I want to start by asking you about the use of archival material in your work and how this has shifted or changed since you started collaborating in 2007. You have presented your film Normal Work (2007) – in which your friend and collaborator Werner Hirsch imitates poses from archival photographs of Hannah Cullwick – as a projected work alongside archival material, in this way making a very direct link between a historical reference and a work you made in response. In a later work, Salomania (2009) you film a dancer in front of a projection of Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent film Salomé, mimicking the performance in the film, in this case including historical material within the frame of your camera. In more recent works, such as No Future / No Past (2011) and I Want (2015), you have altogether moved away from actually showing reference material as part of the work. How has your use of this kind of material changed when it comes to the actual making and presentation of your work?
Normal Work is based on a series of staged portraits which show, and which were created by, the Victorian housemaid Hannah Cullwick in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the film, the performer Werner Hirsch very carefully restages four of these images, which show Hannah Cullwick as a maid, in class drag as a bourgeois woman, as a man, and as a male slave. We show the film together with a selection of thirteen of the original photographs, which we framed. We have never again had such rich and overwhelming material as we found in the diaries and photographs of Hannah Cullwick. It took us a while to reduce it to these four core photographs. We then started reading them as a kind of score that gave us directions on how to orchestrate a film. The performer, Werner Hirsch, does not try to be the historical figure, but to connect to pieces of clothes, gestures and poses. And you see her/him doing the work of becoming the photograph. The pleasure of that work, and its communication to the audience, is what we call ‘drag as a labour of desire’. The performer presents her/his agency in dealing with the historical material, opens up a dialogue between past and current drag practices and, we hope, allows the audience to also engage in this process. Probably even the archived material regains agency, leaving the dark stones, the shelves of Trinity College Library and reappearing in a reanimated state in Hannah Cullwick’s future. Our work is very much connected to the potential futures of the past that haunt us, the possibilities that were there but were (often violently) stopped and restricted (H.C.’s archive remained sealed for 50 years after her death). While working on this film we very much saw Hannah Cullwick as a ‘collaborator’ from the past, and as an additional performer, who, with her work, has allowed us to further develop our ideas about class and the current neo-liberal connections of labour and sexuality (Renate has also published a book which starts off from these images). We saw Cullwick as an artist and wanted to present her pictures as an artwork. Another reason is that if the pictures weren´t exhibited together with the film, the audience could be mistaken and take this whole story as a fake, invented by us for the purpose of the work, which was not our intention.
In relation to our newer work, it is interesting to follow your thought: in No Future/ No Past and I Want, we indeed seem to allow the past material to appear in a way where it has already changed its appearance by meeting performers, embodiments and current drag practices. The past material that we refer to (or the script) is made out of different textual fragments, and they blur into each other. We don’t feel the need to make all the references and quotes clear, but hope to allow the viewer to make connections more freely.
Your remarks remind us of Sara Ahmed’s concept of a ‘strange encounter’, where the encounter is not a meeting of two intact entities, but it is precisely defined by its ability for change. A strange encounter includes surprise, it is open, it is based on the absence of a knowledge that would allow one to control the encounter, or to predict its outcome. By doing so, says Ahmed, encounters shift the boundaries of what is familiar. In I Want, the encounter started with the script, with a meeting of excerpts from Kathy Acker’s novels and Chelsea Manning’s chats and speeches and, guided by Acker’s artistic strategies, these led to a third text which also surprised us while we were working on it.
HC: Considering the way your use of archival material has shifted, I am interested in what may be a parallel development. It seems to me that in your earlier works you set up a clear relationship between you behind the camera, the performer in front of the camera and a historical document as the script. In more recent works, this has changed a lot and now the relationship you create is between you, the performer and the viewer. I am interested in the way that the space in which you show your work has changed and in the way you have created a very deliberate place for the viewer and, indeed, I would also say a choreography for the viewer.
PB/RL: The relation to the audience was probably always included in the construction of the films. In Normal Work there was a mirror – mostly invisible in the frame but visible if you follow the performance – as a third position between us/the camera and the performer, taking over the position of the viewer in reflecting the success or failure of copying a pose, in a way that is ‘good enough’ for recognition. In our second piece, N.O. Body, the performer laughs during the whole film, following scripts. This laughing addresses the spectators directly and yet without giving them any directions as to how to react to the historical photographs shown by the performer.
It is true that we increasingly try to extend these processes into the exhibition space. We have created spatial settings where the audience enters the space from a kind of backstage and suddenly appears ‘on stage’ or on view for people who are already inside. This also seems to blur the distinction between performers and viewers: the performers seem to watch the audience too. We want viewers to take their time to orient themselves inside the space, to find their position, to make their connections. Maybe also this temporal deferral is important. In our latest exhibitions, we have created stages for the audience to sit on. While entering the space, this construction might work as a seat but after the film ends there is a moment when the stage lights up, and the audience notices that they had placed themselves on a stage the whole time and they might be in the process of becoming performers. The object they are sitting on changes from a wooden sculpture to a seat to a stage and back again. The object-stage is centrally placed in the exhibition space, but it remains empty as some kind of potentiality for future performances.
HC: Creating a stage for the viewer strikes me as perhaps a way to insert a certain vulnerability into the space. You very directly put the viewers on the spot by positioning them on a stage as opposed to how you have always used stages in your work as the place for your performers.
PB/RL: This is an interesting thought regarding the ‘entrance’ that all of our performers seem to have in the films. In every film, we have some kind of stage. We have an empty 19th auditorium in N.O.Body. We have a dance studio in Salomania. We have a music studio in To Valerie. We have club stages in Contagious and I Want. There is an empty swimming pool as a stage in Opaque. These are spaces that have a history, which plays a role in the films. Even if we choose to film outside in a field, like in Charming for the Revolution, the field turns into a stage. We thought about this artificiality/theatricality as something working against a notion of the authenticity or ‘directness’ of performance, but we agree with you that it also places the performers in a position of vulnerability. Maybe there is a tension between glamour, strength and vulnerability; the figures in our filmed performances are craving for a stage, and the display in the art space craves for blurring boundaries between watching and performing. Some potentialities might open up but, at the same time, this involves some kind of instability. The viewer is not allowed to master the situation and doesn’t appear as a neutral or invisible body in the exhibition space. We consider it important to shift the position of the viewer to extend the space of the familiar.
HC: These setups of course also created a very direct relationship between the performer on the stage, looking into the camera, and you behind the camera. In particular, I find Normal Work a very interesting example, partly because in the work your presence is directly recognized by Werner Hirsch through his gesturing to you and, in a certain sense, you are recognized as Hirsch’s audience. Also in other works we well know that you are behind the camera as the audience. Then in Contagious (2010) you bring in a large audience and suddenly you are no longer the only ones watching. And in I Want, I would say you manage to complicate this even further by constructing an actual stage on which to sit and look at Sharon Hayes as she appears through two different, simultaneously shot films of her performance, now making it clear that there are several people watching her at the same time, while she is also not the only one on the stage. As I see it, you are working with a choreography of vision as a way to complicate your own presence in the work. By designating a space for an audience and multiplying the frame of the camera, you set up situations where something will unfold that is beyond your control, maybe also loosening your control over the gaze of the viewer, as she is now brought into the conversation on more equal terms and it becomes more ambiguous where exactly you are.
PB/RL: We like this idea of choreographing the eyes of the audience on the one hand and deliberately losing control over them on the other. Complicating the different positions of the gaze in the space probably also means giving up pre-fixed positions and thus giving up control. Still it seems important to see this process as a tension between controlling and losing or giving up control. For instance, we always went for a camera with strong lens movements, which controls the gaze but visualizes this control at the same time. In I Want, we placed two cameras with two DPs next to each other. They filmed the same performance at the same time. There are almost no edits. In terms of losing control, the long shots of up to 10 or 15 minutes allow for failure, in the choreography of the performer and in the choreography of the cameras: we like this, for failure often creates important moments in our work. In the exhibition space we have two projectors, which project these two films next to each other. The films start off with almost the same frame and camera movements and then the cameras get increasingly ‘loose’ and out of sync. The viewers receive a different kind of agency in producing their own film, because they have to decide which side they want to watch. The projection needs to have a size where it is not possible to follow both cameras simultaneously. This also means that everybody will see a different film.
HC: You almost seem to be saying that the position behind the camera is not fixed and you are not the only authors of the piece.
PB/RL: That’s a really nice remark. If everybody sees their own film, you can also say that everybody produces their own film. The film also invites viewers into the list of shifting identifications: identification with Sharon Hayes, who identifies as/with Kathy Acker, who identifies as/with Chelsea Manning, who identifies as/with a member of the SLA, who identifies as/with Jaqueline Onassis – a constant movement without ever arriving at any one definitive position. The audience therefore also takes part in this growing list of collaborators.
HC: I can’t help but think how this all relates to intimacy and how all your works are created through intimate relationships and actually stage intimate encounters between people, you, the performers and maybe, more recently, also very much the audience.
PB/RL: One of the reasons for experiencing intimacy might be that we never cast actors, but we work with friends and/or people whose work we admire. Also, we don´t try to disappear as artists behind the camera: in Toxic, the camera turns around and you can see us, in other films you see us doing the clap, or hear us talking and giving instructions behind the camera. So our relationship with our performers is not erased in the performance and we hope that this also allows the audience to feel some kind of closeness. We like the camera (and with it the performers and viewers) to incorporate lines of desire, to take pleasure in watching – a pleasure that is restricted in other more regulated social situations. It is always important for us not to create films that only produce alternatives to the here and now, but always to convey strong traces of past and present forms of violence.