Ufuoma Essi Bodies In Dissent 3
Ufuoma Essi, Bodies in Dissent, 2021, part of Alchemy's 'Chemical Potential' programme

‘Walk to your window.

Push your nose against the glass.

Press your tongue to the window pane.

Remain still and confident.

Breathe.’ [1]

For its second online iteration, Hawick’s Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival has commissioned six audio, text and still image works intended to offer opportunities for interruption during the glorious torrent of live-streamed experimental film that makes up the schedule. Before the films begin, however, I find myself perusing these commissions in the Intervals section, acting out the above piece of Unsolicited Advice from Ania Bas, and subsequently listening to Jade Montserrat’s Breath. Work. A reading from an upcoming publication called Tender Order, it explores the seemingly limitless implications of observed breathing. Sitting with Montserrat’s reading is an act of mindful acousmatic listening that—coupled with the smudge of saliva that I can still see on the window from my tongue—roots me firmly in my body, armed with a haptic hyper-awareness. Far from an interval, the two pieces provide the perfect prologue to several corporeal films dotted throughout the festival programme.

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In the essay accompanying the festival’s On Demand focus on Ghanaian British artist Baff Akoto, the filmmaker is quoted as expressing an ongoing interest in, ‘what one’s body is able to do, how it presents, and what that will mean for you in terms of quality of life, ease of life, and status.’ This idea recurs across the work selected at Alchemy, such as a Dolce & Gabanna tv spot, Pour Hommes (2010), in which two topless male performers spar and demonstrate gymnastic prowess. Akoto’s camera captures their movements in a slow motion that emphasises the sensuality of their masculine physicality.

In two other shorts in the programme, Shirts vs Skins (2015) and Rolling On (2015), two groups refuse to let physical difference—in the form of atypical skin pigmentation and physical disability, respectively—inhibit their desire to play football. Rolling On in particular conveys a kinetic joyfulness akin to that of Pour Hommesas players use makeshift skateboards and their hands to dribble the ball around the pitch. That same joy of movement is clear in the colourful and playful video for Ibibo Sound Machine’s Let’s Dance (Yak Inek Unek) (2015), from which the rhythmic repetitions of dance moves by the singer Eno Williams reverberate in the longest work in the programme Leave the Edges(2020), a dreamlike exploration of the culture of the Africa diaspora through ritual, music, dance and other artistic expression.

‘Haven’t you seen your grandmother’s eyes enscripted on the palm of your hand? A calling.’ [2]

In Leave the Edges, the body acts as a conduit for the past through the performance of traditional dance and engagement in ritual practice. A similar sensation generates the entrancing power of Ufuoma Essi’s film Bodies in Dissent (2021) which screens as part of the Chemical Potential programme on Friday evening. Essi’s film combines original and found footage of black performance to create a similar suggestion of a bodily history. In this instance the overlaying of archival material onto new 16mm footage that echoes the same movements creates a collapsing of time inside the flesh, less the practice of passing down a history and more the sensation of deep time being contained within our physical forms.

“like water, i too have become a container for the Black subjugation of history.” [3]

In the festival’s opening night live event, similar notions of hauntology were present for Nathasha Ruwona and Khadea Kuchenmeister. The proceedings combined readings by Ruwona (including The Ocean Will Always Remember, published by MAP Magazine in 2020 mapmagazine.co.uk/the-ocean-will-always-remember), performance by Kuchenmeister, a soundscape by Clara Hancock, and Ruwona’s film UMBILIC. In the post-event discussion, Kuchenmeister described her performance, which explored the relationship between clay and water in the expression of grief, as an act of, ‘…pouring a lot into the clay—generational trauma, even—into this vessel that could hold it.’ UMBILICand Ruwona’s broader research further explores such connections between water and memory, specifically through the framework of Astrida Neimanis’ concept of hydrofeminism. Neimanis’ key essay on the topic suggests that ‘ …as watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities, and more as oceanic eddies’ while also stating that the ocean also acts as ‘a planetary archive of meaning and matter.’ [4] In Ruwona’s examination of the ocean as a site of black traumatic memory in combination with Neimanis’ hydrofeminism, the body once again is transmogrified into a site of a deeper history itself.

‘An unbroken archive of breath passed on.’ [5]

The broader notion of ecofeminism, in which correlations are drawn between human bodies and the Earth and boundaries between nature and culture are ideally erased, also feeds into Panteha Abareshi’s Natural Disaster(2020), which screens throughout the festival as part of the online exhibition space, A Thing That Holds Something Else. Abareshi’s moving image work places in dialogue celluloid footage of the artist, nude, climbing around and contorting their body on a wheelchair and footage of natural disasters. Panteha’s work is informed by their experience of sickle cell zero beta thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder that causes debilitating pain and bodily deterioration. In this work, the artist’s struggle against the confinement within a mechanical apparatus that is intended to enable them butts up against, and jostles for screen space with, archival footage of raging fires and devastating weather fronts. The interplay draws parallels in both directions—framing Panteha’s body as a ‘natural disaster’ and the extreme environmental events as the strains of a planet in debilitating pain and bodily deterioration.

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I head back over to the ‘Intervals’ tab on my browser and am confronted by Kaiya Waerea’s text How to Smash Your Head into Your Computer Screen & Come Out Near the River Ravensborne and suddenly I have left Hawick, where Alchemy is currently streaming its thought-provoking programme worldwide, and I am back in my home in Lewisham, a few minutes walk from the River Ravesbourne (supposedly named by Julius Caesar). I sit in front of my computer with a smudge of saliva still on the window and deep time running through my veins.

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Ben Nicholson is a writer and curator specialising in experimental film and artists’ moving image. He is founder of ALT/KINO, www.altkino.com

11th Alchemy Moving Image and Film Festival, Thu 29 Apr-Mon 3 May, alchemyfilmandarts.org…

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[1] Bas, Ania. Unsolicited Advice(2021)

[2] Akoto, Baff. Leave the Edges (2020)
[3] Ruwona, Natasha. The Ocean Will Always Remember(2020)

[4] Neimanis, Astrida. ‘Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water’ (2012)

[5] Montserrat, Jade. Breath. Work(2021)

11th Alchemy Moving Image and Film Festival, Thu 29 Apr-Mon 3 May, alchemyfilmandarts.org…