Beatrice Gibson: Plural Dreams of Social Life
by Daniella Sanader
Halfway through Beatrice Gibson’s Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs (2019)—one of two films by the London, UK-based filmmaker installed at Mercer Union this spring—a woman reads a letter to her yet- to-be-born daughter: “You will be a girl, but not like me. You will be Black, but not like me…. You will create something else, and that reassures me.” This woman, Diocouda Diaoune, was one of two members of Gibson’s extended network of friends and artists to become pregnant as they worked together on Gibson’s film and its earlier sister work, I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead (2018). Diaoune’s and artist Basma Alsharif’s words to their unborn children became woven into the fabric of Deux Soeurs, and both speak to the uncanny forms of doubling and distancing that swirl around experiences of pregnancy. In Alsharif’s words, “this thing that would be made of me but completely alien.”
Gibson has indicated that both Deux Soeurs and I Hope I’m Loud were prompted by the birth of her second child (her daughter Laizer) and the political imperatives of raising new lives in what seems like an increasingly precarious world. Installed together, both films chart these urgencies, situated by Gibson within a network of equally (re)productive gestures: poetry, filmmaking, citation and queer and feminist kinship. They come with an extensive bibliography, including: the poetry of Eileen Myles, CAConrad and Alice Notley, all of whom appear in the films reading their works; Gertrude Stein’s short screenplay Deux soeurs qui ne sont pas soeurs (1929), upon which Gibson’s eponymous film was based; and the final dance scene of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), recreated with frenetic joy by Gibson and her son Obie to close out I Hope I’m Loud. In one of the latter’s central scenes, Gibson, Myles, Conrad and Mason Leaver-Yap sit in Myles’ New York living room, sombrely listening to Trump’s inaugural address. Other political catastrophes anxiously flicker throughout I Hope I’m Loud: footage of riots, refugees, the Grenfell Tower fire.
Spoken in a low, melodious voice over footage that meanders in and out of focus, Gibson addresses Laizer directly, explaining her citational ethic: “I wanted to put all these voices in one frame for you, so that one day, if needed, you could use them to unwrite whoever it is you’re told you’re supposed to be.” Some reviews of Gibson’s work make mention of Sara Ahmed’s framework for considering citation as a reproductive technology, one with considerable implications for feminist scholarship. Citation is certainly employed throughout Plural Dreams of Social Life to similar ends: offering proximity, affinity, legacy in the reproducibility of writing. It’s the tenderness of carrying someone’s words within your body, the page of your text, the frame of your film. I remain wholly seduced by, and invested in, these powers of citational intimacy. However, in thinking through these works, I start to feel Diaoune’s and Alsharif’s assertions more deeply: like a child that is both of her mother’s body and also wholly alien, each act of citation carries its own negotiations with distance. Each cited line simultaneously forges connection between authors across space and time and becomes something new, distinct from its origins, wholly trans- formed by the distance it travelled.
This see-saw of doubling and distance is woven throughout the voices that Gibson features. In I Hope I’m Loud, Myles speaks of Stein’s radical act of self-doubling in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), writing about herself from the perspective of Toklas, in an effort to insert her own work into the flows of history. In a searing moment later in the film, Conrad looks directly at the camera and reads from a poem about their murdered partner, articulating how we can be exquisitely, painfully, simultaneously close and separate from those we have lost to violence: “each time I drink water dropped from clouds, water they burned from your body, I cut my hand to catch you.” Gibson’s cinematography sustains these dynamics: the frames of Conrad and Myles reading are close-cropped—tender yet claustrophobic—and the camera moves frenetically across Myles’ living room, an intimate space captured with little chance for my eyes to rest.
Though this citational/reproductive framework is used by Gibson to situate herself, her family and her community against the threats of our apocalyptic present, its distances occasionally feel like the work’s foil as much as its subject. Later in I Hope I’m Loud, there’s a dreamy, intimate scene of Gibson’s partner and their children in the bath—warm water, white skin and swirling constellations of coloured lights. This moment is intercut with footage of Black refugees clad in orange safety vests as they carry themselves across dark, impossible currents. In this case, I can feel the distance thick in the air, one that seems not generative and tender but rather difficult, irreconcilable, kilometres long. Is the frame of this work—like quotation marks enclosing a cited line of text—enough to support this attempt at doubling? Is there enough space to consider the distance that these bodies have travelled to get here?
I’m left thinking about Gibson’s directive to Laizer—that the voices of I Hope I’m Loud could be used to “unwrite whoever it is you’re told you’re supposed to be.” Perhaps the beauty in citation is that every line will always be too large, too unruly for its new home, its intended use. At its most evocative and moving, Plural Dreams of Social Life gives its voices room to exceed their frames, to accumulate other possibilities, futures and histories—like a child’s life beyond a parent. Yet, when articulating her own proximity to global crises, Gibson’s citational ethic occasionally seems less capable of carrying these nuances, these distances within its structure.
Halfway through I Hope I’m Loud, Myles reads the conclusion of their poem “My Box,” their face close within the frame. Suddenly, Gibson’s citational framework ripples with the largeness of their words: “Here this is mine. Don’t misunderstand me.”