This new doc profiles America’s fourth wave feminist artists

Meet the trailblazing women producing disruptive online and real life art, all of which is making more of an impact than you think

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Kate Durbin
Kate DurbinCourtesy The F Word

Next week the art world will descend on Miami alongside the wealthy elite to take part in what is becoming an increasingly shallow charade of all the things wrong with the art world. A feature film on experimental feminist art is the last thing you'd expect to find there but on Saturday 5 December at 1pm you can escape to the Coral Gables Cinema and get a taste of the true underground, the artists that not everyone will get, but that everyone should know. The F word, a new film directed by Robert Adanto, features some of America's most subversive feminist artists, producing disruptive online and real life performances that, despite their apparently marginal appeal, are more influential than you'd think. The film documents their practice and its impact on recent culture through a series of interviews, spliced with informative elucidation on their context by experts in the field such as Dr Kathy Battista, Sotheby's NY Director of Contemporary art and author of “Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970s London” (2012). Below, as we premiere an exclusive clip from the film, we speak to director Adanto about why this film is an unprecedented step for young feminist art.

Why is it important that this film gets seen?

Robert Adanto: The F Word is the fourth documentary I’ve produced examining contemporary art. So, I guess, on one level I believe the film should be seen because it champions art and art-making. In an ideal world, that would be reason enough for people to want to see it. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world like that. We live in a world where bad things happen. Traumatic, life-altering things happen, and I’ve spent the last decade speaking to visual artists whose works are often responses to sudden, sometimes cataclysmic change.

In 2005 I interviewed Wang Qingsong, Cao Fei, Xu Zhen, and other Chinese photographers and video artists for my first film, The Rising Tide. Several of them spoke about the confusion and ambiguity that characterise the New China, a rising superpower that had embraced capitalism and the commercial culture of the west. I made Pearls on the Ocean Floor in 2009, shortly after Iran’s botched presidential election, which gave birth to the Green Movement. Many of the artists, including Shirin Neshat and Parastou Forouhar, had come of age prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and lived through the challenges that came with Sharia law. My latest film City of Memory explored Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the lives and works of visual artists living in New Orleans.

Although the work of most of the artists in The F Word is more accessible than it was for previous generations of feminist artists, it remains largely unknown by the general public. Viewing The F Word will allow audiences to see female artists who are using their bodies as subject matter in a number of ways. Narcissister, for example, combines dance, performance and activism in her live works and video, while Ann Hirsch uses video and performance to explore the influence of technology on pop culture and gender.

“I felt that this combination of artists would help me paint a portrait of fourth wave feminism, as it was being discussed in 2014” – Robert Adanto

Who are the artists, and why did you choose to document their practice in particular?

Robert Adanto: There are 13 artists in the film: Narcissister, Ann Hirsch, Leah Schrager, Kate Durbin, Go! Push Pops (Katie Cercone and Elisa Garcia de la Huerta), Rachel Mason, Rafia Santana, Claudia Bitran, Rebecca Goyette, Michelle Charles, Damali Abrams, and Faith Holland. I felt that this combination of artists would help me paint a portrait of fourth wave feminism, as it was being discussed in 2014.

Was it tough to get them interviewed on camera? How did you approach each interview?

Robert Adanto: Things came about quite easily, I would say. The day after contacting Katie Cercone, I interviewed Go! Push Pops. Katie played an important role at the onset, connecting me to Narcissister, Rebecca Goyette, and Michelle Charles, and after those initial interviews, I did more research, and added Ann Hirsch, Claudia Bitran and Rafia Santana to the mix. A few others, like Rachel Mason, Leah Schrager and Faith Holland, I met at events in New York.

In terms of my own approach, I would say my training as an actor and my early introduction to art history and contemporary art influence me the most. As an artist and educator, I want to do my best to present people of all cultures in ways not normally seen in western media. I want to present the complexity of human experience with specificity, so I try to never judge my subjects. I allow them to speak and to share their feelings. I do my research and engage them respectfully with the aim of documenting their lives and circumstances, and I find that this is usually enough to create a mosaic of sorts, one comprised of individuals who have experienced similar events or circumstances.

Is this film a form of activism? 

Robert Adanto: No. That’s never been my intent when making these films. I’m not interested in making documentaries like Michael Moore does, exposing the Bush administration’s motives during the Iraq War. That’s activism, at least, when it comes to the general public. Black Fish and An Inconvenient Truth, that’s documentary as activism, in my opinion. I don’t have that kind of agenda when I approach a topic. A deep interest and a need to understand something more tends to fuel my filmmaking. When I choose a subject, it’s because I want to engage it, wrestle with it, study it, and find a way into that space so that I can create a vision of it, hopefully one that’s compelling and thought provoking. In the past, I think I’ve chosen topics of great complexity, and I want my audience to come away with a better understanding of what I’ve explored, but I also want to entice them to explore it more themselves after leaving the theatre.

What's your personal connection to the fourth wave? What do you think is defining feminism now?

Robert Adanto: My personal connection with women and men identifying as ‘fourth wave’ feminists began with the making of this film, although I will always refer to Pearls on the Ocean Floor as my first ‘feminist’ film. I’m pretty sure I will be examining some other facet of feminism in the near future. I find it an endlessly fascinating subject to study and explore. It’s like studying mythology, folklore, or Shakespeare. There’s no end point, and I feel like I’ve read the four major tragedies but have yet to touch Pericles or Cymbeline.

I think the fourth wave is ardent about gender equity. Today’s feminism has expanded its concerns beyond the oppression of women, that’s for sure. I would also say that today’s feminism, as I see it, is less of a monolith when it comes to ideology. There appears to be several feminisms in this wave and that’s its strength. It’s a growing, fluent dialogue that is evolving, and I don’t believe there is one source or organisation defining feminism today.

What can the next generation of emerging artists learn from this film?

Robert Adanto: Hopefully they will be inspired to get back into the studio and keep working. The artists in The F Word are tenacious about their practice, and they have never relied on institutions to get their work shown. They are architects of change and I have a deep admiration for what they are doing.

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