Louise Orwin is a London based performance artist, writer and researcher, making video, sound and performance work.
One of her main preoccupations is looking at how femininity and the ‘feminine’ is created and dealt with in society – particularly in it's more masochistic strains.
After finishing an MA in Performance Research at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, she threw herself into the live art and experimental world, dividing her attention between pop culture, trends in film, TV and the internet.
Her last project, Pretty Ugly, was YouTube piece about how teenage girls use social media to seek validation from their peers, strangers and themselves. The piece kick-started her career as a solo performer, not least because of the media stir that it caused.
Louise's newest show A Girl and A Gun, looks at females on screen through the lens of untouchable film director Jean Luc Goddard. Taking his legacy of ‘All you need to make a movie is a girl and gun’, she wonders whether he was right.
JB: How did the project begin? Did you set out to study girls and guns on purpose or was it something you just starting noticing in everyday life?
LO: The project came about fairly organically. I’m a big film fan, so I suppose the kind of images I explore in the show have been living with me a long time. However, as I started to get older and my politics developed I began questioning what I was watching, or what I was drawn to watching more and more. Probably one of the best and worst thing about my feminism developing is that it has a tendency to ruin things that used to be a big part of your life, as you start to see the inherent misogyny that can underlie so much pop culture. So, there’s that, and then there’s the fact that wherever I looked in 2014 (when I got the idea to start making the show) I felt like I was seeing guns and girls everywhere: in Beyonce videos, both trashy and art house films, in music videos, in porn. And there’s no doubt about it, there’s definitely something very alluring to the image of the girl with the gun. I wanted to make a show about that image: why it was repeated so often in pop culture, why I was so drawn to it, but also so repulsed by it, what the image says about women, and violence and the society we live in.
JB: Jean Luc Goddard undoubtedly remains one of the most enduring figures in cinema. Do you think that the respect he and his contemporaries command as cultural icons means that we still find the idea of girls and guns cool and sexy?
LO: Well, I think there’s something very naturally alluring in the combination of girls and guns: it’s basically sex and death, which, when it comes down to it, is the premise of most artistic output. It’s not necessarily that Godard brought guns and girls to us, it’s more that he packaged them in such a way that made them tantalizingly cool. I would say that The French New Wave definitely had a lasting impact on culture, with devices and images from it reproduced over and over again in film, television, and increasingly, in advertising. There’s a power that comes with repetition, it creates familiarity, it embeds images in your brain, and eventually it creates hegemony. When that happens, it becomes difficult to separate the image or the symbol from its true symbolic meaning- it becomes harder and harder to see it for what it really is. That what I try to do in A Girl and A Gun, I try to get you to see again.
JB: Has film really not moved on since Goddard’s heyday? With problematic video games, music videos and continuous reports of sexism in Hollywood, could it even be getting worse?
LO: I find it quite difficult to answer this question, because its always difficult to stand back and get perspective on the time you’re living in. However, I can say that I would disagree with anyone who says things have moved on. Yes, we have more dialogue and good thinking about feminism, about gender, about politics readily available to us, but seemingly this hasn’t changed the output of the Hollywood machine too much. Feminists like Ariel Levy and Natasha Walter write convincingly about how in recent times there’s been a backwards motion: that progress in feminism halted around the early 2000s and society quickly reverted to less progressive times. They both attribute this to the misunderstanding and misappropriation of post-feminism by the mainstream- but that’s another conversation altogether.
If I’m honest I’d say that a day doesn’t go by when I see something disturbingly sexist or misogynistic in the press, or on television, or in the cinema. But I think we have to hold out hope that things are changing, just slowly. I think we live in interesting times: generally I’d say most people are much better read and understanding of feminist politics (thank you Internet), but the big corporations who put out these kind of images over and over again, feeling they are winning formulas working in capitalist structures, haven’t quite caught up with this. The chasm that opens up between these two things, and the flow of power and money that lies between them is really interesting to me… And maybe the basis of another show!
JB: A Girl and A Gun stars a different male actor in each city it’s performed in. Is this a way of turning typically male and female roles on their head?
LO: The show tries to interrogate the kind of roles set out for men and women on film, and asks how easily we adopt these roles, how easily gestures or feelings associated by these roles might become supplanted in our psyche and our bodies, whether these are roles we can really live up to. By placing an unprepared male in the stereotypical role of the macho hero, asking him to read lines and play with toy guns, it’s my hope that the there can be a physical manifestation of all the aforementioned questions. How easy is it for a man to pick up a gun and play (answer: very easy for most men!), how easy is it to act like a ‘hero’, how easy is it to act out violence on stage in front of a live audience? How easily can we slip in and out of these roles? And what are the consequences if we do?
The act of a female artist asking a male performer to act out a role, on her terms, according to her rules, also creates a nice tension. Yes, I might ask you to assume the dominant role on stage with me, whilst I play the whimpering female submissive, but who’s in control here?
JB: What do you think about the idea of ‘A Girl IS a Gun’?
LO: It feels to me as if it is an extension of the idea of the ‘femme fatale’. The idea of a woman being something dangerous and sexy, and powerful. But perhaps once again, we need to ask who the image is created for. Who holds the gun? Who controls the gun? From what I’ve seen of the hashtag and the tumblr trend online, it also looks like just another ‘sexy’ entrapment for women- an image that may at first seem empowering, but then you start to realise that all the girls in the pictures are big boobed, tiny waisted Instagram models and you might think again.
JB: Have you found any films that manage defy this ‘sexy entrapment’?
LO: Yes, I absolutely loved Ghostbusters when I saw it in the cinema. It was wonderful to watch funny, flawed female characters running around with massive guns, NOT having to be sexy, NOT there in service to other male characters. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in a very long time. It’s great to think mainstream cinema might start following suit… Maybe there are good things on the horizon!
JB: Can you tell us more about your idea of your own ‘doomed sense of femininity’ and how this informs your work?
LO: I have quite a thorny, ambivalent relationship to my femininity. I’m a queer woman, who I guess you could say is femme-presenting, and I’ve always been drawn to images of hyper-femininity both in my work and outside. I’m someone who loves fashion, wearing make up and high heels, but also at times have grown out my body hair. Over the years, I’ve come to see all of this as a choice of mine, but for many years I felt like my femininity was a sort of gilded cage: it can act as a wonderful protective shield of armour, but it can also entrap you. My work always come back to this: how can I feel empowered presenting myself this way and ensure it is truly a choice of mine, rather than something which is foisted onto me by society. ‘Doomed’ sounds dramatic, but its more a playful way of saying that I think however I present myself society will predetermine how it is received. I guess in my most cynical moments there’s a sense that you can’t win if you present this way: there’s still a second-wave hang over of feeling that you’re somehow not doing your bit for the cause, and then on the other side in a world run by men with grey hair in suits, there’s the risk that people might not take you ‘seriously’. How do you let people know that this is your choice?
Much of my work reflects this kind of thinking, particularly the more masochistic work in nature. A Girl and A Gun in particular sees me take up the mantel of the iconic ‘femme fatale’. I find her interesting because from the outside she seems so empowered: she’s beautiful, and dangerous, and makes men quake in their boots. And yet, she is nearly always sad, longing for something that isn’t there, masochistic, and ultimately, dying or dead. She seems like she might stand for women, but is nearly always a role created as a plot-device subservient to a male character’s narrative arc. I have always found this image very alluring, and yet quite disturbing. The show tries to explore this dichotomy, and unpack it a little. It asks viewers to question this kind of role set out for women, and further more, to consider these questions within the framework of a show written by a woman, who places herself in this role, and manipulates a man into playing along with her. Again, we come back to this question of choice- how does this change the game?
JB: What are you currently working on and how we can keep up with what you’re up to?
LO: I’m currently touring A Girl and A Gun, with dates through Autumn/Winter 2016, as well as a few sporadic tour dates for my last show Pretty Ugly. You can keep up to date with my movements here: www.louiseorwin.com/diary
Other than that, I’ve also just started work on a new project concerning female desire, the early stages of which have been supported by Arts Council England and Live Art Development Agency. I can’t say too much, but the research so far has seen me talking to women all over the country about sex, kinks, and turn-ons which has been absolutely fascinating. I’ll be announcing a bit ore about the project soon, but for now watch this space!