Maria Klonaris – Katerina Thomadaki

Dissident Bodies: Freeing the Gaze from Norms
On a Cinematic and Visual Arts Practice

In the first part of this paper we will attempt an overview of our engagement in feminism and gender politics through our cinematic practice and more precisely our "Cinema of the Body". In the second part we will focus on our approach of intersexuality as a radical gender identity, as we have developed it in The Angel Cycle, a vast series of installations and videos that we are creating since 1985. In the last part we will briefly discuss the idea of the monstrous body as it appears in our latest work, Sublime Disasters, a digital photography exhibition that took place at the Galerie Donguy in Paris this year.

We have titled this paper "Dissident Bodies". A dissident body implies a dissident subject. Dissident bodies-subjects are rebellious with regard to a norm. A norm implies a socio-cultural ideology based on exclusion. Excluded subjects are at the center of our universe.

The tyranny of normality is exerted at first through the gaze. The gaze is educated as to look for the norm – whatever that norm may be – and to decode subjects through their conformity to it. Non-conformity generates immediate rejection. Even a person who is trained intellectually and ethically not to practice exclusion may have to struggle with the reflex reading that the first viewing of different Others may provoque. As a visual practice our work is primarily concerned with the gaze. Our films are often silent refusing all logocentric processes. The significance is entirely carried by the image – and, eventually, sound. As we constantly work on the body, the ethical gaze is constantly at stake. Our own gaze on women, on intersexuals, on conjoint twins is at stake, and, through the mediation of our gaze, the spectators’ gaze is questionned. Consciously and unconsciously we have been elaborating reflexes and strategies in order to free the gaze from the burden of norms – cinematic norms, visual norms, gender norms, anatomy norms.

In our collaborative practice since 1976 we have been using various kinds of technologies ranging from light media (Super 8 film, polaroid photography) to high tech (computer image and sound processing). We have been actively involved in the experimental film movement in France where we have initiated the "cinéma corporel" (Cinema of the Body) in the mid 70's. Our expanded cinema performances have evolved into environmental multimedia installations. Working with still and moving images, projected images (film, slides, video) and photography, we intermingle and alternate manual, mechanical, chemical, electronic and digital processes. Our practice is deliberately intermedia. It confronts and hybridates media.

We realize that, regarding cinema, practically all the research in gender studies represented in this conference is turned towards industrial cinema and mass media. We think it is essential for women's theory to deal also with the work of women experimental filmmakers, from Germaine Dulac to Maya Deren and then to the groundbreaking contribution of women in the experimental film and video art scene from the 60’s onwards. We believe this is an emblematic field, emblematic for the participation of women in the redefinition of identity and language. Also, European work being always much less known than North American, for the obvious economic reasons that we know, it offers a vast corpus for study.

In 1977 we published a text under the title "Experimental film and women's creation" - this was translated in Italian in a volume edited by Piera Detassis and Giovanna Grignaffini in 1981, Sequenza Segreta. Le donne e il Cinema [1]. In this text we posited that experimental film is a more appropriate field than industrial cinema to develop critical and innovative gender reflexion. Industrial narrative cinema, with its direct dependence on a market and its basic capitalist structure, is a solid mirror of maistream masculinist ideology, not only through its language and content, but also through its productive processes. If feminist theory deconstructs the social background on which industrial cinema is built, avant-garde filmmaking deconstructs its very visual foundation. An independent filmmaker has no obligation to conform to cinematic norms of any kind. Independent production, absence of censorship, and easy access to light technologies are all factors that allow both radical thought and different visual languages. Many parallels can be drawn between women gender activists or theorists and avant-garde women filmmakers and there is much work to do in order to connect academic and artistic communities. We hope that this presentation, and, more widely, this conference may trigger some further connections. All our work is concerned with building that kind of bridge between an avant-garde visual practice and political reflexion on gender.


The first period of our work, running roughly from 1976 to 1986 is marked by our concern with body and mental identity, sexuality and the unconscious. In an experimental film scene then internationally dominated by structural cinema, a minimalist cinema that evacuated content, our "cinéma corporel" comes as a violent reaction, recentering the meaning around the female body. During that period we have been related to the feminist and psychoanalytical movements, as well as to the Body Art movement (which all more or less collapsed in France in the 80's). Our practice has developed in dialogue with these movements, although constantly opposing their normalizing or hierarchical aspects.

A crucial key for the reading of our work is that we are a "double woman author". We have been co-signing our art works for twenty-five years. As a double author we introduced the idea of a reciprocal gaze, mutually photographing and filming each other. To pass in front of, and behind the lens - this eye open to the world - is to destroy the classic dichotomies of subject/object, acting/transcribing, seeing/being seen. The alternative of a chiasmic gaze that we practice implies a non-hierarchical relationship. The (female) couple is apprehended as a minimal social cell where the work of ideological transformation begins. The eradication of power relations within this structure leads to something that goes far beyond an egalitarian relationship; it is the ground that allows to each one to expand her potential in freedom.

In France, in the mid 70’s we have inaugurated the trend of self-depiction of women in film. This trend, which begins internationally in the 40’s, deals with the central question of identity and body language. The confrontation of women artists with their self-image and the exploration of their/our subjectivity goes beyond the personal level and meets collective preoccupations. Thus our first field of engagement was with identity and interpersonal relationship. Throughout all the films and performances of the Body Tetralogy (1975-1979), it is the woman/self that is questioned, meditated upon, put into images. Self-representation is double: we look at ourselves and at the same time we look at the Other, the I and the Other invade simultaneously our mental and visual space. Through this process, we have developed an alternative to the male scopic domination embedded in traditional cinema, in particular regarding women.

In our "Cinema of the body" the woman is subject of the gaze, but she is also subject when she is looked at. The woman is subject on both sides of the camera. As viewing subjects, each one of us inscribes her gaze on the image and her energy on the camera movement. As viewed subjects, each one of us projects on her body her interior images, using the surface of her body as a screen. Identity is not presented through the mediation of a third person, but enacted by ourselves. To make this explicit we have introduced the term actante, by opposition to actress. An actante embodies her own mental images, moving toward a validation of signification by the body. Relationship with language is thus inscribed within the field of relationship to the body. The body, subject of disguises, transformations and metamorphoses, brings about the transmutation of material into mental, and mental into material. In the space of the body the fusion of abstract and concrete consumes itself, the mental image becomes spatialised thought. It is a "philosophical state of matter", where the unconscious clothes itself in the appearances of the body, the I/within shows itself as I/outside, and the language of the body materializes the language of the unconscious.

The Cycle of the Unheimlich (1977-1981) initiates a movement from woman/self toward the concept of the feminine. In this cycle we expand the process of self-depiction from ourselves to other women. Ten actantes participate in the exclusively female "cast" of the four non-narrative feature length films that compose the Cycle of the Unheimlich. In these films we attempt to rediscover, to invent, the traces of an irreducible feminine, in possession of itself, autonomous, and not the mirage produced in the fantasy of the male, who attempts to turn it into myth, while preserving it in a state of subordination. The feminine begins to speak as it puts itself into images. In the final analysis, we are just dreamers of images. In the depth of every image, we ourselves are being born.

Unheimlich, the term that Freud explored [2], denotes the uncanny, the strangely disquieting, the familiar turned strange, the repressed, which reveals itself anew. "One terms unheimlich all that should remain secret, hidden, but which manifests itself"(Schelling) [3]. Associating the feminine with the repressed, we posited the reemergence of the feminine as unheimlich. What should remain hidden makes itself manifest: the feminine as a disrupting force ruining gender order. Opposing Lacan’s statement "woman is not entire" ("la femme n’est pas toute"), we have staged the feminine as "a whole" --- no part, no lack, no insufficiency [4]. Entire, autonomous and therefore ultimately double gendered. That feminine, which is present in ancient mythologies, surges up from the unconscious. Does this imply that the feminine and the unconscious are similar in substance? "It seems to me that the first question one should ask is what the repressed feminine could be in what is currently termed unconscious... Whether the feminine has an unconscious or is the unconscious."(Luce Irigaray) [5].

The question of the unconscious and the imaginary, our mental constitution as women subjects and as culturally complex subjects is another crucial issue in our work. This multiple strangeness - women and transcultural subjects, chronic outsiders of the occidental mainstream culture - founds our visual universe and the structure of our filmic and installation language. Our films may produce a disorientation effect through their strangeness, their non belonging to known codes. Out of the cinematographic and mass media system, out of narration codes, out of coded representations of women, out of hierarchical structures, out of all these recognizable patterns, far from an imaginary heavily dominated by mass media and U.S. science fiction models, we explore an Other Topos, which is a very particular articulation of cultural memory - Greek, European, or extra-occidental - and social engagement, a mixture of poetics and politics. Our films address the spectators' creative psychic and intellectual potential. Something of her/his own ungraspable.


After many years' work on self-representation, on the feminine as "a whole", we have approached androgyny as a constituent of both sexes. Since 1982, the "static order of sexes" (Deleuze-Guattari) is pushed into crisis in our works through sexually complex and unstable figures:

- The Hermaphrodite - a sexually synthetic figure

- The Transvestite - a sexually inversed figure

- The Angel - a sexually intermediate figure.

The subject we have named "the Angel" comes from a medical photograph and is an intersexual subject with a female sex and a male body construction. With this figure our exploration of the feminine shifts into a disruption of sexual polarities and fixed gender positions. This body makes sex appear as an in-between and could evoke a state before or after sexual difference: a pre- or post- gender body, a collapse of gender.

We have associated this particular intersexual figure with "the Angel". The containment of the posture, the mystery of the blindfolded eyes, the emanating silence confers a transcendental quality on the figure. As if s/he transcends the medical context to make a philosophical statement on the limits of human gendered condition. Intersexual individuals embody the contemporary questioning of sexual dichotomies. Their bodies inscribe in human history something of a late twentieth century private and public dream about a restructured sexual identity --- double, multiple or neutral.

If the Hermaphrodite incarnates the ancient myth of sexual duality coexisting in one single body, if the transvestite reverses sex displacing it towards its opposite, the intersexual questions the very constitution of sexual binarity. Our reflexion on gender has progressively focused on the intersexual figure, "the Angel", because s/he formulates the most radical position: neither a synthesis, nor a reversal, but an in-between in transit. The trespassing of the dichotomy male/female embodied by this figure is interconnected with the trespassing of other dichotomies, such as body/spirit, subject/object, I/Other, I/World.

With The Angel Cycle what we subvert in the territory of the body, the domination that we subvert, is the binary norm masculine/feminine = man/woman. A norm, which considers the two sexes as solid, rigid categories, opposing poles of a hierarchical dualism. A norm, which imprisons individuals in a univocal, coded and irreversible gender construction. But the impermeable frontier between sexes is an illusion. The obliged equivalence between genetic, biological, mental, social and cultural sexe, has proved to be a ruined hypothesis.

In genetics, mosaicisme, a medical term which designs mixed combinations of sexual chromosomes, blurs the frontier between masculine and feminine. We know now that genetic codes determining sex are not uniquely the clear-cut pairs XY and XX, but also many composites, like XXY, XY/XX, XY/XXY, XY/XO, XX/XO, etc. It seems that these chromosomal variations correspond nearly to 10% of Earth's population. On the other hand, genetic codes do not always coincide with sexual identity, socially and legally defined from the aspect of external sexual organs.

The term "intersexuality"[6] encloses cases of "genetic mosaicism", as well as associations of gonads of one sex with secondary sexual organs of the other, hybridations of sexual characteristics belonging to the two sexes or even human hermaphroditism, determined by the simultaneous presence of ovarian and testicular tissue in the same individual. All this to say that sex, like gender, is not a unified field.

During embryogenesis, sexual differentiation is preceded by a common, undifferentiated genital structure. Jack Butler asks this question: "Does the embryological state of undifferentiation suggest the possibility of a collapse of gender into a bisexual and androgynous model?" and evokes "a more complex, layered concept of sexuality, where the sexes become transparent and can be seen one within the other" [7]. We can transpose in the context of sexes a phrase by Bergson about psychological states: "in fact none of them begins, nor finishes, but they extend into each other"[8]. The idea is to replace the notion of boundary by that of interconnectedness and permeability, the solids by the fluids, the opaque by the transparent.

According to the new topological models developed by mathematician Raymond Poincaré, forms are not fixed things, but potentialities or evolutive events. We add: the same goes for sexes.

Within the field of social movements, feminist theory attacks socio-cultural determinisms clung on biological sex. These determinisms, which legitimate the domination of the female by the male, have long been considered as "natural". Their naturalness would derive from the biological specificities of both sexes. Their cultural foundation, since centuries, would be the identification of the feminine (therefore of woman) with "matter" and of masculine (therefore of man) with "spirit".

The Aristotelian model of a unique sex, the male, of which the female would be a failed version, in other words the male body seen as ideal or norm, has flourished within the occidental patriarchal system. "When women want to break out of exploitation, they do not only destroy some "prejudices", they disrupt the whole order of dominant values: economical, social, moral, sexual (...). They attack the very foundation of our social and cultural order, the organization of which has been prescribed by the patriarchal system" (Luce Irigaray)[9].

The ideology of the complementarity of the two sexes, designing separated spheres of activity for men and women has been thoroughly constructed during the 18th century. The polarization of sexes and social roles, which this ideology implies, nourishes essentialist discourses that consider the two sexes as "guarantors of heterogeneity" evoking "the universality of human nature". But heterogeneity is constitutive of each sex and the universality of human nature is a questionable assertion.

Homosexuality destabilizes the heterosexual norm. The acceptation of the freedom of sexual choice renders obsolete the notion of "perversion" instituted by morals on the background of the hegemonic reproductive sexuality. Sexual identity is relativized. This fluidity can even question the frontier between homosexuality and heterosexuality, since homosexuality can manifest itself within heterosexual relationships, just as heterosexuality within homosexual relationships. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari talk about "inclusive disjunctions, nomad conjunctions: everywhere a microscopic trans-sexuality, which makes that woman contains as many men as man, and man women, capable to enter the ones with the others into relationships of production of desire which upset the static order of sexes".[10]

As a corporeal passage from one sex to the other, transsexualism annuls the unity of biological and mental sex and introduces in the perception of sex and gender notions like reversibility, artificiality and uncertainty, thus breaking the "natural contract". As for

transvestism, it may be considered as "the disruptive element that intervenes not just as category crisis of male and female, but the crisis of category itself" (Marjorie Garber) [11]. Hence the necessity of a "critique of categories of identity that contemporary juridical structures engender, naturalize and immobilize."(Judith Butler) [12]. Hence the necessity of "a theory of ‘difference’ whose geometries, paradigms and logics break out of binaries, dialectics of nature/culture models of any kind." (Donna Haraway) [13].

The institutionalized opposition male/female evacuates the contradictory relations which can be developed between the different aspects of the constructs called "sex" and "gender". It imposes a fixed "natural" order, which has proved to be a fiction. Any gender dissident has to suffer oppressive effects.

The secular strategy of pushing to the margin whatever threatens the homogeneity of the center is presently shaken. The attempt to exert domination in the name of a false central continuum clashes with a dynamic "periphery": exiled identities, polysemic identities. The vulnerability of the excluded transforms into power. Questions as crucial as multiculturalism, diaspora and exclusion preoccupy the contemporary conscience and provoque the collapse of notions taken for granted. This collapse is echoed in gender.

This reflexion, issued from the social field, meets theories issued from the scientific field. The principle of the organization of the world around a center disintegrates as our universe reveals to be "polycentric, acentric, decentric, disseminated, diasporic..." [14]. The indescribable, the unformalizable and the consequences of random mechanisms question the foundation of scientific knowledge. The notion of dynamic and organizing disorder perturbs the classical conception of a universe constructed on a static order. Edgar Morin denounces "the totalitarian process of the great unitary systems which imprison the real in a big corset of order and coherence." He underlines "the emergence of the non-simplifiable, the uncertain, the confusional, through which is manifested the crisis of the science in the 20th century" - confusion and uncertainty being the precursor signs of complexity [15]. On the other hand, on a global level, communication networks propose structures of interconnexion defying frontiers and centrality. If centralized, hierarchical, monosemic, unified and stable structures are contested on so many fronts, continuing to conceive the sexes according to a dualistic order becomes evidently anachronistic.

The question of virtualization, which is widely discussed presently, amplifies even more the need to relativize instituted distinctions. Edgar Morin argues, "all that is at the source of our universe is virtual... We are confronted with a radical anthropological problem: the urge to modify our idea of reality"[16]. In regard to identity, virtualization is "necessarily a contestation of classical identity, constructed on definitions, determinations, exclusions..." (Pierre Lévy)[17]. It is urgent to admit the virtuality of sexual identity, to allow it socially, to insert it as an imaginary into reality and as a reality into the imaginary - a virtual reality, but not an illusion, en expanded reality, intense like the metamorphic body of gender rebels.

Within the various visual works of The Angel Cycle, the medical archives' photograph of the intersexual subject has generated a series of transformations of the original image through different techniques and media. We have staged its multiple doubles in various spaces and immersive environments through the use of photography, video, sound, lights and objects. The expansion of gender is reflected in the expansion of media and space. We have superimposed constellations on the medical photograph merging stellar and bodily matter. The intersexual subject gives birth to a new cosmogony intermingling not only sexes, but also outer and inner space.

The Angel Cycle (1985 -- 1994) currently includes more than twenty works: photo-sculptures (Boucliers, 1991), multi-media performances (Incendie de l’Ange, 1985) and installations (Dans la Constellation du Cygne, 1991, La Puerta del Angel, 1992, Night Show for Angel, 1992, Théorème, 1993, XYXX Mosaic Identity, 1994) sound pieces, radio broadcasts, an artists’ book, Incendie de l’Ange, 1988, computer animations, video tapes (Personal Statement, 1994, Requiem pour le XXe Siècle, 1994). Using phototypographical (black and white contact printing) as well as digital technologies ("Grace" paintbox) we produced innumerable variations of the original document. The medical photo thus escapes from the clinical canon. The object of scientific observation becomes the subject of a mutational process.


In 2000 we inaugurate a new cycle of works with Sublime Disasters. The Twins. Here the starting point is a found photograph of a wax figure: two children, conjoint twins, "a double phenomenon with a unique trunk", from the famous anatomical collection of the Spitzner Museum, which opened in Paris in 1856. We associate this extraordinary body with marine organisms, photographs of shells and etchings extracted from the Artistic Forms of Nature (1899) by German biologist Ernst Haeckel who drew after microscopic observation and was particularly attracted by symmetry. The conjoint twins are thus immersed in a network of sea constellations. This work is a new stage of our reflexion on the dissident body and the technological doubles.

A key figure of the contemporary crisis of identity and normality, the "monster" is both a virtual and a real body. In all times the strangely formed body represents absolute Otherness, as Leslie Fiedler remarks [18]. It is the archetypal stranger, the most extreme stranger. The monster is par excellence Unheimlich. As a radical disruptive agent, it shakes the very notion of order. Michel Foucault insists on the "juridical" dimension of the monster: "juridical of course in the broad sense of the term, since what defines the monster is the fact that in its very existence and its very form, it violates not only the laws of society but also the laws of nature. (…) The monster is an offense that puts itself automatically out of law." [19]

Outlaw bodies become emblematic in the second part of the 19th century. They acquire a maximum visibility in these primitive museums that were the freak shows. As Rosi Braidotti points out [20], if the 19th century has inaugurated the commercialization of monstrous bodies, in the 20th century monsters are taken in charge by medecine. Confined, substracted from the gaze, they become invisible, or, manipulated by organic technologies, they acquire an "acceptable" degree of normality.

The children represented by the anatomic wax sculpture are Giacomo and Giovanni Tocci, born in 1877 in Sardenia. Since their most tender childhood they were exhibited by their father for profit. In their adolescence they became professionals of the freak shows. In the United States they were recognized by the American Scientific Academy as "the most remarkable double monster having ever approached maturity". This promoted them to a career of stars in the American freak shows. Before the end of the century they decided to quit the United States and the freak show world. They returned to Italy and constructed a villa surrounded by high walls in the outskirts of Venice. They married two sisters. In their company they spent the rest of their lives confined in their villa, never appearing in public. They died at the age of 63. Their life refutes the myth of the impossible survival of "monsters". Moreover it is symptomatic of the historical reversal of their status. From the 19th to the 20th century, they have passed from visibility to invisibility, from spectacularization to (self)confinement.

Those children, conjoint twins, are like natural clones. In Sublime Disastres the cloning processes multiply - from the catoptric reality of the body to a chain of simulacra: anatomic wax sculpture, photography, digital processing. In the exhibition space we install distorting mirrors between the photographs, so that the spectator’s body is inscribed in- between two images of the twins. Then an ultimate clone appears: we, as children, borrow the body of the twins. Through a digital photo-motage we jump into the mirror. The image cristallizes the underlying transfer. This re-imagined childhood reflects the interior experience of the double author: our own mental twin state. Thus self-depiction reemerges in our work, after having receded during The Angel Cycle.

Uncanny women, angelic intersexuals and conjoint twins, dissident subjectivities and poetic visions compose our universe, from the other side of the Mirror.

Maria Klonaris – Katerina Thomadaki

This text integrates passages from the following essays by the authors:

- "Un cinéma corporel", in Canal No. 35/36, (1980). English translation "Cinema of the Body" in Undercut. The Magazine from the London Filmmakers’ Coop No2 (1981)

- "The Feminine, the Hermaphrodite, the Angel: Gender Mutations and Dream Cosmogonies in Multimedia Projection and Installation (1976-1994), Leonardo, Vol.29, No 4, pp 273-282, MIT University Press, 1996

- "Intersexuality and Intermedia: A Manifesto", in The Body Caught in the Intestines of the Computer and Beyond. Women’s Strategies and/or Strategies by Women in Media, Art and Theory, edited by Marina Grzinic in collaboration with Adele Eisenstein, Maska, Maribor, Slovenia 2000.

- Désastres sublimes. Les Jumeaux, in Klonaris/Thomadaki, Désastres sublimes (Paris: A.S.T.A.R.T.I., 2000).

See also Klonaris/Thomadaki web site:


top1. Piera Detassis – Giovanna Grignaffini eds, Sequenza segreta. Le donne e il cinema (Milano: Feltrinelli Editore, 1981).

top2. Sigmund Freud, " L’inquiétante étrangeté, " in Essais de psychanalyse appliquée (Paris: Gallimard, 1956).

top3. Freud (2) p.172.

top4. Maria Klonaris – Katerina Thomadaki, " Manifeste pour une feminité radicale, pour un cinéma autre, " CinémAction I, Dix ans après mai 68, Aspects du cinéma de contestation (1978) pp. 84-86. Italian translation published in Piera Detassis-Giovanna Grignaffini eds (1) pp.154-157. Greek translation published in Synchronos Kinimatografos No.30, Athens (1981) pp. 56-57.

top5. Luce Irigaray, Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un (Paris: Minuit, 1977) pp122 and 71.

top6. The term "intersexuality" has been coined by Havelock Ellis in 1897.

top7. Jack Butler, "Re-embodiment" in Bioapparatus, edited by Catherine Richards and Nell Tenhaaf (Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada, 1991), and "Before Sexual Difference" in In Side Out, (Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1991).

top8. Henri Bergson, La Pensée et le mouvant (Alcan, 1934) p.183.

top9. Luce Irigaray (5), p.160.

top10. Gilles Deleuze – Felix Guattari, L’Anti-Œdipe (Paris: Minuit, 1972) p.352.

top11. Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests, Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1992) p.17.

top12. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) pp. 5.

top13. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1991) p. 129.

top14-15. Edgar Morin, La Méthode 1.La nature de la nature (Paris : Le Seuil, 1977), pp.83,19,16.

top16. Edgar Morin, " Les nouveaux vases communicants", public lecture at the 16th International Festival of Video and Electronic Arts, Locarno, 1995.

top17. Pierre Lévy, Qu’est-ce que le virtuel? (Paris: La Decouverte, 1995).

top18. Leslie Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978).

top19. Michel Foucault, Les Anormaux (Paris: Hautes Etudes, Gallimard/ Le Seuil, 1999)

top20. Nina Lykke and Rosi Braidotti eds, Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs. Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine and Cyberspace (London: Zed Books, 1996).