Opening as part of the British institution’s Park Nights programme, the event combines the London-based artist’s practice in sculpture and filmmaking, and “existing music, personal and collective histories” in an evening exploring “collective affect, longing and love”.
Zadie Xa’s new performance piece Linguistic Legacies and Lunar Exploration reaches my ears well before I’ve entered Serpentine Galleries in London’s Hyde Park on August 13. Lying in the sun waiting for a friend, a drumbeat starts up, slow and steady. A voice next, a foreign tongue begins a roll call, a call met by a response from the other performers. Maybe it’s the sunny Saturday in the city but there’s a festival atmosphere developing, the peak of Bjarke Ingel’s pavilion in the Serpentine grounds appears; like a big top from old country fairs, drawing in the crowd to the sound, ready for the show.
Entering the gallery courtyard for the 5pm performance (one of three during the afternoon) a tension, between this sense of ritual/festival and the nodes of global contemporary art becomes more glaring. The pavilion is not a big top, but contains all the hallmarks of grand, starchitect-affected design. And as the crowd begins to hush for the now familiar roll call of the performers, the whirring of the espresso machine continues unabated. It is this tension, and the audience’s positioning within it, that Xa plays with in this performance —how are we implicated or being implicated?
The crowd is met by five performers wearing colourful, stonewash clothes, carrying instruments with haunting masks covering their faces with exaggerated expressions. They march through the audience, which parts, to take up their starting positions. The costume and performance are characteristics of talchum, a Korean form of folk entertainment which literally translates to ‘mask dance’. The ritual element of the performance is striking —there is not only call-and-response, but also faux-fighting, interaction with the audience and dance to the rise and fall of drum beats. There is also a circularity to the movement which suggests the creation of a space, whether physical or ritual. Over twenty minutes the action moves around the entire pavilion. The herd follows and the performers stop regularly to continue the ritual, finishing with the unfurling and then cutting of a long material scroll, made from the same fabric as the performers costumes.
Xa’s work is known for addressing themes of representation, and particularly racialized construction of identity. The particularities of the talchum undoubtedly raises questions over stereotyping of Korean culture, particularly when juxtaposed with the surroundings of a major UK art institution. Yet the masks seem to encapsulate a broader visual metaphor for the current moment. The audience follows the performers, phones at the ready for a new round in the circulation of images. These images will be shared on platforms in which we construct much of our public-facing identity.
Yet, the talchum also contains elements of critique of the ruling classes. The dance tells the stories of the common people, the social strictures they face, becoming a place where the behaviour of monks and the powerful is satirised. The line between seriousness and satire is less clear in Xa’s work, perhaps deliberately so. The ritual of Linguistic Legacies and Lunar Exploration feels anachronistic, both familiar and alien, caught somewhere between the language of tradition and trips to the moon.**
Ed’s note, Sep 3: The original published text referred to talchum as a specifically North Korean mask dance but it is, in fact, one shared by many Korean Provinces. See here for more info.
The event titled ‘Towards a Radio Ballad: Songs of the Journey’ is a part of Serpentine’s Park Nights programme, following on from recent evenings featuring presentations by Camille Henrot, and Fred Moten, Eileen Myles and Sondra Perry.
The group who are based at London’s Centre for Possible Studies take their name from their investigation which they carry out most often through experimental workshops that explore the relationships between political speech and action, the self and the collective, the audience and the actor, the voice and silence.
Particularly focussing their work on migrant’s rights groups and unions, the upcoming evening will present spectators with a type of participation that, according to the group’s manifesto, finds its path in the personal, alongside sound compositions developed from a year-long collaboration with migrant hotel workers from Unite’s Hotel Workers Branch.
The evening is one of storytelling and collective decision-making, inspired by folk tales from the South of Italy and will see the audience take part in shaping a narrative alongside contributions from other artists. Poets such as David Horvitz, known for his emotive mail art projects, and dancer Amira Ghazalla whose work looks at ancient movement and how rituals are inherited.
For the event, which is a part of this year’s Serpentine Gallery summer programme, Park Nights, French artist Henrot has collaborated with the Fiorucci Art Trustand the contemporary art festival that they host every year on the semi-mythical volcanic Aeolian island, Stromboli called ‘Volcano Extravaganza’.
Henrot’s recent work has been found at New Museum, Berlin’s Schinkel Pavillonand London’s Chisenhale Gallery, where in 2014 she presented a sort of rearrangement of objects, myths and their typologies across a carpeted room, which feels akin to the idea of deconstructing the way a story is told.
The enactment of Emily Sundblad and Juliana Huxtable’s ongoing collaboration, Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches Part Two at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery on April 18 is a contemporary song-cycle. In the sequel to their Dichterliebe and all that jazz performance-work-in-progress presented at New York’s The Kitchen last year, Sundblad and Huxtable perform an operetta composed of gathered materials, ranging from 17th century German composer Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (‘Songs of Love’), extracts from porn sites, contemporary pop songs, original anecdotes of the everyday.
Presented as part of the Serpentine Galleries’ The Magazine Sessions performance programme, the Zaha Hadid-designed extension of the Serpentine Sackler space is saturated in an eerie green light and an array of floral bouquets. A grand piano stands in the middle of the stage-floor awaiting its moment among the murmurs of a heterogeneous audience that fades and gives way to the solemn entrance of a cast composed of Sundblad, Huxtable, pianist Ken Okiishi and London amateur choir Musarc.
Artist, performer and Reena Spaulings gallerist Sundblad’s teary eyes stare, bewildered, her fingers weave in delicate gestures as she opens with Schumann’s ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’. A German vocal solo sings about love’s bloom in ‘the wonderfully fair month of May’ taken from the Dichterliebe song cycle, which in turn was inspired by writer Heinrich Heine’s 1840 Lyrisches Intermezzo (‘Cycle of Poems’). Sundblad sings of love’s bloom while wearing green earrings and orange nails that contrast with a long, black velvet dress with a plunging neckline that tumbles to the floor.
This short and brittle yet stunning performance is followed by Huxtable’s poems. The DJ, artist and activist is contrastingly dressed-down in a denim outfit, as she delivers her words —reading from a tablet —in a rich, hypnotic timbre illustrative of a more informal, even charmingly coarse tone. Filtered through a microphone, the House of Ladosha member also known for founding “nightlife gender project” #ShockvalueNYC speaks of Beijing, meetings at Walmart and body piercings. Like-minded amphibians come by tongues and fingers, images circulate and young love blossoms in the “courtyard of affective labour”, followed by mantras of licking “each others necks on ecstasy under UV” —sometimes repeated until losing its meaning.
The breathtaking songs by Sundblad alternate between solo renditions of Schumann’s compositions —the opening tears of joy are soon replaced with those of sadness in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ —Wystan Hugh Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, and choral renditions of pop songs like Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ and Rihanna’s ‘Needed Me’. A surreal passage, read from Sunblad’s phone, follows: a dead doctor and a husband, a grief shared on Facebook and other stories in precede a fearless feminism in the canyons of West Texas. It claims “everyone is in a hurry in hospitals, and their colors and textures stay the same, whether life or death is produced”. The dramatic fragility free falls into a more abject mode, turning lyrics about love and loss in dreams into drunkenness and despair; still candid, though alcoholic and hopeless.
Sundblad’s performance leads again to Huxtable’s reverberating voice, in some ways reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, in which its miked mutations enhance the machinic side of her vocal, slowly stripping it of its humanity and making it sound Cyborgian. Huxtable’s voice becomes more and more distorted throughout the performance, as its fed through a filter, becoming an abstraction: a vibrant, powerful wave, piercing the public’s brains with its blurred deep sound, going back-and-forth between its original state and an absolute alteration.
Both Sundblad and Huxtable appear divine like the performance title, reciting an updated version of Schumann’s cycle of songs and romance, often performed by men. In rigorous turns they enact the lyrics and poems, respectively performing the roles of composer Schumann and poet Heine, through a set of copy-pasted writings, erotic material, popular songs, and former’s original ‘Lieder’. The pompous bouquets, perhaps a gesture towards the Romantic era from which Dichterliebe/Divine Bitches Part Two was born. By the end of the evening, stems droop and petals drop as the flowers are already dying, fragmented and falling apart as they come to the end of their course.**
London-based Achiampong utilises a range of sound media and materials to interrogate assembled representations of identity. With the ubiquitousness of Facebook, Tumblr, and Youtube-based cultures he explores the dichotomies which might exist in an era of personal and interpersonal archives.
Previously, with An Evening of Live Music at DRAF, Achiampong played with some of his own archive – playing vinyl tracks influential to his own music-making practice, while looping a video of a young child playing.
The Transformation Marathon, hosted by Serpentine Sackler Gallery and curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, is a combination group show/art conference that, according to the press announcement “addresse[s] cultural, political and physical shifts, asking how significant change can be achieved today”. Watching and listening in Eastern Standard Time (EST), five hours behind London’s GMT, by way of the stream over the course of a 24-hour live event/radio show. That I could be present at the Marathon denotes a sort of institutional transformation in itself, the incorporation of digitality and broadening of artistic platforms –drawing on, to paraphrase, Marisa Olson’s idea that URL is IRL. But does technical change actually necessitate cultural and political shifts? In considering the works and presentations on show, one wonders just how transformative, how changed, this institution, these ideologies and these identities really are.
The 7 to 10 pm block (which I viewed at 2 to 5 pm EST) of the marathon began with art duo Gilbert & George’s take on the theme. They used their segment to spotlight –rather, appropriate –a third person, a Filipina transgender woman named Victoria. The transformation was twofold as it marked their becoming a trio, and Victoria was upheld as an example of, to paraphrase G&G’s interview, “the real transformation”. This notion of transformation is therefore predicated on two white men making a “living sculpture” of –that is to say, objectifying –a trans woman of color, by way of showcasing the popular and preconceived transition narrative. This, coupled with their discussion of their Banksy-level confrontational broadsides (reading, e.g. “Fuck the Planet” re: “people that want to save the planet,” to quote George), and the universalizing slogan that overarches their career (“Art for All”), set a tone that would follow the remainder of the live stream: mostly white participants presenting archaic, or humanistic, ideas or fallacies of transformation, while more marginalized artists exhibited radicalized ones, and effectively transformed the space.
This was the dissonance in Bruno Latour’s participation, both in his lecture and in conversation with Obrist and Tino Sehgal. In his disorganized lecture, he argued that there was “no transformation without institution,” riffing on Whitehead’s interpretation of substance theory to say that institution is “subsistence” –i.e., is a transformative body –rather than “substance,” static. He concluded his segment with the idea that the art institution is “finally very weakened” because of those who are resistant to “critique,” reminding us that transformation is not limited to “the margins,” and that “science is one institution to cherish.” It is unclear, though, if in “cherish[ing]” the institution, we are to accept it as apolitical and ideologically neutral.
Neither Latour nor Sehgal (nor Obrist, who moderated) acknowledge this in their conversation, and instead reinscribe it through their values. Latour stated, to paraphrase, that hierarchy “has to be worked out gradually,” and defined his latest project, Reset, as “getting the politics out so that it is the human alone.” For someone like Latour to attempt to curate and/or facilitate a psychosocial “reset” universalizes the white man’s experience as the “human experience,” which is, in no way, transformative. Sehgal disapproved of the counterculture idea, similar to Latour alleging “transformation without innovation,” stating that no one can be “outside the market,” yet so much of what makes one “marketable” stems from how one is privileged by, to use bell hooks’ terming, the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Marketability, also, does not necessarily mean empowerment or freedom: case in point, G&G’s inclusion of Victoria as an object, while maintaining their own subjectivity as European men, references the topical media phenomenon of the ‘Transgender Tipping Point‘ -the saturation of the public consciousness with consumable trans narratives -more than it recognizes her autonomy. It is perhaps more useful to think of “outside the market” in terms of lacking access, being more analogous to “outside the canon.” Jeff Koons was brought up as having said that he has “2.7 seconds to create a sense of acceptance in the viewer,” and while the conversation fixated on time/attention, the depth of the experience, I think the more crucial question is whether art should seek acceptance at all, whether acceptance is but reinscription.
The same problems plagued the discussion of ecology and the so-called ‘anthropocene’. It is unsurprising that Latour’s humanistic sensibilities about art permeate his consideration of the earth: both he and Sehgal defaulted to the Foucauldian “technologies of the self”, paraphrasing Felix Guattari in agreeing there would be “no solution to climate change without a change in subjectivity”, without a change to the aforesaid technologies. Both also often used the collective ‘we’ in reference to responsibility, which must be interrogated: we, as Saskia Sassen pointed out earlier in the program, are not all equally accountable for the ecological catastrophe that comes with globalization. There are so many ideological loose ends to how this subject was treated. It is germane to compare Latour’s statement of “we are rocks now”, in the spirit of his and James Lovelock’s universalizing ‘Gaia’ idea, to Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr’s depiction of the refugee crisis in pebble art: these are not the same rocks, these are not the same ‘we’. The treatment of the earth in art, accordingly, is dependent on the artist: Keren Cytter incorporated images of earthly destruction in her film, Metamorphosis, to create danger within a nonlinear narrative, while Eyal Weizman used “physical clocks” for the purpose of reconstructing a day in the 2014 Gaza war. In contrast to ‘Gaia’, Lynn Hershman Leeson, in excerpts from The Infinity Engine, understands that “nature” is more constructed than transcendent, and “what was formerly known as nature” is no longer that.
It was ironic, especially in light of Dorothea von Hantelmann’s lecture and the insistence that ecology is communal, to see this conversation meant to question the contemporary notion of ‘gathering’, via a platform that, as Sehgal pointed out, maintained the traditional subject-object distance between speaker and audience, juxtaposed with the fact that artists of color did actually transform the space. Jamaican-British menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner staged the musical composition ‘Everythings for Real’, named for her series of collages/zines, and performed by Moussa Dembele and Moussa Dembele. Nkisi closed the livestream with a DJ set. In both cases, to draw on the emphasis von Hantelmann placed on experientiality, there is a palpable liveness to these musical works: the range and collaboration between players in Bonner’s piece, the interaction of their personalities with the music (one performer ended on “shave and a haircut”); the curation of an interactive atmosphere through Nkisi’s ‘Occult Instability’. Both artists importantly forgo the institutional formalism by dissolving the subject-object separation. Accordingly, the audience did not seem to know how to interpret either performance, to some extent, with people clapping prematurely during Bonner’s piece, and some not being able to keep up with the crossfades in Nkisi’s sometimes abrasive, or unexpected, or “unstable” performance. This sense of temporal, atmospheric change through music was echoed in Jumana Manna’s broadcast from ‘A Magical Substance Flows into Me’, in which she referenced the idea of Palestinian music as “closely connected with the elemental forces of the universe [and] shap[ing the] harmony of the universe” –or, something that is at once “real” and “occult.”
Andrea Crespo’s short film, “Polymorphoses (epilogue),” also accomplished the subversion, though by way of the subject-object dialectic. The film begins and ends with the sweeping of a clinical white line across the screen –a possible symbol, re: Latour’s “cherish[ed]” science, for the whitewashed normativity proposed by medical science, how it punishes neurodivergence; to quote the text of the film, “we become ‘sentient’ and/or sapient/so to speak”. The incorporation of public digital sources like DeviantArt and Wikipedia both creates and refers to community/gathering as much as it creates and refers to, as Anton Haugen wrote for Rhizome, “the malleability of the self”. The ontological multiplicity is a Foucauldian “technology” of its own, necessitated by institutional pressure and the advent of technology a la Leeson. It returns us to the pervasive question, also posed by Katherine Angel and Helen Hester in ‘Technosexuals’, of what is or is not a legitimate body or legitimate personhood. **
See here for ‘Looking back at Transformation Marathon, p.1 (GMT)’.
NTGNE is a retelling of, Antigone, the hellenic fable whose eponymous heroine has been an enduring symbol of anti-imperial struggle for centuries. Like Sophocles’ original work which was written at a time of great national fervor, Jesse Darling’s performance is presented in London on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a day of mass mourning and a sobre reminder of the greatest ideological attack on the Western Imperial project in modern times.
After jostling for space in the crowded Serpentine Pavilion, I find myself lying flat on a yoga mat in complete darkness, contorted amongst the multitude of bodies that have piled inside. As the performance begins, a discordant throb of electrical interference pulses through the air, vibrating the opalescent skin of the stage set. The atmosphere is ominous and psychedelic, like a bad trip, and my discomfort is intensified by a foreboding meta-commentary between bursts of white noise; “…the floor feels really hard on your head”, I am told by a young voice as I fidget, “you feel vulnerable…you’re forced to”. I am now hyper aware of my body and its encroachment into shared space. As audience members settle around each other, a chorus erupts, holding a dissonant harmony until their voices waver, breath running out, reminding us of our corporeality and the frailty of a collective voice.
A News jingle chimes over the PA; a reporter from ISMN (“International, State and Municipal Newswire” – whose initials are extrapolated from the name of Ismene, Antigone’s sister) who we are told is our “only legitimate truth source”, warns us of an epidemic with an unknown source that is sending the city’s residents into “mass hysteria”. The virus, NTGNE (an acronym for National Terror Grief Negation Epidemic), threatens to engulf the entirety of the “pale kingdom” of King Carry-On (whose name is a pun the original King Creon in Sophocles’ version, among other things). The allusions to 9/11 and the fall of Empire are recurrent, and the staging of the performance on a day of commemoration gives a sinister tone to the unfolding news reports that pace the production. The cast –with writer Penny Goring, actor Shia Labeouf and Darling’s own dad among them –burst into life, writhing and crawling, zombie-like, through the unsuspecting crowd having previously hidden in plain sight. An orgiastic struggle ensues and members of the audience are dragged to their fate as the performance reaches its climax. A silence descends, the crowd is left in a state of panic. Abruptly, we are told to “Leave the auditorium immediately”, to which we duly oblige, fleeing the scene of the imaginary contagion with considerable urgency.
Darling’s NTGNE is a somber reflection on powerlessness and subjugation, a complex deconstruction of neo-liberal subjectivity and Empire. Indeed, the etymology of the name ‘Antigone’, meaning “worthy of one’s parents”, elucidates a complex narrative of hierarchy and inheritance, and it is the legacy of these inherited ideologies that Darling is most interested, not least through the involvement of their own family as cast members. NTGNE tells us that to mourn the conditions of late capitalism is to mourn our collective agency, but that to deviate is to die. Upon taking our leave, we are given passenger jet-shaped cookies, fuselage aflame and wrapped carefully in cellophane; a saccharine end to a bitter morality tale. **
The performance, introduced as one of “immersive environment, community theatre and symbolic ritual”, builds of Darling’s general practice, exploring “the human condition and how it is mediated through the structures, narratives and technologies that govern lived experience”.
Some of the best fairy tales are about self-discovery, in which identity is lost and found through displacement, rites of passage and physical transformations. Coming at the tail end of a wave of digital art made on or about the internet, the London-based artist Marianna Simnett looks to this ancient repertoire to reanimate the age-old question of what makes us who we are.
Artfully montaged, her films are rich in layers that have you leaping back and forth between oneiric sequences and hyper-real scenarios: one minute you’re on a farm in the English countryside, the next you’re in a brightly lit surgery room, and then you suddenly find yourself inside the udder of a cow. The general sense of dislocation is amplified by Simnett’s signature juxtaposition of linguistic registers and colour scales. Simnett’s stories come with a solid dose of body-horror, in the best fairy tale tradition: symbolic portals, like a gush of red textile for blood or a monumental nose whose cavities must be entered in order to transition across worlds —guide her characters through this dense imaginary.
In Simnett’s last two films, ‘The Udder’ (2014) and ‘Blood’ (2015) (winning entries of the Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella Awards) both feature as protagonist a blonde little girl called Isabel who goes down rabbit holes with impeccable cool. ‘The Udder’centres on mastitis, an infection of the bovine mammary gland, which Simnett stages as site for confrontation between the forces of purification and corruption. Caught in the middle is Isabel, whose very beauty turns into a sort of disease. The saga continues in ‘Blood’, where, after undergoing surgery to remove the turbinate bones in her nose, Isabel enters a semi-delirious state that propels her to a remote mountain region in the north of Albania. Here she meets Lali, an old sworn virgin who took a vow of chastity in order to forego her biological sex and become a man. First benevolent guardian, then nightmarish persecutor, Lali’s volatile relationship with the little girl is the most powerful thread in the story. As Isabel’s condition worsens, their dialogue intensifies amid unresolved existential questions and miscommunications. Identity is lost, then lost a bit more.
At the time of conversation, Simnett is working on a new film, ‘Blue Roses’ (2015), a tale of varicose veins and bionic cockroaches premiered this summer at Comar on the Isle of Mull. The short film, along with earlier works, ‘The Udder’ and ‘Blood’ are to screen alongside a musical performance by Simnett as part of the Serpentine Park Nights 2015 program, on August 21.
What is the relation between ‘The Udder’ and ‘Blood’? Can you give us a sense of how you imagined the two scripts?
Marianna Simnett: I knew that at some point in my life I was going to make a film about sworn virgins. I didn’t know how or if it was going to happen, but I had it in my head before I wrote ‘The Udder’. Both films deal with a contaminated self, which might not even be human or have a brain, but is still thinking through contamination as part of identity: with the udder it’s the potential contraction of mastitis and with the sworn virgin the crossover of genders. With ‘The Udder’, I was thinking about animal ancestry—leading on from my previous film(‘Dog’,2013)—and trying to do away with the whole animal for the functions or body parts that we consume as humans, such as milk.
The other strand that runs through both films is chastity and with it, indifference. I was trying to operate in a position of indifference in much the same way the udder is indifferent to the method of production of milk. I also saw Isabel as indifferent, and indifference as a condition of chastity, in that historically you can survive the worst kinds of violence by remaining chaste.
What do you mean by chastity and what made you think about it? Was it a literary path?
MS: No, it was personal, though I think that whatever I read and am are the same thing. There was a euphoria I felt about not doings the things that I wanted to do —and that’s surely to do with capitalism, with wanting, and wanting, and wanting everything so much that it engulfs you. But I didn’t want to stop wanting, just to stop having. I wanted to punish myself with all this desire, by turning abstinence (from sex, food, everything) into a daily activity, a habit that I could practice indoors.
At the same time, I was also interested in the etymology of chastity. In the seventeenth century, the word changed meaning according to new rules set by the Protestant Church, beginning as absolute abstinence from any sexual activity and ending up pertaining to moderate behaviour within the institution of marriage, so that complying with the idea of chastity just meant adhering to the norm. In my work, the question is not so much about practicing abstinence; I’m more interested in figuring out what cultural norms are and then disrupting them.
To me, thinking about chastity historically means centuries of repression and control of female sexuality, but when you reclaim it in your work it does seem to acquire a different potency.
MS: Yes, chastity is always seen as a loss and I suppose I’m trying to turn it on its head. It’s the same with Lali [the sworn virgin co-starring in ‘Blood’ ] having to renounce her sexuality: she doesn’t see it as a loss and as much as I kept asking her, “what about everything you are losing?”, she was like “what the fuck are you talking about?”. It’s that friction between knowing that you’ve lost the whole world and feeling utterly liberated.
Both ‘The Udder’ and ‘Blood’ are titled after body parts. What draws you to clinical anatomy as a platform for narrative?
MS: The body is how I navigate my way through the world and how I can speak from a place that is authentic to me. It is also the best place for me to talk about violence and a sense of being violated, because the body is hit first. And I always choose body parts that for whatever reason have been written about in terms of orchestrating desire: they’re not just any body parts, they’re all related to the myth of hysteria.
You mentioned how you like working with non-professional actors, children in particular, because you can’t completely predict where their performance will take the script. How do you go about calibrating control and chance?
MS: All my work is about me relinquishing control. This began with ‘Faint’ (2012), where I made myself black out on purpose in conjunction with the story of my grandfather, who was in the French resistance during World War II and fainted at just the moment when he was being shot in a line up. He dodged the bullet and survived.
At the same time, I can’t help but map everything out. On a practical level, ‘The Udder’was chapter headed, though when editing, I would change the sequence order each day so as to not allow myself a definitive ‘beginning’ (the work is both made and seen as a loop). In order to disrupt my model, I choose to work with people I’m not going to be able to direct, like children. I structure everything in terms of what would be fun for them, writing the script as a series of games: drink this faster than your brother, drink it as fast as possible—and then spit it in his face.
I want to set up the most difficult and unpredictable scenario possible: knives, animals, children, sworn virgins, you name it. That’s the recipe.
Does working with children mean that you have to self-censor?
MS: Working with children gives me the freedom to write without having any inhibitions at all, because they have a way of not questioning what’s around them. When I asked Isabel what she thought about Lali’s story, she just said, “mmm, I don’t know”. There is a wonder there, of course, but no sniffing or snooting, only acceptance of nearly anything you throw at them.
I think it’s because they’re disguising that in reality they are very aware of things; they don’t want to talk about it because there’s a problem there, a danger zone, something that we can’t talk about openly, which is sexuality. But those ‘wrong’ feelings are exactly what I want to talk about. I don’t want to smooth everything out and gloss over stuff. I’m allergic to that. I’d rather expose it all and have everybody feel uncomfortable in order to confront something. I don’t really see the point in making work otherwise.
In ‘The Udder’ the script pivots around an infection of the bovine mammary gland only to conjure a much more layered, allegorical vision of the work and the technologies required to the maintain the body—and by extension gender—as natural givens. Similar themes inform ‘Blood’. On the cusp of puberty, Isabel embodies the identity crisis of someone juggling conflicting self-perceptions and a changing body. Lali, on the other hand, has struck a Faustian pact to become a man. Both films get visceral about the limits of the category of Woman, yet you have made a point of saying that your work is not strictly feminist. Why?
MS: I used to talk about wanting to be a man, then I started growing facial hair and was told I had too much testosterone. I started questioning what it meant to be a woman, almost as a symptom of the work I was making (I got a lump in my breast after making ‘The Udder’). But there is a problem with language and the violence at work in naming something. My resistance to feminism stems from not wanting to be boxed: I don’t know my place in it.
Watching ‘Blood’ made me realize that my perception of footage from the ex-Yugoslav region is still filtered by the news reports of the 1990s wars. Is this something you had to deal with? If so, how?
MS: The history of Yugoslavia has been fed down to me as guilt for being privileged. I grew up in a Croatian household in England with a Bosnian au pair, but I always felt estranged from these cultures and a lot of the time I didn’t really understand what was going on. As I child, I used to go to Yugoslavian school every Saturday; then suddenly we were not allowed to go anymore because of the war. Part of my family is still there and, you know, there is a sadness to everyone on that side. A ‘making do’ tinged with defeatism. Or perhaps that’s just my way of rejecting something that perhaps I carry too.
Aside from your biography, there are instances in ‘Blood’ when it seems difficult to escape a certain imperialist imaginary. I’m thinking specifically of when Isabel arrives in Lali’s house and the local kids peer at her in amazement from behind the door, as if she’s some kind of rare-breed exotic animal. Did you struggle to control her image?
MS: Yes, that was probably the most troublesome issue. The first script, which we couldn’t afford in the end, had Lali coming to stay in Isabel’s house in England as well as the other way around. For me, this exchange would have addressed the question, though I’m not sure it would have answered it. The final script put me in a position of self-awareness and doubt about the fact that I just plonked this pretty, blond, Aryan girl in the middle of nowhere and then watched people look at her.
At the end of ‘The Udder’, Isabel cuts off her nose. Then in ‘Blood’ she has to have surgery to remove her turbinate bones (nasal concha, or ‘nose bones’) to alleviate her headaches. How did you come up with the idea for this seemingly absurd operation?
MS: It’s based on the story of Emma Eckstein, a patient of Sigmund Freud on which he consulted with the otorlaryngologist Wilhelm Fleiss. I was reading their correspondence, all these gushy letters from Freud to Fleiss, saying, basically, “I adore your theories”. So Freud referred Eckstein to Fleiss, who treated her for symptoms that at the time were thought to derive from excessive masturbation: headaches, stomach cramps, dysmenorrhea—essentially period pains. Freud and Fleiss believed that removing the turbinate bones would alleviate these symptoms, but the operation went horrendously wrong: Fleiss left surgical gauze in Eckstein’s nose and her cavities got infected. Eventually a nurse pulled out the gauze, provoking a severe haemorrhage that left one side of Eckstein’s face disfigured. Yet, she maintained a friendship with Freud in spite of all and later became a psychoanalyst herself.
‘Blood’ revisits the culpability and blame at stake in this anecdote. [Isabel’s surgery goes wrong and she develops an infection, her face begins to disfigure and her fevered mind undergoes a nightmarish journey to Albania]. Whose fault is it? “I don’t blame you for the blood”, she says at the end of the film, but everybody has a responsibility in the trauma. There is a web over all of them; you cannot pick anyone out as the one true culprit. The fabric gush of blood became a really powerful thing to work with in this sense.
How difficult was it to liaise with the sworn virgins?
MS: It was really difficult and it took a long time, even though the translator facilitated the process. Lali was the first we met and she really wanted to talk. She was excited. She said, “of course I want to be in a movie, I’m going to make you into a fucking star”. But the others didn’t want to talk; a lot of them refused my interviews.
How did you explain the project to them?
MS: I said I was making a film about blood, because blood is what they all talk about, it’s a subject everyone knows. Nearly everyone has had a family member or some connection to a blood feud in Albania. Taking the oath to become a sworn virgin is a traditional practice that conforms to the same code of morals, called the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini. It’s a book of laws that regulates all aspects of life: it’s about how many bloods equal how many, who can kill who, why you can become a sworn virgin or escape your marriage and all the rest of it.
Is Lali another character you chose because you knew you couldn’t control her?
MS: The difficulty with Lali was that she would say the same thing again and again, forcefully. She’s sixty: she’s rehearsed it and doesn’t care what you ask her. I would say, “are you a he or a she?” and she would just answer, “shut up”. She has this defiance about her that I really wanted to provoke and unpack. I thought that having a young child asking her the questions might elicit a different response: the aim of the game was trying to force them both out of their habitual speech routines.
The translator played a key role in ‘Blood’ then.
MS: He is the ghost in the film: all-seeing, but never seen. Like Simon, the herdsman and overseer in ‘The Udder’, who is omnipotent because he can see and predict things before others (either through his own eyes or through the CCTV cameras). Simon is deaf and this gives him an extra sense, which is the ability to oversee the whole situation like a floating eye. The translator in ‘Blood’ is never seen, but he is the only way people can understand each other.
Sound and language seem at least as important to you as images. You composed and played the score for ‘The Udder’ and ‘Blood’ and in both there are plenty of litanies being sang. ‘Blood’ starts with your disembodied voice teaching an English nursery rhyme to a class of Albanian children and then zooms in on the difficult dialogue between Lali, who delivers crude nuggets of wisdom in her native tongue, and Isabel, a genteel ten-year-old whose polite English can occasionally get whiney. And the herdsman in ‘The Udder’ is deaf, which affects his voice. What do you look for in the breakdowns of speech and communication?
MS: I think they make you listen. They create a feeling of estrangement, so that you are not able to swallow everything and digest it straightaway. Interpretation happens on a more haptic level. You could say that you’re touching speech instead of just listening—there is a texture to it. For example, I might want to play a scientific-medical language off against a kind of fraternal language, or a childlike register against the voice of the mother. In my next film, there will be a talking leg, a varicose vein expert and a cyborg cockroach.**