Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines – can you really trust your television?

For years, the delivery of information about the outside world arrived via an unassuming black box, enthroned in the centre of the living room, flanked by furniture. The trusty TV still communicates a reliable picture of the most recent political disasters, that nail-biting football match, and the state of melting ice caps. Or does it? Artist Lis Rhodes isn’t convinced, so she has spent the past 40 years unpicking the structures behind moving-image media to uncover the hierarchies and inequalities perpetuated by narratives in the mainstream.

And yet, dotted throughout her first survey exhibition, Dissident Lines, at Nottingham Contemporary, we find living-room scenes with TV sets in the centre. The difference here is that these screens are playing one-minute films that Rhodes produced for Channel 4 in the 1980s. The shorts – collectively entitled Hang on a Minute – collage together images with poetic voiceovers. In Hang on a Minute/Swing Song, a photograph of the devastation of the Hiroshima atomic bombings is accompanied by reflections of a female survivor: “I can’t see any more / People run / I just follow / Voices cry / All calling names / So many voices.” Rhodes’s micro news bulletins replace the clear picture and monotone narrative usually associated with the communication of information, distorting delivery to disrupt expectations around what should be reported on.

Dissonance and Disturbance, 2012, by Lis Rhodes.

Dissonance and Disturbance, 2012, by Lis Rhodes.

In Gallery 1, Just About Now and Running Light, produced in the 1990s, take the alteration of factual film-making up a notch. Both race through an amalgamation of images, jumping between shadowy shapes and recognisable scenery that appears familiar but disappears so quickly it is hard to recall what you have just seen. Voiceovers echo and repeat, telling stories that never conclude. Just About Now explores the devastation of the socialist government in Yugoslavia, while Running Light investigates forced labour and slavery in America; even though a standard documentary approach would have revealed more information, Rhodes’s intense film captures the devastation, the desperation and the chaos of these lives.

In charge of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op’s Cinema in 1975-76, Rhodes experimented with the very nature of film itself. For Dresden Dynamo, she printed directly on to an optical soundtrack, creating a dizzying animation where the accompanying sound is the noise of the indents on the film; we literally hear what we see. Similarly, in Light Music, which fills the entirety of Gallery 2, we hear the series of flickering drawings printed on to the optical soundtrack. Although fascinating experiments aimed at challenging the absence of female composers in Europe, these works lack the impact of her later films.

At 77, Rhodes is creating the best work of her life. Ambiguous Journeys – a new commission – is the culmination of decades spent honing her craft. A 40-minute film that explores the inequalities created by war, migration and poverty, it unites shifting black and white visuals with poetry, Rhodes’s warm voiceover and shocking statistics. She avoids the frantic energy of Just About Now and Running Light, while maintaining the poetry and artistry that fades in Journal of Disbelief (a slideshow of corruption from the past 20 years). Paired with the List of Deaths compiled by United for Intercultural Action, to record how 35,597 migrants died trying to get into Europe, the new film shines a light on the horrors of an unjust world in a way that feels immensely personal. Over a swirling scene, Rhodes’s narration reads: “There is truth between the fragments / That will not fit but belong together” – an apt description of her own practice that has pulled apart the production of film-making to find a space for the lesser-told stories.


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