1. We open to woodland: the camera pans over treetops overhead, framed against a blue sky. For the next five minutes, we see shots – mostly static – of more of the same woods, it seems, often with strollers – all men – passing through the images. Sometimes the camera picks out a detail: close-ups of a magpie foraging, a man glimpsed between foliage looking at his phone. We never see faces clearly, and the same figures never reappear. As the sequence of shots unfolds, the light fades to dusk. These are establishing shots in which very little is established.
Then, with the soundtrack of birdsong continuing, we are shown a close-up of deer with human faces: satyrs from an early Renaissance painting by Piero di Cosimo. The next shot returns us to the woods, but now at night-time and with the camera stalking around the edges of what appears to be a film shoot – we see scaffolding and preparation for elaborate lighting set-ups. The scene becomes increasingly eerie, with the spot-lit trees and what looks like dry ice masquerading as mist; but the crew carry on blithely giving instructions over walkie-talkies, taking light readings and swapping cigarettes. One crew member seems to pause to take a photo of ‘our’ camera, recording the recorder. In another scene, a woman – seemingly the only woman to appear in the film, perhaps the director? – approves the use of an orange fabric for some kind of backdrop. The painted satyrs return for a moment. The final shot is a rabbit, motionless in the grass; a magpie walks past (the same one?). The film ends with a title card: ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’.
Jack Straw’s Castle (2009) is emblematic of Rosalind Nashashibi’s recent work in several ways. To begin with, it seems preoccupied with the humdrum, mundane textures of the creative process. Since Jack Straw’s Castle, the majority of Nashashibi’s short films have been, in some fashion, portraits of artists at work. But there is something deeply idiosyncratic in Nashashibi’s fascination with other artists, a quality that prevents it lapsing into narcissistic selfcelebration while at the same time creating unsettling proximities to her subjects.
The film is also characteristic in its almost theatrical unity of time and place. Its patient static shots and diurnal edit-logic give the impression – probably deceptive – of footage gathered in a single location during a single day. Nashashibi herself has spoken of the importance of boundedness in her work and linked it to a broader idea of limits:
I think there’s a sense of enclosure in most of my films, and I really like to look closely at a situation… there’s always that limit, and within that limit I think I can talk about wider models or archetypes or ways of living with others, living with objects, living with institutions.01
The wood in Jack Straw’s Castle is precisely such an enclosure. The word itself – and especially in the context of a British woodland – already suggests the political stakes of a situation around which a boundary has been drawn, however neutral that act might seem. And the limits of contemporary art itself become, cumulatively, one of the stakes of Nashashibi’s deceptively quietist body of work. Conversely, Jack Straw’s Castle is perhaps most typical of Nashashibi’s work in its refusal of certain kinds of formal closure, even as it seems to proffer them. Its enigma comes precisely from the ingenuous self-evidence with which it presents us with its ‘situation’. On the surface, there is a recognisable grammar of documentary – more specifically here, the making-of genre. But the making of what, exactly? Is it possible that all this intense preparatory activity we see is, in fact, staged only for Nashashibi’s camera? The final credits only double-down on the uncertainty: ‘with Pauline Nashashibi and members of the crew…’, it begins, before listing all the usual roles – DOP, assistant camera, grip, etc. But it is never clarified if these are roles the people on screen are actually carrying out (for Jack Straw’s Castle), or only acting out (for the never-specified, possibly non-existent production it depicts), or both. What is it that is going on here?
2. A static shot of a dance rehearsal studio. Classical music begins. A ballerina in a charcoal tutu scampers across the screen, we can hear the squeak of her shoes. Then an offscreen voice, seemingly a teacher’s: ‘That’s it… better… and suspend… don’t release the fifth!’ Soon she is joined by more dancers; we see her being awkwardly chatted up by the barre by a tall male dancer, as he does lunge-stretches in her direction. Gradually we see other very different bodies enter, young and old, watching the dancers at work. The final faces we see, intent and serious, turn out to be those of two police officers, who we then follow out of the building.
In Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies) (2012), the ostensible subject matter at first seems more clearly defined than in Jack Straw’s Castle, but the film’s extraordinary roving gaze and meticulous sound design throws that quickly into question. As the film’s subtitle suggests, the real focus here may be the onlookers and their deep admiration and libidinal curiosity for the dancers, as overheard through Nashashibi’s microphone. A row of visitors file in mid-rehearsal, their steps unconsciously synchronising as they try to be as discreet as possible; they have whispered conversations about the dancers’ athleticism, their bodies. Several times, they comment on how sealed off the studio seems: ‘These doors are very soundproof aren’t they?’ comments one woman as they wait outside. ‘It’s so that they can concentrate…’ There is a palpable impression that the threshold to the rehearsal room feels semi-sacred. What happens inside is both completely open and self-evident (there is nowhere to hide in a mirrored space), and yet still somehow mysterious. Moreover, there is the underlying sense that the audience – and the camera – cannot enter and observe without changing the nature of the activity observed.
The puzzlement of the onlookers in Lovely Young People mirrors our own, as the film’s audience. Like most of Nashashibi’s work, it does not strike esoteric poses or seem deliberately baffling – everything is out in the open, nothing is hidden in this mirrored space. But her situations are presented, disconcertingly, without any explicit claims for their significance – or, in most cases, without any introduction at all to the people or places presented. If Nashashibi’s very varied works have something in common, it might be this lack of paraphraseable aboutness.
The exit of the policemen-spectators that ends Lovely Young People might be a wry, bathetic acknowledgment of this quality. Their departure – a kind of comic anti-climax, underscored by its uncharacteristic handheld look – calls to mind a remark by a very different film-maker, Alexander Kluge:
Understanding a film completely is conceptual imperialism which colonises its objects. […] Relaxation means that myself become alive for a moment, allowing my senses to run wild: for once not to be on guard with the police-like intention of letting nothing escape me.02
3. ‘What is it that’s going on here?’ The question is the sociologist Erving Goffman’s, from his seminal book Frame Analysis.03 Goffman was interested in the intelligibility of everyday social reality and the conceptual schemas, or ‘frames’, that we apply (often unconsciously) to construe what is happening around us. His theory is itself almost ridiculously open-ended: a ‘frame’ is basically any pattern of action or behaviour that is repeatable and, therefore, recognisable as a kind of shorthand. But his real interest is in how quickly such frames become complex and self-referential as they are transposed, or ‘keyed’ in Goffman’s terms – ‘transformed into something patterned on this activity but seen by the participants to be something quite else.’04 In such cases, we see frames within frames: the children are playing at cops and robbers, the actors onstage are performing as an arguing couple, the instructor is only demonstrating mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
In Frame Analysis, rehearsal becomes a kind of hinge concept because it indicates an inherently ambiguous or self-reflexive form of keying, what Goffman calls ‘rekeying’ – a dance rehearsal within a film, for example. But for Goffman, while framing can involve any number of rekeyings functioning as ‘layers’ of the experience, the outermost layer – what he calls ‘the rim of the frame’ – is ultimately, always, the determining one:
The rehearsal of a play is a rekeying, just as is a rehearsal staged within a play as part of its scripted content; but in the two cases, the rim of the activity is quite different, the first being a rehearsal and the second a play. Obviously, the two rehearsals have radically different statuses as parts of the real world.05
In Nashashibi’s later films, the ‘obviousness’ of this difference – between a functional rehearsal and a fictional one, for example – is quietly suspended, in a spirit of Kluge-like relaxation. Her work undemonstratively but insistently demurs when it comes to its own status as the final ‘rim’ of the frame, the meaning-defining limit. What is so distinctive, and so hard to parse, about her films is how they combine formal precision and self-sufficiency with forms characterised by radical openness.
One of Nashashibi’s earliest films was called Open Day (2001). It depicted a series of scenes – a climbing centre, a dotcom office, a yoga studio, etc. – with people engaged intently in everyday group behaviours, rendered strange and ritualistic through the style and detachment of ethnographic observation. The title suggests a moment of institutional opening, a day dedicated to inviting a public to see the inner workings of a school, workplace, etc. – a tradition that already implies these spaces have a certain closedness the rest of the time. Moreover, as Open Day’s persistent sense of strangeness attests, there always remains a threshold between the outside and the inside of an activity. Mere proximity can, if anything, make it seem even more exotic and remote. Nashashibi’s more recent films often circle around artists in the midst of process – rehearsing, priming, preparing – but almost never actually performing or exhibiting. This could be read as a gesture continuous with modernist self-reflexivity, of a caricatural Greenbergian kind, but Nashashibi’s preoccupation feels much more exoteric. A more helpful way to think of her interest in other artists at work might be to see them as both subjects and objects of framing processes. Artists, conventionally, would be those who remake or renegotiate our image of the world, through processes that are necessarily open-ended and guided by ‘intuition’: they are the privileged agents of rekeying. On the other hand, precisely all these conventional preconceptions – about an artist’s life and work, about the nature of the creative process, etc. – are themselves a frame through which artists find themselves understood, or misunderstood. Nashashibi’s work often seems to reflect the reciprocity between these two positions, or their tensions, in a spirit of unromantic generosity and empathy.
4. An Italian voice, subtitled into English, gives us the scenario, over the film’s opening travelling shot (apparently from a train):
In Carlo’s vision we see a young man; The Shit, and his fiancé, whose name, it seems, is Cinzia. Carlo is sitting in a metal cart, exactly like a director’s dolly. He is dragged backwards along via di Torpignattara…
This Carlo is being dragged, we are further informed, by ‘three gods’. Cut to a scene apparently as described, with a man being pulled on a dolly down a busy street in Rome by three men (very ungod-like), looking back at a couple walking behind them (presumably The Shit and Cinzia). The theatricality of the action – the three men, deadpan, pulling the fourth on the dolly – is played off against the vérité street scene; the perspective alternates between shots of their procession, from the side or in front, to a kind of first-person perspective of Carlo looking back along the sidewalk, indicated by the use of coloured filters.
Carlo’s Vision (2011) seems to actively encourage rewatching – only in the closing credits is the source, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s unfinished novel Petrolio, revealed. What we are seeing is an artistic palimpsest: Nashashibi’s vision of Pasolini’s vision of his protagonist Carlo’s vision. The voices of two men on the soundtrack alternately riff on urban politics and contemporary sexuality – the discourses, we might guess, of two of the gods. Significantly, we never actually see them speak, which suggests a form of interior monologue. Their discourses appear to be in parallel rather than in dialogue. (In fact, Nashashibi frequently uses non-sync sound: the question of who, at a given moment, is speaking, or whether what we hear is actually contemporaneous with what we see, is integral to many of her films.)
As in Jack Straw’s Castle, we have all the elements of a film production in front of us, including a director – but no cameras this time, except for the one that we know is shooting the images we see. The scene from Pasolini’s novel is a ‘vision’ in a practical sense, a literal envisioning, as well as a dream-like one: it reads on the page like a scenario for an unmade film, complete with shooting instructions (Carlo’s cart executes ‘a long, slow backward tracking shot’, etc.).06 But Nashashibi, rather than adapting Pasolini’s text in a straightforward way as a script, treats it instead as a kind of score with several distinct elements: the cast of characters (that are more like types); Pasolini’s own recognisable aesthetic as a filmmaker (capitalism read through mythic rite); the situation of the novel’s precise Roman coordinates (starting at ‘the intersection of Via Casilina and Via di Torpignattara… moving in the direction of Via Tuscolana’)07; and the idea of the running commentary of the gods (as the novel puts it, ‘giving explanations: which are really internal suggestions, moving from thought to thought, as in a dream’).08 Crucially, however, the framing structure of Pasolini’s novel – its narrating voice – is not present to relate all these elements for us.
For all its formal virtuosity and precision, especially of editing, there is a paradoxical quality of lightness, almost provisionality about Carlo’s Vision: an openness to its collaborators, to the place and the moment, the sense that if it had been made the day after (or now, today), it might have been an entirely different work.
5. A ‘cold open’ is a pre-title sequence, in film or television, which plunges you straight into the story (in media res, as the Romans put it). The idea is that the disorientation (‘what is it that’s going on here?’) is part of the hook that keeps you engaged through the credits (and the ad break). That device of pre-empting the titles has more recently been mirrored by the marginalisation of end credit sequences, which online streaming services shrink to a corner of the screen whilst they try to serve up the next episode or recommended viewing. As these textual frames diminish, and the limits between discrete experiences begin to disappear, we might feel that rim of interpretation is receding altogether, as we are swept along by a stream of unbounded ‘content’. But in fact, the activity of framing is more feverish than ever, simply conducted at more subliminal, algorithmic levels: I have, in fact, been carefully primed for every cold open I encounter on Netflix by a series of ever-more-individualised, ever-more-invisible frames and nudges.
What frames contemporary art? A certain reading of contemporary art, from the nineties or noughties, would have made of this very question a new self-reflexive definition – see the artist Seth Price in his seminal textwork Dispersion, for example: ‘[post-conceptual art] does not stand for anything certain, instead privileging framing and context, and constantly renegotiating its relationship to its audience’.09 The frame for contemporary art, in other words, is the act of framing itself. This is a useful shorthand, but – as Price recognises – it is connected in complex ways to the powerful economic and technological forces driving broader currents of de- and re-contextualisation embodied by social media, for example. It also papers over the risk of ‘privileging framing’ becoming the mere framing of privilege: when does pointing to conventions itself become comfortably conventional? When does open-ended implicitness become merely a silent pact among initiates and insiders who have no need of open days?
Despite retaining their various textual signifiers of filmic closure (titles, credits, etc.) – the conventional ‘rim’ of our encounters with them – Nashashibi’s films often seem to gesture outwards, however subtly, to the possibility of other possible frames. For example, if a viewer of Jack Straw’s Castle is curious about its title, a quick Google search will reveal that it refers to a part of Hampstead Heath famous as a famous gay cruising spot, as well as the title of a poem by Thom Gunn (that might point us to a different understanding of its various homosocial situations)10; or a viewer of Carlo’s Vision might be driven to find out more about the speakers on the soundtrack, Andrea Cortelessa (literary critic and historian) and Daniele Balicco (scholar of mass media), and hence to understand the perspectives from which Pasolini’s ideas were being reinscribed into the present of the film’s making.
To put it another way: through their selective silences, the kinds of information they conspicuously omit, Nashashibi’s films seem to implicate the forms of contextualisation that contemporary art often relies on but rarely acknowledges (wall texts, conversations, reviews, rumours, etc.). They could, in fact, be read as utopian expressions of desire for a more dialogic viewer who would understand their gaps as openings and whose engagement with the work would not end with the contractual end credits.11 Of course, this approach involves real risks. Silence is constitutively ambiguous: who is to say that the viewer’s desire, or need, to seek information beyond what the work provides is not proof, instead, of its hermeticism? How much of what the films withhold becomes, in practice, simply outsourced to a press release? When, and for whom, does implicitness become a form of exclusion?12
The achievement of Nashashibi’s work is that these kinds of questions are generally disarmed by its generosity, the consistent sense of invitation. And it also finds ways to record and register precisely the kinds of hermeticism it deftly avoids. We might think of Vivian’s Garden (2017), her twin portrait of Vivian Suter and her mother, Elizabeth Wild, both artists. The film is defined, in many ways, by the confines of the Swiss pair’s beautiful compound in Guatemala: another productive limit, a ‘here’ to bind together many disparate registers of goings-on. This enclosure becomes a stage on which to examine, amongst other things, the pair’s respective artworks, their relationship with each other, and their relationship with the world outside. We see Suter painting, but also scenes of daily life inside the walls: locals apparently hired to help around the house, pet dogs lounging, the play of light over the extraordinary house and its garden, full of tropical foliage. Halfway through the film the dreamy atmosphere is amplified by the unexpected, weirdly ecstatic French electropop of Sébastien Tellier’s song ‘L’amour et la violence’. We watch and listen to Suter discuss with her mother which clothes to pack for a trip (with sync sound, unusually). This upcoming trip, the temporary separation, is obviously disturbing for their cloistered existence.
Vivian’s Garden constructs a dream ambience that is both seductive, but also naggingly claustrophobic. Nashashibi’s sympathy for the pair and the way in which this environment is an essential part of Suter’s painting does not prevent bass notes of ambivalence. As ever, Nashashibi withholds all explicit editorialising, but from snatches of the pair’s conversation about past conflicts with local people, it seems clear that this Edenic situation has uncomfortable colonialist overtones. Those questions Nashashibi identified has as her recurrent preoccupation – ‘ways of living with others, living with objects, living with institutions’ – haunt the portrait of the Guatamalan compound, all the more acutely for the film’s decision not to venture outside its walls.
7. Part of the reticence of Nashashibi’s work has been a kind of self-effacement. As a film-maker, she has mostly been felt through her absences, even if the films themselves seemed to evidence deep connections to some of her subjects. (Nashashibi’s engagement with Suter and her mother, for example, had deep effects on her own work: shortly after making she returned to painting herself, for the first time since art school.) But there are signs that this might be changing. In a 2012 interview, Nashashibi remarked:
Just before I shot Carlo’s Vision, I was disturbed by how unrelated one reality was to the other. The film I found myself making seemed to be the same one I would have made if I hadn’t become a mother of two. On the shoot, I had to bring my baby and the cinematographer had to bring her baby. We sat on a park bench breastfeeding during the lunch break and we had this all-male crew working for us, but you don’t see that. I thought that discrepancy was a failing for a while; now I don’t think it’s better, but it interests me.13
One of the things that is most surprising, and exciting, in her recent pair of films – Part One: Where there is a joyous mood, there a comrade will appear to share a glass of wine and Part Two: The moon nearly at the full. The team horse goes astray (both 2019) – is that they seem to pick up from that nagging discrepancy – ‘but you don’t see that.’ Nashashibi’s work has always been protean, her films sharing loose family resemblances rather than formulas. But in these works, there is a striking departure, and a more literal family connection: Nashashibi appears in both films herself, alongside her children and friends.
Early in Nashashibi’s career, Jennifer Higgie described her work as, ‘films that, at first glance, can seem a little ordinary – like home movies without the home, nothing much happens, and then they’re over’.14 That idea is both confirmed and confounded by these most recent works. In the first scene of Part One, Nashashibi wakes her two children and responds to their complaints – ‘Why are they filming us?’ – with an affirmation: ‘Because we’re starting, we’re starting the film this morning’.
Even in comparison to her other films, Part One and Part Two are deeply uncategorisable: stylised scenes spinning out from an Ursula K. Le Guin science-fiction story are blended inextricably with prosaic domestic situations featuring a mixture of adults and children, seemingly on holiday together. Le Guin’s narrative – about a group of people preparing to travel through space using non-linear time – is sometimes acted out, sometimes discussed by the people on-screen. At one moment they are caught joking with one another whilst making dinner; at another self-consciously discussing the story’s philosophical implications for the camera (we are shown the lighting set-up); and at others apparently acting out scenarios from the story. We are being offered, once again, a form of making-of, but now in a very different tenor. There is a definite autobiographical charge, but it is complicated, above all by not naming or defining the relationships of the people on-screen (they might be siblings, friends or lovers), and by the introduction of the fictional storyline, which serves as a shared project for the group (there is a clear sense of the group’s part in shaping the film).
For anyone familiar with Nashashibi’s previous work, Part One and Part Two seem to signpost that the stakes have changed. The almost chameleon forms of self-reflexivity in her portraits of other artists and their processes seems to be segueing into something more explicitly self-fashioning. Just as Jack Straw’s Castle seemed to inaugurate a different focus in Nashashibi’s work, this recent diptych seems to steer into new territories, where questions of identity and mortality – the frame of a life – are suddenly unavoidable.
‘Rosalind Nashashibi: Turner Prize 2017’ , 20 September 2017, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYeaPfkdMgs (last accessed on 29 February 2020).
Alexander Kluge, ‘On Film and the Public Sphere’, New German Critique, no.24–25, Autumn/Winter, 1981–82, p.211.
Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Petrolio (trans. Ann Goldstein), London: Secker & Warburg, 1992, p.283.
Seth Price, Dispersion (2002–ongoing).
In a sensitive reading of the film, Fiona Anderson recently suggested that one could go further and see a parallel between the act of cruising and an art practice: ‘To see cruising as a method for art making evokes a similar sense of resistance to the projection of a predetermined outcome or product for one’s work in advance, working in an open-ended or non-linear mode, without a delineated narrative.’ Fiona Anderson, ‘Cruising as Method and its Limits’, LUX [blog], 23 August 2017, available at https://lux.org.uk/writing/ cruising-method-limits-fiona-anderson (last accessed on 18 March 2021).
For a related discussion of the politics of information given and withheld, in relation to the work of Laurent Montaron, see Mike Sperlinger, ‘Machine Learning’, Fondation d’entreprise Pernod Richard [blog], https://www.fondation-pernod-ricard.com/en/textwork/laurent-montaron-mikesperlinger (last accessed on 18 March 2021). On the subject of wall labels and institutional frames, see Orit Gat, ‘Could Reading Be Looking?’, e-flux, no. 72, April 2016, available at https://www.e-flux.com/journal/72/60501/ could-reading-be-looking/ (last accessed on 18 March 2021).
Interestingly Nashashibi has not explored the institutional framing of her work in the manner of some other artists (consider, for example, Jana Euler writing first-person museum wall labels for her paintings).
R. Nashashibi quoted in Manuela Ribadeneira and Vincent Honor. (ed.), Rosalind Nashashibi: Drawing Room Confessions #6, London: Drawing Room Confessions, 2012, pp.20–21.
Jennifer Higgie, ‘Rosalind Nashashibi’, Frieze, no.88, February 2005, available at https://frieze.com/article/rosalind-nashashibi (last accessed on 29 February 2020).