2015 November: Home Affairs

Already this term I have expanded my networks a lot more, just by being more proactive about organising events at uni or asking my fellow students to help me. I have been very shy and rather avoided the idea of working close to people, with the exception of the show I did with T in Yr 1. But working alongside others has really proved interesting, most recently with my Home Affairs video.

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The text upon which the video is based, and the set imagery displayed on this still, has been brewing with me for a good few months, and I have had the desire to film this performance for a long time. Finally I got the room, props and people I wanted together. I am lucky to have had really helpful fellow students bring something of their own into the basic roles I prescribed to them. They were kind enough to offer themselves to my direction for this half hour or so, and having the freedom to direct and play with the camera and rearrange the furniture and even map out my logistics felt like a truly invigorating and involved creative process for me. I think I would love to direct a longer film with more complex scenes in the future.

The earliest thinking behind this piece that I can trace back took place back in my Bergen studio. I did not have a bedroom in our family house, or a space of my own, but that studio in the Bergen youth centre became my home. I spent many decidedly wasteful-looking hours in that place, often escaping there when I couldn’t imagine the prospect of spending the day at school. One of my favourite pastimes was camouflaging myself with the furniture in the room, and this idea has inadvertently come to feature as a motif in numerous strands of my work. I remember one time, feeling at a particular loss of what to do with myself, and having already tried everything from dancing in my tights to drawing big cat eyes on my face, finally surrendering to lying across a table with my head hanging off the end. I was looking in the mirror on the floor at myself, upside down, and remember thinking that it looked like I was falling – skydiving – with a table attached to my back like a murderous falling piano. I spread my arms out as if to swerve like a diving bird. Then I thought it strange how I seemed to be becoming one with this table – my eyes had grown used to the two of us constituting one body. I wrapped my legs around the legs of the table to emphasise this effect, and blend myself further into its structure as if it were my skeleton. Nothing else happened. I probably got tired from the blood pressure in my head and gave up on my lethargy, finding something to do that was a little more useful at the time.

But that image has remained with me for years, in dreams, stories, drawings. I think I see the outlines of ghostly bodies which had had to have necessitated the design of furniture throughout the ages. Furniture pieces are skeletons, in that sense, exoskeletons. And so furniture can be sympathised with, because it lends itself so readily to anthropomorphism by way in which it is already moulded in the human image. Perhaps I felt a satisfaction in uniting the two puzzle pieces of form and impression, in this image I have been constructing over the years, by making an emphasised union between the human and her non-living corporeal counterpart.

Early on in my work on The Publication, which, in coming from a jealousy of the notion of writerly confidence and clarity of ideas, often embarked from the subject matter of the encounter between “blank slate” and “writer”. From this interface arise questions of space, construction, worlds, and the character of the author. A lot of the texts in this body of work are therefore concerned with those attempts at kickstarting a creative process, and initial conflicts encountered in this endeavour, such as those just mentioned.

Home affairs was a body of text that concerned itself at first with the relationship between the black of letters and white of a digital document (and how the author interprets these colours psycho-spatially). It then accepts the idea that the words cast into the space of the document are performative, and summon what they pronounce in terms of the virtual world of the document. I summoned first a chair. I remarked how electrified this word appeared to me in the abyss of the document – suddenly there was not nothing, there was something, a chair, and I could construct upon this basis further. I was not seeing a word, I was seeing a chair written in the physics of the digital document, and it was “really there”. I marvelled at the punch of a mere throwaway word. From thereon it was decided that the text would be about the phenomenon of words summoning a sense of substance in themselves. I would carefully add more elements, keeping the page relatively “clean” by adding what felt like isolated objects with uncomplicated references: other mundane household pieces of furniture, and marvelling at each in turn.

There was also the gnawing feeling that I was doing something ridiculous with my time, by the activity of writing about wanting to write and to feel good about it, I mean. I decided to include in the writing the “harsh reality” of endeavouring to become the writer that I was not: the confident, cool-tongued writer that delivered phrases without a trace of hesitation or doubt over what was being said. Texts I had read previously would merely exist on the page, and deliver themselves unreservedly after having been written, regardless of the true internal weather of the authors that typed/penned them. Therefore in most cases I scarcely have a clue what it was like to have written what it was I happened to be reading, but the text brought with it an intrinsic unwavering clarity that struck me as a possible writerly character, and an enviable one at that.

I allowed the ‘higher level’, writerly struggle pan out in parallel with my clean ideal world pictured in letters upon my Google document: speaking of the pain in my back as I attempted to write. In the world of the white, weightless ‘page’ I felt I too could be weightless – and perhaps pain-free – and this is what, in part, initially attracts me to the activity.

Although the pain in my back could be analogous to the godly frustrations of divine entities such as the Norse god Thor, who by raging in his own world causes thunder to occur in another world (Earth), and although the complaints I write into the text appear to come from elsewhere than the world of the stage set with tables and chairs – this connection between my physical reality and the reality of the text pointed toward the manner in which I myself was implicated in the text I was writing. And who was I writing for? Who was I speaking to about my desires and grievances?

Author, audience, fiction, all become disparate tiers scripted into the same web. The strange digital texture of my Google document became permeable to all three participants of the Home Affairs event, such that despite strictly belonging to different dimensions (the audience in a different order of time, the fiction in a different order of matter), we could coexist comfortably, without being at all at odds, within this story: a story that scripted us all.

The document summons a stage, the author’s voice directs (and yet, in writing, the authoritative voice becomes also scripted – by whom?) and so it became clear that this piece of prose would suit well for a theatrical performance of some kind.

I translated the document into a “theatrical version”. It was curious to see the dictations manifest in the author’s voice become explicit in the format of a script. The author became a role, on an equivalent hierarchical plane to the fictive character “person”:

AUTHOR: (…)

PERSON: (…)

I would simply read my script aloud and have a handful of “furniture movers” and a “person” , as well as the climatic “whale” that makes an appearance at the end, respond in real-time to my direction. The participating actors (my fellow students) had no prior acquaintance with the text, but the whole thing was performed like a kind of rite of which nobody was really sure what would be the outcome, myself included of course. We performed it in the squashed confines of my studio and filmed it on a grainy-rendered phone-video.

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I liked it.

The text can be played out as a spontaneous performance with unsuspecting voluntary audience members at some sort of participatory theatrical event. But I wanted to make a film in which I could more precisely depict what it was I saw at the time of writing, that had to do with the interrelationships between author, audience and fiction.

There is a room at college with a small stage that would make the perfect setting. I painted a whale on cardboard to make a life-size wearable prop to comically obscure the wearer, and asked some folks to help me out.

Naturally I tried to get as much prepared on the day of filming before my volunteers arrived. This meant I spent some time by myself in the room which I had imagined filming this performance in for months. I cleared everything from view, leaving only the small stage with curtains on either side. On the floor I marked out in masking tape the camera’s field of vision. I painted my set through the canvas of the camera lens. Looking at the camera screen I spent time carefully arranging the furniture exactly how I wanted it to gradually materialise in the video, leaving masking tape markings all over the stage which could be read by the furniture movers. I felt decidedly excited when I saw the furniture on the stage. I decided to borrow a lamp and play with turning it on, and adjusting camera settings accordingly. The lamp cast a magic spell on the set. It was too bright, it was a burning blind spot on the lens, a manifestation of my desperation for clarity and the way the text overshoots this analytic aspiration. Then I had a fun time making short recordings of myself walking onto stage mimicking what I imagined the ‘person’ would do on hearing my instructions, only to run off set and replay my recording to watch myself on camera. I was so pleased when I saw a short test recording of myself lying across the table. I had searched the studios for furniture that would look identical, and managed to put together a white set: chair, table and ‘commode’ (really just a small block of wood) were all painted white. Seeing myself implicated in this descriptively fictive environment was the central idea, and now it was becoming manifest, and I was enjoying it very much.

I enjoyed pulling the strings of disparate elements into one, rough coordination of a performance. I enjoyed tweaking the positions of my furniture, and I enjoyed describing to voluntary participants their individual responsibilities, because I could imagine things panning out into a cohesive whole that I would have no grasp or certainty over until actually carried out collaboratively. I was very grateful to find that although they were merely doing me a favour and had no particular stake in the project, each participant tried their very best to understand the tone of the idea and how I wanted them to contribute as appearing characters – and each brought something wonderful of their own. A as Person was a striking presence, she didn’t over or under-do the expressions of the positions and circumstances I was dictating to her. Lying across the table, she looked exactly as I had pictured the scene over the months, with her hair hanging like a red flame. R was angular and imposing as audience, but also soft enough in colours and demeanour to gradually disappear into the fore as a natural part of the scene. The three of us, dispersed at different levels between stage and camera, represented those three disparate tiers of the performance collaboration, welded into one two-dimensional frame. Rarely, if ever, has a project been executed so in line with my design, and that in itself was a rather interesting experience. It only took two takes for me to get the footage I wanted, as most of the work went into meticulous pre-planning of positioning and distribution of roles. One aspect I am particularly glad about is the jump cut I was planning between the appearance of the chair on stage and the appearance of the audience in the foreground. I wanted the empty chair on stage to mirror the audience on the ground, as if they were sitting in a council distorted by the perspective of depth. I had to move the camera back, and move myself and R accordingly, as well as plan my final gesture before the cut and my beginning gesture after the cut to be as identical as possible to promote a more plausible transition in the momentary recession of the camera’s view.

The furniture movers were prompt and methodical, and thankfully nobody smiled or laughed, and were all indeed quite focused!

Finally the whale appears on stage, and the narrative the author was so delicately construing has suddenly ascended into absurdity. I am not entirely sure what the whale is about. I think the author has reached a certain level of audacity in her exploration of the conjuring power of writing, and therefore ventured to throw something of an anomaly into the mix, as if to see what would happen, or as if to say, shrugging, “anything goes”, and underscore that the world of performance is palpable yet bracketed from our own. Everybody has made a spectacle of themselves, everybody is implicated in the fiction we draw from our reality and the reality that fiction presents.

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