Strangely Ordinary. Courtesy Video Data Bank

In Future From Inside (2021)—the last in experimental moving-image makers Dani and Sheilah ReStack’s exhilarating “feral domesticity” triptych—the two artists (partners in life as well as in certain of their creative endeavors) discuss one half of the duo’s propensity for including grotesque imagery in their work over apropos footage of an injured cat.

“You just always want to show these disgusting things,” says Sheilah, “like some sort of perverse desire to . . . gross us out.”

“It’s not ‘gross us out,’” Dani replies. “It’s reality, which is gross. I don’t even think it’s gross . . . reality is brutal, why wouldn’t we show it?”

There’s an adage that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. The ReStacks, on the other hand, evince an ethos that because something can be documented, it’s thus ripe for inclusion in their unbound, quasi-diaristic amalgamations, work that blurs the line between the sublime monotony of everyday life and the capriciousness of imagination, which can help to conceive of new and radical ways of living.

The ReStacks’ completed trilogy, including also Strangely Ordinary this Devotion (2017) and Come Coyote (2019), will have its Chicago premiere on Thursday, March 31, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Titled “An Evening with Dani and Sheilah ReStack,” it’s a co-presentation of the School of the Art Institute’s Conversations at the Edge screening series and the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, for which this program is the opening night event. (Full disclosure: I have previously been involved with the festival, and Cine-File, the website I manage with my husband, is co-presenting the restoration of Nina Menkes’s 1996 film The Bloody Child as part of this year’s lineup.) The ReStacks will appear in person for a post-screening discussion. 

At just over 26 minutes, Strangely Ordinary this Devotion is the longest in the trilogy. It’s a sprawling, exquisitely inchoate fissure of the ReStacks’ relationship and the socialistic ideals that compel them. The couple met in Columbus, Ohio, where they both live and work, though Sheilah is originally from Nova Scotia; they came together under circumstances befitting their consequent output, with Sheilah working on a “daily writing/drawing piece,” per an interview with FEMEXFILMARCHIVE, called Strangely Ordinary This Devotion. Dani expressed interest in collaborating, and the rest is history. (The film that takes its title from Sheilah’s project was made under the names Dani Leventhal and Sheilah Wilson; they later gave themselves the last name ‘ReStack’ in reference to a poem by Anne Carson.) 

“An Evening with Dani and Sheilah ReStack”
Thursday, March 31, 6 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; SAIC students free, SAIC faculty and staff $5, Film Center members $6, general admission $12.

Within its first several minutes, Strangely Ordinary presents footage of Dani’s head surgery, blood gushing from an incision on her scalp, and a sex scene during which Sheilah is on her period. It’s often aphorized that blood is thicker than water, and here the literal interpretation of that is true—and necessary, as the video later addresses (albeit opaquely) climate change and its impact on water supply—though not the blood in their veins, but the blood that gushes from them during their most vulnerable moments. The ReStacks’ presentation of such imagery is decidedly aggressive, almost confrontational. Where some might think vulnerability means metaphorically spilling one’s guts, the ReStacks take it a step further in spilling actual blood.

Midway into Strangely Ordinary, a fantastical element emerges, one connected to the aforementioned subject of climate change, as a fictional newscaster-like voice declares that there are children being born who don’t need water to survive. “These water children allegedly emerged through lesbian activities in Ohio,” says the announcer. A connection between all three films in the trilogy is the couple’s ongoing debate over whether to have another child (Sheilah’s daughter from a previous relationship frequently appears throughout). Uncertainty and desire are prevalent themes, and they relate explicitly to the question of procreation in the approximately seven-minute-long Come Coyote.

More tightly constructed than its predecessor, the second entry focuses on the obstacle of reproduction between the same-sex couple. The logistics of the act exemplify the awkwardness and messiness inherent in procreation, and are extended to include feelings of ambivalence over going through with it at all. It’s implied in a particularly audacious scene—one that rivals the so-called “gross” scenes in sheer impact—where Dani expresses hesitancy over having another child with Sheilah. The relative sparseness of this film in comparison to the others in the trilogy reflects its significance as a turning point in both their work and their lives, conveying the agility of being and the ability of it to change quickly. Still, the artists’ penchant for arbitrary and irreverent images tempers the seriousness, namely a scene involving a dog (the ReStacks love animals) playing tug-of-war with a strap-on dildo.

Water plays a role in each of the films. It brings forth life and sustains it; it can kill us and increasingly continues to evade us. The recently completed Future From Inside (with an approximately 18-minute runtime, almost splitting the difference between the first two) opens with an image of water, and towards the end, various participants receive drops of it in their eyes. The third and final entry finds the ReStacks working with more collaborators, specifically as “doubles” who re-create their relationship troubles. One such simulation takes place on a Zoom-like platform, an allusion to the pandemic-era conditions in which the video was made. Expanding creatively when society was intentionally isolating itself marks a bold progression for the artists, whose work is widely regarded for its taut intimacy.

Echoing the faux newscast from Strangely Ordinary this Devotion, one part in Future From Inside finds Sheilah watching a news program that switches from an update on the stock market to one of a particularly local flavor. “The lesbian witches in Ohio have been reportedly indoctrinating more people into their cult,” it begins, a provocative edict that suggests any number of meanings. Of course, there’s a humorous interpretation, lampooning the idea that queer folks are forever on the prowl for heterosexual prey. More seriously, it conjures a sense of finality and extends an implied invitation to viewers to join their unconventional family and similarly relish in the magic of the banal, the brutal, and the beautiful.