Visual Culture
This Joyful Video of Women Laughing Sends a Strong Feminist Message

Allison Halter, What’s so funny?, 2009.

Margaret Atwood famously said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” At a time when a scrap of joy is stretched over weeks of bad news, a loop of women laughing alone on a small 1990s-era TV in a storefront window is both ominous and a simple feminist gesture.

What’s so funny? (2009), by artist Allison Halter, is just that: a video loop consisting entirely of clips of women laughing ecstatically. It’s currently on view thanks to Best Practice, a small, artist-run “non-space” in San Diego, which is playing the piece on a Sony Trinitron PVM20L5 monitor in the storefront of Helmuth Projects. The five-minute video runs day and night, with the joyful faces of women laughing on-screen broadcast onto Fifth Avenue downtown.

Halter culled amateur footage from YouTube in order to edit and compile What’s so funny? Most of the found clips are a bit unsteady, the person holding the camera inevitably shaking in laughter along with their subject. We see a grandmother in her muumuu doubled over the sink, teens rolling on the floor in their bedrooms, a woman in pajamas gripping her sides—the postures of beatific women on couches, in kitchens, heads thrown back with faces flushed, women and girls laughing so hard they can barely speak.

Allison Halter, What’s So Funny?, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

Allison Halter, What’s So Funny?, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

Why or what these women are laughing at is unknown, but the absence of context is potent. “Women’s laughter is a powerful magic,” Halter tells Artsy. “It can be both inclusive and exclusive, sometimes simultaneously. It’s the one instrument that can still be accessed even in times of oppression.”

What’s so funny? investigates the radical potential of laughter and how a woman laughing is an act of resistance. “As a historically devalued group, women’s laughter is subversive,” says Halter. It’s also infectious: Try hard not to smile while watching someone laugh. The physicality of laughing is uncontrollable and irrepressible, like a sort of possession. “Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst,” wrote Hélène Cixous in her 1975 essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” “I’m peeing a little bit,” one of the women in Halter’s video says, grinning at the screen, trembling, her fingers in the air, indicating a small measurement. Another woman pounds the floor, unable to speak, her body shaking on the ground in spasms.

Allison Halter, What’s So Funny?, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

Allison Halter, What’s So Funny?, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

The montage is scored by a steady trill of giggles and the low-pitch of belly laughs which echo into the street. A speaker is installed under the awning of the gallery with the volume turned up loud enough for a viewer to hear, even with ambient street noise. “You can hear the sound of laughing from across the street,” says Joe Yorty, the founder and project coordinator of Best Practice, who works in collaboration with administrator Allie Mundt. “The video will be in some way disembodied from the audio.” The sound of women laughing accompanies traffic headed up Fifth Avenue, underscores the chatter of nightlife at adjacent bars, and soundtracks lonely smokers on the sidewalk.

“I want to have an ecstatic experience with my viewers,” Halter says, “to have a moment expand into an hour, and to have hours condense into an instant.”

To be a woman in the world is to be a woman on guard and we train young girls to police their own bodies. In our sour political climate, with misogynist behavior slowly rooted out like dry rot, signals of joy are a welcome triumph.

Angella d'Avignon