“Unwilled Rhythms”: Walking through Film with Nishat Hossain

by Nishat Hossain and Laurel McLaughlin

Over a series of walks throughout Philadelphia, filmmaker Nishat Hossain and I began thinking together. Far from idle flâneurie, we traversed the city that has shaped us, conscious of this fact, and yet open to other experiences. In this light, our performative gesture seemed more akin to a dérive, known to undermine external and even internal power structures. This association, while capturing some of the political implications for the gesture, loses sight of the simple and yet profound intimacy that is a walk. Our conversation wended through mutual artistic interests, ways of thinking through art and its relation to life, film, and Nishat’s most recent projects, without the aim of a final destination. And yet, as Rebecca Solnit describes walking in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, 2000,[1] it is still a kind of “intentional act,” one “closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.”

Site: City Hall, circling

Laurel McLaughlin: We’re meeting at City Hall, where we met last time on our first walk together, which we’re reenacting here. Along the lines of meeting here for a walk, do you remember how we actually met?

Nishat Hossain: I could tell the story in a hundred different ways! But, I’ll say we met in film theory class.

LM: You were exceptional at close readings—both of images and texts—how they shift and slip towards and away from one another, which I think comes up in your recent works, such as Not Trouser Word Piece.

NH: The work is a reenactment of Keith Arnatt’s Trouser – Word Piece, 1972 and has three parts—the images, the browser windows holding each image, and the text titling each browser window. Together they all labor to code a narrative that only unearths itself upon a close reading. The meaning constructed by the windows, the images, and the texts is composed by the movement of the eye laboring to browse between them and will be different for every eye. Any close reading you can perform of any image/text is rooted in your individual body and experiences. The maker of a text/image touches your body through the body of the text/image, and a close reading foregrounds where and how you are most touched. A close reading is propped by the context of what your body knows and remembers. And works like Not Trouser Word Piece, at the end of the day, will only be accessible to audiences who are connected to my experiences and identities, and are able to draw on their body’s knowledge to fill in the gaps and construct a close reading that decodes the story I’ve sheltered in the work.

Site: Love Park, facing Northwest

LM: I remember you were interested in the work of Maya Deren—an experimental filmmaker, who often incorporated experiential theories of movement, dance, poetry, writing, and photography. Does her practice relate to your own? 

NH: She was one of the first filmmakers to not use the film form as a medium for storytelling. She used it as a medium to explore how meaning is constructed, and how the media that produce meaning are constructed as well. And she used movement to guide these explorations. Maya both performed in and edited her films, making a gesture has a double meaning in her films, it means that she’s performing the gesture on camera with her body, but that she’s also editing her movements into a constructed gesture off-camera. Because her body is that of the editor, director, and performer, she collapses the division of labor common to commercial and independent filmmaking. This collapse of labor points to the convergence of various kinds of movement that I’m interested in.

LM: As we’re walking through Love Park, I’m reminded how you mentioned that Philadelphia is present in your work, that you “see it [the city] between the frames” rather than in front of the camera—could you talk about that?

NH: Even though Philly doesn’t literally appear in my work, it’s still been pivotal to it. This city and its communities have nurtured my artistic practice. My work and I are formed by the circuitous sways of this city’s streets but I don’t yet have the words to describe the shape of these turns and how this city has choreographed them.

Benjamin Franklin Parkway, facing Northwest

LM: Some of the film techniques that you use are DIY-influenced, lo-fi technologies, and I’m curious how that figures into the way that the camera interacts with your body.

NH: The cameras I can most easily access are my phone and laptop cameras. For most of the world, these are the only cameras you have access to. They’re so intimate. And I actually sleep next to my laptop. Its camera feels like an extension of my body in a way that other cameras don’t, because it’s so compact, and because so many of the things that sustain my material and social well-being are tied to my phone and laptop, they’re always close to my body. So, when I record something on these cameras, the corporeal and psychic proximity I have to them will create an image that’s different from a more expensive or traditional one. These DIY techniques have taught me how to critically engage intimacy and the structures that construct it, and this surfaces in works like Pryings (1971/2014) (2014) and 45 minutes (2016), where I use professional cameras in a DIY manner to think about performances of gender and sexuality.

Site: Franklin Institute, Shimmer Wall by Ned Kahn

LM: Last time we were here, we discussed the ephemerality of the wind that rushes through this public work called Shimmer Wall. The wind is known to us visually through the moving tiles, which reminds me of the relationship between performance and its documentation that you explore in works such as Body/Document, 2016. In a more recent work CRATE, 2018 the act of documentation itself became critical—could you explain this?

CRATE, 2018, Digital photograph/performance

NH: In CRATE, I fabricated the frame of a giant crate that could fit my body, and carried it around during the spring of 2018. Even if people saw me carrying this object, they would pretend not to see it. A visible object and performance were rendered invisible by the context surrounding my performance. This paradox of visibility helped me think about how bodies get framed in photography and cinema. What gets seen in an image and what doesn’t? Who has the authority and power to shape context and visibility? The work is a visual metaphor for the gaze. It literalizes the labor that a subject who is framed by the camera is forced to perform for the camera’s gaze. The still camera was a crucial instrument of colonization and a photograph felt like an effective mode of documentation with which to allude to this historical root of the cinematic camera.    

This is also a racially and personally charged work. This performance was prompted by my experiences of being framed as a volatile and mentally unstable woman of color, in comparison to someone I was considering through the work who has immense power over me. This framing of us both got me thinking about the East India Company and how they were looting goods from the Indian subcontinent through wooden crates. I was thinking about how those goods were transported and how their movement connected to the movement of my own body, through an embodied research practice. How have my ancestors moved in their bodies? How am I moving in my own body? And what does this have to do with the movement of the things that were taken from us by white people? How does it affect the way our bodies move among the systems, institutions, and people that enable such abuses of power by shielding people like him? How has our labor shaped and propped up the very imaging technologies used to oppress us, beginning from early photography to present day satellite imaging?

Movement in this work can only be either witnessed or imagined, like the actual currents of movement that took place during colonization. So, you can only see my movement if you were either present during the time of the labor of my performance, or if you imagine my performance in your mind through this photographic still that functions as supposed evidence of my labor. I discarded the wooden frame after the performance, so that my labor could only survive in the frame of this single image snapped on my sister’s cell phone camera.

Site: Benjamin Franklin Parkway, facing Southeast, doubling back

LM: CRATE shares affinities with Pryings (1971/2014), 2014 that you just screened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in the premiere of Season 2 of The Eyeslicer co-created by Vanessa McDonnell and Dan Schoenbrun. The episode was guest curated by Kelly Sears, Jennifer Reeder, and Lauren Wolkstein and titled, “Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie.’” Its screening was part of The Future of Film is Female Part 2, organized by guest curator Caryn Coleman and Rajendra Roy, the Celeste Cartos Chief Curator of Film. Could you share a bit about that work?

Pryings (1971/2014), 2014, Video/Reenactment, 7:25 min.

NH: I wanted to understand what embodying the gestures I saw on-screen in Vito Acconci’s 1971 video Pryings might feel like. Past critics’ interpretations of Acconci’s oblique gestures felt too straightforward to me—they claimed Acconci repeatedly forcing open Kathy Dillon’s eye could be metaphoric of sexual assault. Yes, Acconci’s gestures could be read as an intrusion of physical space that is gendered and sexual, but this intrusion for me was a dialectical one propped up by Dillon’s prior consent. His work for me was less about intrusion than it was about Dillon giving him the consent to intrude in her space, and the power relations that might have led her to consent to such an intrusion. To explore the nature of this consent, I reenacted Pryings several times to explore Dillon’s role with collaborators Pia Chakraverti-Wuerthwein, Ambrose Willis, and Andrew Szczurek. My first video was research into Acconci’s work, but also a way to extend it, alter it, author it, not as the one grappling, but as the one being grappled. Exploring power and consent through a loosely choreographed and absurd physical struggle is a pattern in my body of work.

LM: I attended the screening, and Pryings (1971/2014) was visceral to watch. The camera was an extension of your writhing bodies (with you and Andrew Szczurek as Kathy and Vito, respectively) in Part I, shaking, and facing outwards from the dueling encounter. All we could see were blurs of the floor, walls, and corners of a dimly-lit basement, as breathing and thrashing movement ensued. At times, the screen went dark and it was only the doubled breathlessness that tethered viewers to the struggle. In Part II, the camera turned on you, showing us the struggle—the whites of your eyes when forced open. And yet, I was infinitely more terrified in Part I, with little to no visual information, where violent bodily inference overwhelmed the scene.

Screening of Pryings (1971/2014), Museum of Modern Art, New York

NH: Yes, it’s the potential of the violence that bleeds through the pixels. The potential of violence is sometimes more terrifying than the actual act of violence itself. My mind links the idea of potentiality to mortality and fear. But I also like thinking about potentiality in relation to making art—if you think about the potential rather than the possible, you’re less likely to set yourself up for disappointment. And for me that’s a useful way to go about making things. You can set an intention for what you want your work to be and what you want it to do, but its full potential lies in far more than just your intentions. Its full potential is something you can’t control, and something that will catalyze itself in the alchemy of the time and matter of the world and the forms that populate it.

Homay King’s framing of the potential in Virtual Memory, by way of Giorgio Agamben and Plato, is an idea I find useful in thinking about my body of work.[2] The potential opposes the possible. The possible can be calculated, but the potential is something that’s about to happen. It’s poesis. There is poesis in violence and fear. There is potential for survival and a different world because the potential of time and matter both takes everything and gives everything. It gives fear and violence, but also takes it away. The lack of information in the video, which manifests itself as pixelation, for me embodies the dialectic the potential has with violence.   

Site: Love Park, facing East

LM: Right now, we’re reenacting a path that we took last time. We began at City Hall—a marker between our two homes—and began circling it. You suggested this reenactment in our conversation, to consider our previous walk and conversation and loop it—circling back to its potential. This strikes me as something that video artist and theorist Mieke Bal calls “thinking doing”—and I’m wondering if you employ this in your work?[3]

NH: The idea of “thinking doing” is interesting for me because I’m Bengali, and Bangla doesn’t make the same distinctions between the body and mind that English does. In Bangla there’s a word called মন (“mon.”) This word can allude to both feeling and thinking something, and is used to simultaneously invoke the words we understand as mind, heart, and attention in English. So, the binary of mind and body or thinking and doing don’t carry the same distinctions in my practice as they do for the practice of someone like Mieke Bal or someone working out of a similar Western tradition. We’ve always known this binary was false and didn’t need to discover its construction through centuries of stumbling through writing, colonization, and capitalism. 

Site: Subway near City Hall

LM: Do you see your work as a mode of survival? Because it strikes me as such.

NH: I’m sure it is. My ancestors have survived many genocides. The first historically notable one is the Great Bengali Famine from 1769 to 1770, where the British starved 10 million people to death. The next one is the WWII Bengali Holocaust from 1943–1945, where the British starved 6–7 million people to death in Bengal. Then the most recent is the 1971 genocide that Pakistan operated by way of American arms in Bangladesh during the country’s liberation war. It displaced 40 million people, raped 200,000 to 400,000 women, and killed somewhere between 300,000 to 3 million people: no one knows the actual numbers. My parents survived this genocide. And then there was a smaller government-operated massacre when I was in Dhaka in 2013. In addition to all these massacres, there’s also the economic genocide that Bangladesh, as a third world country, continues to be subject to from the first world. When I returned to America at 19, after a decade in Dhaka, I experienced, and continue to experience, a different kind of economic violence. This eventually made me vulnerable to grooming by a white man with institutional power who effectively exploited my childhood, sexual, racial, political, and economic traumas to cause me further trauma.

My ancestors and I have had our sense of safety repeatedly violated. I keep putting work out into the world because I want to claim and create a safe space for myself. My work can be understood as a response to my oppressors but it’s not about them. It’s about affirming my value as a person and my experiences. These experiences that will now circulate as my surrogates in times and places that extend well beyond both my own body and the bodies of my oppressors.

LM: Thank you for sharing that with me and for those who will read this interview. I feel as if we’ve journeyed through your film and performance practice, thinking, and surroundings concurrently and I’m curious what is next in terms of your practice? Do you have upcoming shows or screenings or a body of work that you’re working on?

NH: I sometimes muse about making works that can only exist as potentialities. So, making a body of potential work. And could a body of potential work ever contend with a body of actual work? How do art and academic worlds calculate which artist or academic to give authority to based on a potential body of work they will have produced towards the end of their career? I think about ceasing making work entirely, that is, exercising my choice to not have to deliver on my potential as an artist or academic. And I think about leaving people to speculate on the potential body of work I might have made had I kept making art or doing research. Though, a work I might make after this interview is using Google Maps images to capture the different places we’ve been to on our walks, and think about how to build a narrative structure out of them by drawing on John Cage’s techniques of choreographing spontaneous speech and thought in his work, How to Get Started, 1989.[4] Whether or not I actually get around to making this work, its potential will exist in this walk, this text, this interview, and both our bodies. And maybe that’s enough.S

Nishat Hossain is an artist who uses her body as a medium to explore how her presence within the relationships and institutions she inhabits is anarchist, and how the anarchy of her presence questions the founding axioms and assumptions these institutions use to justify both their existence and the prevalent structures of intimacy that prop them. She began making art in Philadelphia in 2014, after re-migrating from Bangladesh to the United States, in response to both the genocides that shape her third-world Bengali identity and the legal, economic, cultural, and institutional genocide her body is subject to as a member of America’s first-world colored precariat class. Her works have shown nationally and internationally at venues including the Museum of Modern Art NY, Anthology Film Archives, San Francisco Cinematheque, and the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia. She holds a self-designed B.A. in Independent Visual Studies from Haverford College. Her work can be viewed at nishathossain.com

Laurel McLaughlin is a PhD Candidate in the History of Art at Bryn Mawr College and the Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway Curatorial Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. She received her bachelors from Wake Forest University, and MAs in the History of Art from The Courtauld Institute of Art (2015) and Bryn Mawr College (2017). Her dissertation research traces migratory identity formation in feminist performance situated in the United States and its strategies of dispersal in various forms of documentation from the 1970s to the 21st century. She has presented her research at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, Berkeley, and the College Art Association, New York, among others. Additionally, she has held research and curatorial assistant positions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Slought Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2000), 5.

[2] See Homay King, Virtual Memory: Time-Based Art and the Dream of Digitality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

[3] See Mieke Bal, Thinking in Film: The Politics of Video Art Installation According to Eija-Liisa Ahtila (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[4] See “How to Get Started,” Slought Foundation Website: http://howtogetstarted.org/.