The House of Olga

The House of Olga.” In Alexandra Gelis: Seeds, eds. Mike Hoolboom & Clint Enns (Toronto/Ottawa: Conversalon/Canadian Film Institute, 2021), 28-29.

While experimental cinema often promises to offer new ways of seeing, the cinema of Alexandra Gelis provides new ways of listening and new forms of solidarity. Through personal cinema, film poets present new visions to the world, allowing others access to their subjective gaze. Gelis’s work challeng- es this notion by asking us to think beyond consciousness as an individual’s first-person perspective. Instead her work orients us towards communal con- sciousness and interconnectivity, both human and non-human. While faces tell stories, what stories do the individuals behind these faces tell? Given that we only have limited access to the experience of others, it is through storytelling and collective experience that we are able to relate to another person’s subjective reality. Gelis’s work is a gesture away from first-person experience and towards a third-person experiment.

Exhibit A: CONVERsalón was started by Gelis and Jorge Lozano as a way of disseminating contemporary art outside of traditional gallery spaces. The series usually takes place in their living room and the title is derived from the Spanish word conversar, meaning “to talk.” The work exhibited is an entry point, a fram- ing device—it offers a way to communally think through ideas, concepts, and politics. It is not a singular vision, but a collective dialogue. The work is there to facilitate this conversation and, since it is impossible to think on an empty

stomach, delicious meals are lovingly prepared by the hosts for each event. These gatherings are an experiment in solidarity and communal consciousness. Each guest is treated with the same respect that is traditionally reserved for the artist (and other celebrity guests).

Exhibit BThe House of Olga (2010) is a video documenting Olga Leticia’s house, an open-air space beside the ruins of an old church in Panama City. Gelis’s camera does more than simply bear witness to Leticia’s living situation; it listens to her without judgment. As Leticia reveals, “They don’t understand it. Everybody thinks I live in bad conditions. They ask, How can you live like this?” She re- plies to this hypothetical question with a grin and a shrug: “I just let them talk. I keep quiet.” If Gelis had simply bore witness, one might perceive Leticia as a “poor woman” living in “bad conditions.” But because Gelis actively listens, we begin to understand Leticia’s situation and see her strength, resilience, defiance, and independence.


Conchitas.” In Alexandra Gelis: Seeds, eds. Mike Hoolboom & Clint Enns (Toronto/Ottawa: Conversalon/Canadian Film Institute, 2021), 32.

Conchitas (2010) was made in collaboration with Jorge Lozano, and presents itself as a diptych. One screen sees Gelis sunbathing while the screen is being partially covered in gummy bears. The second screen shows a landscape being partially covered in seashells. One video is shot by Lozano in Canada, the other by Gelis in Panama. The gummy bears are wet and slimy and slide across each other as they are being stacked. The seashells are hard and come directly from the land. The real is juxtaposed with the artificial: the natural landscape with its seashells and the beach with its gummy bears. Conchita is a diminutive for concha, which means seashell, as well as a diminutive for Concepción, which refers to the Immaculate Conception. It is also a region of the Chiriquí Province in Panama.

The two worlds are held together with a text that scrolls quickly across the screen. The text “en una conversación no planificada” is from an unplanned con- versation between two women, Cristina Lombana and Elizabeth Pérez, who hunt for seashells and casually discuss their fears including: drowning and river snakes, an asthma epidemic in Chiriquí, and their family dynamics. One woman states, “The seashells look beautiful when you string them together,” to which the other responds, “Yes, I string them together.” Their simple exchange articulates one of the functions of artworks that is too often forgotten, namely, the social function of art making.