Jamming the machine: the personal-political in Annabel Nicolson’s Reel Time
The Arts in History interdisciplinary postgraduate conference
15 June 2012, Roland Levinsky Building, University of Plymouth
British artist Annabel Nicolson’s film-sewing performance Reel Time holds a seminal place in the canon of 'materialist' film and expanded cinema. This live artwork, performed in 1972 and 1973, placed the artist’s body and her hand cranked sewing machine at the centre of a multi-sensory projection event that may be considered ‘proto-feminist’; exemplifying, avant la lettre, the women’s art movement in Britain, which emerged from the feminism of the late 1960s.

The theme that the ‘personal was political’ was central to the argument of the ‘second wave’ of feminists, who highlighted ways in which women were oppressed within the ‘private’ and domestic areas of their lives, including within their family, personal and sexual relationships, and housework. Reel Time enacts these key aspects of a woman’s identity, through a live encounter between a domestic sewing machine and a film projector.

Nicolson’s feminism is integral to her creative practice, and in the 1970s she adopted a stance that was increasingly feminist. During Reel Time, the audience could see the artist operating her sewing machine in three manifestations: as a film projection, as a shadow, and as a corporeal presence. In her performance, Nicolson continually pierced the long loop of film with the unthreaded needle of her sewing machine, until the material was too damaged to pass through the projector, thus ‘jamming the machinery’ - literally - of dominant masculinist film culture and wider society.

Through psychoanalytically informed feminist perspectives on art, cinema and gender emerging at that time, my paper explores the nuanced politics of production and reproduction embodied in this maternal artwork, and, with reference to Reel Time and Nicolson’s wider practice as an artist, I discuss broader contexts for her work and what it reveals about the burgeoning feminist movement and power relationships between women and men, during 1970s Britain.