Interview published in Frieze
Laura Guy The title of the central film in your exhibition Portrait of an Eye at the Kunsthalle Zürich, I WANT (2015), voices a demand. In your works, you’ve often included manifestos amongst other historical references, and these produce new acts of political speech in your films. Do you see the videos themselves operating in some way like manifestos?
Pauline Boudry And Renate Lorenz We are interested in an open connection between objects, bodies and meanings, and in a complexity of references that a manifesto might not strive for. Still, in our work, we have often cited manifestos, political statements, or radical gestures in order to experiment with what it means to repeat these moments of liberation. When we made the film Toxic(2012) for instance, we referred to the discourse around toxicity and the ‘toxic’ history of the filmic apparatus. Among other things we re-enacted part of a 1985 interview with Jean Genet for the BBC. During the interview Genet asks the camera to turn around and film the interviewer and his crew. He compares the situation of being filmed with a police interrogation and seeks to overturn this power relationship. He perfectly articulates how the camera marginalizes him by making him sit in front of the interviewer ‘like the thief he was 30 years before, interviewed by a squad of police men’, and simultaneously normalizes him by broadcasting him into televisions in domestic homes. When we re-enacted this scene with performer Werner Hirsch the situation behind the camera was evidently staged as well. By repeating Genet’s action, we weren’t pretending to believe in the possibility of overturning the social order with this one revolutionary gesture. But insisting that the past become an ever-present tense, we stress that we don’t want to renounce this gesture either.
LG In Portrait of an Eye, I WANT is shown alongside two other videos, Opaque(2014) and To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation (2013). Each piece employs comparable strategies of reversal between audience and performer – each is installed so that the audience is invited to enter the space of the performance, either by approaching the films as though from ‘backstage’ or by sitting upon a stage in order to watch the films. As viewers we are asked to question the role we might take within an exhibition, just as your approach to filmmaking seems to be a collaborative process that troubles ideas of participation and authorship.
PB&RL In our exhibition design, visitors are forced to negotiate their standpoint in the space: s/he might be confronted first with the back of a screen, entering the space as if from behind, like a performer taking the stage, ready to perform for the other visitors who are spectators in the space. The visitor might be seen as some kind of collaborator in the work, but s/he still has the possibility to turn away, be annoyed or hide ‘backstage’. The same tension might be true for all the collaborations in our works; we do not cast actors in our filmed performances and choose instead to work with musicians, choreographers and artists whose pieces we reference. Our collaborators – from performers to film crew – are often our friends and bring their own backgrounds to the piece.
LG Yet other than these collaborators who are peers and friends, the three videos in the exhibition refer to figures you do not personally know (Pauline Oliveros) or are incarcerated (Chelsea Manning) or deceased (Jean Genet, Kathy Acker). Does ‘collaboration’ not become a slippery term when such individuals cannot reply or take part?
PB&RL If we connect figures from the past, such as Genet or punk poet Kathy Acker – after whose book, Portrait of An Eye (1992), we titled our exhibition – or support the whistle-blower Chelsea Manning’s politics of making public the ‘secrets’ of war atrocities and torture, they may or may not be happy with this ‘collaboration’. We distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate collaborations. Yet we do so to enable a short- circuit – even between people who might not know each other, such as Manning and Acker, in our most recent film installation I WANT (2015). There, we make use of Acker’s poetic strategies of appropriating and recombining text fragments and of switching identities in order to provoke a rereading of Manning’s public disclosures, not only of so-called ‘secrets’ but also of the way in which war is based on the performance of straight masculinity. Manning was a US soldier on duty when she exfiltrated what was possibly the largest quantity of secret military material in US history and sent it to WikiLeaks. Simultaneously she disclosed her transgender identity to her superiors. In our own performance, we look to collaborators from the past to foreground different temporalities at once, invoking not only the tradition of drag performance but also attempting to create a performance that disrupts temporal norms – norms that guide our biographies but also our work lives and sexual lives – which is why we often use Elizabeth Freeman’s term ‘temporal drag’ to describe the performances in our pieces.
LG In I WANT, artist Sharon Hayes plays both Chelsea Manning and Kathy Acker. Why the choice to work with Hayes in particular?
PB&RL We have long been in dialogue with Hayes about our mutual practices and strategies exploring temporality, for example through anachronism or citation. Hayes often appears as a performer in her own work and we admire her direct, reduced and precise performances. I WANT departs from video documentation of a young Acker reading from a number of her books including The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec at the Western Front in Vancouver in 1977.1 It is restaged with similar clothes and stage design but then drifts away from Acker’s original text. While we were working on the script we were reading Acker’s I dreamt I was a nymphomaniac imagining (1980) and found a part about the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Acker was fascinated by the SLA and the story of Patty Hearst, the heiress whom they kidnapped in 1974. While the group held her in seclusion, she became increasingly supportive of their cause. We decided to include this as a hint to Sharon’s own work Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (2003), which includes her re-speaking the tapes of Patty Hearst. In the script, we wanted to have Sharon Hayes pretending to be Kathy Acker, pretending to be Chelsea Manning, pretending to be an agent of the SLA, pretending to be Jacqueline Onassis, and pretending to be Sharon Hayes, without ever settling on any of these figures.
LG Your videos translate non-visual forms into visual ones, for example in To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation, which is based on Pauline Oliveros’s musical score of the same name from 1970. What is at stake in such a transformation?
PB&RL As we were preparing our film, we not only listened to different recordings of the score but also watched a documentation of the piece recorded at Tate Modern.2 We noticed how watching kept us from listening and that as soon as we stopped watching, the piece became so much more interesting. The visualization of the piece became the work’s challenge, and we wondered if the film could be about the contradictions and hierarchies between listening and watching. Can the camera visualise the act of listening? This question is particularly relevant to the music of Oliveros and her ‘deep listening’. In this score the musicians are instructed to listen to each other carefully in order to create music. There is a part where they mimic each other’s tones and modulations; if one plays more loudly than the others then the group has to react. Although the score seems to be extremely minimal – each musician chooses five tones to play or sing – it is actually conceived as a direct feminist critique. Inspired by radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto (1967), Oliveros attempted to produce a formal structure that might overthrow hierarchies. In order to visualize this act of listening, we conceived of the camera as an additional instrument or seventh performer that constantly moves through the space, creating connections with musicians.
LG In your videos many forms of mediation are in tension with ideas of direct address and self-determination; for example in all of the pieces the accumulation of citations makes it impossible to identify a source. This seems to resonate with the ideas of Édouard Glissant, whom the title Opaque references.
PB&RL Glissant was strongly opposed to principles of rendering the Other transparent, for example through the colonial impulse to gather knowledge of the Other in order to understand them. He criticized this as a feature of Western thought and instead claimed the right to opacity for former colonies. As he describes it, opacity works in order to avoid reduction. For us opacity is not just invisibility, but rather a certain kind of visibility that precludes understanding. Visually we make a slight reference to Kenneth Anger’s early short film Puce Moment (1949). We start with showing/hiding the performers behind a black opaque curtain, which opens to show only another curtain, which opens and shows dense smoke and so on. The materials that are included in the film, instead of allowing for easy visual access, might rather transmit, as queer theorist José Munoz puts it, a trace, a structure of feeling, a blockage, or even a negation.
LG Conversely, opacity seems to elicit little but surfaces. Your videos are full of beautiful surfaces: sequin curtains, coloured screens, plumes of smoke or feathers. The installation at Kunsthalle Zurich included a hair curtain and a large black lacquered triangle object that lit up in between the presentations of I WANT. It’s very seductive. But I wonder if this also poses a danger that the subcultural histories that you reference might become fetishized and consequently made palatable for art world consumption.
PB&RL We find the opposition of a consuming art world and a non-consuming subculture untenable because of the ways in which all of our subjectivities and social practices are deeply informed by capitalist principles. Placing certain materials in an art context allows us not only to refer to the many queer art practices that have already been performed in the art world, but also to examine the often cruel and exclusionary history of visualization, of the gaze, the frame and the camera. It is important that you mention the material side of the exhibition, such as the hair on the hair-curtain or wig-curtain. Does the hair refer to a wig? Does it refer to the history of drag performance? Does it refer to Manning’s first picture of herself as a woman, wearing a blond wig? Or is it just hair, a glamorous decoration? You also mention the triangle object-stage: this addresses the visitor at first as a seat, but after the video ends, the lights around the triangle are switched on and it becomes a stage, empty besides the visitors. The stage becomes a prolongation of the film, which ends with the images of moving lights in an abandoned club. With this, the address changes. The visitor becomes a participant in the narrative and the stage is set for the future.
Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz have worked together since 2007. Their film I Want premiered in 2015 at the Kunsthalle Zürich. Their exhibition In Memoriam to Identity was on view until 31. December 2015 at Nottingham Contemporary, UK.
1 Footage of the reading can be viewed online through the Western Front Archive: http://tinyurl.com/oc5327k
2To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation was performed at Tate Modern on 3 May 2012 as part of Her Noise: Feminisms and the Sonic, curated by Electra Productions with CRiSAP. It can be viewed online at http://tinyurl.com/pnor4gz