“Memories Live in Our Bodies:” Review of Well Contested Sites at Columbia University

Well Contested Sites was part of a three-day symposium at Columbia University, “Art and Mass Incarceration,” Feb. 27th – March 1st

by Irini Zervas

“Over-incarceration is not just a black or racial issue, it’s an issue for all Americans who care about democracy and equity and fair play and decency. We are killing our own country’s future. And we’re killing genius in jail cells that does not have a chance to blossom and to flower. “ – Randall Robinson, lawyer, author and activist


Walking into the auditorium at Columbia’s Barnard College, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was walking into. It turns out that Columbia’s screening of Well Contested Sites (see link here), a 12-minute film produced in 2012, brought a diverse mix of public policy and art students, lawyers and human rights activists, dance professors and ex-convicts into the same room. The screening was followed by a few audience ice-breakers and a Q-and-A with some of the individuals mentioned above.

The film is a collaboration between a group of previously incarcerated men, Bay Area performing artists, choreographer Amie Dowling and filmmaker Austin Forbord. With Alcatraz as its backdrop, the dancers move about the decaying space in movements that are at times symbolic, cathartic and utterly quotidian. Well Contested Sites’ actors are both its performers and the subjects of the piece. It is these dualisms of subject and object, confined and freed, that play out in the piece, challenging the viewer’s conception of the complex site that is the modern-day justice system.

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Getting in on the “Action” at The Kitchen


by Irini Zervas


On Thursday, Oct. 10th, students in Malik Gaines’ Get Me Bodied: Theories of the Body course attended a screening of Community Action Center (CAC) by A.K. Burns and A. L. Steiner at The Kitchen. At the film’s showing in NYC, the artists introduced the project as the final stop on their “X-Cuntry Tour,” which took them to numerous cities across the North American West and South. In addition to showing the film in each city, they connected with local communities and queer activist groups along the way. This short essay is an extension of some of the ideas generated in our class discussion following the film.


A symbolic 69 minutes, the film is arranged as a series of erotic vignettes. While themes of brazen sexuality and queer desire pervade its imagery, it is the moments of ambiguity in Burns and Steiner’s work that are most engrossing. Hot, funny, slippery and nostalgic are all words that can be used to describe the film. But, if porn can be loosely defined as the depiction of sexual fantasy in visual, real-time form, how much of CAC’s reworking of the porno can be categorized as the illustration of fantasy, and how much as merely a conceptual exercise about queer desire?

Some argue that CAM gives hot sex a backseat to these utopian visions; that in order to portray some of the forms of desire that are often overlooked in contemporary society, the film misses the opportunity to show radically different forms of pleasure.


Where the film does succeed, at least from the perspective of someone whose primary exposure to erotic imagery has been fairly heteronormative, is in its portrayal of lesbian, trans, or queer bodies. CAM extends that moment – when gender and sexuality refuse to become intelligible to the viewer – to lasting effect. As a spectator I found myself searching for readability in the bodies presented, only to find a certain joy and cathartic release in the depictions that revealed none at all.

At the same time, the film also exhibits tropes from 70s pornography and feminism. By exploiting well-known characters and scenes in this frame of an all-out exploration of sexuality, Steiner and Burns allow the audience to develop new perspectives on the familiar.


A grimy, glam rock transvestite cavorts with the pizza boy. Nude bodies in a forest bend down to cut a slit in a piece of fruit. Pulling its lips apart, its insides shine and seeds glisten. The scene references the sort of goddess feminism that may induce cringing today. However, by presenting the fruit in a new light, showing it held by a trans body, the scene takes on a renewed significance in relation to histories of queerness, visual representation and their ramifications in the present.


The project culminates in the artists’ own steamy performance of a sexy carwash and voyeur, which Burns and Steiner reenacted on stage that night to uproarious effect. This final scene and its IRL accompaniment led to a feeling of community among the crowd, a shared sense of humor in the lesbian re-staging of a familiar heterosexual scene: the bikini babe suds up for the glory of the male onlooker. Only, in this case, Steiner plays the object of desire, donning a mesh bodysuit that she undoes, releasing her breasts and using them as surrogate sponges to wash the car. In mock astonishment at the erotic scene playing before her, Burns joins Steiner in simultaneously parodying the exchanges of heteronormative desire while reverberating the unabashed expressions of sexuality that were explored to lavish affect in the previous vignettes.

The scene serves as comedic relief for audience members who, throughout the film, may have been confronted with the question of what desire means to them. In the end, it is the film’s coupling of familiar visual and pornographic tropes with an openness about sexuality, an ambiguity of meaning, that allows the audience to take part in the “action.”

Community Action Center was screened at The Kitchen on October 10th, 2013. View the film’s trailer here.

Irini Zervas is an MA student in her first year at Hunter College’s Art History program. Her research interests include depictions of gender and the body, performance studies, and the politics of dress in relation to identity. She is a writer for Hunter MASO.