What Is The First Image?
EIJA-LIISA AHTILA IN CONVERSATION WITH LENA ESSLING
HELSINKI, 5 OCTOBER 2011
LENA ESSLING: Let’s begin with Horizontal (2011), which is currently in production. It seems to be about limits – not only those of human perception but also those of the camera as an extension of your body and of your senses and the ways of overcoming that.
EIJA-LIISA AHTILA: Horizontal is a portrait of a spruce tree. We shot a tall tree in six parts, which will be presented with six projections on the wall, not vertically but horizontally, one next to the other, so that the viewer will see a long tree covering one wall of the space. Kind of six “portrait format” projections forming the horizontal tree. As well as a portrait, it’s really about the moving image – about film and the tradition of showing things through the lens, about a way of re-creating our reality and the world around us through the cinematic way of perceiving and the mechanics of film. Film is a medium for understanding and putting things in a certain order. It gives us the illusion of being a limitless medium and the only means of recording transparently, without altering the object. It can be easily thought of as a kind of electronic or digital window that brings the world to us without changing it, as if there were no human being behind the camera, making decisions, or as if it wasn’t a medium specially created as an extension to our anatomy. In Horizontal I want to somehow make visible the limits, or edges, of human perception and to try to show the idea introduced by Jakob von Uexküll – of the simultaneous existence of different worlds, different times and spaces. The cinematic device has this trust built around it, yet it can’t read all kinds of worlds and show them to us. I try to show that the worlds of, for example, nature and specifically human cinematic expression don’t meet. There is discrepancy so that, even if they do exist in this world together, they are parallel.
LE : The recent drawing project – Anthropomorphic Exercises On Film (2011) – how does that relate to the video work?
ELA : First, I had this need to draw, to make drawings, but I was still working on The Annunciation (2010). For the beginning sequence of that, I drew a little spruce and then, when we made the film version with three images, we needed another one. When we were shooting the forest scenes for The Annunciation, our plan was to first shoot the landscapes and then the trees. Soon, it became clear how difficult it is to really portray a tall tree because of the size of the film image – its aspect ratio. After finishing the film, I started to work with the series of drawings which I then named Anthropomorphic Exercises On Film. The starting point was the two small drawings I had made for the film. With the drawings, I thought about describing the rules and conventions of filmmaking – like the aspect ratio, how you shoot and edit a conversation, how you create a character and so on. What would happen to those rules if the protagonist was not a human? Let’s take as an example the action. If drama has been based on action since Aristotle’s Poetics, and if the action takes the story forward and shows the world and us in it, then, if the protagonist is not human, what will we see? What will the collision be like? Or take as an example the drawing called Aspect Ratio, which has a similar approach to Horizontal but is done in another medium – with the frames of the piece of paper acting as frames of the moving image. In the first image, you’ll see the top part of the spruce. And then, in the next one, you’ll see the bottom part. In the third one, you’ll see the same spruce, kind of kneeling. But the top is still missing. Then, in the last one, you’ll see the spruce kneeling plus bending its “head,” and only then does it fit within the frame of the paper. It’s about incommensurability between the world of film and that of spruces.
LE : They sound close to Uexküll’s own scientific illustrations or your own storyboards when preparing for a work. I am thinking of a quotation from The Annunciation: “How does one know what things are, unless they’re already familiar?” With your choice of subject matter, or protagonist even –the spruce in Horizontal – it seems that you are taking something familiar and making it foreign, abstract and strange.
ELA : Yes, that’s nicely put. That’s in fact something that I feel is happening to myself. The more I work as an artist, the more I find things that I don’t really understand – or maybe a better word would be recognise – and I think that that, in itself, is a crucial thing. Maybe I’m going too far now, but I believe that it also has to do with the idea of knowledge. Knowing something is actually more like standing by or co-existing, finding the possible relation with the other and your place to stand.
LE : So you could try to get in tune with things, but you cannot grasp them completely; you can’t own them by studying or describing them. Uexküll describes the studies of different species as “excursions into unknowable worlds.” This could work equally well as the title of a novel by Jules Verne or of this exhibition.
ELA : It has been extremely important to come across Uexküll’s texts. I had been interested in animals, nature and their relation to humans, but finding out about him, and then the question of the animal and posthumanism, has been very helpful – kind of a relief from the feeling of isolation, and a realisation that posthumanism is, in fact, a topic that is very important in philosophy, the arts and ongoing cultural discussions. It’s funny, in a way, that it’s so difficult to recognise at first and that it can then concretely change what is visible for you.
LE : It’s almost like getting an understanding of a language. Your choice of subject is interesting in another sense – the spruce is so familiar, a Nordic cliché almost, which appears in several of your earlier works.
ELA : Often, in Finland, the spruce is seen as less important among other trees – both as a building material and as a part of the visual surroundings. I am frankly afraid that people will not recognise anything when they look at the drawings. If you don’t see it, it’s empty and makes you frustrated, as is often the case with short film and narration. Breaking radically with traditional narration makes it challenging for viewers to get involved, sometimes to the point where it just doesn’t happen. That familiarity of the spruce, what is it really – what’s familiar about it? We have defined it and we are used to it. When was the last time – if ever – that we thought about what the relationship between us and, for example, a spruce, could be? Considering this ecological situation, we need these naïve questions – questions that cannot be answered in a second, questions that are not meant to be answered, but rather are left hanging to open up something unfamiliar. I’ll give an example: there are a few groups of people here in Finland, who are making physical or experimental theatre without any traditional notion of drama – or with a very altered one. One of them did a production for dogs. I can’t really describe it adequately, but I want to mention a detail of it: A part of the “play” was set in a forest area in Helsinki and there was this character whose role – if you can say that – was that she crawled a straight line of one kilometre in the forest. When you try to change the point of view of us humans to something else, you have to change the language – this is also the case for film – and then, perhaps it will not speak to the audience or they will feel left out. If you want to tell a story differently, without the classical dramatic action, what is left? What will people see? If you are not working with that kind of narration, it’s difficult because it’s everywhere in film – in the editing, the shooting, the acting and in the building of the character. You can’t then simply talk about, for example, good or bad acting – from which point of view? With The Annunciation, sometimes I think that it doesn’t work at all. At the Venice Film Festival, I saw it just after having watched twentythree features that were all about traditional dramatic action. And, after seeing it, I felt – there’s nothing. But then, seeing it again, especially the installation but also the one screen version, I was really happy about it and it’s atmosphere.
LE : What do you think about, let’s say, Structural film of the 1960s trying to break completely with the use of plot and storyline?
ELA : They are very interesting, beautiful and important films, but that’s not what I aim to do. In a sense, they are easier to approach because it’s abstract experimentation. This is too big a question to be talked about here, but in brief – we know what abstract is or what it is supposed to be. And I don’t want to leave narrative or acting behind. But then I have to ask: “What is a narrative? What can it be?” I am also interested in Hans-Thies Leh-mann’s ideas about post-dramatic theatre. Could there be something like post-dramatic film? Meaning that there would still be performing, characters, story elements and some kind of story told in a certain time.
LE : In some works, you use very recognisable, classical dramatic elements, like a Greek chorus or a Brechtian verfremdungseffekt. But The Annunciation also explores other aspects of representation. On a certain level, it is really not so concerned with the biblical story, but rather with Renaissance painting and the development of perspective, as well as their use of colour and light. Also the question of how to “translate” perspective into a temporal, time-based medium – would you agree with that?
ELA : Yes, it’s really about images – still images turned into moving ones and moving material adapting the qualities of paintings. When I started to make the piece, I didn’t know that the Annunciation paintings of the Renaissance era were done at a time when perspective found its way into painting. Before Giotto and Fra Angelico, let’s say, when they didn’t use central perspective, the valuing of things in a painting was quite different. Perspective brought with it a new hierarchy and a new system for giving information. The cinematic way of narrating creates a position for the viewer in which he or she can follow the story and everything is served up. A certain world is created and the information is presented in the way that the director decides. If you have a complex, multiscreen situation, however, that doesn’t happen. Of course it’s edited, but for multiple screens. The fact that there are many screens and they may also be positioned around the viewer breaks the idea of central perspective. It also emphasises the position of the viewer, concretely in the space as well as in relation to narration. It is interesting to see where 3D technology is going and what it will offer from the point of view of experimental film.
LE : You have said that film always has a point of view but that painting does not.
ELA : I mean the characters in the paintings. When I was planning The Annunciation, I needed to transform the ideas in the paintings into the language of moving image. There was the space, the actors, and then I had to think about how to tell the story of the angel coming to greet Mary, employing the language of the movie. So, when do we see the angel? And where? And how?
LE : Bringing it to a very concrete level.
ELA : Yes, exactly. “What is the first image?” But also: “When does Mary see the angel?” and “What does Mary see?” In the paintings, Mary’s point of view is not such an important question, neither in regard to how the event is shown nor as a woman’s point of view. The paintings are created for the viewer witnessing the event in the paintings. The question of what Mary sees is a question of point of view and very relevant within film. The only painting I could recall that includes the character’s point of view was Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, in which the viewer is standing where the king and queen are implied to stand, so that our point of view is, in fact, theirs. For the film, I had to include Mary’s point of view – how she sees the angel and what is in fact the miracle. Making The Annunciation was really an educational process for me. In the very beginning, I wrote in my notes that the most important thing when making it would be to keep things open for as long as possible – not to fix them. Of course, this also had to do with the cast. I wrote the script, but it was not used in the usual way. For example, in Where is Where? (2008), there are these long poems that I wrote, as Kati Outinen is a professional actor who could learn them. With an amateur cast, it would have made no sense to hide the spontaneous dialogue. The script was more like a structure and there was this constant movement between the script and things that just happened on set. Most of them maintained and expressed their own ideas about the biblical events. Kati’s character, the director, led the dialogue and kept to the lines written for her, so that the information that I felt was necessary would be included.
LE : The way you cast the production almost seems like a project in itself, and very different from other works you’ve done. Why that specific group of women? Why an all-female cast?
ELA : I first had an idea that I wanted to make the work with women only, which then developed into the idea of working with women whose lives had not followed “the straight path of virtue”. A friend then recommended that I contact the Helsinki Deaconess Institute. They were very kind and helpful and presented my idea to their clients. There were a few women who became interested, then we did a casting session and found Mary, Arch Angel, the Saint and the Donor. The animal actors were kind of “pros”; they had been doing acting and were accustomed to the company of humans. There are three kinds of actors here: the professional actors, the non-professional human actors and then the animal actors. I found it a good group through which to study what a miracle could be in our times as well as how to act and show things or be in an image. But that’s a long and slow process which only opens up more questions, like which direction to go, what to aim at, what to maintain and what to leave behind.
LE : Some of your earliest works were performance pieces. You seem to have always had a curiosity about and keen interest in the stage?
ELA : Yes, I’m curious about theatre, from the angle of the moving image, but I never wanted to make theatre. My interest is more in the parallels between these two forms of expression, on the part of a person who likes seeing things performed and experiments undertaken. Way back, I did two or three performances with a friend of mine, Maria Ruotsala. They were kind of comments on the art world in Finland, but, at that time, I never wanted to combine it with video as a medium. I never really wanted to perform in front of the camera. I am not a performer. In certain matters, I don’t necessarily see a big difference between film and theatre.
LE : Do you see a limitation to film that made you want to also explore the performing arts?
ELA : Yes, and it also has to do with the fact that, at the moment here in Finland, theatre is so much more experimental. Experimental film is small here and very much linked to the visual arts. There’s really little experimenting in feature films. If we take as an example this Greek film, Alps (2011) – by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, who won the award for best screenplay in Venice – we simply don’t have anything like this, experimenting with performing, the idea of character, narration and use of dialogue. I think that, for example, this Greek duo is close to something that one could call post-dramatic film. But, on the whole, I think that the worlds of feature film and experimental film are very far from each other today.
LE : That’s interesting, as it seems that you have this particular position of having one foot in each world. What would you say that you bring to your work from the language of feature films?
ELA : Cornerstones like editing, shooting and continuity. That’s what I am also questioning in my work and in developing the cinematic space. LE : Breaking that set of rules. ELA : Looking at the links too. In the art field, considering the postmodern and the idea of questioning the coherence of the subject in philosophy – why even try to create a coherent character in a film? What’s the point? In most feature films, I think there are still characters that don’t really correlate to anything any longer.
LE : In The Hour of Prayer (2005), the main character isn’t in fact present, and the film centres on footage of spaces and landscapes and sound is very prominent, which is an interesting way of exploring narration and depicting the passage of time.
ELA : It became an important piece for me because of the process of making it. I wrote the monologue very quickly for an audio piece. Later I went back to the material and decided to make a moving image work of it too. We had shot documentary material of the treatment of the dying dog, Luca. At that point, I didn’t have in mind that I would make an installation piece from that. The written story is very chronological and really emphasises words that depict time or the passage of time. But then the images are really contradictory to that, and are not always a clear part of, or subordinate to, the story. In fact, the empty spaces become the protagonist.
LE : On the subject of character and performing, I am thinking of the scene in The Annunciation in which the director gives instructions to Mary on the differing greetings of the angel, and this is a moment that really sticks in one’s mind. As you’ve said yourself earlier, it’s nothing – Kati Outinen does almost nothing and yet she has such presence.
ELA : Scene 19 is my favourite scene.
LE : In the taking-on of a persona through acting, somehow you’re also mimicking – thereby trying to understand someone or something or at least projecting onto that other. There’s something in the interest in acting in your work, which seems to echo ideas of anthropomorphism.
ELA : Again I’m coming from the visual arts and from the moving image. My primary questions related to performing are: “What is acting supposed to be and can I turn it into how to be in a moving image?” And the words then – you know, the English word “acting,” “to act,” is about the action, doing something, but the Finnish word näytellä or näyttelijä originates from the word näyttää, “showing,” “to show” something. So, what is that really then – that mimetic act of being in the image for viewers? (We also have a word corresponding to the English word “performing” but I think it is just interesting to look at this more specific word.) Somehow, it seems that, in this process, these have really become the core questions to me. And that also brings us back to the spruce and its ability to perform. Can a spruce be a mimetic creature? For me, this carries the question: “What do we really see?” Do we simply see what we want to see or where, at what point of looking, do we meet the spruce, if at all? That’s what makes working important for me. If we push our world too close to nature, what happens? We should maybe withdraw.
LE : Going back to your process, your works are very carefully produced. For example, you plan for the shooting in order to make the multi screen installation and the cinematic version at once. Could you say something about that process?
ELA : Yes, it’s a complex and sometimes exhausting working process. When we make an installation in which the images surround the viewer, we have to take into account the cinematic space in the work itself, but we also need to incorporate the space around the viewer. They are two different spaces – the space where the viewer is standing, which becomes part of the cinematic space and of the storytelling, and the space depicted on the screens. For example, the characters may all need to be in eye contact with each other, on different screens around the space. That and the moving around the space on screen and from screen to screen means that we have to plan not only the shooting but also the editing, to be certain that the directions are right as well as the timing. This means that we have to think very far ahead.
LE : And then the direction of the sound also becomes very important.
ELA : Yes, like in the scene in Where is Where? in which the Algerian soldiers are entering the Poet’s home – it’s like a circular film. You have to remake the space of the set on four screens, so that the viewer, standing inside the installation, will have the experience of being in the same room as the Algerians. There’s also the complication of the camera and the lenses. One can’t just do it using four cameras at different angles. Depending on the space you really have to time it carefully and then shoot separately with one or two cameras. It’s all about what the camera “sees” also in relation to the paralel images. Again, from time to time it feels that just having one image to consider would be fantastic. In addition to their usual function in film, sounds are used to guide the viewing process, to attract the viewer’s attention in another direction. Each screen has its own sound to some extent.
LE : How much does the formal aspect mean and how do you decide on the format of a particular work? Can it begin with a shape, a particular form of visual narrative that you want to try out?
ELA : In general, a shape or visual thing can start the process. A typical process for me is that I collect and write different kinds of material, which then leads to the writing or defining of the work. The atmosphere of a work is important to find – something that supports the topic. After making Where is Where?, I didn’t want to use as many screens but I didn’t want to go back to, for example, The House (2002), in which you can have an overview of all three screens next to each other all at once. That’s why I planned for The Annunciation screens to be set asymmetrically on three walls and for the viewer to be in the middle.
LE : That also makes it impossible to follow everything at once, whereas in the earlier works you could.
ELA : Yes, that’s right, it’s not possible to follow everything; but the atmosphere and events are conveyed. Timing, the length of the edited image, is different from the early works because you have to be able to turn around and see the image there. It’s a lot different from having three or even ten images in a row in front of you, because then you would not need to incorporate the viewing space into the narration.
LE : It seems that appropriation and the manipulation of given formats are at the core of what you are doing. From the early advertisement works – Radar (1990) or Me/We, Okay, Gray (1993) – to mirroring Renaissance painting in The Annunciation or Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa in Fishermen (2007), this play of adaptation, film into stage into painting into poetry has been evident – could you say something about that?
ELA : Yes, literature is no less important. In the works, there are different approaches and emphases. They are studies of matters I’ve wanted to learn more about at that moment or experiments of making something visible or experiments with different combinations of things in the moving image. For example, it was clear from the beginning, in Where is Where? that the words would have an important place. It’s really about the words – the poems and the dialogue. The text has always been very important for me; that’s the first urge. That’s what I’m missing now, because I really didn’t write much for The Annunciation except the beginning, where there’s a voiceover in the forest scene. The dialogue at the end is from the Gospel of Luke, but my own and the actors’ version. Speaking of appropriation and Where is Where?, I also read T.S. Eliot a lot and his voice is very particular. I didn’t use his own words, not in the way that I worked with Rimbauds poem in the beginning. Then there’s the music. I wanted to create this modernist feel to it. Modernism is very much in my own background, what I learned when I was studying art and film. It’s the atmosphere. But it also had to do with the time period in the work – the late 1950s and late 1960s.
LE : Whether your protagonist is on the verge of a psychosis or questioning faith, it seems that you are always exploring where “humanness” ends or what defines us morally, as people. In Where is Where?, the poet is saying to the priest: “If we are always forgiven, that makes us illiterate.” That question of morals – does that concern humans only? Does it even define us as humans perhaps?
ELA : This would need a lot of going back and rethinking or to have a philosopher here. What I can say is that the meaning and use of human/ inhuman has certainly changed recently. I suppose only humans can be inhuman, but then again it raises the question of the animal and the division made between animals and humans and the long traditions of putting emphasis on that division and the rethinking of those issues that have flourished recently.
LE : The relativity of distance and time are often subjects in your works – what underlies this mistrust of measuring?
ELA : Time and space are the key elements of the moving image, and creating certain situations with it. But, looking at this in another way, my interest in these issues also has to do with knowledge and trust and the stability of society. In Where is Where?, there is a line in the monologue that says: “When you are driving up a hill, how do you know nobody is coming towards you in the same lane?” That’s where the trust comes in. And is it breakable? It has to do with our culture, specifically with the fixation to one’s own culture. How willing and ready are we to meet the other that’s coming towards us in the same lane. And, then again, in this world situation, this information society, distances don’t exist as they used to and this brings us back to moral issues. What is of my concern when everything is so close?
LE : Is it a critique of an illusion of the global, the view of the world as one, in which you could just as well be close to something or very far away?
ELA : Yes, of this “global,” which very often means “it’s ours.” It’s really just another form of colonialism, cultural colonialism. But, then again, it’s also a critique of another illusion – that, in our world, others do not exist, “Everyone should mind their own business” – which is a kind of thinking that has increased in Finland lately.
LE : Considering how meticulously executed your cinematic works are, are there ever mistakes that you let slip or even that change everything?
ELA : There’s always something I would like to redo. It is seldom that the feeling of having completed something remains. But then again, mistake is a good word. It reveals a learning process. That is the most rewarding thing when you make a piece – you learn when you write, you get to know the fictional characters that you are writing about and learn about writing itself. Then you learn from working with the crew and cast, you learn about the topic. It’s never just there when you start doing it, but then the work kind of builds itself. It’s when a process is kept open that things really happen, and, at a certain point, the work itself takes over and you watch its becoming.