Love Oscillation: Absence and presence
A pink screen. A woman's body writhing. Though you can't hear it in the GIF, water gurgles on the soundtrack as if the woman in the frame is caught underneath a body of water. This is the opening moment of Clare Ferra's Love Oscillation (2012), an experimental short film about the absence and presence of women on screen. Love Oscillation screened as part of the 2013 Re:Cinema project, an internationally focused event that examined "the notion of the cinematic in relation to contemporary visual culture."1 It was described as a film that "exposes the different layers of meaning present in a seemingly innocuous original."2 Explicating further, the program notes:
Pornography was used as source footage, and its utilitarian focus becomes overshadowed by a play of tension, between what is shown and what is revealed. The work functions as a game of hide and seek between abstraction and figuration. The viewer possesses a sense that the images before them are erotic, but they are never able to grasp the explicit detail as it becomes lost in painterly abstraction.3
In many ways, Love Oscillation is reminiscent of Naomi Uman's remarkable film Removed (1999). When constructing her film, Uman sourced images from a porn film from the 1970s. She removed the female figure from each frame with nail polish remover and bleach. The resulting film is coloured pink. Its frames are unsteady and its female figure is made up of shifting light. Removed seems to trace a woman's presence defined by absence. When I first saw this film I thought about the woman as a "blank void," but now, I'm not so sure. Isn't a void characterised by the absence of light? The word connotes nothingness and emptiness, darkness and blackness. The woman missing from the heart of Uman's film is not void in this way. Maybe we should think about her as full rather than empty. She shimmers and floats as light bursts through the edges of her body like fireworks, like an explosion.
The women in Love Oscillation also shimmer and float and burst through the edges of their bodies. In the opening shot, the woman writhes and the edges of her body seem to evaporate. This is amplified when the shot is mutated into a looped GIF. Writhing and evaporating, writhing and evaporating. Like Uman's removed woman, this figure is difficult to see. Her presence is constantly shifting and it does indeed "become lost in painterly abstraction."4 But again, the woman is not a void or an absence. Mutating fluidly across the screen, she is simultaneously a surface and what lies beneath. Like Uman, Ferra creates this brilliant image from cultural detritus. Love Oscillation is spawned from pornography, mutated from VHS to HD digital. In Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video Catherine Russell reflects on this practice of found-footage filmmaking as a process of creating art from aesthetic garbage. She argues that:
As an assembly of cultural detritus, found-footage filmmaking is an investigation of the margins of the media in which outtakes, trailers, B movies, and TV commercials are re-viewed as "documents" not unlike those retrieved by the Surrealists in the 1930s.5
The distorted porn iconography of Love Oscillation seeps across several borders. As the film's VHS aesthetic flows into the digital, the boundaries of the woman's body melt away. This shot reminds me of Lauren Bliss's description of the mash-up, a form of video creation "where the cinema bleeds into the Internet" and where "video practitioners mutate cinematic genres and adapt solid genre to the fluidity of the Internet."6
Russell argues that found-footage films always have "an aesthetic of ruins" because their "intertextuality is always also an allegory of history, a montage of memory traces, by which the filmmaker engages with the past through recall, retrieval and recycling."7 In this early shot, Ferra captures a trace of a woman on screen. She has a bare torso and is tightly framed. One hand sits beside her head. She leans backwards, grazing her breast with her other hand. The image is distorted, the woman's body is a blur. With its aesthetics of textured glass or moving water, the film shows us only an outline of her lines, lips and fingers. They are all made of mutating shapes: pink and red and white. Here Ferra reveals these images as traces that shift (indeed oscillate) before our very eyes. Is this a trace of history? Of memory? Of the cinematic past? Undoubtedly Love Oscillation presents us with all three in an image of female sexuality manipulated until it is almost (but not quite) unrecognisable. It is absent and present all at once.