Petra Bauer, Installation view, Focal Point Gallery

Watching Petra Bauer being interviewed in ‘Conversations: Stina Lundberg Drabowski and Petra Bauer’, the newly commissioned film at the centre of this Swedish artist’s exhibition, one has the paradoxical feeling of receiving more information than expected, while at the same time missing out on something. This feeling lingers throughout Bauer’s first UK solo show, with its mix of historical and contemporary films on monitors and stack of related documentation: photocopied experimental cinema journals, film theory texts and newspaper articles.

Me, You, Us, Them is a fitting title for the exhibition’s complex and sometimes downright confusing strata of subjects and subjectivities. None of these categories is straightforward. Bauer’s ‘Me’ is complicated by her posing as a member of the London Women’s Film Group and Berwick Street Film Collective complete with detailed autobiographical information concerning her role as producer of their films, despite having been a small child in Sweden at the time. As observer, ‘You’ are not sure where to position your gaze. The assertive ‘Us’ unifies these radical feminist film groups or their subjects: disenfranchised labourers who, much like the filmmakers, coalesce to fight for both rights and recognition. One is left to wonder about ‘Them’? By focussing on collectives, their films and the surrounding historical discourses with a lens that is not only intensely researched but also highly self-reflexive, Bauer shatters the otherness to which such downtrodden and undermined figures are normally relegated.

The production quality and length alone make Bauer’s mock interview seem implausible. Something is off about the probing questions Swedish celebrityjournalist Drabowski poses to the artist. Though Bauer responds genuinely and convincingly, the jig is up at the first ‘clip’ of an early 1970s English film. Besides the obvious anachronism and the disjunctions of language, the sheer attention bestowed upon the intentions of ‘the filmmaker’, the stories of her subjects and the broader issues around experimental cinema and feminist politics appears suspect. Presumably, this is Bauer’s point.

‘Conversations…’, the culmination of a six-month residency at Focal Point during which Bauer researched UK film collectives, offers a playful twist on the research-as-exhibition genre, bringing participant observation to a new level. The artist’s pseudo self-mythologising is the most interesting aspect of the show. With this gesture she aims to give voice to the pioneering filmmakers of her research while establishing the relevance of their work to artists today. Its strangeness functions as a leveller of time period and nationality. But does it facilitate or in fact further obfuscate access to the already obscure archival material?

Films shown include two by the London Women’s Film Group. ‘Women of the Rhondda’, 1972, a documentary about the unhailed role of women in the Welsh miners’ strikes of the 1920s and 30s, and ‘The Amazing Equal Pay Show’, 1974, a spoof news programme that juxtaposes the perspective of red herring housewife, Mrs Norma Lopinion, against a backroom scheme to strike by exploited female workers. By far the most jarring inclusion is one authentically by Bauer, with Annette Krauss, on the controversy over the Dutch Zwarte Piet or ‘Black Pete’ Christmas tradition, where celebrants don blackface in honour of Saint Nick’s servant. Combining documentary with dramatisation for social commentary, Bauer aligns the film’s collective and political nature with the earlier filmmakers’ efforts. But its subject matter, nationality and era are blatantly incongruent.

Petra Bauer, Installation view, Focal Point Gallery
Petra Bauer, Installation view, Focal Point Gallery

With this provocative mise en abyme, the artist stakes her interest in her real research subjects. The quandaries that were pressing to them—equality and artistic licence, collectivity and auterism, politics and aesthetics—remain unresolved. How could feminist filmmakers navigate such a field and where do they stand in its wake? Was it the blurred priority of form and message that has consigned these early practices to obscurity? Rather than coming to a conclusion, frustratingly Bauer seems to simply recreate her research process. A plethora of texts provides clues to reading this important history, and yet the visitor comes out feeling a little clueless.

Pandora Syperek is a writer based in London