An island, a ship, a prison

A conversation and screening series with Domietta Torlasco about the relationship between film, surveillance, and debt


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Bryn Mawr College Program in Film Studies


Homay King

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought is pleased to announce An island, a ship, a prison, a conversation and installation of video works by Domietta Torlasco on Wednesday, October 10, 2018 from 7-9pm. The event will begin with the screening of House Arrest (2015) and Sunken Gardens (2016), two videos that engage themes such as migrancy, borders, surveillance, and debt, followed by conversation with Homay King, Professor in the Department of History of Art at Bryn Mawr College. In conjunction with this event, Torlasco's work will also be continuously screened in the Slought Mediatheque from October 10-31, 2018. This program is co-presented with the Bryn Mawr College Program in Film Studies.

Combining original footage, archival clips, voice-over, and text, Torlasco's videos hover indeterminately among genres: documentary, essay, experiment, inquiry into fiction. The voices and points of view multiply: text hovers among possible meanings, subjects read aloud from documents that they may or may not have written. Questions of address and recipient are not easily resolved. The two videos in this exhibition are about seemingly divergent times and places, pre-1989 Soviet Berlin, and present-day St. Petersburg, Florida. But their juxtaposition—like the splits and conjunctions within the works—reveals unexpected points of synergy.

One of Domietta Torlasco's favored techniques is also the two-channel or split screen format, allowing for soft montage. As Torlasco puts it, "The split screen brings the spectator closer to the editing console, enabling her to engage in a more active process of comparison, association, and assemblage." Adjacent images comment upon each other in a non-negating way; the gaps between them open up pathways for associational and speculative thinking.

read more

Domietta Torlasco's House Arrest (2015, 8 minutes) is filmed in the Stasi Museum in Berlin's Lichtenberg neighborhood. A static camera films furnished rooms preserved as they were in the Soviet era. We see windows with quaint lace curtains, vintage telephones and television sets, and surprisingly contemporary wooden furnishings that give the rooms an almost cheery aspect. Titles on adjacent screens suggest a layer of activity beyond these rooms: occasionally, they provide shot lengths and locations, suggesting a film editor's notes, but also alluding to Stasi surveillance. The video is shot with an HD digital camera, rather than the 16mm film that would be appropriate for the Soviet era, creating another layer of remove and room for speculation.

The images of Soviet-era living quarters are juxtaposed with archival clips from Touch of Evil, My Darling Clementine, and Zabriskie Point. These seem out of place until we connect them to theme of borders, contested territory, and dreams of escape to the west—themes that apply to pre-1989 East Berlin as well as to the Hollywood western and the settler-colonial past that it romanticizes. "People are like data," one intertitle reads; "they flow or get jammed at the border."

Sunken Gardens (2016, 19 minutes), the second work featured in this program, provides a glimpse of life for the inhabitants of old roadside motels in St. Petersburg, Florida, who have taken up residency there because they have nowhere else to go. A similar population of disenfranchised motel-dwellers was portrayed by Sean Baker in his award-winning 2017 film The Florida Project.

In Torlasco's video, we meet Bonnie, who cleans motel rooms by day and schools by night for minimum wage, a woman whose children are eaten alive each night by roaches and bedbugs, and a man whose job in defense contracting was terminated. "This is an island, a ship, a prison for people in debt," says one of the video's subjects. Snippets of text from official housing department forms, letters, and police reports suggest that this prison is in part a bureaucratic one.

Portraits of these residents and descriptions of the horrific living conditions appear alongside other images—swimming pools, brightly colored plants, koi fish, and brief hints of archival footage—all of which magnify the distance between this Florida life and its promised dream version.

Domietta Torlasco has screened her work at venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Galerie Campagne Première in Berlin. Her training as an art practitioner and the making of digital films became the catalyst for The Heretical Archive: Digital Memory at the End of Film (2013), which examines how film and installation can radically transform our memories of film and cinematic and psychoanalytic archives. She is Associate Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University.

Homay King is Eugenia Chase Guild Chair in the Humanities, Professor in the Department of History of Art, and a co-founder of the Program in Film Studies at Bryn Mawr College. Her most recent book is Virtual Memory: Time-based Art and the Dream of Digitality (2015).