“Pornography, Ectoplasm and the Secret Dancer: A Twin Reading of Naomi Uman’s Removed

Naomi Uman’s Removed (1999) portrays the sexualized feminine form as a ghostly shimmering; a writhing white form. In “removing” the woman from the screen (Uman painstakingly erased the female figure from a 70s European porn film frame by frame, using bleach and nail polish remover), she in turn highlights the actor’s constant motion as performative. The gruelling techniques of Uman’s handmade cinema serve to materialise female sexual pleasure and question visual methods of authentication.

Like the doubled absence and presence of Removed, our reading in this article is twofold. In the first reading, Hilary Bergen sees a connection between Uman’s creative process and the technique of rotoscoping, an animation technique used to extract motion from the human body in the pursuit of realism. For Bergen, the porn actors whom Uman obscures become suppliers of a hidden and controversial labour – they are like the “secret dancers” who lent their motion to the characters of early animation. Because Uman’s meticulous approach yields visual results that are similar to rotoscoping, her film evokes the kinetic qualities of female pleasure. That kineticism is teased out through her intimate tracing of the space inhabited by each female body on every frame of celluloid.

In the second reading, Sandra Huber observes a link between Uman’s work and the portrayals of sexual fluid in the nineteenth century phenomenon of ectoplasm (a gauzy white substance that emerged from the orifices of female mediums and was said to be a materialisation of the spirit world). While ectoplasm had the consistency of semen, its secretion from a female body meant that it was often brought into historic discussions around fraudulence (especially where photographic ‘evidence’ was concerned). We see Removed as a feminist alternative to methods of truth-making that are primarily photographic, one that centres on the embodied and experiential practice of the women whose bodies perform labour (or enact the labour of performance).

Screening the Past Issue 43, Special Dossier: “Dematerializing Absence in Film and Media” (April 2018).