Amie Siegel

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“Esperienze cinematiche”
interview by Marco Mazzi
[English translation]

Arte e Critica 61
December 2009 - February 2010

About your poetry. Can you say something about your book of poems The Waking Life? Do you think your writing somehow influenced your visual works?


The works tend to influence each other, and I don’t think of them as different, but part of a continuous formal engagement. Both the long theatrical films and the poetry are at times pre-occupied with associative montage, with appropriation, and alternately with explicit and implicit modes. But it is the context of their exhibition when they leave my studio that creates difference, the facets of reception we perceive as separate— exhibition, publication, screening— and which have their separate attendant cultures and sub-cultures. A few of my works in both the mediums your question distinguishes between, poetry and the visual, have also on occasion slipped over into slightly more commercial spaces of reception. I’ve found those locations quite heavily invested in the distinction between so-called disciplines (rather than the often varied, ambiguous and complex constellations of materials, form and “medium” in individual art works and bodies of work). All distinctions seem to primarily serve the “marketing” of single works of art, books or films, and presume a real lack of intelligence on the part of an audience to parse the complexities of one’s body of work as it wrenches itself away from singular mediums.


The mainstream film-industry transforms books into movies in a very systematic and monotonous way. What influence does literature have on you in general? What do you think could be a new relationship between the worlds of literature and cinema?


Literature’s engagement with structure over time has pre-occupied me, as well the introduction of difference into a text, meaning the disturbance of an ontological and stylistic whole with which many novels, memoirs and essays are concerned to maintain. This rupture of the fantasy of completeness is perhaps akin to a cinematic rupture of the suspension of disbelief or continuity editing. While its roots are quite obviously in theater, in Brecht, it seems to me this redeployment, or ripping of an element from its presumed context has a longer tradition in visual art (where it now may well be taken for granted). While certainly most authors must delight in the form, both the novel and feature film feel like a straightjacket. Poetry offers a vastly ambiguous and associative space where the simple juxtaposition of words can create a violent expansion of meaning, and in this sense has been a much more instructive influence for me than other forms of literature.


How important is the script for you? How important is the writing process of a film or video for you?


I tend to “script” in a very loose fashion. I may write all the dialogue and camera/shot/location choreography for certain scenes (especially for the long films), but for other scenes I may know only the location and a certain feeling or action I’m looking to make concrete and therefore can only elaborate in the form of dialogue and motive once there in the moment of shooting. Much of what is “script” for me is born from the location, the architecture and my sense of place. Often the place proposes the scene. Or I find the location for a pre-planned scene and everything shifts because of something the location suggests that I wouldn’t have otherwise conceived. When that happens I’m usually fairly familiar with the constellation of themes my film or particular piece is concerned with and will choose settings or images based on their connection to or elaboration of those themes. For example I’m often attracted to spaces that propose a dissolution of boundary between interiors and exteriors— lofts with huge glass windows, rotating airport restaurants that look out on highways, and modernist buildings. Or I will create a visual landscape that is almost impossible, but dearly evocative— such as the rural road strewn with old broken GDR and socialist technology (cameras, reel-to-reel players and analogue recording devices) in DDR/DDR. I’m also attracted to temporal liminality, such as dusk, which is recurrent in my work, as well as images and objects, such as chairs and reclining figures, that recur across works and build on each other. That is a kind of scripting, to develop a visual vocabulary internal to my films that gets differently deployed within each film.


You work both with film (16mm, 35mm) and HD video. In the past few years, have you seen these two media getting closer or there is still a gap, in your opinion, between film and video? How do you decide what format to use for a project? How relevant is that decision? Is there any "political" implication in using film or video? Also, do you think that will be possible to create some new, challenging audio-visual works that are not films, and not videos? (Sort of "feature-videos", let's say...) can DDR/DDR be something like that?


My work tends to be concerned with the iconography of formats— the various associations and histories different image and sound formats evoke, such as how super-8 is evocative of intimacy, the hand-held, of home movies; 35mm film connotates large emotional, fictive landscapes; video assumes immediacy, or surveillance, often of a non-fiction or amateur usage. The studio versus location shooting decisions various American and British broadcast television stations have made historically or the decisions to shoot hour-long dramas on film, and soap operas, situation comedies, talk shows and the news on tape (video)-- these choices have had an enormous effect on our viewing psyche. They have effected how formats are perceived to signify the real versus the fictional, for example, or in the art world idiom, the reflex of performance/mirror and direct address (video) or the evocation of the medium itself, and its lapse (film).


High Definition, and even higher quality digital video formats are interesting to me as gathering spaces for the different signifiers varied formats evoke. The use of film (for fiction) and digital video (for non-fiction) in Empathy, or the countless formats within DDR/DDR (which likely includes every moving image format in existence, from silent 8mm to cinemascope) retain their visual signification as such in HD. Traditional, even so-called independent filmmakers tend to consider the issue of format in terms of budget (DV is cheaper) or distribution (can a 35mm print help secure theatrical release?) and artists and the art world are often easily seduced by high production values, but in my case the issue is entirely an aesthetic one. DDR/DDR is certainly something like you propose-- a long cinematic art work which is not film and not video, rather in the way it is neither fiction nor documentary, though it quite clearly enacts and reacts to both.


Today something quite new is happening. An established filmmaker can be, at the same time, an established visual artist. For example, your movies have been screened at major film festivals but, at the same time, exhibitions and screenings of your work have been held in contemporary art centers, museums, and galleries. What do you think of this situation? Are the boundaries between art and film dissolving? Or is it this new century that goes through a new definition of art and society?


Perhaps we are now moving closer to the potential that cinematic space had in its earliest incarnations, in early twentieth century forms of spectatorship, before cinema was co-opted by the constraints of theater and the novel. Of course many artists in the sixties and seventies (Marcel Broodthaers, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Yvonne Rainer, Nancy Graves, Valie Export, Godard, Ricki Kalbe, Bas Jan Ader...) and even writers and theorists (the films of Laura Mulvey, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing broadcast series) and architects (Charles and Ray Eames, Superstudio) were using film beyond the scope of “art house film” in the manner of radical artists, and each quite differently. I think for artists the boundaries have long been dissolved, certainly the Dadaists were early practitioners in placing the discrete boundaries between the so-called “disciplines” in abeyance.


Contemporary venues that still feel a bit rusty are often cinemas and film festivals. While a handful have developed an openness to and awareness of this overwhelming shift in practice, the vast majority of these institutions seem driven by the relentless pursuit of singular film products (market considerations), the glorification of their city (and its economy) or nationality in the case of festivals, rather than an interest in a body of work. The commitment to an artist’s continuous practice is almost a non-issue in the art world, while in the various film institutions its still very much product to product, each taken as its own singular item.


However there is still a real unease with the temporal demands of artist’s films, the consideration of which is not merely practical, but also aesthetic. My long films such as DDR/DDR and Empathy are not meant to be seen in an intermittent way. They are accumulative experiences, rigorously structured in order to be contemplated from beginning to end. Other of my works like Berlin Remake and Deathstar, while both based in moving image, have open structures that can be entered at any point, they are each more invested in formal considerations of simultaneity, re-making and eliciting cinematic elements in absence of the theatrical experience, one which takes that experience, in part, as its topic, but at the same time uses the exhibition space to alienate that experience.


About the relationship to and "direction" of actors. In your movies it seems like actors behave in a very "free" way, as if you were interested in them more as human presences in front of a camera (like in the interviews), rather than "roles" or "characters". Do you think that the concept of "character" or "role" is still important in cinema? Is there a relationship, in your opinion, between the so-called "relational aesthetics" and your way of working with actors?


I don’t think there is a connection between the theory of relational aesthetics as I understand it and the mode of working you describe in my work. In fact, for me working on location or the set of one of my films is usually quite the opposite of a democratic gathering where the art object is dissolved into the experience, the crew and performers. I alternate between engagement and alienation from the frighteningly regulated habits of film sets.


There are artists and directors who hang out constantly with their crew and fabricators and actors, who go drinking together and the whole film set is a scene of camaraderie and masculine bonding. I’m just terrible at that sort of thing. I’m socially awkward, I vastly prefer observing to interacting, I much prefer to be alone than with others, and find the cultivation of the crew and positive spirit of the production excruciating. I want to focus on making, not entertaining. I’m a very poor entertainer. I’ve been lucky at times to work with people who understand and respect this sensibility, and also people who are open to my self-reflexive tendency to draw very few boundaries between who is in front of and who is behind the camera (anyone could become the film’s subject at any time), but I’ve also had my share of mutinies and dissatisfactions.


The people I ask to perform in my films tend be both “real” actors and “real” people, the later being non-actors who are relating some aspect of their own lives or point of view with words of their choosing. However that is also a performance, in the sense that their clothes, gestures, attitudes, speech and mannerisms are an expression of themselves that ranges wildly from conscious to unconscious awareness. I’m interested in how people perform themselves, their own narratives and sense of disclosure of boundary. I’m interested in how things change when a camera is introduced into a situation, or a sympathetic or un-empathetic interviewer. The trope of the interview and its politics have been an ongoing fascination. But just as the “real” interviews have elements of staging, fictionalization and performance, so are my staged scenes often usurped or colonized by the “real”. Every staged scene with actors also feels like a document to me. A document of that moment’s performance.


In the first person interviews, I have even used an actress who worked with me on location to improvise dialogue and a “character” that was an amalgamation of many things I had heard other people say, over and over, the kind of verbal cultural script that gets written on a topic by common parlance and/or the media and then merely re-performed by the latest speaker.


My interest in “directing” is really with regard to the camera, to the space, architecture and later to the unfolding accumulative trajectory through the film that the finished, edited work proposes. In directing performers I often give only the dialogue and watch how they adapt it to their bodies, then together the actor and I retro-fit the dialogue to fit that body, the history that has emerged through the corporealization of language. But sometimes this is not at all in the service of sympathy, identification or verisimilitude, it is often adapted counter-intuitively to provoke rupture or distance, or a reversal of expectation or to mirror a physicalization or gesture that I am aware occurs elsewhere in the film.