Moffitt Building Piece, May 1973

Moffitt Building Piece is the second film of the 21 films to be featured in Covered in Time and History: the Films of Ana Mendieta, an exhibition that will debut at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery in September of 2015. Moffitt Building Piece is a 3 minute 7 second long film, created in May of 1973, on super-8 film in Iowa City, Iowa. It was produced in conjunction with a set of 35 mm film stills entitled People Looking at Blood. (1) Moffitt Building Piece was created while Mendieta attended the University of Iowa and earned her second Masters degree in Intermedia. (1) It is considered to be the first of her video, performance and film based pieces responding to the death and murder of Sara Ann Otten on March 13 of 1973. (1)

Moffitt Building Piece opens with a view of 2 doors on the side of a building facing the street. The doors are white and dingy with large windows, the one on the right interrupted by closed blinds. Both doors have what appears to be a light yellow sticky note on their windows and the right door’s frame displays the numbers of the street address, 230. To the right of this door is a large storefront window, also shielded by closed blinds. Only a small portion of the window can be seen and the letters “H.F Mo” are printed on the window, cut off by the frame. The camera shifts and the sidewalk in front of the doors can be seen, there’s a dark puddle on the pavement in front of the left door. Tracks of liquid run away from the door toward the camera and pool in the corner of the uneven sidewalk square.

After focusing on this scene for 5 seconds the camera gradually zooms in on the puddle and the dark liquid appears to be tinted red. A person passes through the frame holding a collapsed umbrella. The top of her is head cut off by the camera and she walks quickly, not appearing to notice the dark area of the sidewalk. The camera again closes in on the puddle, this time a bit further and the dark spot reveals its self as increasingly red. Another person passes through the frame quickly, also gripping an umbrella. Their head is entirely out of the frame and it’s unclear whether or not they notice the red of the pavement beneath them. They exit the frame, which continues to zoom in on the puddle until the liquid takes up the majority of it. It is now clear that this liquid a dark red color and has pooled in the corner of the sidewalk square. The camera zooms back out to the original view before switching frames.

At this point, 40 seconds into the film, the picture changes to the view from a rearview window, revealing that Mendieta and her camera are situated within a car, parked in front of the doors they observe. The camera points out the window and locates the car on the right side of a city street, just in front of a busy intersection. A man carrying a newspaper passes the car on the sidewalk and the camera pans from the rearview window to the side window, the walls of the car interrupting the frame with bold black bars. The man approaches what is now assumed to be a pool of blood and looks down at it as he passes. People continue to approach and pass the blood, only a few pausing briefly. The camera switches back to the view from the rear window and holds there as a taxi passes through the intersection behind the car. Two more women and men pass, followed by a couple. The couple walks slowly by, turning their heads in sync to look at the blood, the man pauses to face the building. Three more people pass and then three girls walking together and carrying books pass by. One of the girls deliberately steps over the puddle and they all turn to stare at it as they pass. The frame pauses on the doors and blood for a moment. The light has changed from the film’s initial frame: the doors and sidewalk are cast in yellow as if the sun is setting. A woman appears in the frame standing over the sidewalk and peering down curiously. She pokes at the blood with her umbrella and backs away, a man quickly passes and the screen goes black.

I initially watched Moffitt Building Piece with no contextual evidence or prior knowledge of the film. I viewed it for the first time and recorded what I was observing, unaware of the location of the film in time or space, as well as what constituted the illusive puddle. My thoughts were first engaged in the relationship between the Ana Mendieta, as the camera operator, and the unknowing subject matter of passersby. I questioned the meaning of the subject matter’s oblivion and the ingenuous nature of their behavior. Recognizing that the behavior of the passersby would be dramatically different if they were aware of Mendieta’s presence, I attributed the necessity for unwitting subjects to the film acting as a social commentary.

In assessing what motivated Ana’s observation of these particular subjects, I recognized that all of the people in the film, who appeared long enough to examine, were white and could be typified as ordinary in behavior and dress, exemplifying the norm in the context of Iowa. The presence of the subjects outside the car, as the accepted social norm, juxtaposed Ana, who was situated with the camera and within the car, and her experiences as a Cuban immigrant ostracized within Iowa for her heritage and culture. Mendieta’s position, as a historically marginalized body observing the accepted passerby, reversed the scrutiny and surveillance placed on immigrants within the United States. In the years following her transplant to Iowa from Cuba, Mendieta had fallen regularly victim to this scrutiny and discrimination as a result of her marked presence in an area largely unfamiliar with Latin culture. (1)

After viewing it for the first time and assessing it solely based on my impressions, I consulted previous studies on the film and locating it within a sequence of events. In doing so, I was provided with information that largely altered my interpretation. Confirming that the puddle in the film was indeed blood, Moffitt Building Piece took on new meaning. For the film, she spilled animal blood and as well as pieces of meat, which can be seen much clearer in the People Looking at Blood Stills. She surreptitiously filmed people interacting with the blood, continuing beyond the duration of Moffitt Building Piece, until a maintenance employee from the building cleaned it from the sidewalk. (1)

Mendieta’s recurring use of blood as a symbolic material in her body of work is often seen as a product of her religious and cultural background. (1) She employed it in her work as an element of life, magic, power, violence and sacrifice. Within her familial religious practices, both Catholicism (her family was catholic) and Santeria (referenced by the domestic workers in her childhood home), blood was used as a crucial representation of transformation. (1) Through this spiritual influence, in combination with it’s violent implications, blood was established as a very powerful and charged symbol for Ana. In her explanation of the medium, she had stated, “I started immediately using blood, I guess because I think it’s a very powerful magical thing. I don’t see it as a negative force.” (1) In contrast, as illustrated in Moffitt Building Piece, it evoked a considerably lesser response in the common passerby.

This unformulated response, however, provides insight into the fundamental concepts and strategies behind the formation of this film and others that similarly employ the interactions with the viewer. Trained in Intermedia under Hans Breder, Mendieta was encouraged to adopt a working process of concept development, execution and documentation. (1) “She was”, as stated by Julia Herzberg, “intrigued with presenting fragments of a narrative to the viewer, their clarity abraded by elements of time or weather, making chance and the viewer’s pursuit and discovery of hidden details an important part of experiencing the work.” (1) Through maintaining invisibility in producing these films, Mendieta allowed for presenting the unwitting participants’ responses cohesively as part of the art.

In considering Moffitt Building Piece as the beginning of a series of works created in quick succession after the murder of Sara Otten, I recognized the conversation of the film to be less about social location and more closely related to the social response (or lack thereof) to violence, rape and brutality. The various responses of the passersby documented in the film depict an alarming degree of apathy and lack of curiosity towards the blood, which exists as a direct implication of violence. This social indifference observed serves both as a result of and a contradiction to the way in which violence is sensationalized and publicized in the media; a phenomenon which was demonstrated in the highly publicized case of Sara Otten, which ultimately reached no resolve. (2) A concern and awareness of this phenomenon is arguably what drove Mendieta to create Moffitt Building Piece.

A comparison to Moffitt Building Piece, even more direct than Sara Otten’s death, can be found in the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964. (3) Upon returning home from work late at night, Genovese was attacked and stabbed multiple times on the street outside her apartment. When someone yelled from a window above, her assailant fled the scene leaving her bleeding on the outside of her building. Though there were over thirty witnesses to the crime, over a half an hour passed without anyone assisting Genovese or calling the police. The assailant eventually returned to the scene where Genovese remained severely injured and it was at this point that he raped and killed her. Shortly following her murder the psychological concept of the bystander effect was popularized by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley. (3) They attributed the bystander effect, which occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, to a diffusion of responsibility and social influence. In the case of Kitty Genovese, the multiple witnesses concluded because of each other’s lack of action, that the danger of the situation was not a threat and their own help was not needed. (3) From this information I think it would be accurate to assume that the bystander effect also played a role in the lack of response to the blood in Moffitt Building Piece. Though it is nearly impossible to deduce whether or not this was a concept Mendieta intended to apply or was even aware of.

Within the context of the 1970’s, art and politics were largely intertwined; a lot of art works were cultivated in political ideology and much of feminist political action was propelled through the arts. Artists employed metaphor as a means for making accessible an understanding and sensitivity to political and personal realities. (4) Moffitt Building Piece creates an accessible platform on which to recognize and confront the way society perceives and responds to rape and rape victims. Historically, rape has been and continues to be a crime that is trivialized and often dismissed within the legal and social sphere. Systemic domination of men over women within patriarchal society has enabled the formation and spread of erroneous ideologies and myths surrounding rape. These misconceptions and fallacies about rape impact societal definitions, attitudes and behaviors, which in effect sustain crime, foster double victimization of rape victims and prevent the reporting and prosecution of rape. (5) Ana Mendieta, in Moffitt Building Piece, problematizes the overwhelming disregard society has towards this violence, through her use of blood as symbolism and her employment and documentation of uninfluenced, objective response.

Bibliography:

  1. Mendieta, Ana, Olga M. Viso, and Guy Brett. Ana Mendieta – Earth Body: Sculpture and Performance, 1972 – 1985;. Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, 2004. Print
  2. “Sarah Ottens – Iowa Cold Cases.” Iowa Cold Cases. Cold Cases Inc, 2005. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
  3. “Bystander Effect.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 1991. Web. 2014.
  4. Raven, Arlene. “We Did Not Move From Theory We Moved to the Sorest Wounds.” The Ohio State University Gallery of Fine Art Presents Rape: Dedicated to the Memory of Ana Mendieta, Whose Unexpected Death on September 8, 1985, Underscores the Violence in Our Society : November 13-December 13, 1985, Hoyt L. Sherman Gallery. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, 1985. 5-11. Print.
  5. Caringella-MacDonald, Susan. “The Mythology of Rape: Excusing the Inexcusable.” The Ohio State University Gallery of Fine Art Presents Rape: Dedicated to the Memory of Ana Mendieta, Whose Unexpected Death on September 8, 1985, Underscores the Violence in Our Society : November 13-December 13, 1985, Hoyt L. Sherman Gallery. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, 1985. 99. Print.
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