Jordan Strafer at Hot Wheels

As I ran towards Hot Wheels in the rain, dodging the endless stream of tourists making a beeline for the British Museum, I couldn't help but think that if many of them knew that there was freely viewable contemporary art merely two minutes from the home of English colonial looting, they would be following me into the space. Alas, while the contemporary art and museum spheres may seem neighbourly in nature, and in this case geography, there is certainly an accessibility chasm between them. Hot Wheels is a relatively new fixture in Bloomsbury's increasingly prevalent art scene, having opened their London iteration in November 2023 to supplement their Athens gallery. The space itself is small, as is to be expected in such a lucrative part of town, but makes for a pleasingly intimate setting for a film screening, as is the case with No Spank, a new film work by New York-based artist Jordan Strafer. 

Installation view: Jordan Strafer, No Spank, Super 16mm single channel film with digital sound, 10 minutes 21 seconds. Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.

I am currently reading the highly lauded novel I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman, and instantly I was pleased to notice some similarities between the content of the book and No Spank. At only ten minutes' long, opposed to the hours I will spend reading Harpman's book, the film is a tantalising honey trap into a story that is not fully elucidated. No Spank is devoid of a beginning and an end, in terms of the plight of its characters, which is a creative decision which pays dividends as to the effect it has on its audience. What is available to the viewer, though, is the small mannerisms that pass between people at various levels of oppression; an unspoken, nay, unspeakable language. 

Strafer's film opens with a beautiful vignette of an idyllic, warm seascape, with a mountain backdrop. This could easily be Italy, or perhaps Greece, but ultimately it is Picture Perfect. Its specific location is not hugely important; we are in an environment which could be our own, or it could be alien. With our TikTok, Reel-saturated brains impatient for the film to start despite the aspirational imagery, Strafer lingers for an almost uncomfortable amount of time on this scene. Here we have the double bind of the social media-addled mindset: I enjoy looking at this beautiful scenery, but not for too long, regardless of how pleasant or mindful the experience is. Opening a mildly unsettling film with this scene is something of a faux ami, as we are inducted into Strafer's world. 

Installation view: Jordan Strafer, No Spank, Super 16mm single channel film with digital sound, 10 minutes 21 seconds. Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.

From the seascape, attention now turns to a similarly sun-drenched scene, based in a carceral setting. It could be a school, based on the identical uniforms the group of girls wear, cleverly adhering to the warm aesthetic as they toil in sunshine-yellow shorts, but a psychiatric or criminal justice unit is also plausible. In total silence, the group of girls undertake chores, in this case hand-washing laundry in buckets outside in the heat, overseen by a stern and equally silent woman. 

There is no direct communication in this environment, aside from the knowing, clandestine looks shared between inmates. It is not entirely clear how old the girls are, or whether they are in fact adults, but regardless, it becomes clear that their private times of lunch and sleep are also closely policed. During lunchtime, a figure discreetly passes a tiny package of folded paper, and we see it get hidden down the trouser band of the recipient. The ambience of the all-girls school, especially the more strict or selective, is replicated successfully here, with the slew of physical and emotional secrets rendered both physical and invisible. 

The length of the film leaves our understanding of the situation feeling rather stunted, which in turn allows for bigger impact. With a short but intense and engaging duration, the viewer feels impacted with the events that unfold, but the submissive silence that prevails throughout No Spank evokes the idea that this is part of life at this institution; nothing to see here! There are several micro-events which take place in quick succession; the first being the recipient of the folded paper, as aforementioned, visiting a toilet cubicle and proceeding to stickily place the contents of the folded paper into her vagina. Under close inspection, we can see that this is a prosthetic genital piece, which is a small dose of comic relief in what is a tense ten minutes of viewing. In the cubicle next door, with its door swung open, a girl is vomiting into the toilet. The tropes of teenage girlhood remain multiplicitous. 

Jordan Strafer, No Spank, Super 16mm single channel film with digital sound, 10 minutes 21 seconds. Film still. Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.

There a great deal of intent which remains unsaid in the narrative of the film, and as a 'legally different' string rendition of Happy Birthday plays at the lunch hall (presumably given the copyright implications of using the original), a cake is presented to one of the girls, who looks incredibly, and infectiously, anxious whilst blowing out her candles. Again, this is all done in silence. Whatever the situation, everything plateaus and is neutralised; no overt sorrow, no joy. The end of the film is the escape towards freedom that the viewer is gunning for with all our might. Launching herself over the barbed wire, a girl dashes across the beach towards the sea. In her wake, we see smears and smudges of blood across the stones on the shore. We are reminded of the bodily nature of the desperation and despair of all we have seen up until this point, whether that is the vomiting, or the use of the genitals as some kind of surreal storage compartment, but more implicitly, the overall policing and surveillance of the female-identifying bodies within this structure. As she runs wildly towards the ocean, the viewer blinks and suddenly we are thrown to the final scene, whereby her soaked, lifeless body is being brought back to land by two compliant girls and their stern, stoic overseer. 

A palpable despair at the use of institutions and carceral structures in our lives is reflected back to us in No Spank. Anyone who is socially marginalised does, in theory, have the platform to speak out about the injustices played out upon their lives, but marginalisation would not exist if speaking out about it was free of judgment and peril. Strafer's film is a short but stark look at the ways in which danger and discomfort are expressed in ways that don’t fit with traditional, often ableist, means of communication; the communities that are built through sheer necessity and shared predicament, and the ways in which natural landscapes and man-made social environments are deeply disparate. I think here of the supposedly neutral and 'Good' imagery of the warm ocean and mountains, and the oppressive actions taking place nearby. Shot in Super 16mm, the aesthetics of the film are undeniably gorgeous; if Strafer were to direct a film adaptation of I Who Have Never Known Men, I would surely be first in line to see it.

No Spank, a solo exhibition by Jordan Strafer. 29 February - 6 April 2024. Hot Wheels, London.

You might also like...