Interview: Dani and Sheilah ReStack
This article appeared in the June 16, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Strangely Ordinary This Devotion (Dani and Sheilah Restack, 2017)
Dani and Sheilah ReStack met in 2013 in Columbus, Ohio and began making art together shortly afterward. Strangely Ordinary This Devotion, a homegrown science-fiction film that is in part a record of their love affair, was completed in 2017, followed by Come Coyote (2018) and Future From Inside (2021). Together these would become the “Feral Domestic” trilogy, an offbeat record of the artists’ entwined domestic and creative lives.
The couple adopted the last name ReStack, a word that describes the layering and recombining of their artistic practices. Dani (née Leventhal), who is from Columbus, was originally trained as a ceramicist, but after a hand injury forced her to turn to new artistic tools, she began building a substantial video practice. Perhaps because of this early and formative incident, her videos have an intensely tactile quality which is expressed in a sometimes squirm-inducing closeness to her subjects’ skin and, frequently, fur. Sheilah (née Wilson) was born and raised in Caribou River, a rural community in Nova Scotia. After leaving the region in her early twenties to attend art school, she developed a practice that, through performance, photography, and video, explores the enigmatic shapes and traces of the body. Both are currently employed as university professors in central Ohio.
Their shared home and shared art generate “stacks” of subjects and materials: music and children, ritual and repetition, dialogue and conflict. It is not enough to say that Dani and Sheilah ReStack make artistic home movies; for them, there is no separation between art and domestic life. But this is no Neverland, no matter how idyllic their romps in Midwestern fields may appear. For women, utopia must be grounded in the concrete, with full awareness of the multiple and often conflicting roles they inhabit. Amid these contradictions, the Feral Domestic films show how the home can nurture a sense of vibrant possibility in an increasingly narrow and uninhabitable world.
The Feral Domestic trilogy has screened at UnionDocs, Onion City Experimental Film + Video Festival, and, most recently, Kunstverein Nürnberg. It will next be featured as part of an exhibition of the artists’ work at Camden Art Centre from September 30 to December 23, 2022.
The beginning of your relationship was both a romantic one and a collaborative artistic one, correct?
Sheilah ReStack: Yes, Dani was in a group show at Denison University [where Sheilah teaches] and that was when we first met in 2013. That was the beginning of a friendship and curiosity, and a gratitude for finding queer kinship in the Midwest.
Dani ReStack: It’s unusual to find someone that you can really share an aesthetic with. When we were dating we would walk separately through museums and galleries, then meet back up and tell what we were drawn to. Our alignment was remarkable. And then we stepped into collaboration which has been expansive in every way. I’d say it’s the best part of our relationship.
SR: That statement both makes me happy and sad. Sometimes I wish that I could make Dani love the domestic in a way similar to me. But after seven years of being together, I know it’s just going to be different. Dani is intimidated by motherhood, and her default is to find the domestic constrictive. I know she doesn’t always mean it in that black and white of a way, but what I come to realize is that we push each other in the domains we are most uncomfortable in. Artistic collaboration has pushed me to be vulnerable in ways that are harder for me than for Dani—I’m a total introvert and until we started collaborating, making work had been largely a solitary endeavor.
Can you say more about the frictions that arise from working and living together?
SR: I love making art with Dani because it provides another venue to work out conflict. We are having real world conflicts about children and lifestyle and priorities, but then the work becomes an alternate reality in which to imagine things.
DR: My number one frustration is finding time for the work. There’s conflict when Sheilah needs to help [our daughter] Rose with her homework and I want to go to the studio with her. Time in the studio is fragmented, and this gets reflected in the work.
SR: Recently we were talking about how fragmentation is a way to cope with conflict. As Dani was saying, there’s a whole lot of fragmentation when you have family and multiple kinds of responsibilities. We try to grant validity or power to that way of holding a day together, because it isn’t valued, especially not for women. The single narrative arc still wins in dominant culture.
The way you’re talking about your relationship to the work is as though it’s another house you continue to construct. It’s very much a feminist need to carve out a space for oneself.
DR: The work is a space to understand and heal wounds.
SR: Something that I find empowering is what happens when you hold a camera. Because of the accessibility of the technology, there is potential at any moment to move from the register of daily maintenance to noticing [the world] in a different way. It could be just observing, or finding something funny in the moment we are in bed together, or finding the light beautiful. This way of noticing and granting power of observation in the everyday is, for me, a feminist practice.
In that way, I feel we were instructed by Rose, our daughter, who’s now 12. Not so much now, but when she was younger she could leave this world for her imaginary world in a heartbeat. It blew our minds. It was like a jump cut—using a spoon and a Kleenex, she could jump from breakfast to an imaginary world. This is the way children integrate the world. It makes me think that we can only integrate the world by also exiting the world. But that knowledge can get lost along the way. It can feel superfluous or unserious to exit the world through play or fantasy.
DR: Yeah, Rose is one of our teachers, a guide toward the feral domestic.
SR: I don’t want to pretend that the domestic sphere is free from expectations, but it does exist as an important site of possibility. Unlike the public sphere, where you’re doing things for approval, and where there is an implied visibility, the domestic space seems like a place to make your own meaning. bell hooks writes about the home as a site of resistance, a place where you can go to make something else.
DR: We’re often asked about “using” children in our art. Historically, an artist mother is seen as less devoted to the art work. I’m coming to see that it doesn’t hinder the process.
SR: Let us not be shamed by the fact that we have children. Let us try to figure out what that means, what it feels like through making work.
DR: We are currently a foster family. I agreed to provide food, housing, opportunity, but what has happened is an experience of authentic attachment and deep love. It takes time and energy, but even still, I will never stop drawing.
I know that for legal reasons, you don’t include your foster child in your work. That points to an interesting tension, because it seems like you expose everything, but in fact there’s a lot that you’re not showing.
DR: Yeah, we are often asked about privacy. We make the things we want to see. I would rather watch a video of other lesbians having sex, but we have ourselves at hand, so we use ourselves. Lesbian desire deserves equal screen time, so we are willing to be vulnerable to make that happen. But we are the editors—so it is a vulnerability laced with control.
SR: I’m more willing to share these vulnerable, truthful moments of our life together because it’s a shared responsibility.
DR: One of the things I hold private is shame; that I’m not good enough, that I’m not a competent parent, that I’m too damaged to be a mother… Maybe I’ll get over it?
The question of responsibility reminds me of something I saw in Dani’s first film, Draft 9 (2003). There’s a lot of visceral footage in the film. You are given dead animals by hunters or you collect roadkill to get a close look at their bodies. I remember feeling uncomfortable. There’s a shot of a possum lying dead on the side of the road and you pick it up and find babies inside. You touch the babies and squeeze them, but somehow I knew that you were not going to pop them. That’s a line you were not going to cross. You were not going to torture me as a viewer. I decided then that I could trust you, as a filmmaker.
DR: Ethics are becoming more complex and nuanced these days. I always believed that if my motives are clean then I have permission to do what I want. Eileen Myles said to me that if the work reads as a violation, your intentions are moot. I’m still confused and sometimes unwilling to compromise. We can never be a 100 percent safe from misinterpretation.
SR: I appreciate Dani’s movement toward things that I would not go toward. It is constantly challenging me—like when we look at the mangled cat in Future From Inside—there’s no way I would pick up a camera and shoot that cat with a cancerous growth eating away at his head.
The scene with the cat is not just about the difficult image, but the argument you’re having on top of it. That really transforms what you’re seeing. The dialogue is wrestling with the provocative aspect of such an image.
DR: The shot is about looking and seeing. It’s not a provocation, used for shock or agitation. I’m aligned with visual culture theorist Ariella Azoulay, who writes about our responsibility to look in order to be active citizen-poets, people with agency.
SR: I think provocation is an interesting word. It has to do with what you’re accustomed to. Is being uncomfortable a provocation? Maybe a challenge, a reconfiguration of seeing and feeling? Sometimes we get asked about why, in Strangely Ordinary This Devotion, there’s so much blood. But why not? [Laughs]
DR: Blood is common ground, we all have it.
SR: We bleed every month as women, but we don’t talk about it, and it’s shameful if it’s seen in public. So it’s interesting to think: what does it mean, as women, to have control over bloodletting and seeing it spilled again and again in this vessel of the video?
The shot at the beginning of Strangely Ordinary This Devotion, of the blade cutting into Dani’s scalp, is very hard to watch.
SR: I shot that, but I close my eyes whenever I see it. It’s like with the cat. Moments like that become intense points of pressure. You need a break after it.
DR: Cutting my head was necessary to clarify the narrative: the ritual required to make children who can survive without water must be done by a lesbian witch who has had her fear cut out. That’s why we included Prince [on the soundtrack for Strangely Ordinary This Devotion]. Everybody knows Prince; birds soaring in a blue sky with the “I Would Die 4 U” track is a satisfying break. Most experimental films require the viewer to work, but if you’re listening to Prince, you’re transported into pleasure.
Genevieve Yue is Associate Professor of Culture and Media at the New School and author of Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality (Fordham University Press, 2020).