Stories, Cities, Makeshift Structures

Provisional narratives by filmmaker Shelly Silver that move across a matrix of civic spaces


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions



Jean-Michel Rabaté


University of Pennsylvania Department of English

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


25% Formal - 75% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "Stories, Cities, Makeshift Structures," an exhibition of selected films by Shelly Silver, on display from January 16, 2015 to February 20, 2015. An opening reception will take place on Friday, January 16 from 6:30-8:30pm, and will feature a conversation between the artist and film scholar Nora Alter. A second conversation between the artist, poet Brian Teare, and filmmaker Jenny Perlin will take place on Monday, February 16 from 6:30-8:00pm, and will explore topics including gender, sexuality, voyeurism and narrative in Silver's recent work.

Unlike traditional narrative or documentary films, which often rely on pre-scripting and rigid structures of pre-production, production and post-production, Silver moves fluidly in her work between shooting, editing and writing to create a loose matrix of essay films. The particular works on view at Slought -- including TOUCH (2013), in complete world (2008), What I'm Looking For (2004), suicide (2003), and Former East/Former West (1994) -- were filmed almost entirely in public space, where the civic rubs up against individual desires/needs. In these narratives exploring contemporary identity, truth and fiction are often in doubt, the veracity of what is seen and what is not seen is questioned, and the modes by which information is disclosed, withheld and mediated hold meaning. Appropriating the structures and codes of television and cinema narratives, Silver relies on the viewer's complicity in watching and their desire to believe and identify with conventions and characters.

The very act of watching others, and doing so in public, forms the basis of these works. In recent decades, the collective act of looking and being looked at has often been discouraged and disparaged. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, writer and activist Jane Jacobs argues for the importance of watching, and describes it as the fabric that holds us together as feeling, empathic creatures. Jacobs highlights the crucial importance of "eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street." Today, we have different kinds of "eyes" on the street, in the form of disembodied surveillance cameras, faux street lamps with black bulbs, and a wide variety of one-sided technologies which invisibly record and monitor our movements, renting the social contract. This co-optation of public space and the anxiety it generates is transferred, according to Silver, to those we do see and the people we share the streets with, whether they have cameras or not. Resisting this tendency, Silver's characters have a spectrum of relations with the viewer, who is often addressed directly and at times even playfully as another character in the films, one who is both desired and implicated.

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"To watch the moving-image art of Shelly Silver is to understand that, among other messy civic values on which democracies rely—free access to public space, for instance, and a willingness to transgress comfort zones⎯democracy relies on empathy. And empathy relies on fantasy, and fantasy is always partial, entwined with misperception, unpredictable, perverse. 'Being-for-others,' in Silver's feminist sense, amounts less to the alienating instrumentalization of the individual by a masterful observer, and more to the feeling that civic space is a matrix of hallways, doorways, rooms and streets, glimpses and confrontations, in which to see is to acknowledge and co-create, because everyone is looking all the time.

'A strange exchange,' murmurs the unnamed protagonist—a filmmaker, a first-generation Chinese-American, a gay man—in Silver's film TOUCH. Played by the actor Lu Yu, he is speaking Silver's words (in Mandarin) and addressing you, hypocrite voyeur, son semblable, son frère:

然而你,跟我一同的闯入者。你与我之间却有着一种特殊的关系: 一种吸引力,一种精力。我的摄相机正是使这种精力积累加增的工具。

And you. Fellow trespasser. There's definitely something between you and me. An affinity, an energy. My camera is a device for the accumulation of this energy.

-- Frances Richard, In the Neighboring Rooms: Shelly Silver and Fantasy Vérité

Shelly Silver's work in film, video, and photography spans an eclectic range of subject matter and genres, exploring the personal and societal relations that identify and restrict us; the indirect routes of pleasure and desire; the stories that we dream or fabricate about others, and the stories that we construct about ourselves.

Silver's art has been exhibited and broadcast widely throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia, with screenings and installations at MoMA and the International Center of Photography in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and, internationally, at the Yokohama Museum, Pompidou Center, Kyoto Museum, London Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Museo Reina Sofia. Her work has been included in London, Singapore, New York, Moscow, and Berlin film festivals, and televised on the BBC in England and PBS in the United States, among others.

Silver's numerous fellowships and grants include awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, NYSCA, NYFA, the DAAD, the Jerome Foundation, the Japan Foundation and Anonymous was a Woman.