For some 40 years, Tessa Hughes-Freeland has been, in her own highly idiosyncratic way, carving out an utterly unique place within the realm of art and film. Sometimes it makes sense, corresponding with cultural currents that have placed her work firmly within a recognizable context, allowing us to see her as part of something larger, be it the lineages of expanded cinema, underground filmmaking, postfeminist erotica, multiprojection psychedelic lightshows, and experimental film, or more crucial to her identity in the mid 80s as a seminal figure of New York’s Cinema of Transgression movement, and even now anew as a continuous presence in a film renaissance. That all these terms somehow fit her career to date, yet also completely fail to capture the essence of her oeuvre, might remind us why artists so loathe adopting labels. Perhaps we just need another phrase to encapsulate the entirety and evolution of her ongoing efforts to reposition the 20th century’s dominant language of motion pictures into something more elusive, migratory, subversive, and irascible. Better yet would be if we would grant those who work in fields not immediately associated with fine art practices the simple acknowledgment that they are not defined by medium or genre, but they are rather first and foremost artists regardless of their discipline.
Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s films are far more concerned with the issues of a fine-art practice—aesthetics, materiality, composition, and sensory experience—than what moviemakers in the traditional sense are trying for. In movies, all emotions ranging from the visceral to the sentimental are triggered by narrative. Even when she may at times rely on such a language of film, allowing aspects of dialogue or plot to slip in and out of her moving pictures, the sense of a story is almost incidental, pushed to the side by aspects so off-kilter and disorienting that any synopsis would be utterly superfluous to what could more properly be called effect. Simply put, Tessa is not a storyteller. I probably sensed this more than 35 years ago when I saw her early movie Baby Doll, a clandestine recording of two dancers at the old Tribeca topless bar Baby Doll Lounge talking about their lives and experiences working there. Since then the movie has been regarded as a classic not only for its revelatory disclosure of women’s perspectives but as a unique document of how sex workers were part and parcel of the downtown scene.
Baby Doll has gradually found its place in the canon of experimental film, and more recently even been included in the genre of documentaries, but it’s just so raw and real as to be a misfit for either, and as the girls try to make sense of their situations, viewers remain equally at odds trying to make sense of it as a document—the movie is just all elbows, thrusting and nonlinear, confusing, noisy, and dark like the world it conjures. In the nearly four decades that I have lived with this artist, I have as such never really asked her about what she’s working on in terms of what it might be about. Even when there is something to follow—a story of seduction and debasement culled from Bataille’s Blue of Noon (Dirty), the dehumanizing horrors of heroin addiction (Rat Trap), the rape of a nymph by a satyr (Nymphomania), or any of her elusive performance-based portraits of artists including Mike Bidlo, Rhonda Zwillinger, the Butthole Surfers, and Poppo—she’s never so much concerned with content as she is with process, and consistently forgoes the idea of illuminating an audience with meaning or resolution to rather subsume the viewer in someplace magically foreign, dangerously adrift, visually disquieting and, in essence, beyond words. In this way, there is probably no better example of her quasi-narrative technique than the obscure late-80s gem The Story of the Little Green Man, which is her most literal of stories few of us could actually read because it is a film of two hands speaking to us in sign language.
For many generations now, underground and experimental filmmakers have had an unfortunate relationship with the consumer culture and society of the spectacle from which their medium in fact emerges. Far too weird, personal, and idiosyncratic to ever find a place in commercial movies, they also fail in the marketplace of fetish objects, typically exerting a tremendous influence on their times but never financially rewarded in the way that painters often are. We see them, legends all, occasionally pop up in the galleries or even museums, but it is all too often a default compromise in their work, trying to fob off ephemera or visual relics and simulacra far from their real genius to reach an art market primarily concerned with objects. In this fundamental regard Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s ongoing investigation of the material aspects of her medium, penchant for radical combinative juxtapositions, postmodern appreciation for found footage, and deliberate steps to knit her works together through object-based assemblages while breaking down the authority of the picture plane via these presentations and installations, makes her a rare filmmaker able to communicate in the language of fine art. In this way, the hybridity of her film fans or her three movies projected on a folding screen, one of which (Secret Message) is in fact entirely text-based being made of Letraset, emphasize a physicality not associated with film while maintaining a way of disrupting normative perceptions that is central to all her work.
But all this is merely an explanation for what lies beyond clarity and definition. Tessa Hughes-Freeland continues to operate in a more flexible space of visual and linguistic slippage, somewhere intermediate, interstitial, and indeterminate. At times it all makes sense, but first and foremost it is about the sensory and sensual. In this way her work may follow in a lineage of filmmakers like Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Derek Jarman, but as it continually drifts off into the mesmeric she seems closer to the notion of spielraum—that has little correlative in the English language, but could be considered a kind of creative leeway or latitude that incorporates its own margin of error as part of the whole—suggested by Walter Benjamin in his lesser-known aside within The Promise of Cinema. This is how she works, beyond format, formalism, or function, a mechanical and handmade conjuring of light that casts shadows of doubt and delusions of hallucinatory unreality.