Artist REMEMBER YOU WERE MADE TO BE USED compares the process of editing to dance; 'There's something about the way you breathe with it.' In her latest work, choreographing together a John Malkovich interview, a Situationist manifesto and covertly recorded conversations alongside a plethora of other fragments, she leads the viewer through scenes so multilayered, they're impossible to grasp in one go.
The film in question – I've Seen This Before – is number seven in Finite Rants, Fondazione Prada's online series of specially commissioned visual essays. The filmmaker and SHOWstudio contributor's work features alongside that of artists and scholars including actor and director Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader, Vox Lux) and economist Christian Marazzi.
Aiming to demonstrate the essay film form's relevance in today's filmmaking landscape, the series – curated by Luigi Alberto Cippini and Niccolò Gravina – invites contributors to analyse the social, political and cultural issues of our present time, i.e pandemic era 2020. Coined by Hans Richter in 1940, and popularised by filmmakers such as Chris Marker and Harun Farocki the 'essay film' (or video essay, or visual essay) is a much debated form of filmmaking, generally agreed to incorporate words and images and embody traits of creative freedom, complexity and interrogation. Through the form's lack of constraints and social focus, filmmakers tend to create work that is paradoxically deeply personal, and Remember is no exception.
With the focus removed from the world of fashion in which Remember so often works, I've Seen This Before allows elements of her filmmaking and preoccupations – a fascination with language, the push and pull of spectatorship and participation – to be all the more apparent. Sarah Kathryn Cleaver speaks to the filmmaker about her creative kinship with Chris Marker, shrugging off anonymity and being a 'documenter'.
Sarah Kathryn Cleaver: Can you tell me a little bit about Finite Rants and how you got involved with the project?
Remember: So I work with The Broken Arm, which has various arms, legs... whatever limbs, and I was asked to art direct a project which started as a platform to host music but with equally strong visual counterparts. And so they're now opening up a physical space for the radio project – although that got a bit delayed with Covid – and they asked Luigi Cippini to come and design the space, and it turns out he also curates the cinema at Fondazione Prada. I think this was early 2020. I really liked his way of seeing things and his aesthetic and then he contacted me out of the blue on Instagram. He sent me one of the videos [from the Finite Rants project], I think it was the Hudson Yards [Brady Corbet] one. I was really interested in the project being an exploration of the video essay as a form in its own right, and a space for being experimental. You're not tied to a narrative, it's about the interplay between the visuals and the dialogue. And I was also really drawn to it when I heard Chris Marker was one of their original references, because I always feel a kindred spirit towards his work.
SKC: Well that was going to be one of my next questions, to ask you about the filmmaker Chris Marker. What is it that you find meaningful about his work, and that you responded to in this project?
R: I'm trying to think what my first discovery of Chris Marker would have been... You know when you find something in your own way as well, doing your own research, whether it's a Youtube wormhole or whatever, I definitely discovered him in this kind of way. Which, I think you always feel closer to someone's work when you find them so organically. I could just tell he's a bit of a wanderer, an observer who goes about the world. I know those type of shots, those un-staged, passing moments, you have to be a bit obsessive, and so in tune. It's like always having a notebook with you for a writer and just writing down what you see. It looks so simple but I know the complexities that go in to that. And I kind of assumed with Sans Soleil (1983) in particular that he wrote the narrative before. I was getting a bit spun out about what the words for my film would be, because I needed them to have equal weight to the visuals. I came back to Sans Soleil while I was figuring it out, and there was an interview with him when he said that the narration is always the most difficult part and it comes afterwards. That was really meaningful to me in this process in particular. He's just a multi-disciplinary weirdo, which I love.
SKC: I want to go back to that idea of being a documenter, and the idea of having to be disconnected to be an artist. From what I can see you work that way too, but there seemed to be something in your latest film questioning the idea of placing different aspects of your identity separately, or the anxiety of placing yourself outside...
R: Maybe subconsciously. I do really relate to that process. Even when I'm doing a commercial film I still make the set-up feel like a documentary set-up. The camera will keep rolling to pick up moments that the subject doesn't know that I'm capturing.
But this was a lot about connecting with myself as well. I have huge anxieties, I have anxieties about starting a project, I have anxieties in this climate, and one of the things I do to deal with those anxieties is filming things. It's just how I focus on something. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of video files that mean something at the time but when I look back at them seem pointless. But it's just my way to stop being in my head too much. I was just on a tram every day, that was basically all I could film. There's a lot of chaos and unnerving characters, and I filmed to find something more gentle and poetic to focus my attention onto. So I'd say it's more connection than disconnection in that way. But yeah it's certainly disconnected from other aspects of being a human like social life or whatever. I didn't want the film to be about coronavirus or the pandemic, but that isolation that's happening to everyone at the minute came through. And that was my restriction with filming, to create something new. Originally I was going to go through my archives and create something out of things I've not used. But I wanted to be present and not look back so much.
SKC: So this is all new footage?
R: Yes, everything except for footage with the dancer Kevin Bago. There are so many layers to this film and I wanted there to be something that everyone could read differently into. The footage with Kevin I shot in April 2019. But there's a connection there in that we met as complete strangers in the real world, not as artists. I was working in Commes des Garçons, in the shop, and I used to pick clothes out for him. And then we liked each other's work and we decided to shoot together with no real purpose. There was very little direction, I'd maybe ask him to repeat a movement or grab the camera and run with it. There were a lot of these shots that didn't belong anywhere, and I thought it went with this film in the sense that it was very surveillance like, with multiple cameras. It just felt like the right place for it to be. And also to have a protagonist of some kind to come back to. The curator Niccolò and I were talking about how he relates speaking another language to dance, and I've always thought editing video is like choreography. There's something about the way you breathe with it. So it could have not gone in there but I felt it had to and... I've diverged from your original question.
SKC: Well you've answered my next question on the connection between editing and dance.
R: Well there's probably more to say on that. Also it was really hard at the beginning, because they trusted my vision but I still had to give them a proposal. Which was really hard to do because I rely so much on things I can't predict. It can be challenging to trust in the process sometimes even for myself because it's so much about chance and really comes together in the editing.
SKC: Can I ask you about anonymity, because it seems like you're shrugging it off to a certain extent and giving away certain things about your life in this film. For example, your voice saying 'I'm a filmmaker, it doesn't matter, I'm a girl.'
R: It's really interesting. So I didn't want to make something too dark but I didn't know how to make it light. And in a pure moment of beauty I was trying to record the sound of an elevator in my building, and kind of got locked out because I left my key upstairs. This whole conversation happened and it was so fucking perfect. And I didn't cut it up, even the shots that go with it, they're both one shot, I didn't edit them. And you can't have that conversation without my voice as well, so it was kind of decided for me. I didn't make that decision beforehand. But there's been a few other things like that lately. I did a physical piece for an art exhibition as well, for a charity exhibition called Eternity 8. I was so consumed by making the work, and didn't consider I'd be called anything other than Remember You Were Made to Be Used, and when I saw the flyer it said my name on. And it felt quite good seeing it there on the same page as Tracy Emin. And the Fondazione Prada people knew my name, they'd done their research so I didn't have that mystique.
But in terms of this film, it is such a personal work. And because you can hear me speaking French, I've always said I don't feel like myself when I speak French. I'm still there but it's not like hearing my own voice back. I think you have a slightly different personality in another language, whether that's because you can't speak it as well or the inflections. But yes I'm maybe making it a bit easier to find me. But I also just think it's funny to have that conversation over footage of boys playing football.
SKC: Just for people that might not be aware, can you talk a bit about the mystery around your persona prior to this?
R: The anonymity was never much of a conscious choice, I just wanted to make work separate to my identity. And then it became interesting as I realised that people weren't aware of what gender I was, what nationality I was. But ultimately it was because I wanted to tap into an idea of... I think there's a human touch and an intimate gaze in my work, so it's not like a machine-made thing, but in the videos in particular I really like playing about with who's filming it. Sometimes it's surveillance, sometimes it's hand-held, then the subject's filming it. I think if you know too much about the person behind it you can feel them too much. I want the greatest amount of audience involvement and for them to feel in control of the gaze a lot of the time, even though it's so particular to my way of seeing. It's less about not wanting people to know who I am, and more about wanting people to feel in touch with what they're seeing.
SKC: So you have, as you said, layers and layer in this film, and a lot of audio in very different styles. How important is it for the audience to know where it comes from?
R: Sometimes I assume, like 'people will know that's John Malkovich's voice.' But it's so specific, he's talking about Being John Malkovich, and that film can be a reference to my film in a certain way. But you've gotta remember, I am in Paris, and I would say a lot of French people aren't going to listen to that audio.
I got a singer and an actor to read out text from a Situationist International essay called A Formulary for a New Urbanism [Ivan Chtcheglov]. Now that's really important for me that people know that, and I put that on the end credits. One I wanted to sound like a God-like voice over a tannoy and the other one was a musician so had that poetic way of delivery. I intentionally mixed their voices together and edited it in a way that decontextualised the text. And even I can't keep up with it. So anyone who didn't speak English would just watch the visuals. My intent throughout the whole film, in terms of this feeling of knowing, was that you can choose what position you're in. You can choose to read not just the subtitles but also the words in the footage.
Not naturally speaking the language and translating, that's the position, as the author of the film, that I'm in, and that's the position that the audience can put themselves in if they want to. That's why I put the two circles in the scene with the subtitles, if you don't understand or can't read the language you can still pick what to watch.
SKC: Is there anything you want people to know that I didn't ask you?
R: Just on the topic that we were talking about before this interview, about work as research. This film was kind of like a sketch. Not that I would ever try to make a polished version of it, but everything in it is research for me to move forward as a filmmaker I think. Even though it's polished in my world, I know it's not very finite.
SKC: Do you think that's what a video essay is?
R: Yes exactly. I think Fondazione Prada have opened up a really interesting dialogue there. And for filmmakers who are worried about not having a huge budget or the right actors or a whole crew, you can still make something where, if it's important to you it will be important to someone else.