Yeah, I'm a Tough Guy

Still from a film by Nicola Singh & Helen Collard, 'Power Grab'

Two protagonists perform a set of choreographed gestures, exercises and emotional states to camera. There are moments at which these actions appear to be for a viewer, but for the most part, they seem to operate as an internal dynamic between the pair, held captive by the camera frame. Whilst some are clearly practised and the two artists mirror one another, others are more playfully intuitive.

Wrapped around more recognisable refrains to wrestling – more on which I outline below – are movements and vocal exercises which draw from martial arts, somatic practices, performance art and experimental sound and music. It is through this range of actions that the artists allude to power over oneself, in relation to each other and toward the viewer. The glitz, glam and lurid excess of wrestling is stripped from Collard’s and Singh’s Power Grab, a short performance to camera which trades on some of the heightened emotional states performed by those in the ring.

Still from a film by Nicola Singh & Helen Collard, 'Power Grab'

The black leather trousers are hardly monopolised by this particular entertainment industry. Though the masks, made by Flora Whiteley, mimic those of the Mexican Lucha libre, they recall as much slasher horror film as they do the superhero, superhuman, super strength of the wrestler figure. When these masks are worn, the two performers have no trouble meeting our gaze, challenging us, the viewer, rather than one another. Are they jostling for our attention in this competitive state? Must we select one over the other?

This commanding power over the viewer also suggests an inversion of sorts. In both film and art histories, much analysis in the West throughout the late twentieth century sought to unpack those artists and filmmakers who made sure the (mostly) female lead or figure met the gaze of the viewer, dead on, with nothing to obscure their position. Here, the masked figures look at us, but we cannot (truly) look back. There is power (and often control) in such a relation. Of course this varies according to geographies and histories but nonetheless in the world of wrestling, which these masks allude to, its institutional dynamics demand clear recognisable storylines drawn in hyper-colour.

Still from a film by Nicola Singh & Helen Collard, 'Power Grab'

The pared-down uniform of the two artists connects them, accentuating other similarities they also share (height, hair and and body composition), working to render them indivisible. As they move around one another this partnering intensifies, paradoxically drawing the viewer into the room(s) in which they perform. It is not clear if it is an empty office or leisure space, given what looks like a defunct bar area. At moments some of the accoutrements of the performance – waiting patiently on a nearing table, the masks, a flogger of pink pussy willow – enter the frame. A small portrait painting of a masked wrestler quietly oversees events, perhaps also paying homage to British pop artist Peter Blake’s portrait of ITV World of Sport wrestler Kendo Nagasaki.

As the two artists work through a series of vocal and bodily exercises which appear to run the gamut of preparation/act/cool down, the camera moves between a close encircling of the pair to jump cuts, to mid distance frames. The orbiting close-ups evoke the event of the wrestling match transferred to the televisual. It is these frames in particular which hold the drama.

Rather than the small screen, however, Power Grab intervenes in the communal space of the cinema. The short film is thus set to interrupt. To hijack its audience for a brief six minutes, six minutes which manipulate time well, Power Grab uses stillness and balance rubbed up against the rhapsodic, teasing out familiar tropes of power and control setting them against more tentative ones. I am reminded here of the manner in which a latecomer undeniably – subtly or not – alters the dynamics of a group, grabbing attention and reordering a shared space.

Still from a film by Nicola Singh & Helen Collard, 'Power Grab'

The locus of the film lies in its tension, between support – carrying one another in each other’s arms, leaning one’s weight on the other – and often teetering on the brink of collapse. At other moments, this energy explodes into free movement: sometimes devoid of sound, other times, Collard and Singh scream to camera looking down the lens, towering above the viewer, letting the audience know what is about to happen, or perhaps, as a nod to the lingo, ‘go down.’ The artists take it in turn to holler: “yeah, I’m a big guy” and “yeah, I’m a tough guy”.

What are we to make of this most crude display of toxic masculinity? In a world in which archetypes and stereotypes play out: ‘goodies against baddies,’ evils against patriotism, the ‘west and the rest,’ subtleties, fluidity and nuances are not expected in the mass entertainment world of wrestling, for example. Though they are, of course, there.

It is these moments which Collard and Singh are able to expand and magnify. The artists move both in synchronicity and within their own worlds, the celebratory dancing midway through acting as a fulcrum through which to see a type of masculinity too reductive or easily dismissed. These dance moves are the repertoire of many in dance clubs throughout towns and cities up and down the country. Just as there are a range of acceptable and recognisable styles for men, there are those for women. Once again the lines are tightly (and thus inadequately) drawn here but it is in the moment of dancing when one can loosen expectations, dilute norms and shrug off woefully restrictive societal expectations. To parody these dances without care is to do a disservice to the whole spectrum of gender and sex relations but Singh and Collard too appear to lose themselves, without an audible beat; their bodies hypnotic, emanating sincerity. 

The film is bookended by more amiable periods of reflection and rest. Power Grab opens with a series of tentative vocal exercises and interactions with what appears to be a singular bubble floating between the pair, and draws to a close when they are joined by two black dogs. These two interactions, the bubble, and the dogs, allude to expansive notions of power. I could not avoid recalling another pop reference when watching the exchange between the pair as the bubble passes from one to the other. For me, it is the energy here which recalls the infamous ‘wax on, wax off’ scene from the film The Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen, 1984). Dated and problematic to be sure, the humdrum tasks of washing the car, painting the fence, sanding the floor, work nevertheless to embed powerful muscle memory later to be drawn out for combat. For Singh and Collard each movement they perform suggests a building of strength in a comparable holistic sense.

Still from a film by Nicola Singh & Helen Collard, 'Power Grab'

The dogs’ behaviour and interaction mirrors what has come before, the tipping point from play to aggression, aggression to play. The two protagonists, now become four, undertake a series of restorative actions performed by one another: petting, massage, grooming. These scenes are especially tactile: one of the artists’ feet is nestled in the fur of the dog, which kindly sets about cleaning the shaven head of Singh.

The final frames are between the two artists. They layer their bodies. They embrace. At first the embrace seems mechanical, forced and awkward, but in its completion, it clear, the gesture is deeply felt between the two. It is this intimacy between the pair which emerges time and again throughout the film reminding the viewer of power in its expansive and co-operative sense. And it is this articulation of power through which the artists are able to travel between the polar opposites set for easier consumption through the mechanism of a stereotype. For as much as the pair may be in combat, they are only able to create this tension between their bodies, for power produces, as much as it obscures. It is as much dangerous as it is generative.

This text was written to accompany Nicola Singh & Helen Collard’s film Power Grabcommissioned as part of Artists in the Cinema 2020.


Amy Charlesworth

Amy Charlesworth is a lecturer in Art History at the Open University. She has published in journals such as the Oxford Art Journal and Third Text and written for LUX and Fotomuseum, Winterthur as part of Manifesta 11.

Notes on 'Living Organism'

Kate Liston, 'Treatment' (shown in 'Living Organism,' August 2018)

Tess Denman-Cleaver:  A few years ago I wanted to make a performance that had the same atmosphere as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, so I started writing – sort of automatic writing – while repeatedly watching the film, to see if somehow the spirit of Travis Bickle would get into my language or something. Since then I’ve been refining this approach to writing with rather than about films as a way of expressing how it feels to engage with particular movies, their atmospheres and what they are as an experience for a viewer. Having written a peice called Absorb with Kate Liston’s film Need Moisture, she asked me to create a performance with Treatment during her ‘Feel After the New See’ exhibition at Hatton Gallery (2018); this is Mutualism, which I re-perform for the Women Artists of the North East screening at Tyneside.

Kate Liston:  I’m interested in the ways our actions can feel determined, or even scripted by outside forces. This is something I wanted to explore in my film Treatment, which uses text from the script I used to plan the film as a counterpoint to the action you see on screen.

It’s this sense of scripting that I see in the films shown at Living Organism by Ella Bergmann-Michel and Joyce Wieland. Bergmann-Michel’s Where the Old People Live closes with the syncronised goodbye waves of the retirement home’s residents called to action by the unheard director. In Wieland’s Handtinting, gestures are repeated through the cut and copy of film editing until they appear to be choreographed.

In Treatment a woman drinks kombucha, and engages with the SCOBY used to make it. I had been brewing kombucha for about a year before making the film, I bought my SCOBY from Amazon, I gave its offspring to friends living in the city, and posted one to a friend in Redcar. When I was brewing it I was also reading about probiotic strains that are made in labs and that are researched for the different effects they have on human behaviour. I read that bespoke probiotics are being made that are intended to produce desirable characteristics in the person taking them. Homemade kombucha contains unknowable probtiotic strains – perhaps these might allow the person drinking them to access different ways of being, acting and desiring?

Holly Argent:  I saw Sneha Solanki’s Kombucha growing in a glass tank in Sophie Buxton’s house in Whitley Bay a few weeks ago. It reminded me of the SCOBY in Kate Liston’s film Treatment. Why would you ever want to put that thing on your face?

I thought I’d give it ago. Not on my face, but drinking it. It wasn’t what I expected; I thought it would be a bit fizzy, more acidic on the tongue.

Sneha’s SCOBY grows tentacles; it’s mature like that. They grow downwards into the tank filling it up with a mass of membrane, morphing into a type of jellyfish. I’m not sure if it’s the ‘mother’ SCOBY or a new SCOBY and frankly, I don’t really know much about Kombucha or have a desire to drink anymore of it, but Sneha’s ‘continuous brew system’ made me think about ways we could provide an environment to support a living organism: an archive, a library or a creative practice. You have to care for it and feed it, do so correctly and the collection of organisms can make something golden.

Okay, the Kombucha analogy is a little far-fetched but the Women Artists of the North East Library does host a number of women’s practices, it’s living and it’s growing.

EBM  Ella Bergmann-Michel / Electronic Body Music

Job Corps  A programme run by the United States Department of Labour that offers free-of-charge education and vocational training to young people aged 16 to 24. Job Corps was founded in 1964.

Kombucha  A slightly sweet fermented tea that contains natural probiotics and is thought to be good for the digestive system.

The New Frankfurt  An affordable public housing programme that operated in Frankfurt, Germany between 1925 and 1930 / An alliance of artists and architects was involved in the project, including Ella Bergmann-Michel / The name of a magazine that documented the project.

The League of Independent Film  A group who organised critical lectures and screenings of experimental documentary film. The league was co- run in Frankfurt by Ella Bergmann-Michel

SCOBY  Symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. Kombucha is made by adding a SCOBY to a batch of sugary tea and leaving it to ferment.

Treatment  A functional filmmaker’s synopsis / A course of care for a patient.

Women Artists of the North East Library  A project bringing together the work of artists who identify as women and are in some way associated to the North East of England. Since October 2017, it has existed as a physical collection, an exhibition, a programme of events, a research project and a framework within which to work and invite others.


Amy Charlesworth

Amy Charlesworth is a lecturer in Art History at the Open University. She has published in journals such as the Oxford Art Journal and Third Text and written for LUX and Fotomuseum, Winterthur as part of Manifesta 11.