Nearly two years after filming on Prospect Hill behind the Mandelle dormitories, Sharon Hayes introduced her film, Ricerche: three (2013), to a full auditorium at Mount Holyoke College. “[You are] the most singular audience this piece will ever have,” she said. “This is not a work about Mount Holyoke, but it is an incredibly singular place.” As Hayes suggested, the makeshift installation space of Gamble Auditorium localized the video, drawing in many art enthusiasts from around the Valley and impacting its chronological narrative in unprecedented ways.
In conversation with Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Paolini’s film, Comizi d’amore (1963), Ricerche: three approaches topics of gender, sexuality, race, and education in a documentary-style film. This film shows Hayes, the filmmaker, asking a series of questions to a group of thirty-five young adults, identified by the title screen as students, past and present, at Mount Holyoke. Hayes’ interview technique, like Paolini’s, questions members of the group in a randomized fashion, allowing whomever chooses to chime in. These students, eager to answer most of Hayes’ questions, illustrated a global and growing interest in the discussion topics, a testament to the contemporary relevancy of this decades-old project. Ricerche: three has been shown around the world, including the 55th Venice Biennale, a biannual mass art exhibition in Italy, during the summer of 2013.
Though it has changed its location and its exhibition space numerous times, none of these spaces created as unique a screening as the one at Mount Holyoke: the viewing in Gamble was never to be repeated again. The film, she explained, had been removed from the context of the installation. As shown below, in the museum space, viewers enter a darkened room and may take one of six seats while the film plays on a loop. It is likely that upon entering the exhibition space, the viewer would not know the names of the interviewees or the question being answered. Consequently, the screening at Mount Holyoke differed from any other viewing because its spatial context, as well as the popular discourses that occur in that space, was inseparable from its display.
As a student at the time the film was shot, I recognized a third of the faces on the screen. Those whom I could not name were identified by my friends and other viewers in the audience, who pointed and whispered, “That’s ––, remember?” The film re-presented a number of faces I had not seen in years, whether the individual had changed their hair, glasses, gender presentation, or otherwise. Regardless of these changes, I was able to name, with the help of my friends who attended the screening, every face, and to even reconstruct some of the life-narratives these individuals carried. Although the names of these participants were never explicitly linked to those onscreen, I was able to recollect their names and what I knew of their histories at Mount Holyoke. My desperation to remember, to find the reason why these people looked so familiar, transformed the main concern of the film from contemporary discourse surrounding gender and sexuality, to the components we use to construct the narratives of people we know and, most importantly, people we don’t.
Context – that of public discourse, history, and space – localized Ricerche: three to a small women’s college in the Pioneer Valley, yet the impact any context – or lack thereof – has on visual art is undeniable; it determines our understanding of the work in front of us, perhaps strengthening or obliterating our original understandings. The intended installation space for Hayes’ film, however, attempts to evade the narrativization imposed by contextual elements including geography, biographical information, and historical frameworks. This evasion is particularly powerful in conversations about gender and sexuality, for the answers given by the students may not make sense when taken out of context or when one enters the viewing space in the midst of a question or its response. For these topics, paired by the students with discussions of political sanctions and/or discipline of sexualities and gender presentation, a mis-contextualized, misunderstood response carries a greater potency; as the students claim various identities, they face the challenge of being characterized in a way they did not intend. They face the danger of (mis)representation.
Hayes consciously kept her arm and microphone in every frame of the film, holding herself accountable for directing, quite literally, the events that unfolded in the course of the twenty-minute screening. This ingenious decision to include her microphone in the shot recognized the hand she had in shaping the events that unfold over the film’s progression. In Gamble Auditorium, viewers had a rare opportunity to watch the film in the chronological progression Hayes created. As a result, viewers watched as a fight emerged between two outspoken students on either side of the group. This argument antagonized one student in particular – the camera persistently focused on their outbursts – and made me wonder, What is the ‘proper’ way to understand the narratives constructed by the participants in the film? Is there any way to make sense of visual art without context of any kind? Though there is nothing wrong with context and narrativization, Hayes’ film spoke to their limitations and revealed a human tendency to impose logic and order onto the unknowns we encounter.
In a talkback after the screening, Hayes explained that the students had been taken to a hill behind a pair of dormitories on campus and asked to stand on wooden panels. These wooden markers spanned a considerable length of the field, yet the entire space was never seen in a single shot during the course of the film. I took this to be the most striking disruption of spatial context: at the beginning of the film, I didn’t recognize the hill I had climbed many times to watch the sunset, the hill on which I had picnicked. And when I did, I could think more clearly about the impact of Mount Holyoke – a “special place,” said Naomi Rodri ’15, one of the participants in the film – on statements about gender and sexuality made in the film. I finally realized where the participants were coming from; I finally realized where I was.