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For its second annual iteration, Womxn in Windows presents the films of eight womxn-identifying artists of color playing 24 hours a day on screens set up in glass storefront windows along Chinatown’s historic Chung King Road, with coordinated installations in New York City, London, and Shanghai.1 While the windows are especially suited to pandemic viewing, Womxn in Windows 2020 intends to subvert “the societal notion of female-as-object”: the film screen, too, is a window—one that historically constructs the female body as object and engenders the spectator as voyeuristically masculine.
In Everlane Moraes’ Aurora (2018), three generations of Black Cuban womxn gaze intently into the camera (or spectator) as if it were a mirror. Like Aurora, many of the films highlight the agency of womxn artists simply by virtue of staking a claim on the medium of the screen (and by extension, the gaze), although the disembodying glass barrier also works to prevent viewers from accessing the affective impact of viewing the films. For instance, at 27 minutes long, The Prophetess (2018), by Sylvie Weber, is the longest, most narrative film in the series, yet it feels as though the glass obstructs viewers from the intensity of the narrative on sexual terrorism. In order to substantiate the window’s existence as a viewing apparatus, the films would be more effective if they were in more direct dialogue with the windows themselves.
Ja’Tovia Gary’s film seemed to do just that. Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience (2015) (which plays in the windows of the Automata Theatre) ultimately questions the window’s role as mediator. Throughout the film, Gary presents viewers with variations of Black rapture. She features found 1965 footage of Ruby Dee performing as formerly enslaved woman Fannie Moore. During this reenactment, Dee-as-Moore recounts her mother’s revelation that their enslavement is over. Gary has hand-scratched onto the 16 mm celluloid to create a series of direct animations, resulting in a frenetic, symphonic succession of dot, line, and aura—in both the energetic and the Benjaminian sense. The aura, in Walter Benjamin’s understanding, is “its presence in time and space.”2 Dee seems to be surrounded by the residue of Gary’s invocating touch: a halo of dots vibrating like fireflies, energetic fields, and linear grids. By interfering with the surface materiality of the film, Gary also motions towards embedding the archival film with a revised “presence in time and space.” Here, she repossesses the historical archive, often generated and controlled by victors and colonizers (with limited access available to the colonized).
A window, then—designed to allow for vision without touch—initially seems to be a counterintuitive display for An Ecstatic Experience. Yet, in the last minute of Gary’s film, as a choir performs “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” intercuts with footage from the 2014/15 riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, police officers carry transparent shields (not unlike windows) and squad car windows shatter. Watching glass break behind unbroken glass reminds me that windows carry the tactile precarity of being shattered—a precarity similar to that which characterized the unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, in which certain strata of society showed they valued the storefront and commodity over Black life. The hymn continues as Gary’s touch on the celluloid once again speckles the choir members in magenta amoebic animations; I am reminded that touch persists regardless of the devices that refract it. Gary’s film pushes beyond Womxn in Windows’ initiative of unraveling objecthood and subverting gendered spectatorship. She also punctures the preventative membrane of the window by evoking the sensorial perception of touch.
Womxn in Windows 2020 runs from October 15–November 15, 2020, in Chinatown (Chung King Road, Los Angeles, CA 90012).