Steve Dwoskin : 15th january 1939 - 28th june 2012

Steve Dwoskin was born in 1939 in Brooklyn, New York City, into a poor family originally from Odessa. He contracted polio at the age of 9 and was left disabled. After studying art (under professors de Kooning and Albers), he attended New York University and the Parsons School of Design, and was a regular in Greenwich Village with the likes of Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Frank. He discovered experimental cinema watching Maya Deren's films and was influenced by the transgressive underground films of Jack Smith and Ron Rice. He later published the book Film is… on this genre, in a highly personal and activist style, at a time when the police frequently carried out Prohibition-style raids on venues where experimental films were shown, confiscating and destroying prints, and arresting organizers, film-makers and sometimes audience members. Such films by-passed the usual commercial channels and norms and were thus considered unacceptable and branded “pornographic”.

After working as a photographer and graphic designer, Dwoskin worked as an art director for CBS while at the same time producing his own films. The first of these, Asleep, was awarded a prize at the Venice Biennale. In 1964, he moved to Britain on a scholarship. He settled there and was the driving force behind an independent cinema movement (the London Film-Makers’ Cooperative). In the 1970s, he directed feature films which made him known outside the experimental movement and attracted support from cultural television stations and institutions (particularly Germany’s ZDF). After working for a time on subjective documentaries on artists such as photographer Bill Brandt or the Ballet Nègre company, his film-making became increasingly introspective as his mobility diminished.

In this work, the geographical division between New York and London is matched by a division between a true experimental period (tinkering with the components of film, framing and voice-overs, timing and repetition), and a dramatically and narratively more complex period.
But Dwoskin’s entire oeuvre is an attempt to explore the issue of voyeurism and of the relationship with the Other that Dwoskin’s human camera attempts to approach or appropriate in spite of his lack of mobility, thereby adding a whole new tactile dimension to the camera’s way of looking. Dyn Amo, which records a sleazy striptease stage show in which two young women are abused by a gigolo in a cruel and haunting sado-masochistic ritual. The camera casts a relentlessly flawed eye over the scene, which is so botched, off-centre and fragmented that, beyond the acting and the make-up, the camera subjects the helplessness of the actress to its unblinking stare, leaving her stripped bare on more levels than her mere physical nudity. The scene is so relentless and obstinate that the “victim’s” gaze is turned back on the viewer, who thus becomes the sadist. All of his early films (Alone, Trixi, Moment, Times For) subtly deconstruct the conventional system of the male gaze that would later be addressed in a gender studies context by so-called “conventional” cinema. Indeed, it was a discussion of Dwoskin (to whom she was close in London) that led Laura Mulvey to lay the foundations for this approach in a text that has since become essential reading in the field of gender studies.
Without turning his back on his earlier experiments with testing the boundaries, Dwoskin then made fictional films, including a superb adaptation of Wedekind’s Tod und Teufel, in which voids and slips are filmed during acts of speech, rather than the characters and their actions. Drawing inspiration from the writings of Erwin Goffmann, many films adopted confinement as their premise in order to observe the effects on those confined, and particularly their self-portrayal and seduction strategies and their power relationships (Central Bazaar). In some cases, Dwoskin staged his own disabled body (Behindert) or devoted an entire film to the disruption caused by disability in a standardized society, with comical results (Outside In).
Dwoskin’s closeness to surrealism (Aragon, Georges Bataille) and its forerunners (Jarry, Carroll) informed his approach to eroticism in his films of the 1980s (Shadows from Light on the photography of Bill Brandt, Further and Particular based on Bataille’s Ma Mère and Jarry’s Dr Faustroll). After films dealing with fear and pain then remembrance and childhood using home movie footage of his childhood capers (Trying to Kiss the Moon), he returned to experimentation using a digital camera and the computer he could work with from his hospital bed. This personal diary uses the narrative device of self-verbalization whereby the increasingly difficult situation of the enunciator (hospitalization, artificial respiration) can be blended with fantasies or chance encounters with visitors or care-givers, side-tracks, collages and reminiscences.

François Albera