Dead Subjects Speak: Silvia Kolbowski Presents her 2010 video, A few howls again?

‘What happens when people feel incapable when reacting to a degree of power that seems impossible to contest?’ – Sylvia Kolbowski on A few howls again?

Complementing the current MA on ‘Art and Psychoanalysis: Fifty Years of War in the Time of Peace, 1960-2010’, taught by Professor Mignon Nixon with Visiting Professor Juliet Mitchell (University College London Psychoanalysis Unit), Silvia Kolbowski is an artist based in New York and her stop-motion silent film A few howls again? explores issues of political resistance focusing on the German journalist and political militant, Ulrike Meinhof (1934-1976).

Following the recent Gerard Richter Baader-Meinhof series as the Tate Modern, Kolbowski’s research focuses on the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof group, members of which were active in West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s. The group’s radical ideologies, which originated from the belief that a number of former Nazis continued to hold positions of power, were and are extremely controversial. The figure of Ulrike Meinhof is endlessly fascinating – a daughter of pacifist parents, she became highly respected journalist, then went underground once becoming involved with the RAF. The terrorist and extreme activities of the group led to their imprisonment and eventual deaths/suicides. Ulrike’s body was photographed after her death in 1976; an image that both Richter and Kolbowski employ.

Kolbowski calls for a move back in history to provide commentary of the present, particularly current issues surrounding what she sees as a right-wing shift in the U.S.. Baader-Meinhof is presented as a key moment of resistance in history. We are reminded of events in West and East Germany; the 1963-6 Frankfurt/Auswitz trials; the 1968 student uprisings etc. before being shown A few howls again?

The film itself is short at just ten minutes, and silent throughout. We are given a set of quotes by Ulrike, the media and other sources together with the black and white photo of her body. The body becomes coloured and slowly turns to look directly out at us. This doppelganger, this recreation of her image as a physical manifestation is not only disturbing, but highly sensitive in relation to the media-infested cult image of Ulrike herself: she speaks to us, complains that she has not been allowed to ‘rest’ even after death. We read a series of accusations that were levelled against her at the time: a militant; an unfit mother; ‘she wasn’t strong enough to bear the escalation of war.’ All the time the focus is on her mouth, her words: ‘my kind of violence made people nervous.’ This is a delicate issue, something that Kolbowski is certainly aware of in the presentation of what I would describe as a film-essay.

The restless figure of Ulrike, never left alone, always mythologised, is violently shaken awake by the erratic stop-motion technique of the film. We are simultaneously shaken into consciousness through these shocking images of a ghoul-like Ulrike, into questioning current acts of political resistance and the state handling of it. Kolbowski reiterates the relevance of the RAF and Ulrike’s story to us today. Since 9/11 the symbolisation of such violence is regularly taken as a threat to the American people, hence the difficulty for Kolbowski in finding a space to exhibit her work in the U.S.. We project our own anxieties and ideas onto the image of Ulrike and, thus Kolbowski’s piece. We project our own soundtrack, our own voice onto this silent film and in doing so become acutely aware of our relation to Ulrike both as a symbol and as an individual.

Visit Prof. Julian Stallabrass’ Flickr site for accompanying images: