by Elspeth Vischer
Where do they walk, these women? To work. To their kids. To their lovers. To rally, to fight for the rights of their own bodies.
How does their work make up a day? In endless movements, repeating phrasings, a spool of yarn that threads together families, dates and years.
What is their labour? It is endless. Unaccounted for. Their arms and hips strong, their image reproduced, monetized.
This is the condition. These are the conditions. Repeated orders. Negative and ‘other’. To break out; women dance, high kick away and out. They smoke; long drag and deep exhale.
“I am the one poets wax lyrical about.”
“The one who does not exist.”
Who are these women? Their voices are from poets unknown. Their images collected in The Audiovisual Archive Foundation of the Labour and Democratic Movement. They are galvanized by human rights issues and edited in artist’s residencies some 60 years later.
These images stir, repeat and split on screen. A centralised voice speaks of how a vision is created of people who can birth a nation. How they are painted and sculpted without permission to use paintbrush or chisel.
Watching Battleground I felt connected to these women in Italy fighting in the 1960s and 70s. Flashing placards and slogan-covered crowds, descending city centres en masse. These are images I am exploring every day in my local context, whilst making a documentary about grassroots feminism in contemporary Belfast. Here, abortion was only decriminalised by default through Westminster, and not our own government, on 21st October 2019. Abortion services are still reluctantly rolling out amidst the pandemic, facing heavy opposition from our ruling political party, the DUP, a group of fundamentalist Christians who cannot provide secular policy in a post-conflict land that has outgrown them.*
There is darkness on screen halfway through the film. A siren is heard. A petrol bomb is seen rolling and smoking. A real threat exists in the battleground over bodily autonomy. In 2017, during the International Women’s Day Rally in Belfast, pro-choice activists had their homes raided by police who seized abortion pills they had been providing to women who needed them and issued sentences to some. Before 21st October 2019 abortion was a criminal offence in Northern Ireland under the Offences Against the Person Act, a law from 1861. Section 58 of this law made it a criminal offence to administer drugs or use instruments to procure an abortion and section 59 made it a criminal offence to supply or procure drugs or any instrument for the purpose of procuring an abortion. Both offences carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Watching Battlefield reminds me of the importance of having these moments of mobilisation documented for future generations. Made by Silvia Biagioni and Andrea Laudante together on a month-long artist’s residency, they create an asynchronous audio-visual tapestry of the second wave feminist movement in Italy in ten dazzling minutes. Before lockdown, the last big event to take place in Belfast in 2020 was the International Women’s Day Rally. Last year’s theme was ‘Rights in Sight’ to address how far we have come while acknowledging that there is still a long way to go. As one spokesperson at the rally, Danielle Roberts, said: “The rights are in sight, but they’re not in our hands.” Compiling images held at AAMOD archive in Italy, Battlefield bombards the senses as a powerful reminder of the battle still being fought by many, locally and globally. I can only hope images of our local efforts will be as carefully preserved and used by others in the decades to come.
*The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is a unionist political party in Northern Ireland, favouring British identity and therefore maintaining the region as a constituent member of the United Kingdom. It was founded in 1971 during The Troubles by evangelical minister turned politician Ian Paisley and continues to have a majority in The Northern Ireland Assembly today.