An interview with the winners of Playing Identities Mash-up Prize.
You did not follow the project from its very beginning. What’s your understanding of the project contents and objectives?
Andrea Lorenzo: What immediately caught my eye about the project is the use of the term “heritage”; amongst today’s trending topics in theater and show businness in general you’d be hard-pressed to find anything even remotely related to a people’s own identity or their differences and peculiarities.
Jools Charlton: Well, I was familiar with the concept of a video mashup, artists like Cassetteboy and so on. It strikes me as a contemporary take on earlier movements in montage, such as that pioneered by Pudovkin and Kuleshov in 1917, where you ask yourself ‘how am I going to be a filmmaker if I cannot afford a movie camera or any film stock?’ For Kuleshov, the answer lay in taking pre-existing footage, Tsarist films or early Hollywood imports, and re-editing them to create something new. In contemporary mashup, movie cameras are still expensive but the cutting room floor has been replaced by YouTube. 100 years on and we are still working in the shadow of Pudovkin!
Mashup is also a way of interrogating the original authorial intent of found footage through juxtaposition. In Point Brokeback (2006) material from Kathryn Bigelow’s surfer action movie Point Break (1991) was re-edited through the narrative prism of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) to deconstruct representations of masculinity in American cinema.
I was less familiar with concepts of creolisation, although it is a theme in theatre pieces I admire such as Brian Friel’s Translations (1980). That play is set in 19th Century Ireland and concerns two British soldiers, working for the Ordnance Survey, who are tasked with mapping Ireland and translating place names from Gaelic to English. On stage, we see them translating Druim Dubh, which means “black shoulder” in Irish, into the phonetic English version of Drumduff which sounds like the original but has lost its meaning. Friel is dramatising the process of colonisation where a pre-existing native culture is eradicated and replaced with one that is colonial but he also demonstrates that it is not a smooth operation either since, as with Drumduff, you end up with something that is neither purely Gaelic nor truly English.
I read the project’s manifesto and also some other material on the subject, including a commentary on Édouard Glissant by his translator Betsy Wing where she observed that Glissant had no intention of rejecting his spoken language [French] but that his purpose was better served by interrogating it. She noted that he seemed intent on producing collisions in his writing that mirrored the collisions of cultures that are productive of Relation. This did not sound a million miles away from Eisenstein’s approach to dialectic montage in films such as Battleship Potemkin (1925) where a conflict engendered by editing two or more shots together creates new concepts in the mind of the viewer.
You bang two rocks together and a spark flies out.
Subjectivity is also a key concept in contemporary European literature. For example, Leonardo Sciascia’s Todo Modo (1974) is told from the point of view of an unnamed painter who stays at a mysterious hotel where members of Italy’s political elite are taking part in a secretive retreat. We never get a full picture of what is going on because we only have the narrator’s perspective: we don’t even find out his name!
It is commonplace in cinema too. You often hear actors who are promoting a film say to an interviewer, “Well, the film is told through the eyes of my character who is…X”. You see it operating in movies as diverse as Great Expectations (1946), Rashomon (1950), Roma (1971), Taxi Driver (1976), Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) and Denial (2016).
Isabella Mari: The most impressive feature I saw in the project is the strong will to know oneself, through the meeting of new realities: all those wandering realities arousing from the relations with oneself and especially with oneself and the others.
Irena Kunevičiūtė: I guess objective is to address issues that we see around us but are not willing to talk about it, to ask questions why is that and what can we do about it.
Giulia Trigili: The idea promoted by this project was immediately very clear for me. The work done by each group of students that have took part in the creation of the play and in the organization of different meetings is extremely interesting. It also is very helpful in order to better understand the main issues of the project itself, such as identity and the cultural heritage.
What was the working method you adopted in order to realise the video? Which element did you decide to valorize?
Andrea Lorenzo: That’s why our project is based on the concepts of “parallel”. Our video can be divided in four parts (plus a prologue) each with its own unique style. The London show for example, a physical performance shrouded in darkness, is portrayed in transparence, diaphanously; the lofty light of Disconnection‘s courtyard is instead the cypher and the limes of space and editing for its own part.
Jools Charlton: Generally speaking, as a lighting cameraperson, I tend to start out by asking two questions. I asked myself “through whose eyes are we seeing this?”, then “how do they see this world?”.
It’s a subjective camera approach. It encourages an audience to identify with a protagonist. The beauty of it in technical terms is that it helps you to put a shape on things. It is a fluid process but it cuts through material. It allows you to make key decisions relating to format, lens choice, lighting, framing, grip and so on relatively quickly which is important because, in film, the technical is the aesthetic. The equipment you use, or do not use, affects the tone of a film. You have to figure out what is most appropriate for a given story and subjective camera helps you to decide. In a sense, the camera becomes an actor in the mise-en-scène. It is performing too. It is not the only approach, it may not even be the best approach, but it works for me. It helps to keep me on track. I don’t lose sight of what I am trying to do. It is my North Star.
When it came to the source video material for Playing Identities, I was watching the footage with the prism of subjective camera in mind since my creative approach depended on settling the question of viewpoint. In trying to address this, I noticed a number of things about the found material.
Firstly, it was stored on what may be loosely termed “cloud services”. In film production, cloud services are the most obvious indicator of the dematerialisation of media. The term ‘rushes’ originally referred to the physical process of sending exposed film to the laboratory where it was rushed through development so that the unedited takes could be viewed by the crew and producers the next day. Now it means logging into cloud services via a high speed broadband connection to view material on a tablet, laptop or smartphone, often as it is being shot live. As the filmmaker Adam Curtis has noted however, cloud services are also a form of surveillance. The cloud is watching you just as much as you are watching what it hosts, perhaps more so, because the cloud never sleeps.
The video materials seemed, for the most part, to have been filmed on smartphones. That is interesting because smartphones are a key amplifier of modern self-identification. They have replaced taste in music, movies or fashion as a social identifier. It is no longer a case of Beatles vs Stones but Android vs iOS, often expressed in emotional terms.
Furthermore, the image has been post-redacted through placement of thick black bars over Kardashian’s breasts and crotch so that the spectator’s view is obscured.You get a sense of a smartphone’s ability to simultaneously pry into and censor a person’s most private space. Crucially, Kardashian is not looking towards her reflection at the decisive moment but down to the screen of her smartphone. Apart from the obvious foregrounding, it appears that, for Kardashian, the mirror has been replaced by the phone.
Smartphones are also adopting identities of their own in the guise of so-called A.I. digital assistants; the maid or the butler in your pocket intervening at your request or, perhaps, of its own accord. Did Jean Genet himself not warn us about the hidden dangers of ‘maids’?
They are marketed as devices that can know you better than you know yourself. If you like this book then you must like that film. Point the camera at your face and the face of a dog will be superimposed. Type in a line of poetry and hear your phone read that same line back to you. And yet there is no human intermediate carrying out tasks that traditionally required skill and experience. There is no Wizard of Oz but there are lines of code, and cloud services.
Thinking about the use of smartphones to document process in Playing Identities, it struck me that perhaps a key creolisation in contemporary Europe is the interfacing of human languages with computer languages. This creolisation takes the form of an algorithm, or app, that tells the phone how to carry out a task and a user interface [the phone itself and its touch screen] that allows a human to interact with the algorithm. So the phone reads back the line of poetry to you, like an actor would, but without the need for any actor, director or sound recordist. Yet the phone does not understand the meaning of the words themselves. Can the resulting sound emanating from your phone’s speaker still be considered as a performance of the poem? If not, what is it? A spark made by two rocks perhaps?
In addition to thinking about issues surrounding video capture and storage, I considered the content of the video recordings themselves; their semiotics. The recordings fell into two key categories:
- Video recordings of final creole performances. Mainly static frames recording the presentation as a whole, some including the audience within the shot.
- Footage recorded during field research or exploratory workshops. Primarily handheld, kinetic and fragmentary.
In both categories, the videography was artless and guileless yet it appeared to me to reveal other, perhaps unconscious, feelings or ideas. There were fleeting images of a young woman, in wide shot, in profile or from behind, a wall of portraits of Lenin, a disused sentry tower, a folk dance, a junkyard of religious iconography and so on. Like Sciascia’s painter however, the authors of these recordings remained unseen and unknown. We did not catch their reflection in a mirror. They were as remote as cloud services.
I do not consider it possible for anyone to operate a video camera and produce an “objective” view of what they see. My skepticism probably stems from a discussion I had as a film student when a notable lighting cameraperson explained the distinctive roles of the cinematographer and director to me. In précis, the director decides what is to appear on screen [or not] whereas the cinematographer decides how it is to appear on screen. Irrespective of whether you are skilled or unskilled; from the moment you pick up a movie camera, you are making choices. Frame this in and frame that out. Focus on this and defocus on that. Light this and let that go into darkness. And anyway, to paraphrase Godard, smartphones have made auteurs of us all.
Nor do I think that what is contained in these video recordings was totally conscious. The American cinematographer Michael Chapman ASC once explained that he found camera angles mysterious. The photography of a film owes a great deal to the unconscious mind.
To bring all this back to Playing Identities, Performing Heritage (2015-2016), it occurs to me that the project crosses a theoretical divide between cinema and theatre, subjective and objective, the physical and the incorporeal, the seen and the unseen. In considering this, I resolved the issue of subjective viewpoint, but I won’t reveal whom it belongs to or how they view the world. Like Sciascia, I will not name them. I have left clues in the frame but you should know that this film is like every other film. It is a mirror too. When you are looking at the screen you are, like Kim Kardashian, looking at yourself. You see what you want to see. When it says ‘I am Ellis Bell’, the question then arises, Who is Ellis Bell?. Whose identity? What heritage? Cherchez la femme.
Isabella Mari: What I tried to valorize in the project, are essentially the key words which perfectly and clearly correspond to the main concepts of the available material given to us.
Irena Kunevičiūtė:I valued two aspects of videos – firstly if it is visual, and secondly – I put attention to the content of the video or a shot. I tried to choose videos which included both of those aspects so that with as little shots as possible I could show the meaning of performances and whole project.
Giulia Trigili: The working method I adopted is very simple: firstly, I have read all the things I found about the project; then I watched all the videos available in the website and in the YouTube channels “Performing Heritage” and “KilowattFestival”. Finally, I created a short film based on the idea of showing the cooperation that has arisen among groups of people coming from culturally and geographically distant places.
What is the creole performance that you prefer the most? Why?
Andrea Lorenzo: But the show that better caught the meaning behind the “Performing Heritage” project must be, in our opinion, This Home is not for Sale by the Cluj company. In the show the audience gets to know the conflicting characters of the Romanian people, rendered quasi-masks by the actors, and the conflict between a People and the Economy. The dam is the show’s pretext to explore a deeper conflict: that between the (apparently) endless means of an evil corporation and the hearty resilience of those who fight for their own home, their own identity and, by extension, their own right to life.
Jools Charlton: They were all equally fascinating. In respect of my final piece, the production of This Home is not for sale was an important constituent with its focus on gesture based imagery over spoken performance and the sense of a powerful, offscreen presence however I found all the performances equally fascinating.
Isabella Mari: Among the performances I preferred the Barcelona one (Disconnection), seemed to me a good response to the main themes of the project, thus: the exchange of the many contents, the cultural background that passes through the contact with society, the traditions and the full History of the shining Barcelona.
Irena Kunevičiūtė: I truly admired Kent’s team performance Walk in my shoes. I really liked the way they embraced migration issue. I think by watching the performance the audience was able to feel the stories of characters, walk in their shoes.
Giulia Trigili: All the topics processed by all the crews were very interesting, but I have really appreciated the work done by the Lithuanian crew that through its performance (Un)Trapped – Identity or Death? carried on a criticism against racial hatred and homophobia that characterise Lithuanian society.