Thinking in Film
EIJA-LIISA AHTILA IN CONVERSATION WITH CHRISSIE ILES
Chrissie Iles: Perhaps we should start by talking about a phrase in the subtitle of Daniel Birnbaum’s essay about your work, “extended cinema.” When I went through the different pieces chronologically, it became clear that the boundaries between fiction and documentary, ego and the loss of self, and between the still and the moving image, all very cinematic issues, were present from the beginning. Yet the “extended cinema” that you have created is very different from the approach to cinema that most artists took after 1989 in Europe and Scandinavia. You are one of the few artists who trained in film, in both America and England, and you incorporated the black box of cinema into the white cube of the gallery from the beginning. So what does extended cinema mean in your work? And how is it different from others who have incorporated the cinematic?
Eija-Liisa Ahtila: My approach to cinema and the moving image has to do with my background. I graduated as a painter and painted for a couple of years, and then I became interested in photography and started making photo and text installations. During that period I also read art theory and followed what was going on internationally. In 1987 I took part in a video course with some of my friends and found the medium fascinating. I did some little things with video and at the beginning of the nineties went to study film. The plan was to give up visual arts, but that didn’t happen—I got stuck somewhere between the two traditions. I feel that because of my background as a painter, my approach to film is more about how to express something through the medium of the moving image. The question “what is a moving image?” became more important to me than whether the context was cinema, visual art, or new media. When making the works, “what” frequently turns into “how.” How to express sadness in images? Can a feeling be expressed without its opposite? How is understanding related to time, and what is the role of causality in installations? Making films and installations became a matter of identifying the links between images, sounds, rhythms, light, characters, and words, and using them to approach and construct the story. So, I think my approach is still an artist’s.
CI: During your training, you must have been exposed to film history and film theory, and you also come out of the strong context of Finnish cinema.
ELA: Because I was quite old already when I thought about the transition from art to film, I didn’t want to spend time taking technical courses such as how to use a camera. Instead, I felt I needed to concentrate on the different ways of expressing things with the medium, so I chose courses on editing and cinematography and learned about the different choices that cinematographers had made in order to suggest the emotions they wanted to express. And I also took some courses on film history and theory. You asked about my use of still images. I try to think about these issues in relation to telling a story or creating a narrative. Usually in films the image is subordinate to the story, which means that when you cut from one image to another—let’s say from a long shot to a close-up—you’ve got to give more information about a character or events. That’s the motivation for cutting—images are always . . .
CI: . . . vehicles for the narrative.
ELA: Exactly. The meaning of the image comes from the story. I’d like to do it differently and still maintain the coherence of the story. There are many possibilities that the moving image offers.
CI: Was film an early influence on you in Finland?
ELA: There was a cinema club in this small town where I lived as a child that I remember going to. They showed a Louis Malle film about a young woman and her first sexual experiences. I thought it had a weird symbolism, but I enjoyed it. I think it’s called Black Moon. I was thirteen or fourteen; another one I saw was Robert Altman’s 3 Women. And Ingmar Bergman’s films.
CI: Was Ingmar Bergman a strong presence in Finland?
ELA: Yes. His films were also shown on TV.
CI: In your installations, you shift between foregrounding image and narrative. Do the multiple screens help abstract or forefront the image, both compositionally, within the frame, and in the physical construction of the pieces? What is the difference between watching your films linearly in a cinema, and seeing them as installations, watching the narrative unfold spatially, within multiple screens, in a gallery?
ELA: An installation with three screens definitely gives much more emphasis to the image, and it also allows lots more experimentation. But we are still talking about the moving image and storytelling—a moving image narrative seems to have this great potential to glue everything together. Sound is always about space and distances, and two images close to each other always connect. This is of course a question about perception, and I’m also thinking about the set of rules we use to create a narrative. Take Consolation Service, which was made for Venice [“End of a Story,” La Biennale di Venezia, 48th International Art Exhibition, Nordic Pavilion, 1999] as an example. I wanted to explore the difference between a story told either with one or two images: in the cinema, the aim is to find the best possible vantage point for viewers in regard to the linear events taking place on screen within a single projective frame. Everything has been constructed in relation to this, from the microphone positioning at the locations to the editing of the images from one shot to the other. In a multiscreen installation, you can’t experience the narrative singularly, as several things are happening in the space. Also, several screens make it possible, for example, to show the reaction shot and the action shot at the same time. This means that the viewer has to choose. At Kiasma, when there was a screening of the film Consolation Service, the installation version was on view as well. People I spoke with mentioned that the experience in the installation felt more realistic; you couldn’t choose sides: the woman’s point of view in the story didn’t appear to be emphasized. In the film, it became more obvious that the main character’s presence directed the story.
CI: Was that what you had intended or did this surprise you?
ELA: No, I didn’t intend that. So I was happy to hear the comments. My aim was to explore different ways of telling a story—it is actually part of my thesis work for the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki. With two screens, you can’t really guide the experience as precisely as with one screen.
CI: In Consolation Service, the viewer could only enter at the beginning of the film. Why did you insist on this for that particular piece and not for the others?
ELA: When I was writing the story, I wanted to explore how to move from one emotion to another—how this kind of building of a work functions in an installation. After seeing the finished work, I felt that you have to learn to know the events and the characters in order to understand them. You need to stay with them to be able to react emotionally when, for example, they fall through the ice or the man materializes and disappears. These things depend on the chosen structure of the story.
CI: Fragmentation occurs in your work as a metaphor of psychological disturbance, touching on the boundaries of psychosis, particularly in your relation to women. In a single-screen format, these boundaries are represented in a very different way from an installation like Anne, Aki and God, 1998, where the breaking down of the understanding of where reality ends and fantasy begins is literalized. Aki’s bed, with a screen above it, becomes, like Barthes’s description of cinema, like slipping into bed and dreaming.
ELA: Anne, Aki and God is based on a true story that happened to a young guy in Helsinki. A friend of mine told me about this man’s extraordinary psychotic experience, and we agreed that he would interview Aki. So he did, and the tapes were transcribed. The installation is based on that material. Because the experience existed only in his imagination, I thought it would be nice to concretize it. In the story, God appeared on the screen above his bed and told him, “Aki, you have a girlfriend, Anne. Look around, it’s so dirty, you have to clean it here. Anne can’t come here.” This is how the psychosis started. Since Anne lived only in Aki’s dreams, I wanted Anne to be present—to be there for everyone to see. So I put out a casting call, took the job description to the employment office, and fourteen women responded. Seven of the short interviews with them appear on another screen, making the process of making the film more visible.
CI: Is this the piece in which the process of the making of the film is most clearly evident? The contrast between fiction and reality is very precise there, because the realism of the actresses being interviewed contrasts so strongly with Aki’s fantasies. It reminds me of Brechtian theater, where the mechanics of how the drama is created are made evident.
ELA: When the actor suddenly directs the words to the audience . . .
CI: . . . and the illusion is broken.
ELA: Since Brecht and Godard, and long nights with TV, I feel that illusion has become material to work with. Sometimes it’s interesting to think about, rather than to create illusion.
CI: Your process of disrupting illusion could be argued to relate to the conceptual practices of the sixties, which you’ve developed within a narrative cinematic framework. You also use the performative as part of this questioning.
ELA: I haven’t thought of this in relation to my work but it’s funny that many of my friends are from theater. I remember enjoying Meyerhold’s ideas as a young student.
CI: Also related to the Brechtian element is your resonance with Finnish cinema, which is often semidocumentary and socially based. In your work, we encounter young men and women, teenagers, older women, all with complex problems. We can identify with them, because they’re not romanticized.
ELA: I want the characters to be straightforward, but on the other hand also poetic.
CI: They also have a surreal quality.
ELA: Maybe that’s because of the combination I mentioned. All the stories and characters are fictional, but based on research. When I start thinking about a work, I like to be certain about the facts—I need to know that it could have happened, and that it’s believable. Then again, the knowledge that you gain through research gives you the freedom to invent things.
CI: An aspect of your work reminds me of Hollywood melodrama, and its heightened psychological fear.
ELA: I like Robert Altman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and John Cassavetes, among others—but during the working process, books I’ve read are more important.
CI: You’re more influenced by literature than by film?
ELA: It depends. When I’m planning the work, making notes and writing the script, text is material with which I have a kind of communication. For example, in a book I bought yesterday, there’s a paragraph with a simple description of a phone ringing on the wall. This gave me an idea about a transition from one scene to another. In the book, it wasn’t an important thing, but it gave me an idea that was suitable for the atmosphere of the scene. I enjoy reading Paul Bowles, Ian McEwan, Patrick McGrath, Don DeLillo. Now I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s short stories. I usually read material about the subject matter I’m working on as well.
CI: In your recent works, the intimacy of a domestic environment heightens the claustrophobia of the darkened space, creating a kind of container for the emotional intensity that is expressed. In The Wind, 2002, the construction of space within the film is conveyed, both materially and psychologically, through physical space: the walls and curtains close in, then the bookshelves fall over.
ELA: I like to keep the different elements of moving images equal, to use sounds, colors, and light instead of giving information only through dialogue. But I like words . . .
CI: This kind of equality was already present in your earliest wall pieces, in which you combined text and images within a single metal frame. Those structures seem to anticipate the screen structures in your projective installations. In The Wind or The House, 2002, we look up towards the screens, which suggest both cinematic viewing and large-scale painting. This seems to be a key to the relationship between your still images and your installations. And there was a moment where this relationship shifted from external subjects to a more personal subject matter. In Gray, 1993, one persona recounts the effects of nuclear accident on the environment, through different voices.
ELA: I made that work in 1993, when I was invited to take part in two different exhibitions, one in Stockholm and one in Moscow. I got the idea for the work one evening when I was at home. I don’t remember what I was doing. The TV was on, but I wasn’t really watching it. I noticed an advertisement, then I went on doing what I was doing, then after a while, I saw it again. I wasn’t quite sure if it was exactly the same as before or another version of it. This made me think about the way adverts work, the special needs of a short slot, and the relationship between fiction and the advertisements. I became interested in doing a work in the space reserved for adverts on TV. The themes of both exhibitions happened to be “identity.” I made three short spots of which the last one deals with national identity and culture in relation to the pervasiveness of nuclear disaster.
CI: You often use different personae to tell a story. One voice starts and another voice picks up where the other left off, until the origin of the voice becomes confused. It becomes especially ambiguous because we move back and forth between documentary and fiction. We don’t know what you’ve written and what you’ve read. That fragmentation of the single voice through language seems to be an expression of the fragmented self.
ELA: Using different voices, male and female, with one actor on screen, was a means of questioning the boundaries between self and other. With the work If 6 Was 9, 1995, I tried to use the split screen as a metaphor of the teenage girl’s identity. It was the first work in which I used several projections. I planned the work when I was still living in L.A. I saw a series of billboard advertisements made of huge black-and-white photos showing models standing in a composite of several images, and you could see the cut between them. I thought the split screen suggested the idea of girls growing up.
CI: Within this approach, what does “personal” mean? You have adopted a nonpersonal—nonautobiographical—approach in constructing your work, but you also want us to think about the personal as a structure, as a way of creating what is around you.
ELA: When an artist makes a film, people often assume that everything rises from their personal life—that the topic is autobiographical, and the events in the film have happened to the artist and are presented more or less in the way that they occurred in real life. This kind of approach eliminates the process of making the work, the distance between an idea and the finished film, everything that actually makes the work what it really is. It completely overlooks the creative process—the ways of creating meaning within the medium itself. For example, in film, emotions are created from a knowledge of the characters, the use of sounds, juxtapositions of material, rhythms of editing, etc. Also, this attitude forgets the important input of the members of the crew—the cinematographer, the sound designer, the set designer, the editor, just to mention a few. On the other hand, I don’t wish to deny the importance of the personal when making the work, in terms of my own point of view and my relationship to society. This leads me to think of how the “personal” functions in making works with moving images. Sometimes I’m asked questions like “Have you been mentally ill?” But I’d rather talk about the ways the personal can be seen in the rhythm of the work, the editing, and maybe in the way light functions as part of the story.
CI: In relation to your photographic works, in particular the constructed domestic interiors, you have talked of the doll’s house, and the construction of an interior space in which the raw edges of the walls are visible—the artifice of the room, as almost a stage set, is revealed.
ELA: I usually make one photographic series per year. I like to make a series, not just single pieces. In one frame, there are usually two to four images. Since I started working with moving images, it’s been difficult for me to work with just one image. It feels too fixed, without time and a possibility to make an error. An error is a chance, a crack, a break of an order. I don’t use film stills or the same material as in the films, but the different works can be linked thematically. After finishing the installation The House and the film Love Is a Treasure, 2002, I still wanted to work with the themes of perception and giving meaning to things around you—creating a coherent world that makes sense. This is similar to what a scenographer does in her/his work; finding different places and constructing them in such a way that a believable world comes together. This is how the series “Scenographer’s Mind,” 2002, was named. One of the photographs includes kind of a doll’s house for adults. This is something I still would like to work on, not with photographs, but in a more sculptural context.
CI: Does your fragmentation of fictional narrative into real-life action relate to Godard’s techniques and philosophical thinking about cinema?
ELA: I don’t know how to answer that question—on one hand, he is an extremely important figure in film history, and on the other, he’s one of the filmmakers, along with Bergman and Buñuel, whose films I saw a lot when I was young and without a filmmaker’s point of view. One thing I remember fascinating me was the way in which the female characters turned and talked to us in the middle of the story, and I had a feeling of meeting new people, or characters, inside the film. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t usually consciously think about other films, filmmakers, or different approaches when I’m working on a new film or installation; but certainly Godard is the director you need to know about if you are interested in experimenting with film and narrative. I try to see as many new films as possible that experiment with narrative; unfortunately Helsinki is nowadays not such a good place for that.
Originally published in Parkett 68 (2003): 56–64.