27

– Summer 2011

Disobedient Video in France in the 1970s: Video Production by Women’s Collectives

Stéphanie Jeanjean

Cathy Bernheim, Ned Burgess, Catherine Deudon, Suzanne Fenn and Annette Levy-Willard, Grève des femmes à Troyes (Womens Strike in the City of Troyes), 1971, black and white video, sound, 55min. Courtesy Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir (archive and distribution)

The ongoing reconstruction of early video’s history shows a wider usage of the medium at its start than previously thought, and particularly an expanded relationship to performance, documentary and archives. Also coming to light is the sociopolitical substance of its content, and the leading role of women in exploiting video as a new audiovisual medium. In France women developed a militant practice with video soon after the Sony Portapak camera became available in 1968. Their production and activities remain, even today, almost undocumented, and to a certain extent this stems from their anti-institutional and anti-establishment position. However, these collectives, whose members rarely identified themselves as artists, created the majority of the video produced in France in the 1970s, and arguably represent the first generation that truly and independently used video. Their example brings up several questions, such as why video became such a privileged medium for collectives, especially those composed of women.1 Was video instrumental in the process of women’s emancipation and self-representation and, beyond, in the constitution of themselves as individuals and as a collective unit? And finally, how did early video cope with the limited conditions of distribution available at the time, and what is the current status of this production?

The adoption of video by women was certainly a gesture of disobedience and emancipation. The video historian Anne-Marie Duguet recalls that in the 1970s opportuni­ties for women to embrace careers in technology were limited by familial and social pressures.2 By contrast, video was a new and open medium not yet appropriated by men and not even taught in art schools or universities. Thus

Footnotes
  1. The best known women-led collectives active in Paris in the 1970s were: Vidéo Out (formed in 1970 by Carole and Paul Roussopoulos), Vidéo 00 (1971, Anne Couteau, Yvonne Mignot-Lefèbvre and others), Les Cents Fleurs (1973, Martine Barrar, Annie Caro and Danielle Jaeggi), Vidéa (1974, Anne-Marie Faure, Isabelle Fraisse, Syn Guerin and Catherine Lahourcade; the particularity of Vidéa was to not admit men in their collective) and Les Insoumuses (1975, Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig and Ioana Wieder). Similar collectives, most of them also women-led, started after 1975 throughout France.

  2. Anne-Marie Duguet, Vidéo, la mémoire au poing, Paris: Hachette, 1981, pp.93—94. This book is the most comprehensive study on early video in France, and one of the few that discusses militant production at the beginning of video. It has never been translated, and has been out of print for years.

  3. This is a statement that Carole Roussopoulos often makes in interviews; see, for example, Dario Marchiori, ‘Interview with Carole Roussopoulos’, International Documentary Film Festival (exh.cat.), Trieste: NODO, 2009, p.45. Jean-Luc Godard knew about Roussopoulos’s production; he wrote an article in the form of a letter to her. See Jean-Luc Godard, ‘Lettre à Carole Roussopoulos (Paris, 12 avril 1979)’, Les Cahiers du Cinéma, no.300, May 1979, pp.30—31.

  4. Delphine Seyrig played Jeanne Dielman in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), in which Akerman records Dielman's daily routine as housewife, mother and prostitute; earlier Seyrig was the female lead in Alain Resnais’s L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, 1961).

  5. Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Introduction', The Second Sex (trans. H.M. Parshley), New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953, p.xix.

  6. Her full name is Monique Piton, but in this video, as in most militant productions at the time, only first names of directors and participants are mentioned.

  7. Participants in this video production are Annette Levy-Willard, Catherine Deudon, Cathy Bernheim, Ned Burgess and Suzanne Fenn; all members of the MLF.

  8. See Jean-Paul Fargier, ‘Histoire de la vidéo française: Structure et forces vives’, in Nathalie Magnan (ed.), La Vidéo entre art et communication, Paris: École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, 1997, pp.51—52. Indeed, Fargier mentions that the U-matic editing system only became available in France in 1979.

  9. See also A.-M. Duguet, ‘Écrire en vidéo’, Film Action, no.1, December 1981—January 1982, p.110. In this article Duguet makes references to similar stylistic approaches in cinema and television from the 1960s, such as direct cinema (Robert J. Flaherty, Richard Leacock, Albert and David Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker), ethnographic cinema (Jean Rouch), television documentary, reality television (Jacques Krier) and ‘Écriture par l’image’ (Krier and Michel Polac). Nevertheless, in interviews Carole Roussopoulos has claimed to have had no previous knowledge of independent and experimental cinema when she started in video in the early 1970s, and does not propose any stylistic influences for her video production.

  10. In addition to the usual trio composed of Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig and Ioana Wieder,
    Les Insoumuses also listed Nadja Ringart in the production of Maso et Miso.

  11. Speaking about women Simone de Beauvoir affirmed: ‘If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women’. S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, op. cit., pp.xix—xx.

  12. For example, after Françoise Giroud chuckles at a sexist comment made by Marc Linski, Maso et Miso displays the following (handwritten) text to survey the viewer’s opinion: ‘Mrs Giroud found this funny. In your opinion is she: 1. Seductive, 2. Servile, 3. Classy, 4. Abused, 5. Maso, 6. Miso, 7. Secretary, 8. Secretary [of State] for Women's Conditions. 9. Secretary [of State] for Men's Conditions, 10. All of the above, 11. None of the above?’ Translation the author’s.

  13. Translation the author’s.

  14. Hélène Fleckinger, ‘Entretien avec Carole Roussopoulos’, Nouvelles questions féministes, 38, no.1, 2009, pp.105—06. This is the last interview with Roussopoulos, published before she died in Switzerland on 22 October 2009. Roussopoulos was the most prolific video director in France in the 1970s and 80s, when she signed and co-signed at least fifty independent video productions. More rarely mentioned as part of her career, she is also credited for collaborating with Gina Pane in recording her performances in 1973 and 1974 as well as for recording Michel Journiac’s famous Messe pour un corps (Mass for a Corpse, 1975) at the Stadler Gallery in Paris. Roussopoulos addresses this experience of performance in comparison to her own practice in video in Julia Hontou, ‘Gina Pane: Entretien avec Carole Roussopoulos’, Turbulences Vidéo, no.52, July 2006, pp.46—51.

  15. Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA) preserves for documentary or research purposes the totality of the programmes broadcast on French public radio and television since their creation. Another instance of censorship by television involving militant video was the footage by ORTF (the governmental organisation in charge of radio and television in France from 1964 to 1974) of Jean Genet reading a pamphlet he had written in reaction to the incarceration of the activist Angela Davis for her defence of the Black Panthers. Anticipating censorship by ORTF, Genet had asked Carole Roussoupolous to record it with her own video camera. Jean Genet parle d’Angela Davis (Jean Genet Speaks about Angela Davis, 1970) was Roussopoulos’s first video. Today it remains the only document recording the outraged public address by the renowned writer and political activist. In 2001, this video entered the collections of the Espace Nouveaux Médias at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; it is currently the only militant video by women’s collectives that belongs to the French public collection.

  16. See Valerie Solanas, SCUM Manifesto (1967), New York and London: Verso Editions, 2004. Solanas’s ideas were known in France in the 1970s, especially among female intellectuals and feminists, but her famous manifesto was already out of print there by 1976.

  17. The Swiss artist Angela Marzullo made a partial remake of Roussopoulos and Seyrig’s SCUM Manifesto as part of her video Performing SCUM Manifesto (2003—05), in which she re-enacts video-performance works from the 1970s. In Performing SCUM Manifesto, Marzullo features two young girls sitting at a table in a children’s room, one reading and one typing on a children’s typewriter, while the television monitor between them shows violent cartoons designed for boys.

  18. The year 1971 was a year of unprecedented public actions organised by women in favour of abortion rights in France, among them the ‘Manifesto of the 343', a petition signed by 343 women, intellectuals and actresses claiming to have had abortions. Simone de Beauvoir wrote the text of the manifesto, and, along with Delphine Seyrig and others, signed it. It was published in the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur on 5 April 1971, and all signatories were risking jail time.

  19. In 1975, the collective Vidéa created Millett parle de la prostitution avec des féministes (Millett Speaks
    about Prostitution with Feminists), another video addressing the same prostitutes' strike in Lyon. The video shows the well-known North American activist and feminist writer Kate Millett (author of The Prostitution Papers in 1971, a diary of women and prostitutes) speaking with a group of French women about the strikers. They are informally seating on the floor, surrounded by walls covered with books. The core of their conversation concerns the position that feminists should adopt in regards to prostitutes, and Millett’s fraternal message to blame prostitution rather than prostitutes.

  20. See D. Marchiori, ‘Interview with Carole Roussopoulos’, op. cit., p.48.

  21. The centre was created in 1982 by Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig and Iona Wieder with funds from the new Socialist government, after François Mitterrand was elected President of France in 1981. A common observation suggests that the support of the Socialist government in the 1980s contributed to removing the militant edge from video production by women collectives in France.

    For more information on these videos, see the websites for the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir
    (http://www.centre-simone-de-beauvoir.com) and the Association Carole Roussopoulos (http://www.carole-roussopoulos.com; both last accessed on 11 April 2011). The author would like to thank the Centre and the Association for their assistance, as well as France Languerand and Cyril Lecomte.