Shape-shifting, slutswool, and spaces between
Paper presented at the f-word feminist research symposium hosted by the Faculty of Arts for University of Plymouth staff, postgraduate students, and guests
19 February 2009, Tamar Committee Room, Babbage Building, Plymouth University
The f-word symposium was organised by Liz Wells, Roberta Mock, James Daybell, Mairie Mackie and Kayla Parker, to allow us and other participants to share our research and engage in dialogue and debate. The overarching questions for the day were:

How does feminist research intersect with lived experience?
What can be achieved as feminists within the academy?
How is feminism still relevant today?
How can we share ideas and practices as feminists across disciplines?

In addition to my paper, I also presented a 25 minute film programme, Women at Work in the 1960s and 1970s, selected from broadcast news material held by the South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA).


This paper explores the interplay between practice and theoretical discourses arising from a first year of research as a doctoral candidate. I will draw on personal narratives and media artefacts to consider the relationship between metamorphosis and materiality in animation. Furthermore, with reference to the shifting sands of Caroline Leaf's animation The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (1977), based on Kafka's short story, and the cannibalistic sexual encounter of the clay figures in Surrealist film-maker Jan Švankmajer's Dimensions of Dialogue: part 2 (Mo┼żnosti dialogu) (1982), I will examine the ways in which feminist theory can illuminate the initial questions about subjectivity and gender emerging from my practice-led research.

Metamorphosis: what is it, and how does it happen? Animation, through frame-by-frame construction of the picture sequence - I am here following Paul Wells' "working definition" of animation - "offers an alternative vocabulary to the film-maker by which alternative perspectives and levels of address are possible (Wells, 2003: 214). Animation in particular lends itself particularly to picturing spatial movement or 'form in flux' as a dynamic flow of moving images onscreen. In practice, this is known as the technique of metamorphosis - in which the form depicted on the screen appears to deform and break down, and then reconfigures as a distinct and different form: or, shape-shifting.

Notes on film material screened
The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa
4min extract
Frame from Caroline Leaf's sand-on-glass animation The Metamosphosis of Mr Samsa - at the beginning Gregor wakes to find himself transformed into a monstrous beetleStill from the sand on glass animation by Caroline Leaf for The National Film Board of Canada, based on Franz Kafka's short story, in which a travelling salesman wakes one morning to discover that he has become a giant beetle.

"One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes. 'What's happening to me,' he thought. It was no dream."
(Kafka, 1915: 1)

As well as being a "particular kind of performance" Leaf states that she sees the process of making a film to be a metamorphosis which can take many years. She says that she was drawn to Kafka's short story because of "the issue about 'appearance' [...] I liked the movement from the humane to the monstrous, and I liked the idea of 'metamorphosis'" (Wells, 2002: 105).

Dimensions of Dialogue: part 2 Passionate Discourse
Still from Jan ┼ávankmajer's film Dimensions of Dialogue: part 2 - clay figures of a man and a woman mingle in a erotic embraceImage from part two of Švankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue - a better Englisg translation from the Czech is ‘possibilities of discourse’. Binary opposition: a pair of human figures, realistically sculpted in grey clay, are seated at opposite sides of a wooden table. Each is blank-faced, hairless and naked. Gender is denoted by the presence of full breasts upon the torso of one, the gender of the other figure is denoted by his lack of breasts, and slightly 'heavier' features. Švankmajer "explores the bizarre, the sensual, the dreamlike and the dark, hiding under surface of the mundane reality" (Uhde, 2007: 66)

The clay performs the figures of man and woman. They mingle and combine in an orgy of metamorphosis. They are made of the same material. Something unwanted is left-over.

White Body
2min loop (silent)
Still from Kayla Parker's film White Body - the white doll is fringed with waving white threads or ciliaFrame from the second section of the film showing the first white body, moulded from a left-over strip of Play Plastik white modelling clay: "it can be used over and over again to provide hours of endless fun, creativity and self expression" (Pack instructions. non toxic 'Art Box' brand, for Tallon International Limited, Coventry 2008).

The body as metaphor: Judith Butler argues that the body is a "variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated, a signifying practice within a field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality" (Butler, 1990: 139).

Barbara Creed states that it is no surprise that Freud linked looking at the Medusa to the horror experienced by the child's sight of his mother's genital area, because: "the concept of the monstrous-feminine, as constructed within/by a patriarchal and phallocentric ideology, is related intimately to the problem of sexual difference and castration" (Creed, 1993: 2).

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