Following on from her lauded series on the female body and community, Togethering continues the dialogue.
For half a decade, Carmen Winant has worked with Lesbian Feminist Separatist archives. These archives, personal and institutional, hold tens of thousands of photographic objects, some 40 years old, which document the freedom found in communities such as Rootworks and WomanShare in Oregon, and Adobeland in Arizona. These intentional communities were built on the ideals of feminist separatism – a belief that to succeed and achieve feminism, you must live outside of the patriarchal system. To live within this collective agency free from the presence of men and male children, was to live in ‘womyn’s lands’. “These women left behind structural patriarchy, capitalism and, in some cases, their own families to live communally and build their own worlds,” says the Ohio-based photographer. “They embraced a model of shared property, lovers, finances, governance and the hardship of rural existence.” Many arrived with little knowledge of how to live on the land, yet together, as a chosen family, they made it work. “They invented a new language to go with their new lives, menstruation became ‘moonstration’, history became ‘herstory’, they dropped their fathers’ names and took new ones inspired by the land, a process of re-identification,” Winant explains.
As a multidisciplinary artist working in installation and collage strategies, Winant uses found imagery to create a setting that asks the question, ‘What does a free body look like?’ Her practice, one that is messy, alive and impeccably thorough, interrogates this idea with an intense and energetic curiosity. Her work exists as a continuum, with each project profoundly interrelated. “It’s an informative flow that amounts to a larger practice,” she reflects. “Notes on Fundamental Joy very much arrived through My Birth , in that I was thinking about [the questions] – What does it mean and look like to build a family? What are women and feminist-centred worlds? What are women’s possibilities for representations therein?”
“Their joy disarms me. They live without the threat of sexual violence and harassment. Occupying a body that is neither a weapon or a target.”
Notes on Fundamental Joy is her most recent book, published by Printed Matter in 2019. Seeking the elimination of oppression through the social and political transformation of the patriarchy that otherwise threatens to bury us, Winant curates a visual manifesto using photographs from the Separatist archive, and explores notions of equivalence and safety, crucially examining how those experiences can be represented. Indeed, for these feminist, separatist communes, picture-making was at the centre of their liberation. The groups held workshops, known as Ovulars – a playful take on the etymological meaning of seminar, to spread seed, with ocular, connected to the eye – led by artist members including Tee Corinne, Joan E Biren, Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove, a poet and photographer respectfully, Clytia Fuller and Carol Newhouse. Together, they orientated women on how to use the 4Å~5 camera, how to develop film in their makeshift darkrooms, and how to publish their work. The camera became a tool for living. A visual strategy not just to reclaim how they were pictured and represented, but as an agent of radical optimism.
In these works, a camera often meets a camera, as tenderness plays out within the frame. Nude women photograph each other, together and in community; an astute reclamation of the inherent and problematic power dynamic of the medium. What is radical about these images is the ease with which their bodies move through space. Soft, untethered from shame and expectation, existing purely in each other’s loving gaze. “Their joy disarms me,” says Winant. “They live without the threat of sexual violence and harassment. Occupying a body that is neither a weapon or a target.” This potent redefinition of photography as a tool for collective rather than individual recognition feels dynamic in our current vernacular. As an artist who uses photography for all of its feminist potential, these photographs create a map for a world Winant was searching for but never knew existed.
In continuation of the exploration of these found families, Winant turns to physical closeness in her new body of work, Togethering. ‘Togethering’ is a word invented by the residents of womyn’s lands to describe the practice of living united. “The idea of being together as a political act founded in tenderness was really moving to me,” explains the photographer. “This was the genesis for the way I collected images, really thinking about bodies coming into contact with other bodies.” The resulting work is an immersive experience that seeks to translate the sensation of touch, with multiple lines of enquiry and concurrent impacts. Found images depicting bodies in protest, bodies making love, and bodies enveloped in paternal embrace; each experience bleeding into each other. “I’m trying to process pleasure,” says Winant. “How we account for, and represent the most ineffable thing. This deep internal state, and how it is teased up through being together and in the process of consuming each other, becoming one body.”
“The idea of being together as a political act founded in tenderness was really moving to me.”
Winant’s source material is vast. In this work alone, she gathered images from books and magazines on consciousness-raising, feminist healing practices, nudist colonies, the women explorers of Mesopotamia, civil rights liberation struggle and protracted lovemaking, to name a few. Many of the photographs are imperfect, scratched, stained and some scribbled over, which makes them all the more precious in Winant’s eyes. These are mounted together, with the shape and framing based on a mandala, a diagrammatic form that represents the cosmos. Each one unique, yet together building a constellation of touch, an open-ended potential of ‘togethering’.
There are so rarely hero images in Winant’s work; she favours multiple frames on a single plane informed by the work of Joan E Biren. JEB, as she prefers to be known, spoke out about decolonising patriarchal seeing, a reimagining of compositional strategies as feminist. “In her work, there is a unanimous tenderness but also no privileging of one or the other,” says Winant. “It does feel like composition and design strategies can be politically salient, meaningful and informative as much as the aboutness of the images themselves.”
In the context of a global pandemic, the axis of ‘togetherness’ was further galvanised. The lack of intimacy and community affected us all in some way, and Winant’s project metamorphosed to validate those vital human experiences. “We all feel it in different ways, depending on our geo global contexts, but the ground is moving beneath us,” she says. “I’m interested by this in my work, but also my life and my consciousness. The power and efficacy of political movements are what happens when we see 100,000 people from above, taking to the streets and looking like a single ocean. It’s powerful in action and in its visual potential.” The world impresses itself upon us, and like many of us in this moment, Winant is reckoning with the impact of her output. “I see people who are so brave, putting their bodies on the fucking line,” she says. “As I look at the women who left everything behind to live on the land, I think, ‘Would I do that?’ I don’t think so. There is a romance with the prospect of demonstrative bravery, to use your body as a political instrument in service of progressive values. Bravery, when paired with imagination, is explosive. That’s at the heart of it all. I’m always driving towards that in my work.”
If the feminist imperative is to believe that a radically different world is possible, Winant’s work exists as its evidence, while also teasing out the contradictions that remain unresolved. Though utopic in aspiration, these communities were often exclusionary in premise, mirroring the lack of intersectionality still rife in feminist movements today. The work asserts that there is no single way to read a narrative into the project, it is both joyful and contradictory. It is continuous ongoing dialogue emboldened by imagining as a primary life force. Winant asserts, “Art is not here, in this project or across my life, a tool for resistance, but rather a method of documenting an idea.”
Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.