Roberta Cantow, 1981
Roberta Cantow’s 16mm-shot documentary Clotheslines sees images of lingerie, shirts and dresses rise and fall to the balmy city breeze, overlaid with voiceovers from twenty or so interviewed women. Deceptively mundane in its subject matter — Cantow was met with resistance from men towards the film’s 'non-premise' — Clotheslines obscures the familiarity of this domestic ritual. It sees clotheslines exemplify systems of (mostly) women’s labour, systems which are cast as invisible, and if not invisible then unremarkable.
Their dismissal is ironic. Clotheslines' omnipresence characterises city neighbourhoods, suturing apartment buildings and casting lively shadows on the streets below. Indeed, laundered sheets float atop the metropolis as urban ghosts; they sweeten the air.
Proudly exhibiting husband’s shirts and children’s socks, clotheslines boast personal and familial histories. They drape across the city as a delicate shield, as a symbol of marital or familial status. They certify women’s “role” as workers, carers, healing agents. Even in an increasingly urbanised milieu — since the film’s release in 1981, this urbanisation has accelerated — images of clotheslines persist as richly folkloric.
And yet, the abundance of clotheslines across towns and cities renders their visibility more complex than being seen. Though visibility implies a sensorial encounter — it begins with looking — as a metaphysical description, visibility is reliant upon assigned meaning. It recalls structures of power. With images of the domestic and overlooked subject of clotheslines and laundry, Cantow simply didn’t have a film; she could not receive funding until she could justify their significance.
Against interpretation, Cantow described her own curiosity to be far more intuitive. She saw clotheslines from the trains she travelled on across various boroughs of New York City, finding their dancerly motion pleasing to the eye. Deriving the substance necessary to explore this subject, Cantow imagined the footage of clotheslines to tell their own stories: to possess “pain, loneliness, drudgery, isolation, folklore, art, thwarted creativity, wisdom, generational links, changing attitudes.” Cantow developed her instinctual response to home a rather political sensibility: the lyrical qualities of unseen work, the ties that bind these women’s communities together.
Perhaps a by-product of the same motivation, Cantow edited Clotheslines to bear what she describes as a distinctly feminine style. Images are sowed together in cyclical patterns, some are often repeated. Cantow’s reluctance to apply linearity seems to earnestly capture the very act of filming clotheslines; reshaping our gaze towards a recognisable object renders it unfamiliar, it reveals potential for something new.
In part due to production limitations, voiceovers were recorded separately from the footage. The opening voiceover was not recorded in New York but in Massachusetts (by a chance encounter, Cantow was approached by two inquisitive older women as she filmed a laundry-related device, one of whom then offered to tell stories for Cantow’s film.) Other voiceovers are by women discovered by Cantow via the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, located in Brooklyn.
Often recorded alone, though sometimes together, the women possess a collective, dynamic spirit. The soothing, rather spectral images of shirts, stockings, and blouses moving to gusts of wind illuminate the women’s colourful inner lives; the sensuality of Cantow’s footage magnifies the women's generational differences, their folklore and their beliefs.
As objects of generational wisdom — demonstrating the techniques of folding and hanging clothes to dry — clotheslines communicate the artistry of the everyday; they write the poetry of being seen.
Quotes credited to the dazzling phone interview between Tom Davenport and Roberta Cantow, accessible, along with the film, via folkstreams.net