Berlin, Mar. 2012 - I first met Cécile last December in Miami, when she presented her collaborative project Art By Telephone with Rebecca Lamarche Vadel at the Delano Hotel. Since then, I have seen her many more times in Berlin, where she is based, and have had the pleasure of following her work for over a year now. Cécile has had an ever increasing amount of exhibitions in a multitude of mediums from sculpture to perfomative lectures throughout Europe and the United States, and is currently working on a trilogy of videos, of which the first one, Straight Up, has been screened at former porn theaters in New York and Berlin. Straight Up was also just screened on March 7 at Spencer Brownstone Gallery in New York.
We started this conversation in January, as Cécile just returned to Berlin from a residency in Lithuania, and had recently started creating a new body of work that at first appears to be a departure from previous projects. Our discussion soon turned to issues of objectivity/subjectivity, 'high' and 'low' culture industries, overriding emotions and impossible tasks.
Art by Telephone, on-going performance with Rebecca Lamarche Vadel, Art Masel Miami Beach 2010 at the Delano Hotel; Courtesy of the artist
Collin Munn: I know you’ve had an especially busy past couple of months, with the screening of your video Straight Up in New York and now that you recently returned from a rural residency - I am wondering if you can speak about where you have been and what projects you have been working on during the past few months, and share how the places you have recently visited have perhaps influenced or shifted the direction of your work?
Cécile B. Evans: A main project I’ve been working on is developing a trilogy, of which Straight Up is the first. I was in Lithuania, at an artist residency with Nida, in association with the Vilnius Arts Academy, where I filmed the footage for the second video, Countdown. I was fortunate enough to be able to work with Aura, the dance company based in Kaunas, probably the most well known in Lithuania.
The screening of Straight Up in NY was at a souvenir shop in Times Square. Well, the former porn cinema located underneath the shop. It used to be the Show Follies Center, one of the many sex industry-related businesses that got shut down in the early 90s during the city’s clean sweep. The storefronts have been repopulated, but in the basement of this particular shop remains the skeleton of three joined cinemas, currently being used to stock t-shirts and snow globes. We reinstalled a projector, sound, and rewired the electricity -- the result was fairly eerie and magical. It’s the second time I’ve screened the video in a porn cinema; the first was at MVS Sex Kino in East Berlin.
None of the places I am in shape the conception of the work; most of my sources are internet derived, so that’s the ‘place’ that most influences my work. The rest, the physical locations that become the setting or that house the works are happy incidentals; I can’t claim responsibility for how they color the work. It’s lame of me to claim them as accidental intentions but I think I will anyhow! The pornography cinemas are more a nod to the rarity of finding either porn or digital art in movie theatres, both now internet-driven distribution mediums. I also got really excited about asking people to watch something non-pornographic in a smut theatre -- adding a mythical showmanship to the constellation.
Cécile B. Evans, Second screening of Straight Up, 2011, for Show Follies center theater, New York, 2011; Courtesy of the artist
CM: Also, related to this question, I am really interested in the process behind Straight Up -- how did you arrive at the format and subject of the video? Could you speak more to your creative process, and how you arrived at a piece that incorporates so many aesthetic elements?
CBE: I had wanted to do something with Pina Bausch’s Nelken for several years, the movement but also the aesthetic, which I quite like and reminds me of a lot of things -- namely Jorgen Leth’s A Perfect Human. It became a double cover, using Paula Abdul’s Straight Up in sign language as a base choreography, stripping the language away to leave an impossible task. That was my point of departure. From there I added more elements -- an overriding emotion (drunk, that I had already been researching) and a familiar element of surreality (the glittery after-effects). Basically, I was trying to take all of these levels and put them on the same plane to create something that was brutally complicated and somehow hitting right in the center, effortlessly. At some point, I thought this formula reminded me of something. It mirrors the make-up of a particular trope of films in which there’s an extraordinary circumstance containing 1. an overriding emotion, 2. an impossible task, and 3. a familiar element of surreality and this circumstance is conveniently ‘explained away’ at the end. You see this in recent movies like Shutter Island and Inception, and also older ones like Brazil or Total Recall. It’s something that drives a lot of what I want to make, the things (or industries) that culture creates to explain feelings. With this work, I wanted to keep these all in the same frame and let them hang there. Ironically, the relatability to these kinds of films occurs during the absurd narrative and the conflict, not in the ending where the character wakes up, is found to be crazy, is actually a medical experiment... and so on...
CM: How does the second video you were working on in Lithuania then relate aesthetically and thematically to Countdown in such a way that starts to build a trilogy? Also, I am really interested by the project of creating a trilogy in general - what is the process for imagining the arc of your trilogy, and is the idea that they will all be shown together as one work, or is it more a way of conceptualizing a dialogue between related works?
CBE: Countdown uses the same formula as Straight Up, establishing a language with the first allows me to go wider with the second. So far it’s working; the elements are more ridiculous but make even more sense paired together. The dancers, dressed as performers in Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas, are crying and doing a series of science experiments. As the video progresses, animated white asparagus join them in the frame, sweating tears. One thing I forgot to mention is that Mati Gavriel is doing the music for all three of them. Pretty late in the process of Straight Up I specified for him to score a Badalamenti/Lynch version of the original Abdul hit to the sign language and we worked out the details. We’ve done the same for Countdown with Beyonce’s song, the video for which heavily borrows from de Keersmaeker’s original art direction and choreography. As I build the trilogy, there’s an opportunity to address a social schizophrenia that has recently emerged in regards to collective emotion. Emotions seem to have been divided into high and low culture, objectivity and subjectivity respectively, more than ever and there seems to be a struggle with this.
To oversimplify, take two differing medias: reality tv and world news. On the former, there is a constant barrage of unwarranted hysterics and emotional displays that remain wholly unjustified and vulnerable to a very public subjectivity. In the latter, collective displays of emotion, like N. Korea’s reaction to Kim Jong Il’s death or conversely, Japan’s to the earthquake, are objectified as a result of culture, i.e. N. Koreans are crying because they have been conditioned to do so, the Japanese remain restrained. I’m now thinking about these basic high/low, objective/subjective terms when selecting the elements so that the video starts to struggle with and loop into itself. I know, I know, it’s a lot to put into one frame but that’s point and what I’m really enjoying in the process. It’s like creating a really complicated meme that you can’t put a catchy title to -- unless you can think of something?
I’ve started mapping out the third, following my own arc with the first two -- looking at old dance videos I’ve collected and then following with a list of tasks, feelings, and surreal elements.
In the end, they can be shown individually, for sure. But it’s something you’ll be able to sense if you were to watch all three at once, that they are a set. I’m wondering now how other trilogies work -- were they planned that way? Or do most people start out making a trilogy? When I made Straight Up, I didn’t mean for it to go on but didn’t want to stop working this way yet, with these tools. Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World seems analogous -- this ridiculous, dense rolling narrative whose individual parts stand out as separate objects. Or Star Wars, which continues to baffle time and logic.
Cécile B. Evans, You May Keep One of Your Children, 2011, 10 x 10, Collage made from Schirmer Test Strips, ink, and screenshots from Meryl Streep Movies; Courtesy of the artist
CM: Could you speak a bit more about what led you to begin working on Straight Up, and what kind of relationship these new video works have with other projects and pieces you have created? It seems that in several other recent works that perhaps one of the broad central themes or issues that you were working with, was how to reify interpersonal relationship into real space -- I am thinking of, for example: Romantic Love; Remnants of Tender, Filthy Love Made Abruptly Obsolete; or Lovers. Do you feel like these new video works are in some way extending that philosophical, for lack of a better word, interest, or is the conceptualization behind these new works coming from an entirely different direction?
CBE: The works that you’ve just mentioned are all works that were direct reactions to industries that serve to produce or explain feelings -- interpersonal relationships physicalized, in real space, are a result or context for those. I think the physical works are an opportunity to make a direct line between the materials of these industries (like cinema, science, and the internet) and the feelings they produce, represent, or measure. I made a series of collages that combine tearjerk moments in Meryl Streep movies with medical strips that measure tear production -- again, using the physical materials of an emotion to address what we all recognize as a feeling. Now these bases are beginning to serve as a foundation in my practice to tackle the hierarchy of emotion collectively, a place to frame the results of these industries, of culture. Straight Up started out as something completely different -- originally it was just about watching people get drunk and the physical difference between an emotion and a state. I was ready to go further, that this was one facet that existed on a plane inundated with other elements that weren’t relevant materially but fit easily together, without priority or weight.
So, to answer your question, I’m building on the work I’ve done before, which is something I didn’t really think about beforehand.
ArtSlant would like to thank Cécile B. Evans for her assistance in making this interview possible.