screen thus appears to be hovering between the ‘ghostly and evanescent’ and the ‘corporeal.’ The film’s closing image, in a sense, encapsulates this, in that it closes in on hands touching, but these touching hands are only those on a photograph, an image of a past no longer there. What VALIE EXPORT’s film thus also affords is an intimation of the ambivalent nature MacDougall ascribes to the instantiations of bodies through the body of the film, an inkling of its duality, but also duplicity—something that Syntagma will later make extensive use of to further examine the issue of body and image. But even though the relation of body and image in …Remote…Remote… is troubled by these intimations, the encounters it affords with bodies remain touching and troubling, memorably so in the instances, when the film—as in Tapp- and Tastkino—is looking out at us, staring right back through the eyes of the woman and, most hauntingly, the little girl.



[1] According to VALIE EXPORT, Aktionshose: Genitalpanik took place on April 22, 1969, in an art cinema in Munich, Germany, but no documentation of that event exists (Dogramaci 2018: 108-109). The piece is known primarily through a series of photographs of the artist wearing said pants and brandishing a machine-gun, which were staged sometime later and contain no reference to a cinema setting or an audience, as well as several accounts by the artist herself and, more recently, the inclusion of the pants in exhibition displays. Discrepancies in the accounts and their retellings, among them a version that places the action at an adult movie theatre and has the artist pointing the machine-gun at the spectators, have caused art historians Mechtild Widrich and Burcu Dogramaci to suspect that an actual cinema performance with the action pants by VALIE EXPORT might never have taken place (2012: 101; 2018: 111).

[2] VALIE EXPORT’s intricate and elaborate system of classifying her own works would merit closer study, especially the in- and exclusion of certain terms and some inconsistencies in reiterations of chronologies of her work in different catalogues, which were presumably compiled with her or her studio’s collaboration. Also interesting is the accumulation of categorizing labels for pieces like Tapp- und Tastkino.

[3] An English translation of Silvia Bovenschen’s classic text reviewing the debate about feminine aesthetics not only provides valuable insight into the issue but is also representative in regard to tone and style (1977 [1976]: 111-137). Renate Berger’s analysis of the fragmented and mutilated female body in modern and contemporary art (1985: 150-199), which is directly referenced by Sykora in the text quoted above (1989: 359), even though hotly contested, was fundamental to the discussion about the representation of women in art and visual culture among German-speaking feminist scholars. VALIE EXPORT, besides having been a pioneering feminist filmmaker and artist—viciously derided and dismissed for that by a conservative commentariat in Austria—also contributed significantly to these debates both in writing and with her seminal involvement in two important exhibitions in Vienna dedicated exclusively to contemporary women’s art: ‘MAGNA. Feminismus: Kunst und Kreativität. Ein Überblick über die weibliche Sensibilität, Imagination, Projektion und Problematik, suggeriert durch ein Tableau von Bildern, Objekten, Fotos, Vorträgen, Diskussionen, Lesungen, Filmen, Videobändern und Aktionen’ in 1975, organized and curated by the artist, and ‘Kunst mit Eigen-Sinn. Aktuelle Kunst von Frauen’ in 1985, which she initiated and co-curated.

[4] This is seen as posing a particular challenge to feminist film theory, especially in regard to female spectatorship, the notion of visual pleasure and a concept of the gaze grounded in semiotics, psychoanalytic, and Marxist theory, as is examined in ‘The Promise of Touch: Turns to Affect in Feminist Film Theory,’ Anu Koivunen’s contribution to a recent edited collection on contemporary feminist film scholarship (2015: 97-110). Koivunen provides a valuable if critical survey of this so-called ‘turn to affect,’ covering major contributors such as Sobchack, Marks, Barbara Kennedy, and Elena del Río, as well as the developments in theories of the viewing subject by feminist film scholars of the psychoanalytic and Marxist traditions.

[5] The title board at the beginning of …Remote…Remote… credits a certain ‘Didi’ as the cinematographer. To my knowledge, this person’s identity has not been revealed nor have they been further referred to or more fully named in the not too prolific literature on this film as well as on Mann & Frau & Animal to which they contributed in the same capacity. Not listed in the title is Hermann Hendrich, a frequent collaborator at the time, who is credited as a sound recordist in Sylvia Szely’s EXPORT LEXIKON (2007: 120).


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Adjungierte Dislokationen (1973), dir. VALIE EXPORT

Conversions (1971), dir. Vito Acconci

Fuses (1964-67), dir. Carolee Schneemann

Mann & Frau & Animal (1973), dir. VALIE EXPORT

…Remote…Remote… (1973), dir. VALIE EXPORT

Syntagma (1984), dir. VALIE EXPORT


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