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The Practice of

Disobedience: 

The French feminist video works of Carole Roussoupolos, Delphine Seyrig and co. 

The first of a two-part retrospective.

by Ros Murray

At the end of Maso et Miso vont en bateau (Maso and Miso Go Boating, 1976) a handwritten title card, filmed by a jolty camera that makes the viewer feel as though they’re on the titular boat, reads: “No televisual image wants or is able to represent us. We express ourselves with video.” An extraordinary example of video’s capacity to disrupt and reinvent the hegemonic, bland, and watered-down politics of feminism as it was shown on television screens in 1975, Maso et Miso vont en bateau concludes by displaying the informal signatures of four women (“Carole,” “Delphine,” “Ioana,” and “Nadja”) intent on proving that only video provides the emancipatory tools their politics require. In this video, Carole Roussopoulos, Delphine Seyrig, Ioana Wieder, and Nadja Ringart, collectively known as Les Muses s’amusent (‘Muses amuse themselves’), take up their proverbial scalpels, using editing as a political tool to cut up men. They edit and rework an existing television program from the same year, inserting images, comments and exasperated interjections. As Seyrig argued, “everyone dreams of responding to the television”: this is what they did. The name of the group was lifted from Raymond Queneau’s poem ‘Muses et Lézards’ (‘Lizards and Muses’), like the title of the film, which was a playful reference to Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating), released two years earlier. Through ingenious (and virtually untranslatable) forms of wordplay such as these, the women search for new forms of textual and audiovisual language that are at once playful, ironic, and irate: forms that would always be expressed in the first-person plural.[1]

The way that video was taken up in France in the early 1970s was clearly influenced by the aftermath of 1968, with its urgent call to conceive new forms of collective relations characterised by political exigency, as well as by the emergence of a feminist politics that focused on the power of collective action both on the streets and in domestic spaces in the form of consciousness-raising groups. Directors Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard (along with the Dziga Vertov Group), are the best known of the original video makers, using video alongside film. Carole Roussopoulos, though lesser known than her male counterparts, was the most prolific vidéaste of this period. Significantly, she never migrated to film, continuing to work in analog and, later, digital video until her death in 2009. Throughout her career, Roussopoulos was involved in the making of more than 150 videos, nearly all of them documentaries, which were rarely signed with her own name but rather with the names of the collectives she was part of: the aforementioned Les Muses s’amusent; Les Insoumuses, and Vidéo Out.[2] There is naturally a tension that emerges between identifying the role of Roussopoulos as an individual and recognising the collective nature of the work of these video groups. While I want to acknowledge the importance of Roussopoulos’s contribution, I also note that the political impulses behind these videos always came from collective meetings, and that was why these videos covered such a broad range of issues. Indeed, Roussopoulos’s interest in feminist politics began when a group of feminists involved with the Mouvement de libération des femmes (the MLF for short) asked her to help edit the first feminist video made in France, Grève de femmes à Troyes (Cathy Bernheim, Ned Burgess, Catherine Deudon, Suzanne Fenn and Annette Lévy-Willard, 1971). They subsequently invited her to the MLF's weekly meetings. Later, via the video workshops she ran for other women, she met Ioana Wieder and Delphine Seyrig, with whom she would form Les Muses s’amusent and Les Insoumuses and establish the Parisian archive and distribution center, the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, still the distributor of these films.

 

1. There were other video collectives operating at the time, too, such as Les Cent fleurs, Vidéo 00, Slon video, and the lesbian separatist collective Vidéa, the work of Vidéo Out. The name of the video distribution collective ‘Mon Oeil’ (literally ‘my eye’, but more like ‘my foot’, as in ‘I don’t believe you’) is another ingenious pun thought up by Seyrig – great niece of structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

 

2 Les Muses s’amusent is a reworking of Seyrig, Wieder, and Roussopoulos’s collective Les Insoumuses, whose name is a distortion of the words insoumises and muses. Insoumises translates as “insubordinates” but also refers in the French context to a group of Second Empire courtesans who refused to adhere to traditional nineteenth-century moral codes. Since the 1970s the term has been taken up by a variety of radical feminist groups seeking to transgress norms and challenge authority. “Les muses s’amusent” translates as “the muses are having fun.”

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*

It was Jean Genet who first persuaded Roussopoulos to buy a Sony Portapak camera with her redundancy pay from Vogue magazine, where she had been fired for standing up for the rights of her coworkers. Genet, who knew Roussopoulos and her partner Paul Roussopoulos through their involvement in political movements, persuaded her that the Portapak was an indispensable tool that would revolutionise all forms of communication. Roussopoulos had no training or interest whatsoever in film, but, accompanied by Genet, she went directly to the shop on Boulevard Sébastopol, deposited her check, and bought the camera, which was the second sold in France (the first having been purchased by Godard).[3] A lack of training or experience in the film or television industries would define the work of many feminist video collectives in the 1970s, giving them a completely different outlook on the purpose of filming or taping – not to produce a finished product but to capture fleeting, often out-of-focus moments, shakily, with an urgency that conveyed a clear message: do not trust anything you see on television. The Portapak had arrived in France at exactly the right time, 1968, and was initially intended by its manufacturers to be taken up by families and tourists interested in portable technology that would allow them to capture weddings, anniversaries, and special outings on tape. Portapak marketing materials in the 1970s make this emphasis on family clear. Ironically, given the Portapak’s popularity with feminist collectives, many of the advertisements feature young attractive models in order to demonstrate that the technology is so lightweight, low cost, and easy to operate that even a woman would might be capable of using it. It was precisely for the opposite reasons that feminist collectives took it up: Portapak was cumbersome and expensive, and no editing equipment was available in the early days. Rather than its capacity to preserve memory, it was the possibility of erasure that made it so attractive to those who wanted to rewind and record over their tapes so that they would not need to keep restocking them, as was required when working with film.

A key advantage of video was its capacity for instant playback, which meant that, unlike with film, video makers did not need to process their material in order for their subjects to see what had been taped. In some cases, as with Les Prostituées de Lyon parlent (The Prostitutes of Lyon Speak Out, 1975) – in which prostitutes occupying a church in Lyon relay their demands to the public congregating on the street outside, via video – this immediacy built a sense of trust between those being filmed and the video makers, without which the video could not have been made. Another related advantage was the relative discretion of video, which took up less space and required less equipment than film. These videos were often made outdoors using natural light, and video makers could operate 30-minute continuous takes. As Jean-Paul Fargier writes, this created a certain tendency for long takes and for sequences that were “too chatty,” privileging “speech that is not edited, divided, or ‘butchered’[…] gradually unfolding in the spirit of resentment, anger, and enthusiasm.”[4] The main advantage, particularly for feminists, was that it was a relatively new medium that had yet to be appropriated by the mainstream media and its patriarchal structures and thus stood in opposition to the male-dominated cinema and television industries.

 

Roussopoulos’s stated aim was to “privilege the approach of the voiceless,” teaching others how to use video in order to tell their own stories and allowing her subjects the space to speak without interruption.[5] In a letter Godard wrote to Roussopoulos in 1979, published in a special issue of Cahiers du cinéma, he reflected on the way she travelled around with her “little black and white Sony […] filming others so frenetically,” concluding that she had a tendency to “hide behind the image of the other” to effectively efface herself.[6] While this may read as a criticism, it fits perfectly with Roussopoulos’s stated intention to prioritise others representing themselves over herself representing others. Of course, she never managed to completely efface herself from her work, but she had a level of respect for her participants and actively involved her subjects in the process, which would not have been possible through a more auteurist approach. This was largely because she always worked as part of collective movements. Her orientation corresponds to the emphasis, first, on participation that underpinned much of the political activity of late 1960s France and, second, on collectivity in feminist politics.

3  Carole Roussopoulos, interview by Hélène Fleckinger, in Fleckinger, Caméra militante, 99.

4. Nicole Brenez, “Carole Roussopoulos ou ‘l’attention créatrice’” (“Carole Roussopoulos or ‘Creative Attention’”), in Hélène Fleckinger, ed., Caméra militante: Luttes de libération des années 1970 (Activist Camera: Liberation Struggles of the 1970s) (Geneva: Métis Presses, 2010), 8.

 

5. Jean-Luc Godard, “Vingt ans après” (“Twenty Years Later”), Cahiers du cinéma, no. 300 (1979): 30–32.

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The earliest surviving tape of Vidéo Out, Roussopoulos’s project with her partner, is Genet parle d’Angela Davis (Angela Davis Is at Your Mercy, 1970): a seven-minute tape of Genet reading out a text he had written in support of Angela Davis and the Black Panthers for a television program to be aired on the French national television channel ORTF. Genet had been invited to speak about a subject of his choosing and, fearing that the recording would be censored, asked Roussopoulos to come along and tape the process. As the handwritten title sequence explains, Genet’s intervention was, as he had predicted, never aired. Vidéo Out’s tape thus remains as a testament to video’s opposition to television. Roussopoulos captures not only all three of Genet’s takes reading the text but also all the bits in between. Confined to a small corner with her compact camera, Roussopoulos documents the clapper board, the light-meter reading, the sound-recording equipment, and even members of the team fetching Genet a glass of water and giving him advice on how to read the text. The Portapak camera seems to display a kind of shaky curiosity, at once intrepid and inquisitive, implicitly critical in its refusal to provide the viewer with a clear, stable shot, and taking up a tiny fraction of the space required by the imposing and unnecessary clutter of the television team.

Genet’s role in Vidéo Out’s early output provides anecdotal evidence of the potential importance of a queer form of vision (a non-hegemonic looking ‘otherwise’) that sought to provide a different view of the media and ideas the collective engaged with. This proto-queer history of video is a good place to start interrogating the relationship between technology, politics, and embodiment. One movement that grew alongside video activism in the early 1970s, itself looking for radical new forms of expression that would break with the narrative modes of what we might now call “reproductive futurism” (following the work of queer theorists such as Lee Edelman),[7] was the Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR, Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action). Founded by a group of students and activists including Guy Hocquenghem and Françoise d’Eaubonne, the FHAR was a militant group that met every Thursday at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In its early days, the FHAR’s aim was to provide an inclusive space for lesbians and gays and to organise interventions, demonstrations, and publications demanding lesbian and gay rights and exposing the homophobia and misogyny of the left-wing political movements that many of its members were involved with. These early stages were characterised by an unbounded enthusiasm and energy, which would later dissolve somewhat as splinter groups formed.[8]

7. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

8. Notably, lesbian separatists started getting fed up with what they perceived to be a meat market for men who had little interest in feminist politics. For a more detailed account of lesbian separatism and the FHAR, see Marie-Josèphe Bonnet, Adieu les rebelles! (Farewell Rebels!) (Paris: Flammarion, 2014), 35.

Le FHAR (1971) 

COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MARTHA ELISA (EM BREVE)
CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE HÉCTOR OYARZÚN
CON SOTTOTITOLI IN ITALIANO DI MIRKO CERULLO
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로.
日本語字幕 メギ

Русские субтиры ‐ Макcим Карпицкий.

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Paris, spring 1971: Carole Roussopoulos takes her portable video kit to go and meet the activists of the FHAR (le Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire), a pioneering group within the “gay liberation” movement, formed just weeks earlier. Roussopoulos films them at a May Day protest, then again at the Université de Vincennes, an experimental university founded in the wake of May 1968 that became one of the foremost launch pads for “leftist” dissent. These images – the only we have of the FHAR – offer a rare insight into the politicisation and the publicisation of homosexuality and lesbianism at the time, showing us the tentative creation story of a homosexual politics, with its preoccupations, attitudes and forms of language, along with the doubts and hesitations of the activists involved, something which writing on the subject rarely casts a light on.

 

So we find ourselves in 1971, three years after the occupation at the Sorbonne during which posters created by a “comité homosexual” were torn down, and at a time when gay activists faced great difficulties and homophobia in establishing homosexual struggle as a significant fight inside the radical left. In 1971, homosexuality – or at least some homosexual behaviours and acts – was still a punishable crime, including a different age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual relations: 21 for the former, 15 for the latter. A law passed in 1960 proclaimed homosexuality to be a “fléau social” (a “social scourge”), a phrase that the FHAR later reclaimed as their slogan.

 

Roussopoulos’s film contains many key members of the homosexual liberation”: Anne-Marie Fauret (the pseudonym of Anne-Marie Grélois), the young woman in the glasses whom we hear speak throughout, and one of the group’s founders. Having participated in feminist groups, she founded a lesbian sub-group as part of the “homophilic” group Arcadie, which was later excluded for being too political. We also hear Guy Hocquenghem, recognisable from his curly hair, who joined FHAR at its beginnings, recalling the violent homophobia he received as a member of leftist groups. In 1972, he became a gay public figure when a portrait of him appeared in the magazine Le Nouvel observateur, followed by the publication of his book Le Désir homosexuel, a foundational text of French queer theory. We see sociologist Georges Lapassade, professor at Vincennes, who invited the FHAR activists to speak at some of his lectures (he is the one we hear speaking of “reductive Marxism”).

 

The documentary’s protagonists discuss the politically-engaged nature of the LGBT movement, their relationship with other left-wing movements, and Marxist doctrine. On the 1st of May 1971, the FHAR took to the streets to protest alongside the feminists of the MLF. This might serve as a reminder that the fight for gay freedoms is a revolutionary fight which should be in dialogue with other struggles. It was also a way of contesting the language and actions dominant on the left at the time. As activists would go on to write in Le Rapport contre la normalité: “Our joyous behaviour was, of course, met with the displeasure of the respectable Left.” The film also references the homophobic responses to the infamous special edition of Tout !, dedicated to discussion about gay rights.  Tout ! was a publication initiated by the “Mao-Spontex” (Maoist-spontaneist) group Vive la révolution (VLR) and was conceived as a revolutionary newspaper for the masses. Distributed widely, it was easily recognisable by its graphic design, with its many colours and collages, but also by its receptiveness to different struggles that came out of May ’68 (struggles led by young people, immigrants, women, etc). Hocquenghem, who was also a member of the VLR, asked FHAR activists to work on an issue of Tout ! about the fight for gay freedoms. This issue, the twelfth, which came out before the May Day protests, drew many people to the FHAR’s meetings. But the assertion of homosexuality outraged a number of leftist activists and booksellers, some of whom refused to sell the issue. The FHAR itself gave birth to several publications – the papers Le Fléau social and Antinorm, and the “Trois milliards de pervers” issue of Recherches, whose founder was the philosopher-psychoanalyst Félix Guattari. The latter was seized by the police and Guattari was sentenced in 1974 for an “affront to public decency.”

 

The FHAR did not last long. In June 1971, the majority of the group’s lesbians, fed up with male domination within the movement, went off to found the group “Gouines rouges” (Red Dykes). The general assemblies withered away over the following months. Despite its brevity, the movement constituted the starting point, sometimes mythical, other times mythologised and today a little neglected, of homosexual dissent. Rewatching Le FHAR in 2021, I’m struck by what is never mentioned. What is revolutionary homosexuality? What makes being gay revolutionary? And how might depoliticised gays, who fit into different social categories to the activists (who are often bourgeois, students or young intellectuals), find their place? It’s striking to see how the FHAR creates its own hierarchy between accepted and acceptable gays and others for whom it has no place; how it struggles with the social definition of gay identity, and even fantasy. When Anne-Marie Fauret explains her refusal “to recruit all homosexuals without distinction”, or when Guy Hocquenghem evokes the idealised homosexuality of the poet Jean Cocteau and the actor Jean Marais, I think of the contradictory stance that Hocquenghem later took in L’Après-mai des faunes (1974): “When you start to discover that you’re a community, it seems infinitely important that even those guys that I used to hate – those office-working-club-goers who are also fags – were with me.”

Antoine Idier,

Head of research, école supérieure d’arts & médias de Caen/Cherbourg,

notamment auteur du livre Les Vies de Guy Hocquenghem. Politique, sexualité, culture (Éditions Fayard, 2017)

Vidéo Out captured the FHAR on tape in its early and optimistic incarnation, at a time when Hocquenghem was in the process of writing his seminal text Le Désir homosexuel (Homosexual Desire, 1972). Roussopoulos attended one of the very first meetings without her camera. Members of the group then asked her if she would be willing to tape the 1 May demonstration, the FHAR’s first intervention in a public space. Roussopoulos taped the demonstration and then broadcast it at the following meeting, taping, in turn, the discussion that ensued after the footage had been seen. The resulting video, Le FHAR (1971), edits together the discussion with scenes from the protest. This reflexive capacity of video was characteristic of Vidéo Out’s approach, in that its videos would nearly always include people talking about the video within them, creating a mise-en-abyme effect. The videos were innovative in this respect, largely due to Paul Roussopoulos’s bricoleur approach to editing, as this was before video-editing equipment was available in France. In an interview, Carole Roussopoulos recounts how Godard at one point visited Paul to ask him for advice on how to edit; Paul’s response was simply to hand Godard a roll of sticky tape.[9]

In terms of a latent queer politics, Vidéo Out’s tape seems to urge the viewer to see differently, reflecting the demands of the FHAR itself. Looking back on gay politics, in his 2000 preface to Hoquenghem’s Le désir homosexuel, Réné Schérer writes of “the need for a complete rupture with all previous interpretative systems,”[10] specifically in relation to Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic interpretations of homosexual desire. Video might also signal a rupture in systems of interpretation, whether psychoanalytic or cinematic, that would require a rethinking of spectatorship. Such a rethinking would need to correspond to the ideas behind the FHAR’s proposals, which highlight the social and collective politics of homosexuality. Hocquenghem’s appropriation of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s vocabulary is relevant here. In the closing paragraph of Le Désir homosexual he writes, “Grouped homosexual desire transcends the confrontation between the individual and society by which the molar ensures its domination over the molecular. It is the slope towards transexuality [trans-sexualité] through the disappearance of objects and subjects, a slide towards the discovery that in matters of sex everything is simply communication.”[11] Hocquenghem’s notion of trans-sexualité seems to have little to do with transsexuality or transgender politics and identity, so this phrase potentially poses a problem that highlights the well-documented tensions between transsexual and queer politics (which do not fall within the purview of this article but which I have explored elsewhere).[12] Rather, it appears as a term specific to his understanding of sexuality (rather than identity) as a slippery, nonhierarchical, or, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology, a “rhizomatic” and essentially communicative force that refuses to distinguish between subject and object, active and passive, or masculine and feminine.[13]

How does such an idea register in relation to video? Vidéo Out’s tape displays a protoqueer gaze that surfaces in the spaces between gestures, bodies, and words. The evocation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the FHAR’s collectively signed manifesto from 1971, Rapport contre la normalité (Report against Normalcy), seems particularly appropriate. The FHAR members quote Saint-Exupéry’s words: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction.”[14] They write that “looking together in the same direction” implies one person behind the other, evoking anal sex. This “looking together” is also, of course, reminiscent of the cinema, where bodies assemble together in a darkened room to face the screen. However, video presents us with entirely different viewing habits from cinema, habits that might seem more compatible with Hocquenghem’s model of desire as multiple, rhizomatic, and molecular. Most videos would be shown on small television monitors, sometimes several in one room, with people talking loudly, moving between screens, crowding around to get a better look, or wandering off halfway through the documentary. The movements of the handheld camera also reflect this, relying on its portability for the long takes—necessary due to a lack of editing equipment—and resulting in a gaze that wobbles in constant flux between bodies, changing direction unexpectedly, and thus potentially creating new connections and forms of relation. For example, the classic shot/reverse shot edit, which implies communication between two people facing each other, never occurs in these activist videos; conversations flow in an altogether different direction.

In Alessandro Avellis’s 2006 documentary about the FHAR, La Révolution du désir: 1970, la libération homosexuelle (The Revolution of Desire: 1970, Homosexual Liberation), Roussopoulos describes how she was able to do fifteen-minute takes without moving from where she stood and how she was able to tape and smoke at the same time, which explains some of the shakier moments in Le FHAR. She states that “the FHAR was about transforming life, creating new forms of relations,” commenting on the brilliance of Anne-Marie Grélois’s vocabulary as she denounces “flikatres,” “hétéroflics réformistes,” and “phallocrates” (coppers, reformist hetero-cops, and phallocrats).[15] While Roussopoulos laments the relative obsolescence of this vocabulary, one could say the same of Vidéo Out’s video language. Fargier writes of Roussopoulos: “She jumps, plunges, immerses herself in the action, inventing a new language”[16]—a language that emerges from the interaction of this relatively new technology with the body of the video maker. He continues, “The portable camera merges with the body of the filmmaker, increases her autonomy, reinforces her intrepidity, the ease of her movements . . . the sound camera throws itself into the action as if it were participating, the real is swallowed up in one fell swoop, and chaos flows like a river”.

What ensues is an instinctively anarchic, do-it-yourself aesthetics that beautifully echoes the politics of the FHAR. In Vidéo Out’s tape Hocquenghem speaks of the influence of the MLF and the notion that “we’ll start with what we are and not just with our political ideas […] starting from the gut.” This is a distinctly corporeal form of revolution, and the video intervention in no way seeks to present a detached, objective picture, instead drawing attention to its own presence by shifting in and out of focus, wandering around to capture the faces in the meeting, refusing to provide factual information such as captions explaining who each participant is, or a voice-over providing a context. This marks a distinctive departure from more conventional television documentary with its head shots and captions. Roussopoulos’s haphazard style encapsulates what is at stake politically in these images, intervening in an appropriately queer way.

It is clear that this tape is no exception to Fargier’s assertion that video is “too chatty”. Yet the most memorable parts of the tape are nonverbal, particularly the fantastic three separate moments when one person interrupts the video with incredibly distinctive laughter in response to someone talking in a reactionary, bourgeois way about having sex. At these points Roussopoulos’s camera shakes and wobbles, zooming in on the culprit’s face and capturing the laughter with a spontaneity that joins in with this gleeful interruption. While immediacy elsewhere underscores the urgency and violence of the FHAR’s proposals, which were sparked by anger and resistance to the dominant heteronormative ideology, here it reminds us of the humour involved. Throughout, the camera focuses intently on gestures, recalling the idea of politics as an embodied force. We see how Roussopoulos tapes faces but often moves down to hands, with several close-ups of hands on chins. These more pensive moments are intercut with scenes from the 1971 May Day march showing wild, free dancing and camp interventions that prefigure the later activism of the Gazolines (a group formed out of the FHAR in 1972 committed to camp visibility and gender-defying protest). These more liberated, potentially queer movements stand in stark contrast to the rigid gestures of disapproval from judgmental onlookers in the forms of frowns, head shakes, and fist shaking. The unexpected gestures of the camera, held in one raised fist, play a role as much as the bodies the camera displays and are almost inseparable from them. This taping gesture fluctuates between attention and distraction, visible on-screen in the camera’s tendency to wander around recording faces before returning to the speaker, always in close-up, never immobile, but continually making its operator’s presence felt, the gaze of the machine rippling through the room like contagious laughter.

Raised Fists: Politics, Technology, and Embodiment in 1970s French Feminist Video Collectives

 

9. Carole Roussopoulos, interview by Hélène Fleckinger, 103.

10. Réné Schérer, “Preface,” in Guy Hocquenghem, Le Désir homosexuel (Homosexual Desire), new ed. (Paris: Fayard, 2000), 12.

11. Guy Hocquenghem, Homosexual Desire, trans. Daniella Dangoor (London: Allison and Bushby, 1978), 136.

12. Ros Murray, “Activism, Affect, Identification: Trans Documentary in France and Spain and Its Reception,” Studies in European Cinema 11, no. 3 (2014): 170–80.

13. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

14. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, quoted in FHAR, Rapport contre la normalité (Report against Normalcy) (London: Pan, 1975), 203. For the original source of Saint-Exupéry’s quote, see Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand, and Stars) (1939; Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1941), 200.

15. Anne-Marie Grélois was one of the founding members, alongside Guy Hocquenghem and Françoise d’Eaubonne, of the FHAR and later cofounded the lesbian feminist group Les Gouines Rouges in 1971.

16. Jean-Paul Fargier, “La vidéo militant contre la télévision” (“Activist Video against Television”), in Fleckinger, Caméra militante, 16.

 

The Prostitutes of Lyon Speak Out (1976) 

COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MARTHA ELISA
CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE HÉCTOR OYARZÚN
CON SOTTOTITOLI IN ITALIANO DI MIRKO CERULLO
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로.
日本語字幕、近日公開。

Русские субтиры ‐ Макcим Карпицкий.

When we occupy the churches,

you are scandalised,

religious bigots!

You who threatened us with hell,

we have come to eat at your table,

at Saint Nizier.

– Protest song penned by sex workers who occupied

French churches during an eight-day 1975 strike.

 

 

On June 2, 1975, around 150 prostitutes in Lyon moved into the church of Saint-Nizier for eight days in response to the police repression experienced by their community. The women refused to leave until the charges for soliciting were dropped, demanding an end to fines, state-sanctioned brutality, and societal stigma. A banner draped over the church’s façade read: “[O]ur children don’t want their mothers in prison”. This event was a historic moment in sex worker organising, inspiring prostitutes throughout France to occupy churches in protest against the stigmatisation they faced on a daily basis. The movement extended globally and June 2nd is now commemorated as International Whores’ Day.

 

Even though the event itself was brought to a violent end by the police, and resulted in no lasting legal reforms, those who participated understood that their actions had succeeded in making the struggles of prostitutes known. As Barbara, one of the main organisers, testified on French radio at the time:

 

“The police van drove us to the Moliere Police Station. A police officer said to me: “And you are not even crying?” Why would I have cried? We had won the most beautiful of all battles. We had forced people to become aware of our existence, and we had avoided jail. Even the police operation had served our cause. It allowed us to admire once more, the courage of the police officers who arrived as a pack of 120 armed men with about 20 dogs and tear gas, and all that to throw out about 100 sleeping women!”

LA REVOLTE DES PROSTITUEES, Produced by Eurydice Aroney for RTBF (Brussels) and Radio France Culture

 

Written almost 45 years later, ‘Sex Workers Against Work’ takes up this work of resistance through its dedication to the militant spirit of the occupation in Lyon. By pushing the horizon of sex workers’ rights beyond the acknowledgement of sex work as work and the position of the consenting prostitute, Other Weapons, a literature and propaganda distribution intended for building networks of militant solidarity between sex workers and other criminals, offers an abolitionist critique of the nature of work itself. As Barbara and her comrades state in The Prostitutes of Lyon Speak Out, they deserve the right to safe working conditions, but labour in and of itself is not a site that can secure them freedom in society. It might provide them the ability to support themselves and their children, but even those who work “respectable” jobs alongside prostitution, or those who wish to leave sex work by obtaining socially acceptable forms of employment, find themselves continually shunned and blocked from state-sanctioned education, service jobs, or care work. Rather, it is necessary to move beyond identifying with work – and seeing work as inherently good – and towards an anti-work position that envisages the abolition of work itself. No amount of reform can free sex workers from exploitation. Only through an anti-capitalist and anti-state perspective can we truly imagine a future where our children won’t have to see their mothers in prison. The abolition of prisons and police does not happen through reform but through militant and revolutionary means. Attending to the demands of sex workers against work is a necessary part of our collective liberation.

* * *

SEX WORKERS AGAINST WORK

 

Right now, we are a handful of hoes attempting to put our position into words and our words into action. During our time in the sex trade we have seen and learned a lot. We have witnessed the shift towards a strong identification with the term “sex worker” and even pride in the labour of selling sex. We have seen platforms for sex workers to find work or to find each other and develop communities flourish. We have seen less shaming and less fear of being judged in radical circles, and the development of a niche popularity that celebrates sex work as a more desirable option amongst relatively few or less desirable options.
 

Although many of these changes are beneficial, they are not without criticism: whorephobia is still the pervasive view of sex work within society, especially if you are poor, working class, Black or brown, or trans. The whorearchy amongst sex workers continues to reinforce this trend, as stripper chic and other forms of non-sex service providers place themselves above other workers who fuck for a living. We see white cis women who have built marketable personas with relative ease as high-class escorts or sugar babies take the spotlight, acting as voices for the sex worker movement with open admission about their lives, while others are left concealing their every move, leading high-risk double lives. We have seen an expansive activist and online community turn into a demand for recognition and protection by the state – that is, for legislation and elections to lead the way to “liberation”.

 

We do not believe our liberation will be reached through a permanent position within capital that can be exploited in more efficient ways. We do not want to be legalised. The regulating role of the state will always include policing workers on the job and off-work, and prosecuting criminal activity in all aspects of workers’ lives. Work is not something that solely confines us as we labour in a building or room. Work orders the rest of our lives: our mornings, our vacations, our purchases, what we read, our care, our sex and pleasure, our home, our nights. The more our labor becomes legitimised by the state and capital, the more we are forced to work. We want an end to criminalisation, an end to work, and an end to capitalism altogether.

We cannot wager on the acceptance of sex work, or for those who are obsessed with our condition, to change our realities. The anti-human-trafficking movement – a multi-million-dollar industry – is a macro aggression waged by every arm of the state and its collaborators: NGOs, religious organizations, racist and authoritarian feminists, ignorant or opportunistic do-gooders. It thrives off modernity’s humanitarian lust to save the young and vulnerable, shaped by decades of unearthing – and consequential sensationalising – of global capitalist horrors. We think of its lethal predecessor, the War on Drugs. In these spectacular wars, we witness the unification of both the left and right wings of the capitalist state that, together, design these mechanisms of control in order to extract wealth from vulnerable populations who are simply finding ways to get by. These so-called saviour brigades – the Drug Enforcement Agency, the whole carceral system – negate the possibility within informal economies to escape poverty and degradation.

The complex conflicts of sex work and trafficking are used to further agendas of governance and control, by taking stigma informed public ideas of what sex work is, in order to further the projects of incarceration, border defense, and gentrification. Sensationalist headlines serve to illuminate prejudices through a narrowed and flattened lens by claiming, “Eight foreign nationals freed from sex-ring-massage-parlors in Berkeley”. Due to such a framing, it can only illuminate what one is already able to understand of the complex components of this “sex ring” and the conditions of living for those who are found within it.  

Immigration, racism and misogyny are all factors at play in governances’ so-called victories against human trafficking. Raided strip clubs and massage parlors turn into Airbnbs. Every strip club’s “If you see something say something” anti-trafficking posters suggest dialling 1-800-DHS-2-ICE. These are not heroic efforts to save “vulnerable women”, but methodical avenues of gentrification, capital development and ultimately, violence against sex workers and their loved ones.

If the challenge were to force our representatives to recognise our humanity, we would be front row at all the city council meetings. But we know their wealth depends on controlling us. Their role is to bring us back into their world when we have spent our lives creating our own against all odds. To wait until our suffering is recognised through the construction of digestible narratives for our enemy’s consumption is to take away the power that already exists in the history of our struggle.

We are against both economic exploitation and state regulation of economic exploitation. Because of this, we are necessarily for our own autonomy. This is something we must develop together. We would like to begin a conversation about how sex workers, marginalised yet certainly not marginal, can organise material solidarity and care networks that build community and also undermine the state’s ability to hold us hostage in its many ways. We want to evaluate the limits of reform and assimilation, moving beyond comparatively institutionalised sex worker activisms while still honouring the legacies of sex worker struggles. We believe that being a sex worker is a powerful shared experience wherein our natural inclinations to survive outside of the state’s control and oversight have the potential to manifest incredibly powerful networks of care, as well as confrontational responses to those who harm us.

We believe it is crucial to criticise our subjectivity as sex workers and acknowledge that not all who sell sex identify in the same way. We maintain that our unique experiences, as those with the experience of sex for survival, leave us – and us alone – capable of recognising our limitations, traumas, tendencies, and sensibilities toward liberatory relations. Beyond misrepresentation, false glamorisation and weaponised stigma, the wisdom and navigation of those who sell sex to live provide a critical perspective for the many more who are fighting for freedom from work and from the state.

We acknowledge and honour the hard work, risks, and death endured by many over the past century in order to create a framework for the sex worker specific organising and political analysis we use today. The struggle of sex workers and the longevity of our struggle relies on our ability to continue the militant practices of the Black radical tradition, to stand in solidarity with those defending their indigenous land from pipeline development and other state-sanctioned genocidal expansions, and to remember that the hope for queer liberation was born in struggle against the police during a riot at Stonewall by Black and brown trans women, prostitutes, queens, dykes, and other gender traitors. We refuse to let these daring, courageous moments of our legacies be distorted and rewritten into playbooks for passive resistance. Today solidarity means: Fight back.

 

A version of this manifesto was published by Other Weapons, February 2019

Cassandra Troyan is a writer, researcher, organizer and educator whose work explores the intersections of gendered violence, radical histories of resistance, sex work, and speculative futures beyond capital. They are the author of several books of multi-genre work, most recently, FREEDOM & PROSTITUTION (2020), A Theory in Tears (2016), and KILL MANUAL (2014). They live in Kalmar, Sweden and teach theory, practice, and creative-critical writing as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Design at Linnaeus University.

 

*

A different threshold is in operation in the videos exploring sex workers’ struggles in 1970s France. Vidéo Out’s 1975 video Les Prostituées de Lyon parlent is groundbreaking for its intimate portrayal of sex workers defining their struggle on their own terms. The threshold at work in this instance is between the inside and outside of the Church of Saint-Nizier in Lyon. The tape depicts a group of sex workers, who were representing two hundred women in Lyon, occupying the church, demanding an end to arbitrary arrests and fines on prostitutes and greater freedom and respect from the police. This video sets itself apart from much of the feminist discourse in France at the time and from videos such as Vidéa’s Kate Millett parle de la prostitution avec des féministes (Kate Millett Speaks about Prostitution with Some Feminists, 1975). While feminists across the country were fiercely debating the prostitution issue, prostitutes and sex workers were often left out of the debate, as if sex work and feminism were mutually exclusive.[17]

Les Prostituées de Lyon parlent, as the title suggests, is entirely focused on the testaments given in the church by women directly affected by the issues raised. Roussopoulos, who was inspired by reading Millet’s 1975 The Prostitution Papers (a present from Genet), pointed out in an interview that this tape was only possible due to the technology afforded by portable video.[18] The sex workers on strike were extremely suspicious of Vidéo Out when the video makers arrived at the church and only agreed to participate because they were able to determine what would be broadcast by virtue of video’s capacity for instant playback. This would not have been possible with film, which would have required several days to be processed by a lab before the footage could be seen. Had the video not been there, the women would have relied on handwritten posters to communicate their message to passersby, as they were wary of leaving the church for fear of being arrested; video offered the perfect medium for getting their message across. Vidéo Out was able, with its Portapak, to record inside the church during the mornings, decide with the sex workers what would be communicated in the video, and broadcast the recorded interviews outside the church in the afternoons. This process went on for a week. In turn, Vidéo Out taped the crowds that gathered to watch the small television screens that the women had cunningly embedded in the gaps in the thick stone walls of the church. The resulting document, like so many of the 1970s videos, is a mise en abyme in which the video within the video becomes an agent of political activism, shaping the struggle inasmuch as it is able to mediate between two very different groups, separated by the impenetrable walls of one of the world’s most enduring repressive institutions: the Catholic Church. Video’s penetration of this seemingly immutable boundary only reflects the far more radical penetration by the sex workers demonstrating for their rights, yet video seems to do more than simply affirm their presence and enable the communication of their demands. In fact, it questions the very structures of representation through which these words are usually heard (or ignored), including a fundamental questioning of its own presence working within and against these structures. In this sense, we might say that video self-consciously performs its own function.

This performative capacity of video is also brought into question by those videos that reach beyond the boundaries of documentary, such as Seyrig and Roussopoulos’s interpretation of Valerie Solanas’s 1967 treatise in S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1976). In this video Seyrig dictates extracts from the manifesto, word for word (including punctuation), while Roussopoulos types it out, taking a break from time to time to crank up the TV behind them. The TV displays news reports on violence and atrocities across the globe, from aerial bombings in Lebanon to assassinations in Buenos Aires, from reports about the nuclear arms race to more positive images of the 1976 Peace People’s march against violence in Northern Ireland, which was instigated by a group of women. The video was undertaken when the French version of Solanas’s manifesto was out of print, its reproduction performed as a gesture to recuperate feminist histories while also drawing attention to their continual erasure.

17 . Vidéa’s tape Kate Millett parle de la prostitution avec des féministes provides a fascinating overview, like Flo Kennedy: Portrait d’une féministe américaine, of some of the differences and similarities in US- and French-based feminism. Taking place in a tiny and cramped bookshop, with the camera visibly struggling for space and depicting heads popping through shelves between books to catch Millett, Christine Delphy, and Monique Wittig’s words, it is in itself a remarkable document, but one cannot help but notice the distinct absence of the voices of those directly affected by the issues these women discuss, which is particularly surprising given that the discussion emerges from a sex workers’ protest that was taking place in France at the same time.

18. Carole Roussopoulos, interview by Pauline Boudry (1997), available at www.hybridvideotracks.org/2001/archiv/carole.pdf.

 

Just Don't Fuck (1973)

COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MARTHA ELISA
CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE HÉCTOR OYARZÚN
CON SOTTOTITOLI IN ITALIANO DI MIRKO CERULLO
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로.
日本語字幕、近日公開。

Русские субтиры ‐ Макcим Карпицкий.

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Another example can be found in Vidéo Out’s Y a qu’à pas baiser! (Just Don’t Fuck!, 1973), which documents the MLF’s fight for abortion access and reproductive rights and includes within it video footage of an illegal abortion being carried out, using the Karman Method, in someone’s living room. Once again, this video stages a transgression of the threshold between public and private space that would have been unthinkable on television simply because it was illegal and potentially dangerous for those involved. The tape opens with a long sequence from a program on ORTF debating abortion, only to reveal that we are watching television. The magnetic tape winding around the reels of the Portapak recorder is shown in this shot as it captures what is being viewed. From the start, the viewer is made aware not only of video’s presence but also of how video is operating, feeding off the television set in order to scramble its message as it spews it out in distorted form.

A similar technique occurs in Maso et Miso vont en bateau, a video that uses many more complex strategies. Its experimentation with video editing is ingenious, and the title playfully refers to Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974), a film in which the protagonists discover that they can intervene in the plot, altering dialogue and inserting alternative actions into the film as it progresses. Maso et Miso vont en bateau is a thorough reworking of Bernard Pivot’s rather less radical program “Encore un jour et l’année de la femme—ouf!—c’est fini!” (“Just One More Day to Go and the Year of the Woman—Oof!—Is Over!,” Antenne 2, 1975), with its invited guest Françoise Giroud, the French spokesperson for the UN’s International Women’s Year (1975). The original television program alone, an ill-conceived antifeminist jibe, was perfectly capable of illustrating the absurdity of an international women’s year but from a chauvinist perspective. For Seyrig, Wieder, Ringart, and Roussopoulos, it provided the perfect opportunity for a playful experimentation with video’s creative form of piracy. The video replays and interrupts the original program at every available opportunity and does so each time one of the participants in the discussion says something obtuse, which is seemingly almost every uttered sentence. There are also points at which images from other sources are inserted. For example, there is video footage of the 8 March 1975 feminist march protesting against International Women’s Year and footage of a rare television interview with Simone de Beauvoir about the extreme sexist reactions that the publication of The Second Sex (1949) provoked.

Unfolding like a video machine gone haywire, with sudden interjections in the form of incredulous exclamations, parodic written surveys, chanting, rewinding, and replaying in order to create a scat-like rhythmic repetition that serves to highlight the idiocy of some of the declarations being made, the video continually draws its own mechanisms into the limelight. In fact, it constantly reminds us that all the action in this reinterpretation is taking place offscreen, in a space outside the television studio that nonetheless has the capacity to incessantly disrupt this inaccessible domain. At one point the video cuts to a shot of the four women singing, in a parody of Giroud’s own words, “Everything is fine, Madame Minister; everything is fine” in front of the television monitor in the video-editing suite, with all of the video equipment on display.

Duguet writes that this may have been the most widely circulated of the 1970s French videos, estimating that it was seen by three hundred thousand spectators by the end of 1980, thanks to its being broadcast in a variety of different public and private spaces. Even if these figures are hard to prove, given the lack of concrete data, the reactions of the television company and of Giroud are a testament to the power of this video made with the most minimal of means. Roussopoulos recounted to an interviewer how Giroud was mortified and got in touch with the video makers to ask them to stop circulating the tape. The Parisian cinema L’Olympic Entrepôt screened the video for several weeks, but it eventually had to suspend screenings after pressure from Antenne 2, the television channel responsible for the original program. The response from Les Muses s’amusent to this pressure was to declare that they would indeed stop distributing the video, but only once it had been screened on TV, which, of course, it never was. Nonetheless, this video reached an impressively large audience.

Video becomes an appropriate medium for exploring subjectivity, sexuality, and gender as performative and mobile rather than grounded in immutable essence when it performs skewed modes of rhythm, feedback, and reproduction. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Maso et Miso vont en bateau, in which, Duguet argues, Les Muses s’amusent “rupture the ‘natural flow’ of speech, slicing into the very material of its expression, utterly demolishing this.”[19] While S.C.U.M. Manifesto also explores unruly rhythms and modes of unproductivity or “unwork”, as Laura Guy argues,[20] here it is rendered explicit in an unparalleled manner, exposing feminist activity as disruptive through the very forms of interruption, rewinding, repetition, and insertion offered by video technology.

19. Duguet, Vidéo, la mémoire au poing, 74.

20. Laura Guy, “Sick Texts, Scummy Rhythms” (paper presented at NEWGenNOW–SALT Symposium, London, 2014), vimeo.com/114719764

 

Maso and Miso Go Boating (1976)

COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE MARTHA ELISA
CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE HÉCTOR OYARZÚN
CON SOTTOTITOLI IN ITALIANO DI MIRKO CERULLO
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로.
日本語字幕 メギ

Русские субтиры ‐ Макcим Карпицкий.

Screen Shot 2021-07-15 at 14.01.55.png

The feminist video collective Les Insoumuses dissects and responds point by point in a humorous way to Bernard Pivot's special program with Françoise Giroud, Secretary of State for the Status of Women. "On December 30th 1975, after watching Bernard Pivot's programme on Antenne 2 entitled 'One more day and the year of the woman, phew! It'll be over.", we felt the immense need to express our point of view, to respond..." A real political hijacking. A humorous hacking and a manifesto for feminist video.

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The strength of these videos emerges at the moment when they explore the vulnerability of the image, thereby questioning, challenging, and disrupting the immutable, all-powerful structures of mainstream media representation. This can be thought of in terms of the image that video produces, which deteriorates rapidly over time. Video images are fleeting, fragile, and subject to all kinds of distortions, from static contamination to magnetic erasure. Some theorists even suggest that there is no image in video because it is an electronic medium made up of scanning lines in continual movement, whereas there is an image in film, which is a series of stills put into sequence to create the illusion of movement. Nam June Paik points out that when Godard speaks of film as truth twenty-four times a second, this is only true for film, and with video there is no image to speak of and, as such, no truth at all. [21] Yet this is more greatly evidenced in the case of video art. How might such a statement relate to activist documentary, which posits a certain sense of authenticity while paradoxically disregarding any claim to truth as it could be represented on a television monitor? And how might it relate more specifically to the context of 1970s French feminist activism?

French feminism developed after May 1968, and these videos emerged amid the activism and critical theory that was proliferating in the universities and on the streets. As an atmosphere of dissent was permeating French society at all levels, these videos – following the publication of texts such as Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and the work of the Situationists – produced work that was very much about finding new ways of seeing that explicitly criticised any notion of truth. Feminist video collectives were not interested so much in theorising or tapping into this dissent as they were in expressing it in their own terms, finding their own space both within and outside it, and searching for new forms through which to speak to other activists and women. Many of these videos seem to be about disrupting boundaries, thresholds, and borders in different ways, whether these are between the home and the streets, the public and the private spheres, or between different countries. This is because these videos came from a specifically feminist urge for women to seek out their own space, a search that coincided with the discovery of what was essentially, and so importantly for them, a new form of representation. Consequently, these videos defy easy categorisation, explicitly refusing to fall into the category of art or avant-garde, realist, or cinema vérité labels. These women were searching for altogether different modes of expression, modes that were necessarily, rather than simply self-consciously, experimental. As is clearly visible in the videos themselves, they were learning as they went along.

The politics of Vidéo Out, Les Insoumuses, and Les Muses s’amusent operate in both a direct and a subtle mode, emerging, much like the video image, between the lines. These videos do not say “television is lying; here’s the truth.” They seem to put everything, including themselves, into question, while presenting us with the images and words of disobedient, critical women who are otherwise ignored. By questioning their own means, these collectives are not only participating but also actively showing how they participate in each political movement they deal with. This highlights direct action over any claim to truth, the video equipment working together with the bodies depicted rather than representing them from a distance or simply producing a document. It does this work by drawing attention to the body through the kinds of gestures it performs, which are rarely fixed, as the video camera and recorder become one body among others; on its most explicit level, the camera never seems to be simply taping during a protest but is always also itself protesting.

This is a mode of representation that initially in the French context distinguished itself from film, conventional documentary, and artist video, providing divergent forms of temporality. Debates about feminist forms of representation in the 1970s English-language academic context largely centered on the disruption of form inherent in avant-garde feminist film, with virtually no emphasis on documentary filmmaking.[22] These videos, however, occupy a shifting terrain between documentary, on the one hand, and experimentation, on the other. Where they display an insistent materiality that is self-reflexive and spontaneous, reminding us of the interventions of their participants as both reflexive and spontaneous, this is out of necessity rather than aesthetic choice. This reflects the same urgency that led feminist communities emerging around groups such as the FHAR and the MLF to take up video rather than film as the medium that best suited the exploration of a politics that came from the gut, to recall Hoquenghem’s words. This curiously do-it-yourself experimentation provides affirmation that collective, spontaneous, and chaotic forms of protest could, at the time, be displayed in no other way. The question remains for contemporary viewers as to how ever-evolving current forms of video activism might reenact, incorporate, or build on the radical, collective representations of subjectivity displayed in this work.

21. Nam June Paik, interview by Jean-Paul Cassagnac, Jean-Paul Fargier, and Sylvia van der Stegen, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 299 (1979): 10–18.

22. See Alexandra Juhasz, “‘They Said We Were Trying to Show Reality—All I Want to Show Is My Video’: The Politics of the Realist Feminist Documentary,” Screen 35, no. 2 (1994): 183.

Dr Ros Murray is Lecturer in French, King’s College London. Ros held research posts at the University of Manchester and Queen Mary University of London, where she taught in French and film, before coming to King’s as a lecturer in 2016. Ros is a founding member, with Dr. Azadeh Fatehrad (Kingston), of the research network Herstoriographies www.herstoriographies.co.uk.

Programmed by Daniella Shreir
Texts edited by Daniella Shreir and Missouri Williams

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees aren't. We receive no funding so please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.