Susan MacWilliam: Kathleen, 2014, video, 33 minutes

To view online:

An approximation of a video by still images and citation from the archival sources has its disadvantages. For example: loss of the rhythm at which each image stays on screen, the uncertainty that words and images are synchronous or not. The one advantage I cherish is that whoever reads this text has also a fragmented reminder of the video’s visual part.

The intentional fallacy notwithstanding, MacWilliam’s  i n t e n t i o n  was  a vague proposal  that the video subject/ content  “ will be some obscure or overlooked history”.  It also was a defined concept. When the Derry –Londonderry City of Culture Commission  was awarded to her she never heard about the writer Kathleen Coyle (1886 – 1952), who born in Londonderry  lived in Liverpool. London, Dublin, Antwerp, Paris and New York, and died in Philadelphia. Yet, the writer became the subject of this video.

KC Book Collection 15

MacWilliam searched and studied manuscripts, personal letters, unpublished poems and scribbled notes. She also collected Coyle’s books and  found some  first editions, for example A Flock of Birds, 1930, with writer’s personal inscription to Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime minister in the UK( information added by the artist).

KC Book Collection 10

I have not read Coyle’s 1943 autobiography  The Magical Realm, which MacWilliam claims is a description of Coyle’s childhood in the then Londonderry.

KC Book Collection 14

Nevertheless, one of the voices on the video has been given the first person narrative, and effortlessly has created the illusion that the writer is speaking of her childhood, recalling an accident,  being in a hospital before her age of three years,  or  watching  her dog  Major to die.

Kayhleen  woman stare

The female voice speaking about herself forged a false but convincing belief/illusion. The “form inwardly formed”( H. Woelfflin) is therefore a fiction with authentic quotes, pronounced by three persons with Derry accent. The voice over, off camera, contains also male voices, and chorus.  This video has no right to silence, only when the sequence of views of nature appear, there are silent moments between narration. Why is the voice given such presence? There may be several reasons, including the desire to use the found thoughts, as   the authentic link to the writer. Such a desire overwhelms invention, and in this case, seems to govern the visual elements that were selected from an archive of films. That desire to forge authenticity also determined the duration of the video.

An almost mechanical use of scattered verbal fragments nonchalantly repeated, often in jarring juxtapositions is  the strategy  MacWilliam has  developed most specifically in the video F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N, on the subject of seance room activity, made for the 2009 Venice Biennale ( accompanied by a book of essays and images, Remote Viewing).

The Kathleen  narrative does not flow from beginning to an end, it meanders, it moves back and forth, both in its visual and verbal layers. That forges a distance between what is given and what is not accessible. Both the voices and “portraits” are not documents, standing for the original they evoke strong oscillation between belief and doubt.  Three uncanny coincidencies, pointed out to me by the artist in an email,  connect Kathleen  to MacWilliam’s previous work. Without her earlier work, she would not recognise the significance of little pieces of information she glanced at while browsing the archive of documents:

  • In 1950 Kathleen Coyle  wrote for  Tomorrow , a magazine published by Eileen Garrett’s publishing house  Creative Age Press.  Garret is a subject of MacWilliam’s  2006 video Eileen.
  • The second connection is related  Coyle’s collaboration in London  with WT Stead, a journalist  interested in spiritualism, who drowned with the sinking of the Titanic, and kept appearing at TG Hamilton’s Winnipeg séances. Material found in the  archive at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg appears in MacWilliam’s  F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N.
  • The third connection consists of a note written by Kathleen Coyle’s daughter, a  reference to the Duke University, Durham, NC : “ Once you are there in that ESP atmosphere, the writing of your book should go well”. MacWilliam conducted her research there in 2011 and two years later she presented  the results in  An Answer is expected.

As mentioned above the video is structured as fragmented and repetitive narrative in first person and in  images that provide a visual parallel to what is heard.

Kathleen open eyes

The introductory duet presents a pessimistic tone: the writer claims that she inherited “unwantedness” from her mother, and that all is “locked in the pattern, lost in the pattern”, words picked up again by a chorus of  voices.

Kathleen girl

Seemingly listening and observing something in front of her, the  woman may find it difficult to unravel the sound of many voices  repeating  goingtogettoDukesoon  –  a fragment from the note left by the writer’s daughter, who also mentions cards. No wonder that the cards appear too.

Kathleen cards

The image foregrounds one word in the literary source: cards.   It  works as  a universal sign for gambling, street magic and entertainment.  Its character fits the polyphony mode of the sound track. Having said that, I cannot escape a parallel between this whole video and a Baroque music, specifically the Fugue.  For example the sequence of images in the introductory part is made up of :the eyes-the woman- cards- the woman-hands-the woman- blue birds pattern.

Kathleen girl eyes shut

Kathleen Hand 2 Kathleen hand 3 Kathleen hand

Kathleen birds

The sound  repeats words of loss and pattern – and also birds song.

The second phrase starts with the woman having her eyes open, and ends with her falling asleep, (into a trance?). Pen and ink, and a typewriter appear briefly , while the narrator insists that while all may be lost, nature can never be left behind.

Kathleen typewriter

There are long quotes  , and motives from the first part re-appear, e.g. cards, the woman… I perceive the repeats as  k n o t s  to hold together the fragments.

Kathleen many eyes

At one point we hear about the writer’s weight at birth , followed by the the account of her being at hospital ( “I was 28 months old”), left alone and watching her grandmother leaving.  The visual track goes into a feverish tempo of black screen followed by white screen, repeated three times, ending in a pulsating strip across the screen.   The verbal knot for this sequence connects the story to the ideas of the adult narrator, expressed in repeated unfinished sentences, e.g. ” locked in the system”, “furious sadness”, “strangeness.

The video then follows words that describe nature:

Kathleen flowering meadow

It is not a romantic or a nostalgic view – the visuals celebrate renewal, as if negating the personal accident story by a greater idea, mentioned later in words ” to comprehend the values of life”.

Kathleen blooming flowers

If the leading motif of the first part of this work may be shortened into “dust-to-dust” – the second into “nobody-nothing-nothing -at-all”, the third passage  is again ” locked- in- the pattern, locked- in -the- system”.  A new fragments are suddenly added – a handful of them; the sound of running water, a warning” before-reality-fractures-us”  in a seemingly maddening incongruity with images of rosebuds, baby swimming, an image of a laboratory interior, a scale, night sky, satellites floating, train…

Kathleen night sky stars

Kathleen scales

Kathleen baby

Katheleen flowerbeds

After seventeenth appearance of the woman’s face – and after the story about the dog being buried in the field of daffodils,

Kathelln daffodils

the content reverts to the ideas of strangeness,  of separation, of being “different in my family”.

Kathleen  man reading

The image of man reading appears when Kathleen speaks of her alcoholic father, whereas the rose buds are synchronised with her adolescent self  thinking about virgin birth.

Kathleen roses

The face of the woman, the empty screens black and white were given the highest frequency of appearing. What do they foreground?  In short – a person’s life story with gaps in memory , e.g. after recalling an accident and being in a hospital, the female voice says “I remember nothing about it”.  The writer chose a paradox – giving me a choice what I wish to believe.

My reading gives me a possibility to sum up the video as a cyclus of short stories ( or musical phrases or something like Schubert’s Songs) about  a woman’s  power of observation,  about a person “born in the life, then suspended”. It is acted, it is illustrated,  the research in a genuine archive ended as a collage of verbal and visual elements softly knotted together by elastic ropes of Kathleen’s memory. Wittily these knotted strings  raise the question what is real. MacWilliam avoids the trap of logico-positivism in preference to intentional horizons of phenomenology. Her decision to have episodes to re-occur, to repeat, posits this video near to Nietzsche’s view on existence. The low definition  of accuracy together with oscillation of the true and the assumed subscribe to the current model of the universe ( ever so slightly guessing with a hand of fate on our shoulder).

Kathleen hand on shoulder

——————————————————————————————-Images courtesy of Susan MacWilliam.

About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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