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Flash Review 2, 10-19: Healing
"Auto: Body": Activating Art

By Kimberlea A. Kressal
Copyright 2000 Kimberlea A. Kressal

Recently a critic for The Dance Insider wrote that "simply telling stories" isn't "art." Such a bold claim completely ignores storytelling's intimate relationship to the origins of dramatics. More importantly (to my own agenda) he ignored the significance of storytelling to the preservation of herstory, the bulk of which, for lack of other means, was passed from woman to woman through oral traditions.

He was in fact reviewing one of my shows.

Angered by his review I wrote back. The result of which was his published apology and proposal that I review "Auto: Body" at The Kitchen Tuesday.

Clearly, I accepted. I did so because I believe that women deserve honest and educated reviews of their work. I also believe that honest and educated reviews of work by women cannot be achieved through a patriarchal lens. We cannot create critical and artistic analysis of women's work unless the analysis is situated relationally (preferably, oppositionally) to the rigid definitions of art given to us by men.

The task for women, then, is to redefine our art. We must acknowledge that our art is inherently political and reevaluate its purpose as such. "Auto: Body" is truly a tribute to this necessity for new aesthetics and ways of thinking.

"Auto: Body," a documentary film by Virginia Cotts, Suzanne Lacy and Michelle Baughan, premiered October 17. The film exists as part of a three-year, cross-country project involving over a hundred collaborators, and hundreds of thousands of viewer/participants. It is the account of fifteen women inmates from the Bedford Hills Maximum Security Correctional Facility who collaborated on the transformation of three wrecked cars into sculptures embodying their stories as battered women.

Notes from the program echo throughout the film: "The near-demolished cars look like battered and bruised bodies. Decayed interiors evoke rape scenes. Front fenders with bashed-in headlights remind of being chased by a car without lights." The camerawork reiterates the metaphor; in one instance, a woman's personal narrative of rape is underscored by a scene of a car being gutted by a phallic demolition machine.

The form of the documentary falls secondary to its content. The documentary itself is homage to the sculptures, the sculptures homage to the women who created them. The documentary makes no attempts towards being "art"; the women are unprettified, unscripted, uncensored, and the few attempts at ironic juxtaposition of scenes are neither central nor necessary to the film's trajectory. No effort is made to sculpt the women's stories towards a higher aim... and yet, art prevails.

The poetry all resides in the process itself. Although gutting the cars and reinventing their purpose has become a rite of passage and process of healing for the artists, it has also become the metaphor for that healing. One woman stands at the back of a car and says, "That's the hope, right there. The spare tire."

Following the film Tuesday was a panel discussion with the producers, the artists, formerly incarcerated participants, and advocates for survivors of violence. The ensuing interactive discussion raised a multitude of issues, from the role mass media plays in violence against women, to the flipside of the wrecked car/battered woman metaphor that can be seen in chauvinistic auto magazines that feature near-naked females slathered on car hoods.

One of the most fascinating debates was sparked by the issue of ownership. Panelists grew animated as they discussed the power struggle inherent in a relationship between prisoners and visiting artists; i.e., who owns this art? Who profits from it, and at whose expense? It was unfortunate that there was no remnant of this very vital discussion present in the finished documentary. The erasure of this dialogue of power and appropriation made for a somewhat uncomplicated retrospective project that, though beautiful, is fraught with deeper societal implications.

Despite this, the documentary is overflowing with poetic, intelligent, and continuously disturbing stories from the women it features. The majority of the audience was moved to tears-- grateful for our privilege in being allowed to share these women's stories and triumphs; apologetic for our complicity in a culture of violence against women.

"Auto:Body" gives us more than "simply telling stories." It captures not only the depth, breadth and ubiquity of the stories, but also encapsulates the process. In essence, the film redefines "art," the way it MUST in order to embody its feminist form. It validates the idea that art by the marginalized and multiply-marginalized can and should serve two purposes: to heal and empower the artists through the process, and to educate and activate audiences through the product.


Kimberlea A. Kressal is the Founder and Artistic Director of the estro tribe, a women's performance collective dedicated to elevating the voices of women in art and in life. She is currently directing "Bitch Witch Vamp Tramp Virgin Whore Goddess," a feminist reinterpretation of famous female characters. The production will run December 1-16. To contact Ms. Kressal or the estro tribe you can call 212-613-6032 or e-mail


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