Cris Bierrenbach: The Uniform Shot

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The artist Cris Bierrenbach dressed in diverse uniforms, photographed herself, and then fired shots at the self-portraits, defacing each. “Fired” (2013) uses the different meanings of that word to provide a disturbing comment on labor, gender and precarity. Wedged into this project is a photograph of the artist in the uniform of Brazil’s national team. A given: women footballers in Brazil are vulnerable in the same way that ordinary women are vulnerable. That is not something you would assume if a male artist made this gesture to the national team. This work has me thinking about the relationship between gender and violence in experiences of/stories about the men’s game, and the violence that women encounter in the world as the background (the given) against which they play.  The artist is from São Paulo.

Jaskirt Dhaliwal’s Anti-Spectacular Portraits

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Jaskirt Dhaliwal’s photographs are very similar to those I’ve posted earlier by Andrew Esiebo and by Moira Lovell. In researching contemporary art about this sport, I’ve found huge differences between work engaging the men’s game and the women’s. Work engaging the men’s game tends to address men’s football as spectacle – thus Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s cinematic project Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, Jürgen Teller’s film of himself watching Germany lose to Brazil (Germany 0: Brazil 2), Harun Faroki’s Deep Play. One can see Lyle Ashton Harris’s project as a meditation on the politics of the football spectacle (e.g. Blow Up, see earlier post). The televisual spectacle, the crowds, the iconic figure at the center of it all – this is the subject of art about the men’s game. Women footballers are overwhelmingly isolated by the artist’s camera – rarely pictured as a team – and they are frequently photographed in street clothes, off the pitch, in ordinary and fairly anonymous settings. As Dhaliwal writes on her website, “The idea that some of the nation’s best female footballers could pass you on the street and you would not know them is a telling fact in a world where male footballers are ranked as celebrities.” Artists make this statement over and over again about women footballers. Nobody knows who they are. The woman sitting next to you on the train could be an international player, and you’d never know it. You’d never know it because you have to work hard to learn who these women are – trekking out to minor pitches in the outskirts of the metropolis to sit with a few hundred folks watching an untelevised match played between largely amateur athletes. That’s where you’ll find the women Dhaliwal photographed; their images are not splashed across the tabloids, broadcast on your televisions, or peopling advertisements for everything under the sun.

scene of a crime (football stadium)

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This weekend The Independent published a story about black lesbians in South Africa who have been raped, gang raped, murdered by men who claim this violence as a means for making women “straight.” Sexual violence is often presented as some kind of “punishment.” In these cases, the “punishment” takes the form and intensity of a lynching. Football often appears in these news stories, as gender non-normative women are found on the pitch, coming home from training, or in the stands – and assaulted. (See, for example, this 2009 Guardian story.) The above image is a photograph of the football stadium in Gauteng where Mvulina Fana was “left for dead” by her attackers. It is part of the artist Claire Carter’s series documenting the community targeted in these assaults. (The artist Zanele Muholi has produced a large and very moving body of work on this subject; there is, South Africa, an community of artists responding to this terrible crisis.)

The opening of “Crisis in South Africa”:

Mvuleni Fana was walking down a quiet alleyway in Springs – 30 miles east of Johannesburg – on her way home from football practice one evening when four men surrounded her and dragged her back to the football stadium. She recognised her attackers. One by one, the men raped her, beating her unconscious and leaving her for dead.

The next morning, Mvuleni came round, bleeding, battered, in shock, and taunted by one overriding memory – the last thing they said to her before she passed out: “After everything we’re going to do to you, you’re going to be a real woman, and you’re never going to act like this again”. (Patrick Strudwick, “Crisis in South Africa“)

To learn more, see, for example, Inkanyiso.org, a blog established by Zanele Muholi as a platform for people affected by this violence.

Watching The Belles

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The Belles was aired in January 1995 on BBC 1.  This is perhaps one of the most unusual documentary portraits of women athletes I’ve ever seen. It covers a few weeks of the team’s season, moving back and forth between conversations with individual players, match footage, and peeks into the team’s life together off the pitch.

There are startlingly intimate moments, as players speak about their relationship to the sport while, say, lying in bed. Or celebrate a big win in the changing room and, perhaps more scandalously, at a gay bar. My favorite moment: players on the disco floor, FA cup in hand and mirrorball overhead.

FA Cup win The Belles

The FA didn’t take kindly to the documentary: Belles captain Gillian Coultard had captained the England squad and was demoted after The Belles aired.

Writing in the wake of that grim period, Pete Davies describes the team as scarred:

When the Belles let a BBC crew make a documentary that was broadcast last year, they thought they were helping promote women’s football. Instead, they got a sharp letter from Graham Kelly about the tone of the programme, and are now scared stiff about talking to the media. Last month, they felt obliged to turn down Yorkshire TV when that company wanted interviews – and a dread of publicity, when you’re needing sponsorship, isn’t too helpful. (The Independent 11 March 1996)

The Belles – the documentary and the story of this incredible club – inspired a television series that ran for five years (Playing the Field). But in 1995, its airing left the team with a difficult burden.

This weekend the Doncaster Belles will play their last match in the Women’s Super League – the FA’s attempt at the establishment of a professional women’s league. The FA is off to a flying start in confirming at least this writer’s belief that you cannot leave the administration of the women’s game to men whose decisions are guided by sexism and greed.

The Doncaster Belles were relegated to the second division at the start of this season in order to make room for Man City’s women’s side.

I still can’t wrap my head around the FA’s behavior towards The Belles, except as a continuation of their behavior towards the team ever since the FA was  forced to deal with the culture of the women’s game in the early 1990s, when the Belles were a super-dominant club and a fine expression of the independence and autonomy of  women’s football in England.

Some football fans might agree that today, “professionalizing” the sport is synonymous with ruining it for fans and for young players. The story of the FA’s behavior towards this team, which hasn’t not played in the top flight since the FA began organizing such things, is fine evidence of that dismal truth.

To read an excellent overview of the FA’s treatment of the Belles, read Glen Wilson’s article on The Popular Stand.

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