You Choose!

The aim of this project was to represent a broad interpretation of the experiences of X generation women and to challenge invested sensitivities around value, self-belief and sanity

Inspired by the films of Gillian Wearing, Daria Martin, William Kentridge, Pipilotti Rist and Candice Breitz, and based on primary source interviews with 28 women, this multi-screen installation focuses on audience choice and film psycho-geography.

Could a clown represent our Id, our inner child, the innocent?

Could a clown represent our Id, our inner child, the innocent?

Acarpous, brutal, childlessness, deceased…

Acarpous, brutal, childlessness, deceased…

X generation women grew up being told (by parents, media and peers) that they could “have it all”. It is true that many X Generation women (in the west) have choices.  They can choose to work, choose their career, choose to marry, and choose to have children. This particular slice of Generation X women shouldn't feel bad, should they? It is interesting then, that the statistics are telling us the opposite.  The Office for National Statistics has reported a significant drop in the "well-being" of these women over the last few years. Ada Calhoun even argues that these women are experiencing a new mid-life crisis.

This film attempts to question the idea of whose voice guides the choices these women have: our own, our parent’s, our peers, our ‘outward facing face’, our ‘inner clown’s’? And then, using multi-screens, leaves the viewer to choose which of the six voices they wish to hear.

The film depicts a male and female actor performing the same script. Each actor depicts three characters: a clown, a suited speech giver, a dishevelled home maker. The ambiguity unravels as the viewer needs to decide is the actor is playing the same person in three different situations, or states of mind, or if the three characters are different people, but potentially related and in opposition.

The multi-screens are positioned to enhance the film’s psycho-geography: the layout, or geography, of the installation allows us to drift and meander. The viewer makes their choice based on what they see rather than what they can hear and perhaps becomes aware of their bias towards whose narrative might be important.

The title YOU CHOOSE! comes from a children’s book where the child is invited to pick pictures of family, friends, pets, houses, jobs, hobbies that they wish to have. The choices seem endless and the child finds it difficult to decide and falls into the habit of picking the same pictures every time. The exclamation mark provides a demand, an insistence that the viewer must choose or lose out.

“You’ll always be mine, but now his too…”

“You’ll always be mine, but now his too…”

“Generation X, turn it on its side and it becomes a crucifix…”

“Generation X, turn it on its side and it becomes a crucifix…”

“Does he know you never settle for less than the best…”

“Does he know you never settle for less than the best…”

 

Installation

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This 1 minute film tours the installation (above) however to view the seven films click the link below.

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My intention with this installation was to duplicate the sense of psychotic and disassociation that is present in the films themselves. The boxes and material and layout are uncanny and weird and seem pointless and irrelevant. It is only when the viewer delves into the the films and their symbolism that the installation becomes the eighth part of the whole and begins to join the films in challenging invested sensitivities around the values placed upon x generation women, their self-belief and their levels of happiness and sanity. 

The installation consisted of the boxes and material used in the films, displayed to create sculptural shapes, and seven screens and placed them on, in and next to the boxes. I used a “desire path” in the shape of a circle with a x within it, creating the groups of boxes and material within each quarter, leaving obvious “pathways” between each group. I left the soundtrack of the first film, which was placed next to the entrance to the room, to play out loud. Its sound filled the room with a low level hum and disembodied laughter, while the written “instructions” were the first thing a viewer would see. All the other screens had headphones. I asked peers to view the installation and noted where they chose to commit, or not, to listening to the films, which films were too difficult to get to, and which where more popular. To understand the effect of the psycho-geography more fully will take time.

(I did not tape in the wires although I would, along with other h&s considerations, if the installation was public.)

 

Duality, sanity and the polyphonous voice

The idea of using voice to emphasise duality and sanity, developed into an idea of using the voice as a representation of the complexity of a mind: the near chaos of juggling many roles becomes clear as the juggling voices make everything unclear and difficult to understand.   William Kentridge uses the polyphonous voice to great effect,

‘if one loses the single stream and has a kind of highway of consciousness, of different ideas knocking into each other, overtaking, taking different off ramps… how does one get all the different elements, the thoughts, that accompany an idea over… yes we have to find a voice for polyphony, many voices, for different solutions.  And the hope has to be in the polyphony, in the chaos of the different fragments coming together. One knows that every clear statement is always a simplification.’

Does giving the words of women to a man to act out create the subtle, disassociated effect intended? Does the viewer feel odd that (this man) these men are talking of birth, wedding dresses, fertility? Are these words a man would say? Are these thoughts only the thoughts of a woman? Do the words really sit more easily in the mouth of a woman? The choice of using the same script for both the male and female roles questions binary gender roles, clearly advocating, as suggested by Toril Moi, against remaining inside patriarchal metaphysics.

 
“I was going to achieve so much... I feel ashamed for complaining... I shouldn’t really talk about it…”

“I was going to achieve so much... I feel ashamed for complaining... I shouldn’t really talk about it…”

“My life is perfect... I expect a catastrophe of unspeakable magnitude at any moment…”

“My life is perfect... I expect a catastrophe of unspeakable magnitude at any moment…”

 
 

Clowns and the Id

“Mummy, natural, organism, peri-menopausal…”

“Mummy, natural, organism, peri-menopausal…”

I asked for words – single words – from my interviewees.  I used these random words to create an alphabetical list of ‘states of being’.  The list aims to be all encompassing and left me with an issue of the character that could play such a part in a film. 

The history of the clown reaches back to the rustic fool characters of ancient Greek and Roman theatre and later the zanni characters of the commedia dell'arte tradition.  The clown was often the innocent. The defining characteristic of the character Pierrot is his naïveté: he is seen as a fool, often the butt of pranks, yet nonetheless is as trusting as a child.  The clown wears a mask – often fall face makeup – and so becomes an exaggerated ‘type’ rather than a real human character.  It seemed correct to me that a clown should play the character in the film that recites the list of words.

I propose that we all have a clown within us.  For some, their clown is locked tightly away.  For others, this inner-child, the holder of the brunt of life’s hurts, the accepting sage, ever hopeful, is a mask they wear lightly. If we all hold an ‘inner clown’, do we also all hold an anxious, inner confessional, that attempts, sometimes vainly, to contain all the craziness?  Do we all also hold an outer calm face, suited and booted and ready to box and fold away life’s events? Is the film simply a depiction of the descent into a psychosis, a loss of the ability to hold onto a reality, the clown allowed to escape and the elements of control reduced to white noise? 

The three characters call to mind old fashioned Freudian ideas of the id, ego and superego (the clown, the homemaker, the “suit” respectively) so, while the three characters remain separate and do not interact with each other, the idea that they are possibly the same person, in three guises, becomes apparent.

 

Hard, Cornered Boxes and Soft, Folding Cloth

“Why do children have to be so fucking hard…”

“Why do children have to be so fucking hard…”

The choice of prop for the male and female characters were black boxes for the male and three black pieces of velvet for the female.   The box and cloth change in size.  The semiotics of a black box and a black cloth is rich with meaning.  Giving these props to the characters perpetuates the ubiquitous symbolism of man = tough and woman = soft: shining a bring light on the nonsensical meaning with which these symbols are imbued. The choice of which sex gets which prop should make the feminist viewer uncomfortable, while the less gender aware might be comforted, unconsciously, by the “rightness” of the choice.

A box is a container.  It is used for storage, for containing and controlling.  In our lives, full of material items, the storage container, the box, becomes the symbol of our dominance over matter, our control of our world.  The idea of the box (a black box) that contains matter, that is primary and precedes the mind or ideas, is, in this film, also the box the clown climbs out of.  

In science, behaviourist psychology, computing, and engineering, a black box is a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its response (R) to a stimulus (S), without any knowledge of its internal workings.  Within the sciences almost anything might be referred to as a black box: a transistor, an algorithm, or the human brain. The behaviourists believe that the mind is a ‘black box’, meaning that it is unfathomable and un-explainable. The mind becomes simply an entity that serves to convert stimuli to responses.

“I think it might be kinder to slit their throats…”

“I think it might be kinder to slit their throats…”

A cloth is a ubiquitous prop in our lives. We wear cloth (clothes), we use cloth to dry ourselves down after showering, we blow our noses on cloth, we sleep under cloth, we fold cloth, we clean with cloth. We use cloth to protect us from the elements and to keep warm, to survive in bleak climates, to bring us comfort.

Household chores are inextricably linked to cloth of various sorts and chores are linked to the continuous cycle of thinking, planning and organising domestic life, known as the ‘mental load’, or emotional labour. It is of course a feminist issue, because it tends to disproportionately fall on women in relationships with men, and those with families, to continue to perpetuate the learning of generations where the house is a woman’s domain.

 

Static and Film Noir

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Given the disparity and possible conflict between the three characters the static could be read as the ‘noise’ in our lives and minds. There is also an element of insanity linked to the static as it makes an appearance between clips giving the viewer a sense of disassociation and pointlessness. 

Static is the film’s main device to provide a sense of unease and works alongside the Film Noir style of the edit, the image distortion, the use of shadows and, the soundtrack to create a dramatised psychotic break.

In Film Noir a half lit face represented the character’s conflicted nature.  There was no intention of creating Film Noir progeny (with its plot driven by narrators and flashbacks, murder and investigation) in the making of this film but, there was the intention of using the high contrast lighting style, shadows and the idea of the anti-hero, to depict the duality of character. All of us have both light and dark elements within, and these can be symbolised by both a half lit face and the shadows that creep after us.

 

The original edit

The three male films were created in February 2018. The three female films were created in October 2018. The 8 months between shoots was spent editing and re-editing, installing, projecting, viewing and re-viewing. The initial concept has moved from an installation that asks the viewer to follow three screens tightly edited together and synchronised, to the current concept where the viewer is asked to choose. The below image will take you through to the original first edit.

To watch  A Catastrophe of Unspeakable Magnitude  click the image above to go to  Vimeo  (three screen films are not easily embedded) or read an essay on the making of this film and the research methodology:  A Catastrophe of Unspeakable Magnitude PDF

To watch A Catastrophe of Unspeakable Magnitude click the image above to go to Vimeo (three screen films are not easily embedded) or read an essay on the making of this film and the research methodology: A Catastrophe of Unspeakable Magnitude PDF

 

Context

Rist: Can film be used outside a rectangular screen to create a collaborative experience?

Rist: Can film be used outside a rectangular screen to create a collaborative experience?

Breitz: Whose story do we choose to listen to? What bias do we unthinkingly impose?

Breitz: Whose story do we choose to listen to? What bias do we unthinkingly impose?

Wearing: Do we listen more carefully if the voice we hear doesn’t fit the person we see?

Wearing: Do we listen more carefully if the voice we hear doesn’t fit the person we see?

Kentridge: Everyone has a truth, and it is often different to another’s truth.

Kentridge: Everyone has a truth, and it is often different to another’s truth.

Moi: Can feminists work within a patriarchal paradigm?

Moi: Can feminists work within a patriarchal paradigm?

Rothschild: Can clowning be used to help the body remember play and recover from trauma?

Rothschild: Can clowning be used to help the body remember play and recover from trauma?

Film Noir: Shadowy duality in character, narrative line, high-contrast mise-en-scène…

Film Noir: Shadowy duality in character, narrative line, high-contrast mise-en-scène…

Candice Breitz

Love Story (2016), a seven-channel installation by Candice Breitz, interrogates the mechanics of identification and the conditions under which empathy is produced. The work is based on the personal narratives of six individuals who have fled their countries in response to a range of oppressive conditions. The personal accounts shared by the interviewees are articulated twice by Love Story. In the first space of the installation, re-performed fragments from the six interviews are woven into a fast-paced montage featuring Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore. In a second space that is accessible only via the first, the original interviews unfold across six suspended screens in their full duration and complexity, now intimately voiced by the individuals whose lived experience they archive.

Pipilotti Rist

In 4th Floor to Mildness (2016) Rist fills the gallery with over a dozen beds covered in blue or green bedspreads. The visitor can stretch out on the mattresses and watch the videos projected above on two screens hanging from the ceiling. The atmosphere created in the room is soothing and lyrical. What is interesting is that this atmosphere is punctuated on every level with decay and violence. This multi-layered work begins with sweetness and lyricism and ends with a brutal story of a tough life, lived hard where “every shimmer of beauty is undercut by mayhem and decay, where every shower of light is ringed in metaphorical darkness, and every sensation is designed to connect.”

Gilllian Wearing

To understand the extend of parents’ control over their own children, the English artist Gillian Wearing produced, in collaboration with a mother and her two children, the video project 2 into 1 (1997). In it she filmed a mother and her two children, each separately, and asked them to talk about each other. Contrary to straight documentary practices, Wearing juxtaposes the images of the mother with the children and lip-synched the footage so that the mother’s words come from the sons’ mouths and vice versa. 

Toril Moi

Toril Moi’s philosophy of the Feminist, Female and Feminine is interesting. Moi distinguishes feminism as a political position, femaleness as a matter of biology, and femininity as a set of culturally defined characteristics. Moi, academically challenged by Christine Battersby, argues that any political and social ideology (regardless of its source or writer) that can be creatively adjusted to further the position of feminists against political patriarchy is welcome. Moi also dissects Cixous’ rejection of an equation of femininity with passivity and death (femininity is defined as lack, negativity, absence of meaning, irrationality, chaos, darkness – in short, as non being) as leaving no positive space for women: ‘Either woman is passive or she does not exist’. If her analysis is correct, for a feminist to continue advocating binary thought, implicitly or explicitly, would seen to be tantamount to remaining inside patriarchal metaphysics. 

Babette Rothschild

Babette Rothschild uses psychotherapy theory to understand the psychophysiology of trauma. The book, “The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment” illuminates the impact of trauma on the body and the phenomenon of somatic memory. It is now thought that people who have been traumatized hold an implicit memory of traumatic events in their brains and bodies. That memory is often expressed in the symptomatology of posttraumatic stress disorder-nightmares, flashbacks, startle responses, and dissociative behaviors. In essence, the body of the traumatized individual refuses to be ignored.

William Kentridge

Kentridge was born in Johannesburg to apartheid attorney parents making his South African political credentials noteworthy. He earned a degree in Politics and African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and then a diploma in Fine Arts from the Johannesburg Art Foundation. In the early 1980s, he studied mime and theatre at the L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. His politics, his theatrical yearnings, his clowning and his drawing all come into play in his work with opera, film and performance.

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