Critique can sometimes remain frustratingly in the realm of the negative, framing and reflecting hegemonic ideology rather than overturning it, highlighting problematic issues rather than proposing alternatives. Take, for instance, the prestige TV series The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–ongoing). Accruing accolades as a clear-eyed critique of patriarchy, misogyny, and fascism, it has been celebrated as a cogent allegory for the political present in the United States under Trump. But beyond its slick production values, striking costume design, and excellent cast, The Handmaid’s Tale could almost be read as an aestheticized how-to guide for state-sanctioned violence against women — reiterating the control and denigration of its female subjects in gruelling scene after gruelling scene. In her video project I Don’t Get It (2017), Aleesa Cohene adeptly transcends such limited uses of critique. In previous works, she rejected the tropes of heteronormative storytelling by remixing them as queer narratives; here, she turns her gaze to the pervasive racism undergirding Hollywood cinema. Throughout her practice, Cohene has consistently employed a rigorous methodology, involving the intense study and categorization of many hours of footage, to create her composite characters. She selects video clips of an actor featured alone in a shot; from these she finds small recurring actions that she organizes into categories and then edits together: a character who hesitates by a door, enters a room, and so on. For I Don’t Get It, Cohene stages two composite characters in dialogue with each other presented on two separate screens. In the first video, she has gleaned dozens of clips of black actresses from American films made in the 2000s, and in the second, has done the same with footage of white actresses. Through this literal black-and-white juxtaposition, Cohene underscores the hegemonic normalcy of white faces that represent not only twenty-first century white aesthetics and body norms but also a default baseline for “universal humanity.” Using her ongoing approach of editing together new narratives from a dizzying myriad of film clips, Cohene engages with the very structure of cinema, famously defined by director Martin Scorsese in uncompromisingly categorical terms: “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Through choices in casting, filming, and editing, directors literally decide who will be framed and how. As viewers, we must ask ourselves, who are we consistently asked to focus on? Who are he characters that demand our attention and affection, compassion, or concern? Often, the answer is simple: white people. In his study of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s writings on ‘faciality,’ author Richard Rushton identifies the face as “a reduction of the infinite to the finite — it is the channel that both connects the infinite with the finite and separates the infinite from the finite; it reduces infinite possibility to finite possibility, but in doing so, it unleashes potential.”i In Hollywood films, the powerful potential of the face has been accorded primarily to white actors — whose faces in themselves are typically considered a cause for celebration. In numerous critically acclaimed films, cameras follow white actors, who are sometimes asked to do little more than “be themselves” moving through the world. Singular and sometimes silent, their portrayals are typically read through the well-known European auteur and American indie cinema tropes of existentialism: ennui, loneliness, melancholy. A recent example is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (2016), in which the fetishizing gaze of the camera rests on Kristen Stewart’s blank face as she goes through the motions of her job in the aftermath of her sibling’s death. It is much harder to name a film featuring a black protagonist who is the face with which viewers are asked to identify, or who is asked to project the emotional range of complex inner worlds. Rather, black actors are often hired to perform stock supporting roles like the warm-hearted, wise “Mammy” or the sassy sidekick. Certainly, Hollywood cinema, rife with stereotypical, one-note depictions of people of colour, is an easy target. However, Cohene does not simply offer a critique of the mainstream film industry’s track record in casting and types of representation. More ambitiously, she proposes another mode of creation and aesthetic content. For this very reason, Cohene’s video of black faces edited together is particularly striking. It shouldn’t be so, but it is rare and therefore poignant to see black women on screen in moments of reflection; not acting out, just being. This is heightened by the artist’s careful, sensitive editing of these brief clips; she skilfully creates the impression that the camera is actually lingering on their faces, allowing viewers to take pleasure in her subjects’ unique yet interconnected presences. Perhaps inevitably, Cohene’s video of white faces, in contrast, has less visual and emotional impact simply because we are already accustomed to the spectacle of subtly emotive white characters on screen. White actors, after all, are already cast more often and in a wider variety of roles, thus having the opportunity to show more range. Scholar Kevin Everod Quashie argues that in order to counter an ongoing history of suppression, violence, and racism, African American communities have prioritized a public, political expressivity. Without criticizing the necessity for this outward-facing strategy, Quashie calls for the cultivation of expressions of interiority — or ‘black quiet,’ as he onceives it — to “support representations of blackness that are irreverent, messy, complicated — representations that have greater human texture and specificity than the broad caption of resistance can offer.”ii Going beyond “the ‘hip personality’ exposed to and performed for the world,”iii black quiet, according to Quashie, can equally “affect social and political meaning, and challenge or counter social discourse, though none of this is its aim or essence.” Cohene’s video of black actresses calls to mind Quashie’s call for the recognition of quiet, not only the #kickass, #blackmagic image predominantly promoted in pop culture. Watching I Don’t Get It, we want more: more time with these faces, more time to know them better, more of their stories. Journalist Candice Frederick argues that Michelle Obama’s memoir is powerful for its revealing of her fears, vulnerabilities, and imperfections. Frederick writes, “Simply identifying a feeling that is outside the overwhelming image of vitality aloud is an act of defiance in its own way, a rebellion against the confines of womanhood in which we’ve been placed.”iv This statement reveals a longing — and need — for more nuanced and varied representations of humanity expressed and embodied by people of colour. In I Don’t Get It, Cohene reminds us of this simple desire. But more than that, she offers a glimpse of what a new type of narrative could look like and how compelling it could be. The irony is that Cohene has managed to wrangle this work from the already “tainted” visual culture of mainstream cinema. It is exciting to witness a new generation of filmmakers fully engaged in creating new modes of narrativity and visual aesthetics that reject Hollywood’s discriminatory norms and stale stylistic standards; rather, these artists simply prefer to create work outside of its paradigm. Shirley Bruno’s short film Tezen (2016) is one such evocative example. Centring on a real-life family in rural Haiti, it is a tender retelling of a popular Haitian folktale, embodying a storytelling sensibility that is poetic, textured, and visually lush. Whereas Cohene has worked hard to tease out moments in the vein of black quiet through her editing process in order to transcend her source material, Bruno’s subjects subtly embody this quiet from start to finish. i Richard Rushton, “What Can a Face Do? On Deleuze and Faces,” Cultural Critique 51 (Spring 2002), 228. ii Kevin Everod Quashie ““The Trouble with Publicness: Toward a Theory of Black Quiet,” African American Review 43, no. 2/3 (Summer/Fall 2009), 337. iii Ibid., 339. iv Candice Frederick, “Michelle Obama took off the mask the public gave her. We can do the same,” The Guardian (November 18, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/18/michelle-obama-took-off-the-mask-the-public-gave-her-we-can-do-the-same
The earliest culturally organized uses of smell were based in Ancient religious activity in Egypt, through the burning of fragrant sacrifices and aromatic smoke for purposes of divination (indeed, the word ‘perfume’ comes from Latin, meaning ‘through smoke’). Across centuries and global regions, perfume (as with painting and its burgeoning art history) serves as a tool for power—passed from churches to governments and enjoyed by upper classes. The conception of ‘bad smells’ brought together early scientific theories around animal survival instincts compounded with persistent superstitions that associated sulfuric smells with damnation. In the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, rank classism assigned smells deemed most foul to the bodies and lives of the poorest citizens. Xenophobic tendencies against “foreign stenches” in Rome at its height of power presaged the later pernicious ways that racism was stoked by widely accepted misinformation about the inferior body smells of people of color.i Suffice to say, the stakes around control over one’s own smell far exceed discourses around beauty and pleasure; scent has long been used as a tool of ideology, social regulation, the performance of identity, and economic might. A significant turn toward the practice of modern perfumery as we encounter it today was the abolition of apothecary and perfume guilds in France in 1791 during the French Revolution, and with them the governmental controls around what class of person could be a perfumer and what products they were permitted to produce. Amidst the rise of capitalism and industrialization, perfume shifted in the nineteenth century to become a commodity par excellence—a confluence of the artistic expression of the perfumer and the evolving trends of consumer predilections. As new, more cheaply produced synthetic ingredients became available near the start of the twentieth century, production costs dropped; perfume products became more accessible to lower-income consumers; and profits boomed. Estimates vary, but on average the global fragrance industry’s worth in 2018 was measured at 60 billion dollars. And that industry reaches far beyond those glittering jewel-like bottles on display in department stores: one would be hard pressed to find any corner of manufacturing or any component of our lived environments that have not been scented. It is within this complex politicized history, alongside the staggering influence of scent across industries and cultures, that the use of perfume by contemporary artists is so compelling. Any overview of these artistic projects should pay devotion to Rrose Sélavy, Marcel Duchamp’s gender-bending alter-ego who spectacularly released her own celebrity fragrance in 1921, simply by buying a popular department store perfume and collaging a new label onto it. The following century witnessed notable collaborations between artists and perfumery: in the 1930s and 40s, surrealists Leonor Fini and Salvador Dalí designed flacons for the fashion house of Elsa Schiaparelli; Dalí would later join a growing list of artists who have released perfumes, among them Niki de Saint Phalle, Andy Warhol, and Anicka Yi. Perfume houses have likewise taken inspiration from the art world, with scents inspired by art galleries such as Andrea Maack’s Smart (2010); Memo Paris’ Marfa (2016); Roads’ Art Addict (2017); and Comme des Garçons’ Serpentine (2014), named for London’s famed art venue. Complimenting these art-inspired fragrances are many contemporary artists who have come to utilize scent in their work in order to test the veracity of how bodies, identity, and social systems have come to be defined. Clara Ursitti has pioneered new ways of engaging audiences with scent for more than twenty years. Propelled by inquiries into the ways contemporary life is conditioned by gender, sexuality, commercial brand identities, war, and even the assumptions that designate humans as a species,ii Ursitti’s practice includes video, installation, sculpture, and performative interventions. Across numerous projects, her deft incorporation of scent triggers deep psychological and emotional responses. In a recent email exchange, Ursitti reflects, “Reactions to scent are extremely subjective. You cannot talk about it without reflecting on your own subjective position, as there are no words dedicated in most Western languages to describing odor sensations. So, for example, we can describe a visual sensation as yellow, red, etc. …It is trickier with odors. We rely on our subjective experiences to describe them (e.g. it smells like coffee, or it reminds me of being at the dentist) or crude dichotomies of good and bad.” In many works, Ursitti develops blends of ingredients that recreate a body’s odors, and at other times incorporates mass-produced commercial perfumes as readymades. For Jeux de Peau (Sketch No. 1) (2012), she used one of each: two identical carmine red blown glass bottles are presented side by side. In one is a decant of the 2011 perfume Jeux de Peau released from the niche French perfumery Serge Lutens; the name of the scent means “play on skin,” and it smells of burnt toast, apricots, and milk, among other foodie notes. Working from the name of the scent, Ursitti filled the second bottle with a scent she blended based on a skin analysis. Comparatively more challenging, this blend possesses a shocking blast of cumin-like sweatiness and a very animal musk. “I find it interesting that our taboos and conditioning around body odour lead us to often find something that is naturally more offensive than something that is artificial. What does this tell us about our relationship to our body when this is the case?” Among Ursitti’s most striking works are a series of social interventions that she has collectively titled Air Play. “These works have three ingredients,” Ursitti explains, “A fragrance, a demographic, a social situation.” In Poison Ladies (2013), Ursitti invited twenty-five women, most over the age of sixty, to attend to an art opening wearing Christian Dior’s Poison, a fragrance released in 1985, notorious for its pronounced potency and huge fruit-and-flower composition. In the 2007 work Mesmerize, a young man arrived at an art opening smelling “of the sea—salty, slightly fecal, slightly fishy.” In these and similar projects, Ursitti experiments with the social perceptions and latent eroticization of older women and a young man augmented by particular scents wafting around them. A heady density of perfumed air usually associated with a boutique like Sephora settles over the dynamics of art world socializing. In 2013, Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art saw Sands Murray-Wassink in the nude, standing before a pair of glass cabinets packed with perfume bottles of varied sizes, designs, and vintages. He was performing his work It’s Still Materialistic, Even If It’s Liquid (From Me To You) (2013) at the invitation of artist-publisher-mystic AA Bronson as part of a sprawling exhibition of queer and feminist artworks Bronson had curated. Across his bare torso, the words “ACCEPT–ANCE ART” were painted in blue. Throughout the piece, Murray-Wassink offered perfume consultations to gallery passerby, fashioned like an empathic variation on the typical perfume counter clerk. As in much of Murray-Wassink’s work, this interactive performance was expressive of an emotional potential for connection. The artist considers this a form of sociality, “When I sniff with other people, be they salespeople or perfume friends, I find myself reveling in the fact of being human and sharing an open secret that we are all organic and ‘smelly’ as people. It is a bit abject, and also something I am thinking a lot about, because much of my work is blunt and gross and messy and not meant to be beautiful at all, and then there is this counterpoint of beauty in perfume. Because blinding floral beauty is usually what sweeps me off my feet.”iii The perfume flacons from which he sampled are all part of an artwork Monument to Depression, ongoing since 2004, which now comprises more than 500 different bottles. After a six-month period of hospitalization for depression, he says, “I started collecting perfume, just buying what I missed, and loved, things I was not allowed growing up, any perfumes marketed to women.” As with his paintings, performances, book projects, and web-based forays into writing perfume reviews and compiling lists of feminist artistic influences, Murray-Wassink’s formidable perfume collection surges with affect oriented toward the difficulties of navigating a world defined by gender, misogyny, vanity, and alienation. A self-described “beauty warrior” and progeny of an abstract expressionist greatgrandmother, a Freudian psychoanalyst grandfather, and poet father, Murray-Wassink’s art proceeds from a rich interior life that blurs daily activity into studio work, “I have started to describe myself as a perfume collector and body artist (performance, writing), but the perfume always comes first, and my work is not about visible things—it is about emotions, relationships, feelings, behavior.” When Aleesa Cohene’s background in found footage video work brought her to Cologne to work with artist Matthias Müller, she was introduced to 4711, the first Eau de Cologne, popular for over 200 years, since the times of Napoleon. Cohene recalls, “I was working on Like Like, a piece about these lovesick people in a relationship with one another,” she explains, “And I decided one of the characters should smell because there was a repetitive smell so pervasive in Cologne.”iv Like Like (2009), is among the multi-channel video works Cohene has conceived for gallery installations that remix appropriated film footage into narratives of queer desire, tense psychotherapeutic sessions, and scenes that track the gendered and racial subtexts of received social scripts. “There were a few pieces where I asked myself what I can take from the story and amplify in a space, and have us live in that world even deeper. Scent is a really good way to hold someone in place and transport them at the same time.” Working from the fragrance notes in the citrus and herbal composition of 4711, Cohene created a new scent that used more or less unusual modern scented materials like Lenor “April Fresh” fabric softener, black pepper, juniper bark, and fibers from security blankets. The scent was diffused from behind one of the video monitors, thickening the atmosphere of the room that was painted in green-blue stripes matched to a porch swing’s fabric upholstery seen in one of the video’s clips. Many of Cohene’s projects are based in what she calls an “associative parlance,” where one piece serves as source material for the next. You, Dear (2014), for instance, is a pile of onyx grapes that give off a scent based on dialogue from the preceding video Hate You (2014). A young female client speaks with her dream analyst, asking if she is ever noticed that bunnies smell like ass. As she speaks, the therapist begins to eat—first a grape, then apple, then pear. The resulting scent is built from that fruity bouquet and Cohene’s associations to the soft furriness of a bunny and the smell of a clean ass. After years of scenting spaces and objects for her video installations, Cohene is currently in the process of developing versions of three of her previous formulations to be released as wearable perfumes. And as with Murray-Wassink’s own tempering of beauty with other worldly concerns, while Cohene finalizes these perfumes, she has also embarked on a research project into the potential development of antidotes for scent-based weapons, particularly those used to control and suppress protestors. “Pepper spray is more pervasive, but I am more interested in the skunk spray. It is really, really cheap. It is made with a yeast compound. There is a neutralizer out there for people who work in disasters and cleaning up dead bodies, protecting themselves. Or, even more, the police and military who are using this spray. Of course, this neutralizer was made for them and not the victims of it.” In exploring what form such an antidote might take, she discovered what products are currently available, “What exists on the market I find kind of precious, which is a lip balm that goes above your lip. It just cancels out the smell for you. So, if you are covered in it, you still stink, but you do not sense it. My interest is in the exact opposite of that: I am interested in what it might mean to neutralize the air—conceptually and chemically.” Questions of how scent has been commodified, weaponized, and positioned at the thresholds of some of our most intense emotional associations run nimbly through these artists’ research. Working against singular reliance on the visual, as fraught as it is with encoded cultural assumptions around identity, fragrance presents a potential for diffuse, excessive, and even contradictory associations. The forms and displays of artworks often neglect their function within systems of economic exchange. Given its history of classism as a signal of luxury, perfume is used by these artists with curiosities and critiques built into the formats of their work. In recent years, growing concerns about chemical sensitivity has heralded many versions of “scent-free” policies—the city of Halifax adopted a public policy against the use of personal scent in 2009, and since then, museums, offices, and contested public spaces around the world have instituted similar regulations. With note to the argument that these measures are in the interest of public health, the implementation of such policies are not neutral and often disadvantage workers whose cultural backgrounds are characterized by fragrant cuisines, religious practices, and home lives that are not easily appreciated or assimilated into mainstream (read: white) American social space. Indeed, the use of the concept of “freedom” from scent here is especially charged, enacted as it is alongside mounting xenophobia in the United States and abroad. Ursitti’s modes of intervention and infiltration, Murray-Wassink’s emotional labors, and Cohene’s investigations into the radicalized interpersonal valences of bodies and their scents all represent efforts to counter conformity as a mechanism of social control. Tinged with queerness, plunging into the throes of beauty and revulsion, these olfactory artworks propose ways by which we might venture, as if through smoke, beyond the constriction of our current political age. i Much more on this dark chapter of scent can be found in Jonathan Reinarz’s remarkable essay “Odorous Others: Race and Smell” in Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell, University of Illinois Press, 2014. ii My sincere thanks to Lydia Brawner for introducing me to Ursitti’s practice. iii As shared in an email exchange with the author. iv As stated to the author in a phone interview. v As stated to the author in a phone interview.
In 1978, musician Alice Cooper was one of nine private sponsors who paid to restore the Hollywood sign. Long-neglected by the city of Los Angeles, the iconic visual landmark had fallen into disrepair and had to be torn down. Signifying an era as much as a location, its presence in the city’s skyline was both a reminder and a celebration of a past golden age, and nine white men banded together to pay for its full restoration. Cooper donated more than $20,000 in honour of his friend and legend, Groucho Marx, who had passed away a year earlier. Cooper’s “shock rock” stage antics earned him an overnight reputation as a “freak” in Hollywood, but Groucho, the king of depressive farce, took a shine to the young man. Watching Cooper’s stage shows, Groucho was reminded of his formative years on the vaudeville circuit. Groucho would invite all his old pals from out of the woodwork, or at least those who were still alive, to see an Alice Cooper show. Jack Benny, Fred Astaire, Mae West—they all came and watched the skinny boys with painted faces hamming it up through corny stage tricks. They found this reincarnation of vaudeville to be hilarious, and saw Cooper as one of their own. No one else seemed to get the joke though: that none of this spectacle was supposed to be real, that the golden age of Hollywood, long since ended, had become a closed-circuit advertisement of its own invented glory. There’s a moment in Aleesa Cohene’s video work Whoa (1 and 2) (2017) where a car drives away and into the vanishing point, framed directly below the Hollywood sign. On- and off-screen, the ubiquitous nine white letters hang over Los Angeles, but their reality extends into each of our virtual landscapes through the sheer magnitude of Hollywood’s stranglehold on our psyches. We consume American imperialism and we love it. We forget that the construction of narrative takes place inside the film industry—a manufacturer of junk-dreams where ideology buys itself a spot as easily as securing yet another product placement. When you see everyone else believe and buy into the fantasy, it’s hard to remember that none of this was supposed to be real. Trapped by the confines of its source material yet pushing against all its seams, Whoa (1 and 2) is composed of more than 500 Hollywood features, dissected and catalogued into gestures and moments. The meta-fictional world of Cohene’s work takes place in Los Angeles, a meta-city always in a state of reinvention and repetition. Complemented by sculptures, scents and photographs in the exhibition “I Don’t Get It,” the video is a pointed observation about the (re)construction of whiteness and blackness, as seen in the movies, and the extension of this construction into our daily encounters. As a continuation of her fastidious editing style, which here breaks down the suture of Hollywood narrative cinema into thousands of repetitious fragments, Cohene pieces the shards of racialized representation back together with derisive precision. In doing so, her process reveals how whiteness is completely interchangeable and formulaic in and of itself. Carved from the incongruities of Hollywood films made between 2001 and 2016 and presented as a conversation across two screens, a loose narrative of two disgruntled neighbours, one black and one white, emerges from the blur. A black character composite is almost entirely confined indoors. Her facial emotions are afterthoughts, barely discernable as the camera rarely lingers long enough on her features. She is always doing something with her body, as her framing is never centered. She is always busy. When we see her face, she is looking distant, tired and bored. In contrast, the white character composite moves freely between exterior and interior scenes. She is often just standing there, looking longingly at a distance, with her lips slightly parted. Sometimes there are tears welling up in her eyes, other times her face is just scrunched up, ready to cry. Her multifaceted body moves freely through the city streets. She may look sad and a little lost, but there’s an undeniable semblance of agency. She cuts into a pineapple the wrong way and it sets a bad example. Recently, Aleesa and I were next-door neighbours for a month in Los Angeles. For the first week, I try out all the different grocery stores within walking distance. Everyone I know in LA tells me to forget about grocery store produce. “It’s disgusting,” they say. “I just can’t,” they also say. Being a good neighbour, Aleesa drives me to the Hollywood farmer’s market one early Sunday morning so that I can experience the real deal for myself. She knows exactly what she wants, but I need some time. Everything about the hype was true as I joyously lost myself to the variety of freshly cut artichokes and designer avocados in front of me. We spend a lot of time with the nut cheese woman, who lets me try everything and gets me on a cashew tzatziki. Aleesa points out the organic Kokuho rice and I stop at the bread man to pick up some whole-wheat focaccia. In the context of that farmer’s market, I simply gave in to the blur of whiteness. I notice the Japanese man selling free-run roasted chickens. I notice the bread seller, a young black man with a nice smile who easily glides between speaking French and English. He was busy flirting with the woman in front of me, who had apparently been taking French lessons. For some reason, it’s really funny to her when he speaks. Heterosexuality is confusing, so I don’t think twice about it in the moment. I cannot remember any detail about what she looked like, because whiteness was everywhere. What I do remember is that when he spoke to her in French, it made her laugh even harder. The foundation of critical race theory has been constructed from two material realities: whiteness and blackness. Of the two, one has managed to remain invisible beneath its shroud of default normalcy. So how do you critique something that the majority cannot see? What does whiteness even look like? And in an honest voice, how do you write about whiteness? Does whiteness look like: a Sunday morning at the farmer’s markets wearing yoga pants and flip-flops? a sense of outrage and fear at the presence of racialized bodies in approximate vicinity? an exchange of one-sided feelings over emails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings whose sole purpose is to safeguard the fragility of having privilege and said feelings? Whiteness sometimes looks back at itself, but this gesture is not readily decipherable. In more than 15 years as an art critic, I’ve found that when there’s a white artist critically talking about whiteness, suddenly nobody knows what to say anymore. But when a white artist makes culturally appropriative work, then a conversation occurs, as if whiteness itself had no racial history and was a blank default that could assume any race or culture it wanted. It shouldn’t matter if Cohene is a Canadian artist, except it does because she is having an American conversation. Of course you think and talk and live your race in America, but Canada is barely able to witness its own whiteness without trembling. There is an overarching fear that the wrong thing may be said. So the default is to say nothing at all. Having the privilege to say nothing is whiteness. Silence perpetuates whiteness as a universal state of being. Status quo remains the same. Nothing actually changes. Cohene is white, but her white is not quite right. She is not Anglo-Saxon white, which is still the default colour of power in this country we call Canada. She is Jewish and white and queer, and that difference matters if you’re paying attention to the construct of whiteness. Her work is deeply aware of racial divide in a way that only a person who has felt ostracized can see and start to feel this difference. Please note: being called a racist or simply being a racist is not the kind of ostracizing I mean. At a recent awards ceremony in Toronto, I watched a group of rich white women celebrate themselves through acknowledging diversity in the arts. They interchangeably used the terms “diversity” and “newcomer” until the end, when they didn’t have to use either anymore since they gave the biggest cash prize to an awkwardly white institution. The cycle of whiteness, from “default” to “saviour” to “self-congratulatory allies” and back to “default,” took only three hours to pedal through. It is perfectly acceptable to talk at length about a Group of Seven painting without ever talking about the class, race and privilege that led to its creation and collection, while in the same vein, it is perfectly reasonable to only pay attention to black, Indigenous and artists of colour when they make their differences pronounced, available and legible to whiteness. Why? Because like most shallow constructs, whiteness has been taken far too seriously, permeating our psyches and desires with its emblazoned sheen of hollow glory and delusions of past grandeur.
Aleesa Cohene and Elizabeth Knafo have been friends since 2015. Things they’ve been talking about include: when manners become silencing tactics; social pressures against speaking out in the queer community; art washing as a gentrification tactic; the limits of identity politics; racism and the everyday ways whiteness is produced, guarded, and maintained. EK: A smell often reminds us of what we already know to be true but weren’t conscious of yet. A smell can disturb and repel, a smell can affirm, make us stay longer and look closer. We might try to interrogate the smell: what is it made of? Where is it coming from? Do you want more of it? Are you bracing against it? Are you reading it like a book, or looking into it like a mirror? Are you in a trance or are you preparing to light up and fight? The smell unfolds around us, the smell binds us, but also makes us recoil or breathe differently. The manufactured smells of industry carry carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, a connective matter from source to body. The smell makes the moment speak up, once we notice it, once we’ve tuned in, once we’ve realized what we’re talking about, and who and what is talking to us. How is the racial capitalist economy, or the state, like a smell? The smell marks the presence of acrid chemical compounds, or it marks their absence. Sometimes the smell of backyard fruit trees and oil refining are in the air at the same time. All this makes me wonder how social orders and hierarchies function like smell. Could this exercise tell us anything about the way power works between people, the way power functions both as a central, obvious thing, but also as something that nests in the periphery? To begin, I have some questions for you: What are the indications that while you are speaking up, others are acting to deny your assertion? What is your expectation of what you call, “revolutionary desires as a somatic manifestation”? Please tell me more about this. How can our bodies manifest revolutionary desires and expectations? How does smell help delineate the way that social order creates and recreates itself? What does speaking up generate, atmospherically, as in: a wash of social and emotional smell of what sort? How does the belief that neutrality exists proliferate, endure, insist on itself? What do you believe we already know to be true? What is complicity made up of? What is being protected when one is complicit? What are you seeking in the retraining, or maybe, the releasing, of our senses? AC: I’ve been thinking about how (and maybe why) speaking up is met by a silencing impulse by those who don’t want to rock the boat; how saying something out loud more than often doesn’t invite a conversation but rather shuts it down. I struggle with this. When someone speaks up, says what’s on their mind, I mostly feel relief. I now have information to work with. I have something to listen to and a responsibility to respond or not. I feel implicated by what is expressed around me. I know some reasons why people choose to stay silent: there’s something to be gained from passivity. Speaking up would mean revealing other things about themselves; it would require taking time. Of course, I’ve also been in many situations where not speaking up has been exactly the right way to protect myself from a conflict I’m not up for. It isn’t a position I like to take and I don’t believe in neutrality. As an antidote to this, I’m usually up for anything in my practice that can reveal new desires. My first lesson with scent blending is that materials can cancel each other out; one overpowers the other and specific subtler scents in the mix disappear. Next I began reducing the amount of the strongest player and tried to strike a balance with the other scents. As I did this more and more, I understood that nothing ever cancels anything out. I just give up, or my nose gives up, a limit is reached and I can’t sense the distinctions anymore. What felt like a competition or a hierarchy becomes an interplay with more experience and time. I guess what I’m saying is something about limits and shutting down, and how the politics of re-training sensorium can help us find our way through. If you asked me these questions a year ago, I would have wanted to talk about the unpredictable, or the unexpected. I believe that the moment we don’t understand something, or sense it is out of the ordinary, our political, intellectual, and emotional work begins. This year has been full of surprises and situations that I couldn’t read properly: moving to a new country, a new climate, a new community; unknowing and being unknown. The unpredictable has become the thing to expect. It’s meant that I feel more, smell more, see more, and know a whole lot less. A year later, I’m grappling with the emptiness of that. But I’m filling the spaces with what’s available. Our new apartment smells like my grandparents’ place in the Jewish retirement community in Deerfield Beach, Florida. I don’t understand it. Their place was light mauve wall-to-wall plush carpeting, overly air conditioned, filled with furniture covered in plastic, and it looked onto a golf course. There was almost always an onion bagel toasting and smoked fish being eaten loudly. Aside from the sun and palm trees, there is nothing similar about their condominium and our apartment. No air conditioning, no carpets, no plastic sheets, no bagels and no golf. Sometimes maybe smoked fish. But there is something in the air that I smell that I know. It’s the oddest sensation, like they are protecting me with a feeling of belonging. Or, in other words, I am protecting myself by allowing the past into the present. It makes me happy. Whatever is happening, it feels right to follow it. When I’m looking for the language to describe the scent, I’m faced with the colonial lexicon of categorizing smell and how the perfume industry classifies scent. What feminine and masculine scents supposedly are, rich and poor scents, racialized scents, young and old scents, classic and contemporary, the list of binary clichés goes on. If we stay here, experiencing scent in these terms, subsumed by the industry and its capitalist ends, scent is a leader in delineating social order and perpetuating injustices. Racism, as a perfume, smells like the first floor of Nordstrom; white people consume it en masse to get higher, to go to the next level, to rise in the ranks. However, I believe if we work with the vitality of scent, and our powers within it, we can enact difference as opposed to domination. Thankfully, our senses don’t know linear time. EK: Can we talk about framing, and how you use framing and re-framing in your video work? Who and what’s in the foreground of a film, or the films you have worked with, and what’s in the background? The answer is that in both the foreground and the background is ideology. The answer is ideology, and ideology. Ideology is always the main character, and all the other characters as well! Supporting roles to support the ideology. To actually dismantle the ideology or subvert it, isn’t it actually necessary to exist outside of the frame, or to exist in order to eventually exit the frame? Is everything within the frame a recuperation back into the ideology (I can get more specific about which ideology)? I mean, how does white supremacy fill the room, or the frame? How can we dismantle the frame? If, when we aren’t dismantling it, we must ask: what are we protecting? Who are we protecting? It’s so total that it is the air. That’s what I notice in your use of smell. It’s the only way out of the frame, to indicate just how pervasive hegemony is and that we are enacting it as we breathe. So that each breath will remind us of how deeply held social order is: in our assumptions, in what people concoct in order to protect order, in the way patriarchy and whiteness refuses to see itself. It’s also a hint that we are missing something, that there is more going on than we realize. We already know it. Where is the character, what is the character, what is traveling through the character, and how do we aid in changing or dismantling the character? There is precision in making a character, there is a goal of a fluid, seemingly spontaneous presentation of what is, even as it is carefully manufactured to uphold and project ideology. AC: Maybe I’ll explain my work process and answer your questions as I go along. In my video installations, I build composite characters derived from existing film footage, archiving and cataloguing film clips. I mine footage from hundreds of films, collecting and categorizing thousands of clips, which become the raw material for my video works. ‘Composite characters’ emerge from my archive of sources, edited to form linear, continuous identities. Each project begins with a political problem or desire and the narratives are subsequently formed through the process of strategic editing. These composite characters are built through the continuity of bodies in motion and the discontinuity of multiple people, fixing themselves provisionally in the specific narrative of each work. In order to assemble composite characters, what is in the foreground of the film is overruled by who is in the foreground, at least for me, as the maker. I might need a body to be looking left while opening a door, the next body to complete the action and exit, the next body to walk down a few stairs, and so on. I construct the characters in a space maintained by two focal points: How cohesive does the composite have to be for a character to emerge and be accepted? How far can the composite come apart before a character is lost? Inside these boundaries, there’s information about hegemony, how it functions, and more importantly, the skills required to disrupt it. Formally, my daily work is soothing, repetitive and clear. I search, categorize, collect, and edit: all acts that keep the artwork and myself moving forward. But without direction, the practice does nothing new and has the dangerous potential of reinforcing the biases I’m trying to expose. These collective bodies are normative bodies; white, slim, able, heterosexual. They are bodies that are systematically cared for and prioritized. I think this is why we were invited to address the theme of repetition for this issue of No More Potlucks. This device is not only reflected in a practice grounded in appropriation, but in the recuperation of ideology my work tries to disrupt. Even constructing pathetic characters filled with failures, interacting with one another in embarrassing ways, has its limitations. I’m motivated by the limitations of the source material and maybe even a fear of repetition (both formally and ideologically), so I continue working inside the frame. There are always new combinations that uncover new ignorances and expose new micro aggressions, reactions, and dominances. Social illnesses show up in the footage and especially in the accumulation of gestures across many sources. It’s amazing how much footage there is of women’s faces looking stunned. We can be aware of the emergence of compulsions or urges, but that doesn’t mean we can always catch impulsive responses and behaviors. My goal is to find ways in myself and my work to build investment and incentive to interrupt behaviours. I think scent accompanying my video narratives helps create ways to change a spectator’s reactions. I think the endless supply of sameness helps expose our attachments. And I hope unpredictable arrangements of familiarity welcome and prioritize difference. I developed my working methods to uncover patriarchy and whiteness as constructs. These constructs are built with benefits, all of which funnel into forgetting that we are inside them. How can we experience the consequences of inhabiting a construct that we don’t remember entering? I think your questions about neutrality in our earlier exchange answers this really well. EK: How does the belief that neutrality exists proliferate, endure, insist on itself? What do you believe we already know to be true? And by that I mean, things we are conditioned, coerced, encouraged, ordered to act as if we don’t know to be true.
Aleesa Cohene has become known in her native Canada as well as throughout the international film festival circuit for her unique videos installations appropriated from found cinematic footage. Drawing upon an extensive archive of films, Cohene seamlessly reassembles video clips anew in service of creating what she terms the composite – a character comprised of multifarious identities. In general, Cohene’s work can be considered as an ongoing investigation into the subjective experience of cinematic forms and conventions, but in her recent solo exhibition I Know You Know at Oakville Galleries’ Gairloch Gardens (a cinematic setting in its own right), her work with found footage expands significantly beyond its source to tackle the complexities of human consciousness, trauma and healing. Over a two part video installation, we are invited to eavesdrop on two psychoanalysis sessions. In Cohene’s structure, the various actresses we track on screen come to embody the composite character of a female analyst, while the narrative voiceovers (one male, one female) represent her two distinct patients (or analysands). Not much happens on screen, and intentionally so. Yet all the minutia adds up to evoke a greater atmosphere. The interstitial stuff of cinema – an actress languidly draws on a cigarette, scribbles on a notepad, gazes pensively into the middle distance – Cohene gathers this raw material masterfully, developing a character that the viewer can choose to alternately inhabit or observe. Interestingly, the free-associative narration layered overtop of the edited footage has the same effect, thusly offering a dual subject position for the viewer to occupy. If watched in a focused manner, slowly but surely Cohene’s videos begin to replicate the cognitive and emotional experience of therapy, with the result of drawing us into another consciousness entirely. The first part of Cohene’s video series, That’s Why We End (2012-14), is viewed subsequently over three monitors. Hate You (2014), the second part of the series, is projected on a screen suspended in front of a window with a view onto Lake Ontario, and if you fortunate, a sunset view. It’s an unusual installation choice for a video projection, to let the outside in, but here it works beautifully to transcend the white cube, facilitating our immersion into Cohene’s fictional therapy office. The more recent and most dynamic of all the video parts, Hate You offers a sustained glimpse into the mind of the therapist by means of a sophisticated interplay of editing cuts, voiceover and musical score. For anyone that has undergone therapy, they will know that the objects in a therapist’s office can become loci for unusual fixation. A striped cushion on the sofa, the tchotchkes lining a bookshelf, a kitsch landscape hanging on the wall, all can serve as a means to focus one’s attention throughout the therapeutic process (or alternately, as a way to disassociate). These otherwise marginal objects can become etched in consciousness, gathering undue significance. Cohene takes up this phenomenon, placing mysterious artifacts throughout the galleries, which, upon watching the videos, slowly reveal their implication within the larger narrative of the therapy sessions. A stack of folded men’s dress shirts is mounted to the gallery wall (That’s Why We End 2012-14). A bunch of onyx grapes sit discreetly in another corner (You, Dear, 2014). Upon closer encounter, these objects emit a scent, which Cohene has imbued into the objects, as a way to further elicit a subjective encounter. In the most successful of these object presentations, I Know You Know (2014), Cohene collaborated with well-known Canadian painter Brad Phillips to reproduce a landscape painting seen in the background of one of the film clips, or, in Cohene’s universe, hanging in the therapist’s office. The muddy watercolour reproduction hangs in the gallery within view of the video, and by virtue of a pair of headphones mounted below the painting, we come to understand that Cohene, herself a novice painter, created it with Phillip’s careful instruction given over twelve hours and multiple sessions. The recording, edited down to nearly two and a half hours, is a delight, capturing the dynamic interaction and convivial banter that results as one artist generously teaches another. One can’t help but conclude that this collaboration is a form of therapy in itself, a livelier or lighter version perhaps, of the more formal therapeutic processes explored in Cohene’s videos.
You smell Aleesa Cohene’s videos before you see them. At her solo show at Oakville Galleries’ Gairloch Gardens location this past fall, cleverly titled I Know You Know, it was a blend of spicy herbs, reminiscent of sacred spaces and religious ceremonies, that hit first, followed by another, more pungent note beneath that. Emanating from a pile of 1,500 onyx grapes tangled on the floor in the corner of one room, the scent is both appealing and repellent. Next to it, a beautifully woven kilim prayer rug is laid out in front of the room’s fireplace. Perfectly spotlit, it seems to emit music, a meandering line of plucked string instruments that build over a cinematic soundscape, punctuated by the occasional sounds of footfalls and panting breathing. In the adjoining room, on a hanging screen, a video shows a woman getting into her car, listening to a cassette tape (the same soundtrack played by the carpet) and walking into an office. Through headphones, placed on a low leather Barcelona bench in front of the screen, we hear a dialogue begin between the woman on screen—a therapist—and her unseen patient, while beside us on the bench, a lined notepad, standard-issue for filmic therapists everywhere, records three handwritten words: “rabbit, ass, freedom.” This synesthetic experience, the feeling of smelling what you are seeing, or hearing a texture you want desperately to reach out and touch, is typical of Cohene’s work. Her practice combines video, sound, scent and, more recently, sculpture, painting and dance, in seductively tactile installations. Over the last 10 years, the Vancouver-born, Berlin- and Toronto-based artist has made a name for herself through her deft manipulation of found film footage and her immersive viewing environments. Working with the precision of a film editor, Cohene mines the emotional substrata of Hollywood cinema, concentrating on the micro-gestures of actors—their sighs, wry smiles and surreptitious glances—to build nuanced characters and environments that are as hypnotic as her source material. At the centre of her practice is what she calls the composite, a method of editing together hundreds of clips of actors into a single integrated character who moves and speaks as one. In Cohene’s installations, monitors operate as characters, speaking to one another, fighting with one another, and even falling in (or out of) love with one another. Using clips of individual actors, playing individual characters, but assembling them into a seamless flow of imagery, her videos pull the viewer in with their immediate familiarity, but keep us watching because of the ways they undo the narratives we have come to expect from film. In Like, Like (2009), for instance, two monitors play out the end of a love affair between two women: one despondently walking through her home and front porch, the other desperately trying to stage a reconciliation. Culling scenes from films of the 1970s and ’80s, a period that coincides with Cohene’s childhood, Like, Like includes instantly recognizable faces, such as those of Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates and Meryl Streep, alongside less placeable but still familiar actresses. But these celebrities are never playing themselves. Instead, Cohene uses their performances to construct unique characters, staging encounters that would never be possible in a standard Hollywood storyline. In a way, nothing really happens in Like, Like: there is no rising action or climactic confrontation, only the emotional aftershocks of a relationship that has already ended. In the gallery, a melancholic soundtrack, composed by Cohene’s collaborator, Isabelle Noël; a nebulizer often hidden behind the monitors that releases a floral scent; and a painted environment mimicking the stripes of a fabric swing set one character sits on complete the immersive environment. However, there is more to Cohene’s works than their constituent parts. The first time I saw Like, Like, I was entranced by it: fixed to the spot between its two central protagonists, I both wanted their love affair to be redeemed and desperately hoped their cycle of love, loss and failed reconciliation would never end. To watch Cohene work with this wellworn Hollywood material is to feel you are learning to watch movies all over again, seeing an entirely new narrative unfold across films you thought you knew. As a child of the 1980s, the same generation as Cohene, I am reminded of some of my formative spectatorial experiences, where, watching storylines I could not quite follow, I invented plots of my own. Like, Like is a testament to the generative pleasures of being a spectator, but it is one that is also politically savvy. To focus in on the female characters of Hollywood cinema is to build two characters who must—by virtue of the roles they are given—be contained by the domestic space of the home: singing in the bathtub, talking on the telephone, sitting on porch swings, perpetually waiting for something to happen. (It is also to see just how white and middle-class Hollywood’s female protagonists are: a point not lost on Cohene.) Recombining found footage from Hollywood and made-for-TV movies is not a new tactic. It draws on historical precedents as far back as the Surrealists’ use of collage, or, more recently, the appropriation strategies of the Pictures Generation photographers. And, ever since the blockbuster debut of The Clock (2010), a virtuosic 24-hour film that compiles thousands of clips of clocks from cinema, played in real time, comparisons between Cohene’s approach and Christian Marclay’s are inevitable. Yet what distinguishes Cohene’s work from these artists is her valuation of the spectator’s affective responses to film above all else. For her, film is not simply a historical archive to draw on, nor a commercial commodity to critique, but an active subject in and of itself: one that might offer us a way to tell different stories and histories than those we have inherited. Alternate histories are the focus of Cohene’s Yes, Angel (2011), a four-channel video installation that tells the story of two intergenerational queer relationships unfolding during and in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis. Completed for “Coming After,” a group show at the Power Plant that surveyed the work of a generation of artists who had come of age after the politically galvanizing moment of 1980s queer activism, Yes, Angel deploys the same emotional melodrama that drives Like, Like, but uses it to think about how personal relationships both shaped, and were shaped by, political identities. A modern fairy tale told by an unseen narrator frames the footage of the two couples, hinting at the ways queer histories—and the complex feelings they produce—are transferred from older generations to younger ones. While Cohene’s earlier works sometimes made the spectator feel like a voyeur onto an intimate relationship, her new works draw us into the action, offering us a seat in the therapist’s office. Comprised of two video installations depicting two different therapy sessions, I Know You Know takes psychoanalysis as the inspiration for its format, but the dialogue that unfolds between the therapist (or analyst) and patient (analysand) also concerns itself with one of psychoanalysis’s fundamental questions: the problem of freedom—our desire for it, and the complicated, sometimes violent, repercussions of attaining and exercising it. In the first video, Hate You (2014), a female analyst appears on screen, reacting to and conversing with her female patient, who is represented only through the audio track provided by a pair of headphones. The second set of videos, That’s Why We End (2012–14), show the same composite female analyst, this time treating a male patient who struggles to remember a recent dream. In both scenarios, the viewer is being asked to take the position of the analysand: to not just submerse ourselves into Cohene’s cinematic narrative, but to relate to it as another composite character. Association, another foundation of psychoanalytic thinking, is central to how Cohene has constructed these therapeutic exchanges. Most aspects of the project, from the patients’ dialogues (improvised by Cohene’s friends in response to her montage of scenes) through to the sculptural objects that seem to have been extruded from the video clips, were based on an associative method. In Hate You, for instance, an apple picked up and bitten by the on-screen analyst is interpreted as a grape by the patient, who in response opens a bag of chips and begins to eat them. Grapes reappear twice more in the show, once in the pile of scented onyx grapes, and again in I Know You Know (2014), with its audio recording of painter Brad Phillips instructing Cohene on how to recreate a landscape painting that appears in one of the video works (as well as on the gallery wall): a pedagogical exchange lasting 12 hours (only two and a half are presented in the exhibition) in which Phillips opens and drinks countless cans of Grape Crush soda. Following Cohene down these rabbit holes of association requires a great deal of trust, and patience, on the part of the viewer. But the engagement draws our attention to the associative leaps we make whenever we immerse ourselves in cinema. Given her rigorous editing methods, it is perhaps also an allegory for her trajectory as an artist. “The previous work was a very tight, linear system applied to a distinct archive of material,” she explains. Though those systems were vital to helping her compose the affective narratives of Like, Like and Yes, Angel. During her master’s degree in the visual studies program at the University of Toronto, Cohene found herself feeling hemmed in by her editing rules. She began thinking about how to move past these restrictions, and found a solution in her own grad-school reading. Looking beyond her usual source materials (movies she saw or could have seen as a child), the new works draw from the catalogue of films mentioned in Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema books from the mid-1980s, a list of more than 230 movies that the French theorist often wrote about from memory, sometimes mistaking details or recalling the wrong character or dialogue from his time in the movie house. Cohene immediately saw the links between Deleuze’s idiosyncratic research process and the tenets of psychoanalysis, where the patient’s memories and associations, however partial, can be interpreted as symptoms of larger, unconscious psychic processes. Deleuze’s approach to film is in many ways mimicked by Cohene’s, insisting that our interpretations of cinema are just as—or perhaps even more—significant than the script’s original intent. Working in this way not only allowed Cohene a greater variety of found footage to work with, but also freed her to experiment with media outside of the screen, producing sculptures, a painting and even choreographing a dance piece performed throughout the run of the exhibition. “Trying things I’ve never done before, like making a painting, became a theme for this body of work without me realizing it,” she says. Then, among the Hollywood starlets, and the references to French film theory and psychoanalysis, there are always elements of Cohene’s installations that are distinctly personal. Her scents, for instance, are custom-made combinations based on her own smell memories. The nebulizer in Like, Like contains, among its ingredients, amber, bergamot, black pepper, Lenor “April Fresh” fabric softener, neroli and a smell derived from a tiny patch of Cohene’s childhood security blanket. In You, Dear (2014), the enormous cluster of onyx grapes at Oakville Galleries, it is the Smell of Real Ass™—a specialty scent Cohene learned of from a friend in Japan —that provides the acrid undertone to a combination of cumin, cyprus, frankincense and aluminum. “Every detail has to be accounted for,” she says. “The goal is to overwhelm the [viewer’s] senses in order to make sense of them.” Though we might not know at first what it is we are smelling, or seeing, or hearing, in Cohene’s installations, there is no doubt that the layered narratives leave us transfixed. This is a feature article from the Winter 2015 issue of Canadian Art
Over the course of the past year, Aleesa Cohene’s name was recommended to me by multiple sources as a name to check out, beginning with the multivalent Mike Hoolboom. Originally from Vancouver, but currently living in Toronto, Cohene and her body of work in video and installation have been increasingly gaining critical acclaim for her re-visioning of found footage, personal archives and existing catalogues. Venturing into live performance as well as finishing an ambitious three part series using the catalogue of films as mentioned in Gilles Deleuze's Cinema II: The Time Image (1989) slated to show at Oakville Galleries in Fall 2014, one of the distinctive qualities of Cohene’s approaches to the art world is through her formal background in philosophy and training in film editing. Melding movement, intuition, synchronicity, and systematic logic, the worlds inside of Cohene’s works exist neither here nor there, in memory or in imagination, as the relationship between our internal and external worlds are streamed together into an enduring rush of some waking dream one has been fully immersed within. For this special 30th issue of BlackFlash Magazine, I asked Cohene if she was willing to participate in the construction of a new text. The following transpired between July and August, 2013. AF: Recently you started performing live on stage as a collaboration with contemporary dancers? AC: Yes. AF: When did you start dancing? Aleesa Cohene: In 2009 I saw a performance by Jared Gradinger and Angela Schubot when I was living in Germany. I was really affected by what I saw and I went up to them afterwards and asked if they would ever want to collaborate with me. To my surprise, they said yes and we began working about 6 months later. AF: Were you nervous about working in the live arena? AC: Very nervous. AF: What sort of training or preparation did you do? AC: We did series of improvisations and movement experiments in the studio, recorded them to videotape, and then Jared and Angela choreographed based on the improvisations. I rehearsed on and off for about two years leading up to the premier of the trio at the Sophiensaelle in Berlin in February 2013. Dance with Jared and Angela is a different language all together, destroying the ego, embracing the paradox. AF: Did you feel it was a success, in your eyes? AC: Yes, I think so. I'm excited the project is growing and evolving. We are planning a larger project in which Jared and Angela will come to Toronto and perform their body of works accompanied by related lectures, workshops and discussions. It will be their North American debut. AF: Will you be performing again with them? AC: Yeah. We are showing an excerpt of the trio in Toronto next month [September 2013] and performing the work again in Berlin in May 2014. AF: How do you see your work in dance co-existing with your work in video? AC: I don't know if I do. Dance is entirely based on physical instinct, endurance and balance. I have no training in dance so I move from my gut alone. There are no habits to break or achievements to show. I work instinctually in my video work as well, but it’s different. I have many psychological habits I’m trying to break and even more rules that I build in order to structure the narratives differently. Both disciplines work affectively, but maybe through different senses. AF: By different senses, do you mean the perceived mind/body split in how we think and feel? AC: The mind/body split doesn't matter unless both are integrated and activated. I recognize there is a difference, but it's a healthy tension. AF: Integrated is a good word here. Movement, to me, feels a lot like editing, the back and forth until the point of cohesion. Both forms exploit the limits of language. AC: I agree. AF: While in your editing, hundreds of faces and bodies find themselves integrated into a single person, it is actually a composite of one character, a build of multitudes of a single object, like the refractions of light in a crystal? AC: Each work is about a singular experience built from many sources. AF: It was explained to me something like how it was transgressive to have two Jesuses in the same picture. AC: I’m Jewish. It’s transgressive to have a single Jesus in a picture. AF: So you're trying to be transgressive? AC: Yes. AF: What magazines do you read? AC: I just read everything. AF: You look at everything. Do you read the art magazines? AC: Yeah, I look at the pictures. AF: You've been in trouble for using someone else's image as far back as 1976. What do you think about the legal situation of appropriated imagery, and the copyright situation? AC: I don't know. It's just like a Coca Cola bottle - when you buy it, you always think that it's yours and you can do whatever you like with it. Now it's sort of different because you pay a deposit on the bottle. I don't want to get involved; it's too much trouble. I think that you buy a magazine, you pay for it, it's yours. I don't get mad when people take my things. AF: The whole appropriation epidemic comes down to who is responsible for art. If indeed anyone can manufacture the pictures of those women, the whole idea of the artist gets lost somewhere in the process. AC: Is that good or bad? AF: Well, first of all, do you agree with me? AC: Yes, if they take my name away. But when I used the images of those women, the original image was huge and I just used one square inch and magnified it. AF: What do you ever see that makes you stop in your tracks? AC: A good display in a window... I don't know, a good-looking face. AF: Funny what triggers us to remember. I sometimes remember scenes from a film that may not have actually existed. Sometimes, I think films change ever so slightly from screening to screening. Like a book, depending on how many times you read it again. Does this ever happen to you? AC: Something like that happens. I often merge scenes from different films into one film. AF: How is that different from what you do in your editing suite? AC: It’s similar. The edit suite is like a miniature version of that. I work with frames; the curl of a smile, the millisecond when an eye glazes over or the end of a sigh. AF: In North America, you could be almost as famous as Charles Manson. Is there any similarity between you and Jesus at the Last Supper? AC: That's negative, to me it's negative. I don't want to talk about negative things. AF: Well, what about these happier days at the present? AC: It's the same. AF: What about your transformation from being a commercial artist to a real artist. AC: I'm still a commercial artist. I was always a commercial artist. AF: Then what's a commercial artist? AC: I don't know - someone who sells art. AF: What was the last film you watched in the theatre? AC: Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers (2013), for the fourth time. AF: What was the last film you watched on the tele? AC: I don’t have a television. AF: What was the last film you watched in the gallery? AC: Emily Wardill’s Game Keepers Without a Game (2009) AF: Is there any connection between fantasy and religious feeling? AC: Maybe. I don't know. Church is a fun place to go. AF: It's certainly an immersive environment. This inevitably goes back to the invented conundrum in viewer migration: what is film, exactly? Is it an emotion, a medium, a philosophy? AC: I think film is life in a different order. AF: Speaking of order, you use sound as structure in a lot of your video works, but the affect qualities of music and sound also make music a form of escapism. Can you speak to the qualities of music as both structure and chaos? AC: When I use music, I use it to put myself into a trance of some sorts. I’m not sure music allows us to escape and this is necessarily chaotic. I think about music more as going deeper rather than running away. AF: So if I understand you correctly, music helps you sink deeper into a present moment? AC: The right music can expand the present moment. Open it up. AF: You ended up with two Britney Spears songs in the work. How did they make it into the film? AC: I thought the songs in some ways had a connection to the storyline, and again, it was this kind of pop mythology. Something just felt right. The montage sequence with Britney’s song, “Everytime” (2004) was something I had been wanting to try for a long time. I’d been waiting for the right movie to put it in. AF: What do you think about all the younger artists who are using found imagery and text? AC: Pretty good. AF: Is it the same as when it happened in the nineties? AC: No, they have different reasons to do things. All these kids are so intellectual. AF: Do you like the girl power era? AC: Well, it's still around. I always think it's gone but it isn't. AF: For your thesis work that merges Deleuze's writings on film in The Time Image and social relationships, did you start with the idea of Deleuze or did you start with the idea of relationships? AC: I’d just been collecting imagery for a while of spring-break stuff, teenagers going crazy in Florida, beach debauchery and whatnot. I never wanted to make a film that was like an essay or documentary or a summation of that world. It’s meant to be something more impressionistic, like a pop poem, a reinterpretation, or a cultural mash-up or something. AF: You use the framework of a patient/invisible analysand that is at once impaired and powerful to draw out your narrative. Is this in order to create a “safe space,” so to speak, for a dialogic relationship to unfurl? AC: It’s crazy. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. It’s like throwing a stick of dynamite into the zeitgeist or something. It’s strange, the whole experience. I’m still figuring it out. AF: For some, your work is a provocation, a critique on the lives of women as represented in cinema . . . AC: Look, it’s all good. I’m not telling anyone what to think. I’m not trying to even defend it in that way, or say that this is my intent or that’s my intent, or that’s what I’m trying to say. That’s not for me to argue. I’m trying to make something that’s amazing, something that’s beautiful, something that lasts. There can be all those types of interpretations; it’s all part of it. There is purposefully a large margin that’s left undefined. If it was something I could just articulate or explain or say this or that, I probably wouldn’t do it anyway. But I also wouldn’t make the film like the film is. AF: What has happened to the idea of good art? AC: It's all good art. AF: Is that to say that it's all equal? AC: Yeah well, I don't know, I can't... AF: You're not interested in making distinctions. AC: Well no, I just can't tell the difference. I don't see why one Joyce Weiland sells and one, you know, doesn’t. They were both good art works. AF: That sounds zennish. AC: Do you know the Zen story of the mother who had just lost her only son? She is sitting by the side of the road weeping and the monk comes along and asks her why she's weeping and she says she has lost her only son, and so he hits her on the head and says, "There, that'll give you something to cry about!" AF: Let's go back to Deleuze for a moment, if you'll indulge me. AC: Okay, but the work isn't completed yet. AF: That's fine, this interview hasn't gone to print yet. AC: Phew. AF: Right, so let's get down to it: Deleuze, more so than Guattari, really set the precedent for philosophizing about the virtual. Not in a “net art” sort of way, but maybe. He understood that there is a reality, and then there is this other virtual reality be it in our minds, on the screen, or in some inbetween space, and that both these realities exist in parallel realities. In your works, in the found image, it appears to be a third reality. Can you speak to this? AC: I needed some time to think about what you mean by a "third reality". I haven't arrived anywhere concrete, but I began thinking about how things unravel when I'm editing and what I follow. I begin with a hunch, or a nagging problem. It's almost always emotional. A feeling I desperately want to let go of but can't, a story I've made up, attached to an emotion and can't break, or a suspicion or even superstitions about something out of reach. I don't think this process falls outside of Deleuze's idea of virtuality. It's very much how my work works, but maybe these details help point more specifically to what you're asking. Tell me more and maybe I can say more. AF: Let's carry on with the notion of the stories we make up, and how they are attached to emotions we can't break up. This might have something to do with the third reality between the real and virtual. Art exists somewhere between these two realities, even if we think it exists in one or the other. In film as in life, action occurs between cuts. Life exists within absences. Discombobulation is a great word. Speaking of copyright, tell me about desire. AC: I would write things and then I would attribute it to other authors. At that time, the whole idea of authorship and appropriation and collage and lists was very exciting to me. This idea of not knowing where things came from. Even kind of tricking myself. It was more like pulling things out of the air and making sense of them. Trying to tell a story in a different way, trying to make something that was more inexplicable but at the same time had a certain kind of heart to it. And also, again, it was very much about the things I was into at the time, joke books and books of lists. I used to have these books that were like anecdotal celebrity stories that I thought were hilarious, and I would take things from them and add things to them—I was getting into this idea of the myth, of mythology, how mythology can be bastardized and manipulated and played with in that way. AF: Thank you very much for your time. I hope it all works out. AC: Me, too. Some words by: Sam Adams, Ted Berrigan, Aleesa Cohene, Amy Fung, Harmony Korine, Paul Taylor, and Andy Warhol. Written and edited by Amy Fung, 2013.
When Aleesa Cohene asked me to write a dialogue for Like, Like she asked me first to write the thoughts of the woman on the left, then a little later, she asked me to write those of the other woman as well. But from the beginning, I thought of them in conversation with one another, interacting with one another, provoking one another. When I watched Aleesa’s video, I saw a failed relationship and I saw clearly why it failed. I based this in part on my own experiences with failed relationships. For the first woman, the world is a reflection of her own will, and her will was formed, from the beginning, by other people succumbing to her, to her whims, her spontaneity, her cleverness. But the second woman is very different. She experiences the world in a literal way. She is straightforward, direct, yet strangely emotional. From the beginning, I thought her pain was greater, her involvement greater, because she could never satisfy the will of her lover. So she tried to satisfy her in other ways but this was doomed to fail. It seemed to me from the beginning that these two, through all their permutations, would never come together. What I saw were two sets of images that never could come together, never could synchronize. Between them, there is a dead end of emotion, an abyss of understanding. Like, Like: Woman #1, Dorothea Olkowski She lowers her body into the waiting water. She prefers this even to caressing her own soft skin, reaching into the warm and ready flesh between her thighs, bringing herself to climax, which she does so easily. She imagines that you are here, gazing at her, waiting for her to say something. She is sure that you can see that she is beautiful. And that she takes good care of herself. Her eyes, azure with golden speckles, and her long, long lashes - she flutters them up and down, up and down when sheʼs looking towards you over the tip of her delicate nose. She saw this once in a movie; she loves to do this. Her long hair falls in soft waves towards her pale shoulders. It frames her slender face, like Mona Lisa, like Olympia. Walking towards you,she steps ever so lightly as if weightless, seeing no one, but searching out her own reflection in windows, mirrors, all the shiny surfaces that hold her image and reflect her back to herself. She likes to dance. She dances well, but . . . deliberately, because no one likes a show off and she wants to be sure that everyone thinks well of her, that everyone knows that she is a kind, gentle person and that is there were to be a problem . . . she would just be trying to help. And when she sees you watching her, admiring her, the way her arms flow through the air, the way she turns and smiles at you, inviting you to come close, and when you do . . . she turns away, flashing her brilliant smile elsewhere. She modulates her voice, running her vowels together, speaking so softly, tilting her head, and laughing at the jokes she makes, the cute stories she tells. For her, those are the best moments of all. She wants this to happen every time. She wants you to watch her, admire her for her stories, her laugh, her sensitivity, her azure eyes. She wants to speak and she wants you to listen. You donʼt need to even ask a question, just listen. Sheʼs asking you, “Which dress looks the best?,” showing her lovely body, her breasts. But sheʼs not listening to what you say, sheʼs not hearing you, she just wants you to look at her. She wants to look into the mirror of your eyes and see herself reflected there, reflected back to her. She tells you that she doesnʼt really need anything, but somehow you are always there too. She doesnʼt like to get her hands wet. Smells disturb her. Sounds have to be muffled, or better, entirely silenced. Except for the music she likes to play, the high pitched, yearning voices squealing out their unanswered love. The throbbing beats define the sound. Although, she hardly hears it anyway. What more is there? Stop thinking stupid things. She knows you want something too, but really, does it count? She is so much more than you. She is sure that they all like her. You must be able to see that. She wants to help you, but you keep asking questions that cannot be answered . . . not by her. In fact, it sort of makes her laugh to see you so confused, so at a loss for what to do next. What is it? Sheʼs there, isnʼt that amazing? Her light walk, her fluttering eyes, her moments . . . isnʼt it captivating? Have you seen her dance? She dances so well, sheʼs made for dancing. But you, you keep demanding something, asking for something - what? What more can there possibly be? She gives you everything she has . . . her company, her time. And in return, all you have to do is listen, listen and, well . . . donʼt get so serious! Now, she is bathing. She likes bathing. It is effortless. Its the only place where everything is muffled, quiet. Its the only place where total isolation is possible. No one asking, where were you? No, why did you do that? No denials either. No upset voices, angry words. No, how could youʼs? But still something is not quite what she expects. Even completely isolated, as if in a vacuum, all the air sucked out, she is not quite where she expects. She is in two places at once. She is both perfectly still and vibrating, both at once, like a particle, like a photon. Stretching her long slender body into the water, sheʼs trying to cry, to fill the bath with pity and to sink into it but, in fact, she feels both overcome by emotion, trembling, vibrating, but also, she feels . . . not a thing, not anything, no motion and no emotion at all. And so, isolated, she feels . . . confused; she feels . . . . cheated. She wanted the certainty of righteousness. She wanted legitimation. She wanted you to suffer, to feel your errors, to represent her to herself and to yourself as a shining being, most excellent, and smiling always smiling, thatʼs what life is all about, she says . . . How did this happen? When sheʼs looking at you, she wants you to see this. She wants you to see that there is desire in her look. So she looks at you, straight in the eyes. Her look goes on forever. She doesnʼt blush, she doesnʼt turn away, until finally, unable to hold her gaze, you do. You turn away. You look lost and she smiles, triumphantly. Sheʼs trying to convey something to you, she is trying to convey that she is looking deeply into you, seeing right through you to your soul. Her thin lips curve upward in a sort of deranged grin. This is how she seduces you. When you met her, she was your mirror image. She loved everything you love, hated what you hate, exalted all that you found exalting, appeared indifferent to every other one but you. You were the cosmos, the stars, the galaxies. This did not continue, it was like water slowly cooling in a bath, and you became less and less and less. But she wants something from you. Something that sex does not satisfy. She wants you to be sorry for everything youʼve said because she never intended for her words or deeds to harm you in any possible way. But your words, your words, so full of venom, must have been shaped just so, just so to offend her. Your apologies, hidden and obstructed by your unpleasant language, your outbursts . . . now its too late. “I wonʼt put up with it anymore,” she says. She feels that you need her help, she was there to help you but you didnʼt get it, you ask over and over for something, what was it? Something else, its so tedious, you know? Your endless accusations, your venomous words. And sheʼs just there for you, but not for your endless demands . . . She knows this, that her destiny is beyond the moment. Her destiny is still to come and it will, like that great sprawling galaxy, that cosmos. Donʼt you just love how she dances? “I wonʼt put up with it anymore,” she says. Like, Like: Woman #2, Dorothea Olkowski When I first saw her, she was smiling. She was so lively, so warm. And her voice, musical, sweet. And she was gentle, almost fragile. I thought she was so beautiful and I wanted her. I wanted to be with her as much as possible, to touch her, to walk in the sunlight next to her, to hear her funny laugh, her giggle. And she welcomed me. She wanted me to be with her. I was so happy. I was so happy to look after her, to do whatever she needed. To help her with the house. To take care of things she didn’t even notice. But there were some problems from the beginning. Kind of ordinary things that made her unhappy. I didn’t quite understand. I have a small shop in town. I work there most days with little help. Its my shop and I talk to everyone who comes by. She minded this. She minded that my customers are friendly. She minded that they stop in to say hello. But, you know, we talk a little; they ask about my dad. They bring me a coffee or some home-made bread. Its just little things, just to keep up a connection, nothing more Then they see something to buy. And they buy what they need or what strikes their fancy. That’s how I keep going. So, I couldn’t always call her when I said I would, or talk when she called me. Sometimes I was late meeting her. Sometimes I was just tired, tired from talking to people all day. TIred from taking care of things. Too tired to talk to her or take care of her. It made her mad. If she had to wait for me, she would act at first like nothing was wrong. And we would be together, but then. . . She would just hit me with it. I don’t know why but it always surprised me. It always hurt me. i never learned to expect it. I couldn’t just shrug it off. She would say that everything she did was for me. That she gave up everything for me. But that I was only thinking about myself. I was only taking care of myself. I didn’t feel like that. I didn’t see it that way. I tried to explain that this is my life, that I have to do it this way. But she wouldn’t even talk to me. She said I don’t love her, I only love me. I tried but I could never really understand this. It didn’t make any sense to me. I would tell her all the things I had done to help her. But she would say, you did that for you. You did that to make yourself feel good. You didn’t do it for me. So I asked, what do you want me to do? What did she want? It’s hard to say, it wasn’t that clear. It seemed like I should just do it for her. Hard to do of course, because of my store. I know so many people, and I like them too. But that is what it seemed like. I should go to the store but not be there. Or, at least not really talk to people. Just sell stuff. Then leave. Go home and wait for her. Take care of her. I didn’t think I could do this. I really tried to tell her why not. To explain it to her. But she wouldn’t listen. She just hung up the phone. When I went to her house. She wouldn’t open the door. So I guess that’s it. That’s the end. I wish I knew what to do, But I don’t, I don’t know at all.
Aleesa Cohene has been creating videos since 2001, compiling and editing together found footage from the 1980s and 1990s. Her approach evolves out of a tradition of appropriation art, which can be broadly understood as the restaging of borrowed elements, objects or images (often from popular culture) within the context of a new work. The emergence of appropriative strategies was indicative of an incipient postmodern culture, and curators and critics alike have invoked various historical pedigrees and theoretical foundations to examine and explain these practices and their connection to postmodernity. Although Cohene’s work certainly points to this discourse, I am increasingly interested in her ability to use appropriation in an effort to recontextualize and reframe cultural narratives. She wrests her imagery from wide-ranging cultural documents: separating dialogue, gestures, and glances from their original contexts to create her own stories featuring composite characters who are given voices through the compilation of different filmic sources.i The result is a body of work that proposes an alternative to the myths embedded in her source material. This positions Cohene’s work as a lens through which we are able to see the powerful influence of mass narratives and popular culture in the formation of contemporary identity. This essay asks what normative assumptions are revealed by the deconstruction of packaged cultural narratives, and what the stakes of Cohene’s task might be. How might the artist’s use of the recent past aid us in reconstructing—and thereby better understanding—cultural narratives of the present? Cohene’s practice prompts us to consider what it might mean to use appropriative strategies, while also refusing to be bound or constrained by the so-called genealogy of art history. Any such account would be necessarily indebted to the curatorial and critical work of Douglas Crimp. In 1977, Crimp curated the epochal exhibition Pictures at Artists Space in New York, where he presented the work of five emerging artists who were each turning away from the dematerialized forms seen in Minimalism and Conceptualism in favour of a return to image-making. The exhibition and Crimp’s expanded essay by the same name (1979) are recognized as pinnacle moments in art history during which practices grounded in borrowing images or objects made by others came to the fore. The effect of Crimp’s Pictures was pervasive; the term appropriation quickly became a musealized category that allowed art historians and curators to organize history and objects in a new way. In 1982, Crimp reflected on this shift in an essay entitled “Appropriating Appropriation,” commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, Institute of Contemporary Art. He begins by encouraging his readers to be weary of the assumed criticality embedded within appropriative practices: “[t]he strategy of appropriation no longer attests to a particular stance towards the conditions of contemporary culture. To say this is to both suggest that appropriation did at first seem to entail a critical position and to admit that such a reading was altogether too simple.”ii Crimp goes on to suggest that the widespread cultural use of appropriative operations meant that when some practices “accommodate themselves to the desires of the institutional discourse they allow themselves simply to enter that discourse (rather than to intervene within it) on a par with the very objects they had once appeared ready to displace.”iii Crimp’s warning speaks to the need to rethink the institutionalized categories of artistic practices. On the one hand, he identifies regressive appropriative tactics, which contribute to the ongoing uninterrupted traditions of art history. On the other hand, he points to progressive appropriative tactics, which at their core, call attention to and question the broadly taught narratives of art history; artists who employ these progressive tactics often borrow imagery from these same narratives in an effort to disrupt them. Art historian Johanna Burton reflects on what this phenomena might mean for contemporary artists, suggesting that sampling and reframing culture itself is “not so much to ‘cure’ the incurable as to render its symptoms visible, manipulable…literally recalibrating and strengthening by recirculating (or, to recall its contrasting definition, potentially weakening the system from within).”iv Cohene’s practice seems to align with Burton’s position: she highlights and hijacks imagery from popular culture in an effort to eschew mass narratives and celebrate marginalized subjectivities. Her work offers resistance to the abundance of images that inundate us daily. In so doing, Cohene forces us to wonder if the meaningless repetition of imagery itself has the ability to shape contemporary ideology, and herein lies the danger. Might power structures, hierarchies, class divisions, race, gender and sexual difference be constituted through the ongoing and repetitive assemblage of imagery in popular culture? If this is so, then these models of subjectivity are deployed and projected by the media, encouraging imitation and identification. Cohene weaves together source material drawn from popular culture, effectively creating new stories that at once challenge and highlight the excess she is critiquing. Her appropriated imagery acts as a point of departure, not simply to call attention to powerful cultural narratives but to expose what has been excluded from them, offering an alternative—perhaps silenced—point of view. Cohene’s 2008 video Something Better is divided into three channels, each frame representing a different family member: father on the left, mother on the right and child in the middle. The characters are drawn from Hollywood portrayals of a ‘traditional’ family and reflect archetypal figures in the archetypal setting of the single family home. Cohene sets the stage accordingly, appropriating imagery that provides the illusion of togetherness. From the welcoming home, to the comforting kitchen, Cohene includes all the elements of set design we have come to expect from the popularly idealized vision of the family. But Cohene’s fragmented narrative disrupts the rehearsed life of the Hollywood family, focusing instead on the liminal and emotional moments we know exist in our real ones. Each character is trapped within his or her respective frame, and we sense that this isolation makes it increasingly difficult for true intimacy or a real connection to occur. Mother fights to preserve the stability of her family and father is rarely emotionally present, while their child is, in every respect, stuck in the middle. The anxious child is largely a silent spectator: in a rare moment of dialogue, he asks, “Are you really my mom and dad?” In response, both parents exchange a series of powerful reactions, suggesting they’ve become aware that their distant behaviour has affected the child. Throughout Something Better, Cohene offers us an aggressively honest reflection of the many emotional states that actually comprise family life, perhaps providing us with some hope that we can alter our own most carefully rehearsed roles. What might Cohene’s reframing also suggest about the politics of representation? How might her stories prompt us to reconsider the assumptions (and consumptions) that shape our contemporary world? Cohene’s 2009 video Like, Like, depicts a relationship between two lovesick women through a compilation of the actions, reactions and dialogue of multiple characters from various filmic sources. All of the clips are taken from Hollywood movies in which each female character originally read as being involved in a heteronormative relationship. In Like, Like, Cohene subverts the original context of each scene, reframing mainstream representations of women in order to create a striking new narrative that explores a lesbian relationship. As in Something Better, the characters in Like, Like are trapped within their own frames but seem to be trying to break the threshold, attempting to communicate and build real intimacy with one another. The work tempts the viewer to relate all that we see to our experience, daring us to fill in the moments of silence and emotional gestures with our own histories. Cohene again offers hope, insofar as the artificiality of the relationships she culled can be altered to depict a truer human connection. By appropriating portrayals of women from mass culture, Cohene highlights the limited presentation of identity in popular narratives, making us acutely aware of just how narrow the band of behaviour depicted as ‘womanhood’ in those popular narratives really is. In so doing, her project exposes these most conventional illustrations of women as weak, emotional, desperate and, ultimately, fulfilled only by male affection. Like, Like offers an alternative to this rehearsed representation, seizing the most artificial portrayals of subjectivity and reframing them to provide us with a more genuine depiction of the breadth and depth of human experience. Thus, at the core of this work is a resistance to cultural codes that perpetuate normative sex and gender boundaries. Cohene effectively points to the space between memory and forgetting by utilizing multiple recognizable faces to both call attention to what has been shown to us and give a voice to the stories that have been forgotten.v In 2011, Cohene presented her most recent work, Yes Angel, at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery’s winter exhibition "Coming After". The work presents a narrative of two intergenerational queer relationships: a woman with a girl and a man with a boy, each constructed using clips from films from the 1980s to the 1990s. This imagery is taken from a moment when the term ‘queer’ was first associated with what we might now call the ‘queer identity.’ At that time, advocates of reclaiming ‘queer’ argued that the word could serve to challenge the binary oppositions in gender and sexuality that feminist, gender and critical theorists had been working to think through and deconstruct for some time (most obviously, serving as a challenge to the ‘straight/gay’ and male/female binaries). ‘Queer’ consequently became both a resistant and inclusive term: resistant in its unwillingness to grant the legitimacy of traditional binary identity pairs, and inclusive in its insistence on the legitimacy of the broadest spectrum of categories of identity. Indeed, with time, the inclusivity of ‘queer’ came to include the ‘queering’ of communities themselves and recognizing that families, interpersonal connections and the development of shared community life need take no more guidance from traditional binaries than gender or sexuality. Yes Angel employs imagery that originally silenced this queer position. Cohene instead depicts what these cultural narratives might look like if they were inclusive of queer identities, poignantly drawing “attention to the potential malleability of the past and ways different versions are promoted—or silenced.”vi The characters in the work, as in Cohene’s aforementioned projects, are confined to their own frames. Together, they identify themselves and one another as ‘queer’ but remain individually alienated and struggle to find their own way. Gabrielle Moser suggests that Cohene “mobilizes metaphors of contagion that circulated during the AIDS crisis, hinting at ways in which complex emotional states are transferred from older generations to younger ones, suggesting that affects, like diseases, might be spread through contact transmission.”vii Here, the intergenerational relationships also suggest that the AIDS crisis is a largely unfinished history. In his discussion of the exhibition "Coming After", curator Jon Davies posits: “while these years were highly traumatic, they also represented a galvanizing moment for queer citizenship—one that is arguably haunting our present and future.”viii Cohene puts forward a work that edits conventional cultural narratives, she offers a video that is invested in her own experience and calls upon her viewer to pull from their own private and personal memories to fill in the story. The Rest is Real is above all else an attempt to tease out the stakes in Cohene’s appropriative practice. It seems fitting that such a project should come into being at Toronto’s Vtape. Collecting institutions are discursive systems whose ability to pronounce judgment—through the selection and exclusion of cultural productions—plays a powerful role in creating and reinforcing a canonical version of art history.ix This has led some curators to develop practices that eschew powerful and conventional cultural narratives. But Cohene’s practice allows us to imagine different versions of such narratives. Through her work, we glimpse moments of connection and alliance and loss and neglect. Helen Molesworth most gracefully articulates what the past might mean for the future in such a discursive space: “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was,’ but might mean instead to present it as crucial for recalibrating the effects of the new.”x Perhaps this is the most important element of Cohene’s practice—her stories depict the moments in time that have influenced her, while often conveying the imagery and experiences that were most critically missing in those moments. Her work gives voice to that which was silenced. It is in giving voice that Aleesa seems to speak, asking us to dig deep into our collective moment, leaving us sharply aware of how the past has been presented and influenced us. i Jane Rowley and Louise Wolthers, “Lost and Found: Queering the Archive,” Lost and Found: Queering the Archive (Copenhagen: Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, 2009) 13. ii Douglas Crimp, “Appropriating Appropriation,” On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1993) 126–137. iii Crimp, Ibid. iv Johanna Burton, “One Person Protests: Notes About Going (Back There),” Not Quite How I Remember It, ed. Helena Reckitt (Toronto: The Power Plant, 2008) 21–26. v I am indebted to Mathias Danbolt’s positioning of the archive as a space between memory and forgetting. See Danbolt’s “Touching History: Archival Relations in Queer Art and Theory,” Lost and Found: Queering the Archive (Copenhagen: Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, 2009) 27-45. vi Rowley and Wolthers, “Lost and Found: Queering the Archive,” 13. vii Gabrielle Moser, “Coming After Review,” Artforum.com viii Jon Davies, “Coming After: queer time arriving too late and the spectre of the recent past,” Coming After (Toronto: The Power Plant, 2012). ix The discussion of the museum as a system of discursive power is indebted to the disciplinary theory put forth by Michel Foucault. cf. Douglas Crimp, On the Museum Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1993); Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Press, 1977); Vincent Pécoil, “The Museum as Prison: Post-Scriptum on Control Societies.” Third Text 18.5 (London: Routledge, 2004): 435-477. x Helen Molesworth, “How to Install Art as a Feminist,” Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, ed. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010) 499-513.
Aleesa Cohene is a Canadian artist who extracts images from American dramatic films from the late 1970s to early 1990s, and composites them into single- and multi-channel video installations. Cohene and I both grew up through the 1980s and 1990s; and the films made during these decades–their narratives of romantic betrayal, familial deceit, class vengeance, matricide, sexual violence, and self annihilation–and their character’s desires, frustrations, illnesses, and failures– had significant impact on our developing sexuality, agency, and voice. Cohene is drawn to affect-images in these films. She looks for images of a single character, who is poised in an interior state of being, reacting to or symptomatic of an action that is about to happen. These are subjective moments, pensive images, inside points of view. They generally don’t exhibit any narrative information or action. Some of the images don’t feature people at all. They register affected space, scarred by human action. When I speak of affect, I am not speaking solely about emotion, as it is often misconstrued. In Massumi’s notes on the translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s L’affect/ L’affection in A Thousand Plateaus, he articulates affect as a symptom or consequence of a solitary or social being’s interaction with an external force or being. This interaction may be emotional, physical, sexual, violent, economic, or political in nature. Julia Kristeva expresses it as a psychic representation of energy displacement caused by external or internal traumas. Traumas that we may experience consciously or unconsciously. Massumi asserts that affect is how an entanglement enhances or diminishes the body’s capacity to act, expressed or not expressed through emotions, gestures, speech, and behavior. An important part of affect is that it works in a loop. One is both the affected and the affector, in turn. As I sit writing, my hands are shaking. My entire body is rattling. The tremor starts in the core of my chest, and radiates across my back and down my arms. It trembles down my spine, and clenches my core. I’m having a hard time translating a constellation of thoughts into a single sentence. My utterances are fragmented, confused, and apprehensive. This is affect. It is elicited by a combination of conscious and unconscious interactions: an encounter with an ex-lover, public embarrassment at an exhibition that didn’t go as planned, the hostile judgment of colleagues, drinking too much, and muscle fatigue from past accidents. Cohene has extracted these affect-images from an important position within the classical narrative structure that motivates most American dramatic films, or what Deleuze calls the movement-image. The movement-image is a series of images arranged according to sensory-motor schema, which basically amounts to a set of rules that establish the illusion of sequential or linear time based on the contingency between action and perception. The single image can be understood as the smallest narrative utterance, like a single syllable within a pronouncement. Every image utterance has two facets. The first facet is the frame, which turns inwards towards the objects and subjects composed within it. The second facet is montage, which turns outwards towards every other image utterance and the whole of the sequence. As Deleuze reiterates in Cinema 2: The Time-Image, the movement-image derives directly from the montage of image utterances at specified intervals: perception-images, action-images, affection-images, and relation-images. To achieve verisimilitude within the movement-image, this schema must be directed by alterations, conflicts, resolutions, and resonances (what we call drama) that create seams between each image utterance. This composition gives rise to a sensory-motor whole, which grounds the image in linear narrative, and creates the movement-image, or an indirect representation of time. However, this sequence of image utterances does not suture realism. Jean Epstein was of the first to theorize on the aberrance and abnormality of the movement-image. Although we suspend our disbelief that two consecutive images correlate in time and space, they are, in fact, completely disparate. Each image utterance possesses its own past and future that are neatly tucked behind the previous and post image, hidden by the schema of the movement-image, but palpable. This discrepancy is an opportunity to transgress the indirect representation of time established by the second facet of the image: montage, by addressing the first facet of the image: the frame, which focuses on the objects and subjects composed within it. This shift from outward to inward marks the emergence of the direct time-image, or time presented directly in the image. Within this new schema, montage takes on a new function: it is now concerned with pursuing relations of time that are produced by aberrant movement. This shift produces dispersive, elliptical, errant and wavering sequences with deliberately weak connections, and floating events. The real is no longer represented or reproduced, but aimed at. A cinema of the seer, as opposed to the agent emerges. Characters become viewers within films, and dialogue is saturated with visual description, inviting the camera to go inside the subjects and objects within the frame. Pure optical images supersede the tyranny of the sensory-motor image. With the emergence of the new regime of the direct time-image temporal tenses fragment. Cinema becomes a zone of recollections, memories, dreams, and premonitions that create an infinitely expanding number of forking spatial planes and time circuits. There is no longer a past, present, and future in succession. There is a present of the past, a present of the present and a present of the future. The direct time-image emerged in the wake of World War II and its obliteration of Europe. Social affect on a large scale disrupted cinema, art, philosophy, literature, criticism, and theory. In Soviet cinema, filmmakers confronted amnesia, hypnosis, hallucination, madness, visions of the dying, nightmares, and dreams. German expressionists made alliances with psychiatry and psychoanalysis. The French avant-garde collaborated with surrealism. Evidently, though European cinema expanded the movement-image, it was concretized by American cinema. ‘Every Image’, Sartre said, ‘is surrounded by an atmosphere of world.’ Deleuze observed that the patterns and radicals of this new regime resembled the structure of a crystal. A crystal or crystalline solid is matter whose constituent atoms, molecules, or ions are arranged in an ordered pattern or lattice extending in all three spatial dimensions. Euhedral crystals are usually identifiable by well-formed, geometric, flat faces, also called facets– just like the two facets of an image utterance. As light hits the crystal, its facets absorb and refract light, creating coterminous opaque and translucent facets. Deleuze takes up the transparent–opaque duality of the crystal’s facets to express the co-existence of past–present, virtual–actual, object–reflection, perception–recollection, and affector–affected. The crystal-image is bi-polar. If feelings are the ages of the world, thought is the non-chronological time which corresponds to them. Crystals are also affect objects, whose chemical properties entangle with our own chemistry. A crystal’s force is determined by, its mineral forming elements, the process by which it was formed, and the shape of its crystal lattice. It’s easy to draw the parallel to cinema–its aura determined by its chemistry, its production methodology, and its structural properties. I write to you with a black orb of Golden sheen obsidian on my desk. Golden sheen obsidian is an oxide, formed by the most primary igneous processes, and bearing an amorphous lattice. Its opaque black surface absorbs light, excess energy, and pain. It dissolves shock, fear, and trauma; and relaxes restricting beliefs, communication, and behavioral patterns. Obsidian in the form of a mirror or sphere can be used as a meditation stone. Through contemplation in its reflective surface, Obsidian reveals one’s shadow side, and brings hidden images to light. This encourages one to reconnect with forgotten capabilities and powers, and unify fragmented aspects of the self. The crystal of Aleesa Cohene’s Like, Like (2010), is created by the repetition of gestures, expressions and utterances mirrored in two frames. Cohene has selected gestures made by solitary women bathing, using the telephone, masturbating, driving, swinging, and looking out the window; located in private spaces such as bathrooms, bedrooms, porches, cars, and wooded areas. Almost every shot is a reaction shot, and the woman’s body is in an affective state. She is crying, uttering a verbal plea, or silently contemplating. Her searching eyes suggest panic, her downcast eyes–shame, her slightly raised eyes–yearning for affirmation. Time is directly presented in each frame, focused inwards towards the subject. By sequencing the images so that each woman’s gesture and expression is made towards the other frame, Cohene displaces the subjectivity of the camera. Though the POV once belonged to an antagonist or omniscient narrative, it now belongs to the woman towards whom the affect is offered, and she becomes the affector. A loop is created between affected and affector; and so the POV also belongs to the subject in the frame, watching themselves, as in a mirror: the subject and the reflection, the actual and virtual, the past in present. In the crystal-image there is this mutual search–blind and halting–of matter and spirit: beyond the movement-image, ‘in which we are still pious’. The Mirror (1975) by Andre Tarkovsky is semi-autobiographical. It is a crystal of his childhood memories, newsreel footage, and poems by his father Arseny Tarkovsky. The film slips between prewar, wartime, and the postwar 1960s sheets of time. It draws heavily on Tarkovsky’s memories of being evacuated from Moscow to the countryside during the war. Fourteen minutes into the film, a child Alexei witnesses a neighbor’s home burn in flames. He awakens from a dream within a dream, to witness his own home collapse. The boy’s father, who has left the family, assists his mother in washing her hair. As the camera tracks back, he and the basin he was filling, are gone. The mother is left alone, the weight of her soaking hair–magnified by heavy rains and tremor of the flooding house–bears down on her. I want to draw your attention to the image of the young mother who approaches the mirror and meets an image of her elderly self. In the film, the actress that plays the young boy’s mother also plays his adult self’s wife. In this image, the young mother, the aging mother, and the wife meet. Past and present, and opaque and transparent time, collapse into two facets: the actual and virtual, and the circuitry of this image crystallizes. Mirrors play a significant role in the development of time-image circuitry. Oblique mirrors, concave mirrors, convex mirrors, and venetian mirrors. Henri Bergson even suggested that the actual subject is in the mirror, and from its side, its double–the virtual, reflects the real. The attention paid to the mirror in cinema revealed that the actual and virtual are not separated by time and space, but occupy a simultaneous past and present. It is a well-known fact that one never sees the sun in a dream, although one is often aware of some far brighter light. Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, is set in a chateau, which itself is a crystal full of mirrors, long circuitous hallways, and honeycomb chambers that create circuits of interception and recollection–virtual and actual landscapes. It’s an ambiguous story of a man “X” and a woman “A” who may or may not have met at the chateau the previous year. The man takes the subject position that they had met, and the woman that they hadn’t. About an hour into the film, in the chapter titled “The Bedroom”, X is trying to convince A that they met in her chamber. She denies it, but gives description of the room’s décor that suggests she may have been there. This sequence opens with an image of A, refracted by mirror’s reflection within a second mirror. Her gaze is downcast. She doesn’t acknowledge her own subjectivity within the room. X’s subjectivity drives the interrogation. They appear before a firing squad. His prodding stalks her throughout the hotel and across many temporalities that fold into a single present. He is actual and she is virtual. He is opaque and she, transparent. In the bonds of captivity her utterances are petrified. They begin to stutter, become repetitive, and are immobilized. As she races to the balcony for respite, even the sun is her affector, drawing an expression of terror across her face and obliterating her subjectivity. The bright light becomes a black sun. Where does this black sun come from? Out of what eerie galaxy do its invisible, lethargic rays reach me, pinning me down to the ground, to my bed, compelling me to silence, to renunciation? In psychoanalytic terms, melancholia is ruled by a light without representation: the lost object: the prehistoric paternal, the maternal, the primitive self–and at the core, the Thing. The Melancholy person mourns for the object through two facets of longing: depression and narcissism. The crystal of mourning. Narcissism, propelled by the death drive or an anxiety from within of being destroyed, fractures the ego. A breakdown of biological and logical sequencing occurs until one’s ego literally falls into pieces . The disavowal of the symbol invoked by despair for the lost object, makes symbolic language impossible. Speech delivery becomes fragmented, silences are long and frequent, and utterances become interrupted and exhausted, eventually sinking into mutism. Depression, the flimsy negative counter-affect of sadness, reassures the ego that symbols are meaningless, therefore disrupting the anxiety, and protecting the ego from complete disintegration. Persona, by Ingmar Bergman (1966) portrays the story of a young nurse, Alma, who is charged with the care of stage actress Elisabet Vogler who has, despite the lack of any diagnosed pathology, become mute. The doctor offers her own seaside cottage as a place for Alma to nurse Elisabet back to health. Elizabet’s silence offers Alma space and time to talk freely, confessing secrets and exposing shameful feelings. Their solitude and intimacy becomes ambiguously amorous and dissociative. It is difficult to discern whether Alma is in love with Elisabet or wants to be her. In chapter 17 “Scared of Her Son”, Elisabet hides a photograph of her son that she tore up at the beginning of the film when it arrived in the mail. Alma pries open her hands and demands that they talk about the photo, knowing full well that Elisabet does not speak. The scene is shot twice: once from Alma’s POV of Elisabet’s silent reaction, and once of Elisabet’s POV of Alma speaking. A mirror. A two-faceted crystal of yearning for the lost object. Alma tells the story both times. In an earlier scene Elisabet’s husband visits the cottage and mistakes Alma for his wife. Elisabet encourages Alma to take him as her own. After he leaves, Alma suffers a psychic break and defends the autonomy of her “I”. In this scene Alma has regressed and is dressed just like Elisabet. Though she is the one to speak, she has completely lost her symbolic autonomy. She now speaks for Elisabet, but from her own despair at being childless, with shame of her abortion. A breakdown of biological and logical sequentiality occurs in Alma, and her language becomes fragmented, stressed, and futile. While Elizabet’s ego has become mute to resist the fragmentation of multiple personas elicited by acting career, Alma’s ego shatters. If a snake sheds its skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. Without his skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence, and die. The forces of chaos have splintered our being. Robbed us. Made us choose. Made us forget, that we, could be everything. The characters in the opening images of Cohene’s Yes, Angel (2012), are mute. Their bodies are petrified with shock. Sunken into couches, in repose on the floor, on cushions, and beds, they are paralyzed with fear. This is social affect of a massive crisis–AIDS. It made people aware that they have bodies that long for the erotic object–for Eros. Kristeva suggests that in uniting with the erotic object, the parceled ego begins to heal. However, when the Black Sun descends over the gestures and expressions of Eros, bodies split from their desire, out of fear of death. When the very unification that protects us from death, conjures death, we experience, as a social whole, a massive eclipse. In Yes, Angel, this parceling is represented in a four-sided crystal by way of a four-channel installation. From this darkness a steady, cohesive, reassuring voice emerges. Through Aleesa Cohene and Lana Rabkin, the words of Jean Genet and Tony Kushner form a unified erotic ego that sweeps over the film, carrying away shame, invisibility and four centuries of humiliation. After the darkest night, women get out of bed, dress, and enter the bright sun. Notes This article is the structural notes for a lecture given at Emily Carr University of Art and Design for Randy Lee Cutler’s Interdisciplinary Forums Lecture Series on the theme of the “Mashup”. November 1, 2012. Vancouver BC, Canada. The lecture positions Deleuze’s writing on “The crystals of time” from Cinema 2: The Time-Image, and a few of the films he references in the chapter, as a frame for unfolding Aleesa Cohene’s practice. Like, Like, and Yes, Angel by Aleesa Cohene were shown in their entirety. Clips of Mirror, Last Year at Marienbad and Persona, represented by the still image grabs, were shown. Deleuze and Guattari XVI Kristeva 21 Deleuze and Guattari XVI Deleuze 32, 35 Deleuze 36 Deleuze 1, 3 Deleuze 3, 12 Deleuze 17, 18 Deleuze 46, 49 Deleuze 37, 79 Deleuze 55 Deleuze 63 Deleuze 125 Deleuze 75 Deleuze 70 Deleuze 68 Nerval in Kristeva 13 Kristeva 3 Kristeva 9, 11, 13 Kristeva 5, 10 Kristeva 18, 20 Yes Angel (2012) Kristeva 28 Works Cited Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1989. Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translation and foreword by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1989. Bibliography Simmons, Robert. Stones of the New Consciousness. Vermont: Heaven & Earth Publishing, 2009. Gienger, Michael. Crystal Power, Crystal Healing. London: Blandford, 1998.
Over the past decade, Aleesa Cohene has emerged as one of Canada’s most distinctive and original media artists. Her skillfully crafted, expressively resonant videotapes and installations draw from a vast repertory of non-descript but common 80s-era movies, which are dissected, cataloged, rearranged, and defamiliarized to form new meta-narratives. The result is a more common, yet more uniquely individualized “composite” cinema that borrows freely from a readymade vocabulary of shared generational experiences and shorthand emotional cues. Subsequent to her successes on the international festival circuit and a series of artist residencies at home and abroad, Cohene is currently pursuing a fellowship at the Kunsthochschule für Medien in Cologne, Germany at the invitation of avant-garde filmmaker and curator Matthias Müller. We conducted the following interview via an exchange of emails in November and December of 2009. BK: I wanted to start by asking you about a statement you wrote some years back called “Define Original,” which reads as a defense for the use of found footage in your work. I'm intrigued the notion of a “cultural commons,” a vast world of familiar images that we may (should) freely play and trade in, but that nonetheless remains (largely) hypothetical due to the conditions of private ownership, and the threats that entail from it. I was wondering what attracted you to found footage in the first place, and how your attitude about working with it has changed since you wrote this text (if at all). Have the current debates around copyright, most notably the attempts to reform Canada's copyright laws, influenced your approach or way of thinking in any way? AC: I use found footage because of the ways I feel when I watch films, often more intensely than I do in real life. When I watch a film, I experience shifts and changes in my perception, imagination, and memory that are incomparable to any other experience. Discussions about copyright deepen my attachment to working with found footage. Like many other social discourses, these debates thrive on systems of guilt and internalized norms. I believe that familiar images, dialogues, or narratives are everybody’s business, not private property. They are basic materials through which we have an obligation to express ourselves and define our individuality. BK: One thing that bothers me about “the movies” today is how narrow the range of representations that are offered therein. For instance, you see very few strong female characters these days, while gay and lesbian characters almost always conform to the most basic stereotypes or caricatures, and are usually relegated to supporting parts. A few years ago, I read an interview with an emerging actress, who made the point that there are no “Meryl Streep” roles anymore for up-and-coming women. An actress starting out now has little hope for a Meryl Streep-type career, because the vehicles that established Streep’s reputation, films like Sophie’s Choice (1982) and Silkwood (1983), no longer exist, or if they do, they are shoestring-budgeted indie flicks that reach far fewer people and have less of an impact on the culture-at-large. This reminds me that your videos seem firmly rooted in the cinema of the 1980s–when Streep was at the height of her powers–and are full of strong female characters. Is the lack of complex, leading female characters in contemporary Hollywood cinema a concern of yours? And does this explain, in part, why so much of your footage is drawn from the cinema of that era? AC: I work with films from the late-70s and 80s because it is the cinematic (and otherwise) culture that I was born into. It’s true that women’s roles in films have shifted, but I’m not sure what I consider to be more or less complex. When I was developing my most recent work Like, Like (2009), I was searching for women who were alone in the frame. It was rare to find a woman without a man or a child nearby and almost all of them wore a white nightgown at some point in the film. I don't dislike white nightgowns, but I do think a collection of them is eerie. Misogyny can be detected in the mainstream films of every era, as can all of humanity’s shortcomings. Representations only exist through forced simplicity. Yet, I cannot deny my attraction to caricatures of men and women who don't look or act like me. I am motivated by disorientation as much as orientation. It’s for these reasons that I’ve started constructing composite characters; single individuals made from many different people’s actions, gestures, dialogue, and so on. Piecing together multiple images into singular identities exposes a passion and desire that feels authentic. In Orlando (1928), Virginia Woolf says that a biography is considered complete if it merely consists of six or seven selves, whereas a person has as many as a thousand. By reconstructing these “selves” (all of whom strictly abide by the status quo), I can articulate genuine relationships without losing sight of their fallibility. BK: This leads me to another question I’ve wanted to ask, with respect to your process: How do you collect and organize your footage? It’s amazing how fluid the majority of the sequences–which string together clips from numerous discrete sources–in your videos are. One that comes immediately to mind is the opening of Supposed To (2006), where you join, by my count, seven shots of feet climbing or walking over various surfaces in the span of less than a minute. Another is the sequence in Ready to Cope (2006) that begins (for the purposes of this taxonomy) with a bucolic woman glancing into the sky from the safety of her porch, followed by shots of a buttoned-down urbanite staring up at the World Trade Center towers, someone free falling through the air, a woman covering her face in her hands in fearful anticipation, the actor Anthony Hopkins (one of the videos’ few unambiguously recognizable faces) turning away from a window as we hear a hard thud from outside, a slow pan up the leg of a figure laying prone on the ground, a shot of a different man seen from the opposite angle rolling from his chest onto his elbow on a grassy field, yet a third distinct, but similarly proportioned, person stumbling to his feet among heavy foliage and disappearing frame left, a long shot of a silhouetted body racing through a brightly lit opening amid a tangle of trees as the camera slowly zooms in, a pre-adolescent boy running through an autumn forest, and so on: That’s ten clips from (presumably) ten different movies, spanning just over 30 seconds. Do you have some kind of a file system that helps you to stitch these sequences together rather quickly, or do they develop more slowly and randomly over time, crafted largely from memory, intuition, and chance discoveries? AC: I take clips from films that can be used as building pieces for developing narratives and characters; people alone in the frame, close-ups of bodies and objects as well interiors and exteriors which don’t contain any people. From there I categorize them based on location, movement, emotion, color, light, mood, and dialogue. Many clips fall into several categories: an angry woman wearing glasses in the living room, for example, might end up in three different folders. I may go through hundreds of films for a piece that ends up being less than 10 minutes long. So even though it often feels like discipline is the driving force, I’m certain that luck, intuition, and memory, as you point out, play a part. Depending on the work, I usually have a feeling when the collecting is done and when the editing should begin, although the two stages sometimes overlap. The editing needs to make sense linearly, so the woman wearing glasses in the living room has to be joined by other women who possess similarities, in order for the many women to feel like (and hopefully become) one. The process I’m describing has formed over the past few years as I’ve been developing relationships between composite characters (multiple channel). Looking back, the sequences you describe were the beginning stages of trying to figure out how to develop more complex stories and authentic characters with previously told narratives and scripted personalities. BK: What precipitated the move from single-channel video into multi-channel installation? It’s interesting that as your technique has gotten tighter, and your methods more refined, the form of your work has become more expansive. AC: I began working with multiple channels so that I could focus on character development, and likewise narrative development. With this move, separating edited sequences into distinct channels, or onto monitors as they appear in galleries; provides a sense of singularity in the structure itself. This affords me the flexibility to clearly define my character using as many parts of other people as are necessary. If these sequences were inter-cut, identities could not be established and the work would include much more symbolism or metaphor, like my previous single channel videos. I don’t fully understand why I’ve become uninterested in symbolism and metaphor. It has something to do with a lack of desire to feel removed or alienated. I want to feel closer to the work and for the work to feel closer to me. It is for this reason as well that I’ve surrendered myself to the linear narrative that the multiple channels (and multiple personalities) insist on. For example, a woman is sitting on a sofa. She gets up off the sofa, walks down the hall, and eventually enters a bedroom. A different woman plays each action; however once combined, the actions belong to a single character with a distinct personality. Similarly, this woman’s actions are reactions to another character, who might have said something that prompted her to leave the sofa in the first place. I do favor emotion and dialogue over actions; however the motions, locations, and aesthetics need to match in order for a sequence to work. BK: Speaking of emotion, another distinctive characteristic of your work is your use of music. It’s a major unifying element–a consistent base layer–but it also contributes significantly to the overall shape and emotional timbre of all your pieces. You’re able to generate a great deal of narrative momentum through the employment of movie music tropes (for instance, instrumental melodies of rising and falling tempo that are matched to changes or developments in the on-screen action). ALL RIGHT (2004), Supposed To, Ready to Cope, Something Better (2008), and Like, Like all utilize a similar audio formula or arc, with varying amounts of found dialogue and voice over. Can you talk a little bit about your philosophy with respect to music? Your new single-channel piece The Same Problem (2009), made in collaboration with Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, seems to signal a new direction in your approach to sound. AC: I use music exactly as you explain: as a unifying base layer. I work with sound the same way I work with visuals, editing pieces of various sources together in some sort of coherent melody. Regardless of the subject, my work aims to orchestrate an emotional dialogue that may never occur in reality. Music not only exceeds the boundaries of language but it also holds us in some sort of psychic world, where instincts and hunches are far more meaningful than explanations and facts, for example. Music also has the ability to structure the work while simultaneously allowing an escape, for both myself, and hopefully the viewer. It never occurred to me that The Same Problem is a new direction with regards to sound, but now that you mention it, I am thinking about it. Since The Same Problem is a collaboration, Benny and I approached the sound differently than we do in our solo work. I think we arrived at a meeting point. In Benny’s videos, the melodic and vocal lines are the subject of the work. In my own, music functions atmospherically. In The Same Problem the man on the shore sings out unmediated by technology. His echo is returned re-composed and processed, sounding far more powerful than his own voice unaccompanied. Soon, a storm ensues. It takes over. The man is left silent. In the end, the narrative becomes the climate. Benny and I will continue to collaborate in the future as well as produce our individual work. I am sure that sound will continue to evolve in tangential directions both in solo and mutual projects. BK: I’d like to dig a little deeper into the contrast between The Same Problem and Like, Like, which are markedly different pieces but which were made during the same time period. In general, your work exhibits, by stereotypical standards, a distinctly feminine perspective: for instance, it is ripe with emotion, longing, and tenderness. Like, Like seems to take this the furthest; it concentrates solely on a set of “composite” female characters. It’s also the most emotionally raw, in my mind, of all your videos and installations. The Same Problem is something different: it’s more psychological, indirect, and metaphorical. The only human we see is a man (Benny). What are your thoughts about the role that gender plays in your work? I know I’m stepping onto thin ice here, but is it wrong to ascribe gendered characteristics to these pieces? AC: It’s not only wrong, but the characteristics you describe are surprisingly shortsighted. Does longing and tenderness define a distinctly feminine perspective? Not in my mind. Furthermore, a comparison between the two pieces is too arbitrary to discuss well. They were made in the same year, but under very different circumstances, with different people, in different locations, and with different intentions. Like, Like depicts a lesbian relationship. It is an aggregate of many women assembled to characterize the intimacy between two specific people. It was created by omitting many things: men, children, animals, objects, unrelated events, and so on. Unfortunately, your implication about “leaving men out” reeks of a tired reaction to lesbianism: the disappointment that men are not the object of women's desire. LIKE, LIKE expresses the experience of a homosexual relationship. It is about their experience in the world and their relations to each other. I work with stereotypes as a starting place: as an initial view of how the world I live in is shaped. We all know how this world is organized, which objects are familiar, what spaces are recognizable, and how time is conventional. While familiarity and recognition can be comforting, it is precisely this order that is also disorienting and strange. For many, feeling outside of this world is a cue to create a space in which they feel a greater part of. Personally, I’m more interested in concentrating on states of otherness, being out of place, and the emotions that come with this. In Sara Ahmed’s text Queer Phenomenology (2006) she writes: “The ground into which we sink our feet is not neutral: it gives ground to some more than others. Disorientation occurs when we fail to sink into the ground, which means that the ‘ground’ itself is disturbed, which also disturbs what gathers ‘on’ the ground […] Disorientation could be described here as the ‘becoming oblique’ of the world, a becoming that is at once interior and exterior, as that which is given, or as that which gives what is given its new angle.” BK: I apologize if I over-determined, or over-simplified, the meaning of gender in your work. I’ve been trying to account for its depth of feeling, which is what distinguishes it from most of the found footage film/video/installation art that I see, even work that has certain formal similarities (such as some of Candice Breitz’s gallery pieces, for instance, which don’t have the same emotional quality or range). I guess I was attempting to get at why this is, which seems to result from some heartfelt and concrete core philosophy, which I think you've articulated quite eloquently in your previous response. That brings me to the idea of place, or “home” in your work. It’s interesting that your last few pieces have been made “away from home,” during lengthy international residencies. That fact seems to go hand-in-hand with what you say about desiring emotions that are produced by the experience of otherness, by being out of place. Could you talk about the impact of place on your creative process? AC: There are so many effects of living away from home. I’m not fully conscious of what they are. I think I’ll know more in time, when I look back. I’m drawn to images and themes of home because it’s where ideas of normality are cultivated. What happened in our homes growing up is our emotional base, for better or worse. It defines what is proper and comfortable even if later (a few moments or many years), it proves to be otherwise. One can be entirely comfortable within herself and relaxed, and in the same moment feel unseen, intruded upon, or numb. Of course, these two states are not always experienced in tandem. The contradiction of these dynamics is unique to each person. Perhaps they are more like torches being juggled. Whatever unfolds, this circus act most often takes place at home. Writing this, I’m reminded of a story that Matthias Müller once told me. It was the mid-70s, and he was a teenager. He was listening to pop music in his bedroom, perhaps some late Beatles or early Wings. He was enjoying typical German Gemütlichkeit on a dark and chilly day. As he was getting into the music, he looked up and saw his mother standing at his door, bopping to the beat of the tune. He had a good relationship with his mother, but this moment was different. She was intruding, taking part in his experience without permission, making his private moment, theirs. What was at first cozy, became transgressive. BK: That seems like an excellent way of describing your own work: “at first cozy, became transgressive.” It’s a great note to end on. This interview is published in INCITE! Journal of Experimental Media & Radical Aesthetics #2, "Counter-Archive", 2010.
Through a small number of short videos crafted over less than a decade, Toronto-based artist Aleesa Cohene has achieved a remarkable maturity in her work. At first, I was misled by its apparent simplicity: as media artists have been doing for decades, she cobbles together found footage to explore themes such as immigration and xenophobia (ALL RIGHT, 2003), or post-9/11 security paranoia (Ready to Cope, 2006). However, I was always left with a very palpable feeling of anxiety at the tape’s end. Even if it was difficult to recall exactly what images had just unfolded, they had an undeniable cumulative emotional punch. It took me a while to recognize and appreciate the choreography that Cohene accomplishes with her appropriated material. An adept and seasoned editor, she generates a great affective power through the seamless stitching together of fragments from our shared memory archive of popular film and television. This affective power of Cohene’s work is twofold. First is her ability to, as the psychoanalytic film theorists of old used to say, thoroughly “suture” the viewer into her montages. The effect of the videos’ cohesion, despite the diverse origins of their parts, is nothing short of hypnotic. The shots of walking feet that set into motion some of Cohene’s tapes are echoed by the forward- marching rhythms of her soundtracks, which lead the viewer along as forcefully as do the images. Second, her found footage largely originates from the period of her childhood in the late seventies and eighties, and she manages to carry through to the present day all of the potency that even the most banal moving images have to the malleable mind of a child. Cohene’s images become compelling through their accumulation and their juxtaposition. In narrative entertainment that offers escapism, and instructional documentaries that offer order and control, Cohene instead finds evidence of the multifarious ways that soul-rending political and familial traumas are imprinted onto the fabric of everyday life. Not so much narratives as evocations of emotional states, her videos tend to dwell on fragile human bodies, which stumble, collapse, crawl and wander aimlessly, never failing to miss opportunities for communion with their equally suffering neighbours. Something Better, a three-monitor video installation exhibited at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto during the Images Festival, takes her practice to a new plateau: the three channels multiply exponentially the complexity and nuance of her editing, as each follows a different member of a generic ur-Family: Father on the left monitor, Child in the middle, and Mother on the right. Each of these mythic archetypes is assembled from dozens of different characters gleaned from the mass media. Cohene exposes and amplifies the multifarious states of emotional distress that undergird the middle-class family home, as represented in the comfortingly familiar images that she renders uncanny. The video’s investment in narrative is thin and, to use a term often applied to families like this one, dysfunctional: it begins with Father arriving home, Mother turning him away and Child fleeing, and it unfolds from there. However, the monitors present not events per se, but intricately interwoven “in-between” moments. They accrue an intensity – particularly through the music and the dynamic movement within and between screens – that casts each scene as a kind of muted crisis. Cohene is adept at evoking uneasy feelings of powerlessness and repression, but here each member of the family is further isolated to their own monitor, making communication virtually impossible. A rare moment of connection between characters is sparked by the child’s question, “are you really my mom and dad?” which elicits a barrage of concerned reaction shots from the parents that flank him. The other brief snippets of dialogue in the piece – which were transcribed onto the window of YYZ’s vestibule – become intensified once lifted out of their original contexts: mother says, “it is my job to do everything I can to make my children a part of a normal world…”, while father explains, “if I don’t strip myself of all this clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual I shall go out of my fucking mind.” While the title’s promise of “something better” is unfulfilled, hope remains. In a particularly winning gesture, the artist painted the wall leading up to the gallery space with bright, vertical rainbow stripes. This pattern exactly mimicked a nerdy, alienated boy’s blanket in one of Cohene’s found vignettes. A character on a TV show that he views in his dark bedroom speaks menacingly of “watching mankind with a hatred that is as boundless as the stars…” hinting that the Child may not be so powerless in this domestic drama after all. Here the object of comfort and security that her Child protagonist ensconces himself in exceeds the boundaries of the monitor and his inexpressible, wild desires explode onto the gallery walls like a blazon. This review was written by JON DAVIES for C MAGAZINE, (Issue 103), October 2009.
At least as far back as New Criticism, and possibly even earlier, it has been a commonplace in the theory of the arts that certain works are somehow inevitable. The surrounding language made their organization likely, since the works in question exemplify a particular style or approach that others have been hovering around, to greater or lesser degrees of success. Something Better, a three-monitor video work by Aleesa Cohene, is an axiomatic work in this regard. As you watch it unfurl, it's impossible not to see it as a part of a genre or type within post-appropriation media art. It consists of an assemblage of clips from banal soap operas and made-for-TV movies, all of which center in some way on relations within the nuclear family and inside a highly conventional post-1970s ranch-house suburbia. Cohene makes no attempt to disguise the provenance of the source material, and in fact its origin forms a fundamental aspect of the piece's reception. That is, we realize right off the bat that we're seeing an artist combing through loads of detritus in order to distill an essence perceived within something hopelessly trivial and degraded. There have been umpteen-thousand creative works in this mold, from high-art installations to feature films, but Something Better lives up to its title in unexpected ways. Cohene renews these basic ideas through the application of forms which seem conventional enough but, over time, impress upon the viewer just how advanced they are. Cohene's three monitors are placed side by side. They contain archetypes: the father on the left, a child in the center, and the mother on the right. But within this simple arrangement Cohene generates a consistent mise-en-scène, meticulously matching and/or slowly mutating the interchangeable domestic interiors to create a shifting yet coherent widescreen field of play. The result is that the trappings of suburban ideology -- the shape and decor of these outdated "homes of the future" -- attains a spatial continuity, while each of the actants are trapped inside their own private sphere of influence. The fathers come and go, continually struggling to gain readmittance to the family unit, or retain their tenuous positions therein. Mothers seem to dote and strive on the children's behalf, but are more often than not projecting their own thwarted desires onto their tele-offspring. And, in the middle, the kids are almost always lonely, isolated, ridden with anxiety about family dynamics they can perceive as tremors in the foundation but are physically barred from witnessing. Kids aren't just outside the traditional frameline; they are sealed within their own monitor, little John Travoltas in bubbles of isolation. As I describe it, Something Better immediately sounds like a kind of work you know, perhaps all too well. In fact, it takes a festival like Images to highlight a work like Cohene's, precisely because on the face of it, its moves and rhetorics are all too familiar. We know that suburbia is stifling, and that a certain stripe of televised pabulum promotes false nostalgia for idyllic bonhomie. For the main throughline of experimental film/video criticism and practice, Cohene's effort will seem overly discursive and inadequately attentive to the material properties of images. But this is incorrect in the extreme; what makes Something Better so exceptionally powerful is Cohene's formalist chops, her way of linking images based not so much on their place in a recipe but on their tone, their lighting schemes, their articulation of televisual space. And, as far as using multiple clips and performers to synthesize her three symbolic meta-subjects, Cohene manages to afford each module in the collage its own integrity which successfully cultivating an arc, not just of character but of bodily type and similarity in comportment. The best point of comparison is Craig Baldwin's Mock Up on Mu, which splices iconic actors and performances into an external diegesis with utmost skill. But Cohene's meta-narrative is one of grand operatic ebbs and flows, reliant less on moment-to- monent storytelling than overarching motivic structures. (And music and sound design do play a key role in the broad graft of the thing.) Since it is so well-constructed throughout, Cohene's outsized intent -- one so often attempted but usually unable to lift itself out of the mire of irony -- hits its every emotional mark. Like certain proto-emo vocalists (Scott Walker, Nick Cave, and especially Jeff Buckley come to mind here), the rigor, the control over the instrument, puts the pathos across, sincerely and with aching precision. This emotional range can best be understood with two examples of excerpted dialogue, stuff that would be risible in its made-for-TV context but here becomes almost shattering. A mother at the end of her rope (divorce? special needs children? encroaching poverty?) explains, "It is my job to do everything I can to make my children part of the normal world." But of course, it's the normal world that is crushing these children where they stand. These tightly permed Jill St. Johns and Jaclyn Smiths bear up, bite their lips, drink in private. A raging father, meanwhile, defends his abandonment of the family unit: "She prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves. But I am not afraid of that solitary pain." All of Cohene's fathers struggle at the threshold, like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, bland Tom Courtenays and Gabriel Byrnes alone in the rain. I don't want to oversell Something Better, although I do think it's a fabulous piece. But it's possible that part of Cohene's success comes from the fact that she's mining something that we've rehearsed, again and again, like community theatre. We know the script and are inclined to expect very little. Cohene takes something routine, like an old Broadway number, and belts it out for all she's worth. And it hits. This review was written by MICHAEL SICINSKI (ACADEMIC HACK) for the 2009 IMAGES FESTIVAL.
The first frames establish the primary dynamic that will be sustained throughout the narrative: Mother and Child as "natural" residents of the domestic space and Father as a relative outsider, leaving or asked to leave, returning or asking to return. The dynamic of the nuclear family is revealed on its final day, at its breaking point and in the painful process of collapse. Mother, Father, and Child are devastated by betrayal, abandonment, alienation, bitterness, helplessness, and grief. Their silence signals their despair. In Aleesa Cohene’s work architecture is a character. The idealized architectural manifestation of the nuclear family stands intact in Something Better: a temple in a dream of The Dream. The homes are pleasant and welcoming, the kitchens are comforting and promise abundance, and the bedrooms are cozy and safe. Cohene represents the utopian myth by meticulously selecting the textures, colours, patterns, clothing, objects, and architecture of the 1970s—the era of her own childhood. The illusion of togetherness, of family is present and seductive. Memory and fantasy mingle to create a psychological mechanism similar to denial as the architecture blithely enforces the nuclear family construct. Yet Cohene’s fractured narratives debunk the myth. The foundation of the home has structurally collapsed. The loss of Father is painfully palpable and plays itself out against the idealized middle-class backdrop. The characters’ faces and bodies present the absence of that which is lost: the dream of unconditional love forever and ever. The inhabitants’ emotional devastation stands in stark contrast to the nostalgic physical manifestation of the nuclear family home. Their hearts are crushed and disconsolate. The temple of unconditional love is contaminated by isolation, sorrow, and hopelessness. The characters inhabit a traumatic history, experiencing together alone the distressing rupture of the false promise. Nostalgia is turned on its head. No longer dulling the senses, the falseness is exposed: Father, Child, Mother are each trapped in their own frame, perpetually isolated from each other, yet at the same time the trap is their very relationality, their juxtaposition, a paradox that Cohene has beautifully and subtly teased out: Father is father because of Child, Mother is mother because of Child, Child is child because of Father and Mother. Similarly, Father is father because of Mother, Mother is mother because of Father. Child is the powerless witness of this unhappy containment. Peering from behind windows, listening at doors, peeking through keyholes, roaming aimlessly in the emotionally gutted home, Child has no agency. Estrangement, abandonment, and betrayal take their toll. Overwhelmed with sorrow, confusion, anxiety, anger, and doubt, Child observes, mostly in silence, as h/er caregivers’ integrity weakens, their weariness exposing the gendered artifice they are senselessly re-creating. Mother unconditionally preserves the appearance of family and stability. She is trapped in the endless cycle of producing the family meal: the cardinal rite of togetherness. On the brink of collapse she hoists her will to meet the demands of duty. “It is my job to do everything I can to make my children part of a normal world, a world of school, and friends, and lovers and families of their own some day” . Beyond her "maternal instinct" to protect and nurture her Child, she is the custodian of the nuclear family contract. She molds the family home into a recognizable physical form while she is powerless to shape/transform its emotional and spiritual substance. Father is locked outside the home, or returns as mere guest to graze its surfaces, presumably having violated a fundamental rule of engagement. Access to the inner sanctum is irremediably forbidden. He is denied access to the home and emotionally extracted from the familial relationships. He is perennially shattered, guilty, resentful, helpless, and inadequate. Locked out of his role of Husband/Father he wanders aimlessly; disempowered and rudderless he seeks comfort in his previous role of boy-child, playing pinball into the night. Inside and out, the characters are stunned by the abyss before them, their roles disintegrated, hollow, pointless. Child too, in the privacy of h/er bedroom, is caught in the early trappings of gendered rituals. S/he enacts encoded gender roles: Girl engages in reverie before a ceramic ballerina and draws on floral wallpaper while Boy watches violent televised cartoons and reads Mad magazine. Child’s individuation process develops in the midst of this cultural complexity and duplicity. When s/he responds, “I know,” to Father’s statement: “What she [Mother] means is that she prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves… But I am not afraid of that solitary pain. In fact, if I do not strip myself of all that clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual I shall go out of my fucking mind!” , Child expresses h/er awareness, doubt, and suspicion of h/er familial environment. Hope for Something Better cuts in when Child expresses h/er anger and protest from under a rainbow coloured cloth—traditionally a symbol of inclusiveness, hope, yearning, and more recently a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride. S/he mouths the words of a television super hero: “Watching mankind with hatred that is as boundless as the stars with plans for the destruction of man that is beyond imagining… [wicked laugh]…” Just wait and see: the holy trinity Male/Female/Child, the unchallenged gendered role matrix will be tackled by a super hero: the empowered Youth who will vehemently dismantle gender, and thereby the nuclear family as we know it and all sexist prejudice. Hope crashes in again at a critical juncture in the narrative. Marked by shattered glass, the only literal destruction Cohene shows, the frame narrows to a single keyhole in a sea of blackness to reveal a piano in the distance. Father, Mother, and Child retreat in sequence to this island of hope, stillness, and soulful release. Loneliness and fear yield to solitary and introspective engagement. Their safety and peace transcends the family home allowing them to embrace individualization, wisdom, and creation. The composer’s conception echoes their narrative of desolation and despair as well as that of hope and redemption, and transforms it into a poetic, stylized form that Father, Mother, and Child encounter like a mirror. The score exposes, proposes, engages, uplifts, and challenges them to confront themselves. The characters tap into their agency and the magnitude of their potential to co-create their reality. They confront their own humanity and inhumanity, thereby supporting an attempt to reach for a peaceful, spiritually vibrant future. “Music reveals all the thousand-fold transitional motions of our soul.” (Wackenroder) Cohene’s score is her preeminent story-telling tool. Paired with her incisive editing/image placement she pulls the unfolding narrative forward with hypnotic, melancholy, and driving musical intentionality. Like a conductor calling forth the instruments and drawing out the tone, colour, and tempi, Cohene unveils the tragedy with fastidious and meticulous vigilance. Her rhythms are firm and well marked. The pulse of the content pierces and penetrates consciousness. The images collide, meet, and cross-pollinate with energy and confidence within this disciplined auditory framing. The quiet loud horror of the collapse of unconditional love haunts and terrifies. The characters’ sorrow permeates every frame, smearing the walls, windows, and doors: the architecture is marked with the traumatic history. Hollywood actors and cinematic convention submit to Cohene’s discrimination and intention. While Father, Child, Mother are played by a series of different actors they represent the archetype "Father, Child, Mother," iconic gendered signifiers. Yet, the fact that Father, Child, Mother have many different faces deconstructs this "universality" and particularizes the experience for us: there will be one face in there that reminds us of our own singular mother and father, and also of our singular selves as children. Cohene’s collage presents archetypal/intimate images that agitate our awareness, awakening the coiled serpent in our heart and soul that bypasses our modes of denial, defense systems, and coping mechanisms. We find ourselves exposed and self-aware. Our personal histories resonate with that of the characters’. Like Child in the last frames, we walk cautiously, almost fearfully, in the hallway of our dark childhood home. Child’s wrapped present may end up in the trash in this powerless chapter of h/er life, but like the film clips, this powerlessness can be retrieved, reclaimed, reinterpreted, reshaped, and compassionately transformed for the future. This essay was written by DANY LYNE for the exhibition of Something Better at YYZ ARTISTS' OUTLET, for the 2009 IMAGES FESTIVAL.
Aleesa Cohene, in the tradition of found-footage art, removes filmic elements from the confines of narrative continuity and context to expose and explore shared anxieties. Separating gestures, glances and objects from their original narratives, she focuses on the anticipation of catharsis and emotional peaks, creating her own stories with composite characters compiled from literally hundreds of different filmic sources. She was invited to Copenhagen from Toronto on a DIVA residency to create a work specifically for Lost and Found. During her residency she sat down with Jane Rowley, one of the exhibition’s curators, to talk about her work in progress and in general. JR: How did you start working with the film media that you deploy with such skill in your work? AC: What draws me to the footage I use in my work are things that kept me calm as a kid, when I watched TV secretly late at night. I don’t think I was actually watching the stories. I was in my own mind. It was my time. But that experience was informed by these characters and dramas, and it’s almost as if the very presence of a plot made it possible for my mind to be free. I think I know that because it’s the same zone I still go into in making my works - a kind of ‘other’ world. Later, I trained as a film editor and fell in love with editing and the relationship it opened up between details. What emerged was that there were so many choices in so little material and therefore so many surprises. JR: Your early single-channel works were mainly screened on the film festival circuit, but your works are increasingly shown in a gallery and exhibition context. What difference does that make? AC: I come from an activist background, where ‘art’ is sometimes seen as the easy way out. But I became increasingly frustrated with activist scenes and the way that people would communicate - or not - with each other in some kind of judgmental structure. I did my degree in philosophy. And that also influenced how I was thinking. So I found an outlet for that in art. At the same time as it felt so much more important to be protesting - to be active. And I did both - I do both. But art has definitely prevailed in terms of what I find personally useful. Exhibiting in galleries and my move to multiple channels has also brought me into another context of relationships. People are relating to the work, I’m relating to more people. It’s less about watching something in the dark. In a gallery it feels more social and communal, more about dialogue. That’s exciting. JR: You’re part of a long tradition of found-footage art. What does being part of that tradition mean to you? AC: The footage I work with is not found, it’s reused. I didn’t find it in my family’s collection of home videos or a dumpster, like other artists have. It’s refuse in other ways. I generally like the aesthetics of things that weren’t too popular - they weren’t necessarily blockbuster hits and there are no special effects or fancy editing. My work draws on a history of stereotypes and conventions and norms, and that’s important to me. As is an alliance with other found-footage artists working to change and question ‘the known’ and what is considered to be normal and right. But that’s only the base. From there you can go into the realm of total imagination. But without that base I find a lot of art really difficult to digest. Not because I find all found-footage art interesting - people can use found footage to reiterate things that really frustrate me. Shared politics is not a given, but we’ve all done that work of sifting through stuff that already happened with a high level of subjectivity that has an inherent integrity to it, because all we ever really know is what we know about ourselves. JR: Talking about sifting through footage, it might be interesting to talk about your creative process? AC: I’ve been carrying around a library of about 700 films for the past 3-4 years, and it’s constantly growing. Every time I add to my own personal archive of footage I go back to my original stock looking for new shots, so I know those tapes really well. I’m also looking for very specific kinds of shots and have developed a kind of rulebook. I only use shots with a single person in the frame. Or close-ups. Or interiors or exteriors without people. JR: When does the musical soundtrack come into your work? AC: Very early on I’ll choose some music - or fragments - that fit the mood and form the story around that. But the music changes as often as the editing changes. Which happens every day, when I remix the sound with the images constantly. The two are integral throughout the process. JR: Have there been any new challenges with the work based solely on female characters you’re creating for Lost and Found? AC: I decided to do a piece about two women in a relationship, so I’m only looking for footage with women. Because of the story I want to tell, they have to be sincere. Most of what I’m finding is hysterical drama, which no one bought in the original context, and certainly won’t believe in out of context. This is a two-channel piece, and I’ve already gone through twice the amount of footage I went through for my three-channel work Something Better (2008). And I’m only halfway through. In my work I don’t really care where something happens. If it happens in a bathroom, bedroom, corridor, supermarket or parking lot. It just has to happen. And I keep hitting a wall. It’s really sad to see that the sheer catalogue of mainstream representations of women is about how pathetic they are. I’m not so interested in violence or denigration - all those things are true in terms of how women are represented. But what has struck me is the sadness of vacancy - a kind of emptiness. What I keep finding is woman after woman in white nightgowns. Whilst so much happens around the women. And yet what actually happens to them and with them - in them - is not represented. And yet we have thousands and thousands of films that live on and have significance, so I’m interested in that absence. For the work I’m creating for Lost and Found I had a clear idea of how I wanted the piece to be. That each composite character - my characters are always compiled of hundreds of different people in the stories I make - had their reasons for doing what they were doing. And that viewers should be able to relate to each character - shift in their attachments maybe - but relate to both. But I’m realizing that my desire for that kind of democracy and understanding is simply not to be found in the vast amount of footage I have. I face the challenge of having an evil bitch from hell on one side, and a passive victim on the other. For example, in order to make a masturbation scene I’m using women’s gestures and expressions from a rape scene, an abortion scene, despondent sex and sleeping. In order to create joy and release I need to sample stories about boredom, violence and the unconscious. JR: One of the unique aspects of your work is your creation of single, coherent characters from hundreds of different film roles. How does that work? AC: Emotion rules. As long as the emotion is there and is consistent, and is evolving as we understand emotion to evolve, it has an architecture that we can all relate to. As long as I’m feeling it - and am in it - a single person can be made up of thousands. This prevails over continuity. Continuity ‘mistakes’ where the character has glasses on then not happen all the time in mainstream films, but if the emotion prevails we don’t notice. It’s the role of emotion in the suspension of disbelief that I push in my work. I think one of the interesting political aspects of this current work is portraying a bad relationship between two women, but a ‘bad’ relationship that is far more universal. I’m interested in how we communicate - or fail to. How we all struggle with the solitude of inner experience as it collides with a relationship. I work with emotions like shame, guilt or regret. They’re like blanket emotions - they cover us and protect us from feeling anything else. Those are what a lot of my characters feel. JR: The home and interiors are pretty dominant in your work. What and who are you investigating? AC: I’m investigating relationships - and projection. When I’m talking to you, who am I talking to? Is it you - or a part of myself? I’m interested in the ways in which conversations and relationships are individual mirrors. So my work is an intensively subjective experiment. The closeness the characters feel or the loneliness they feel is actually how close or distant they feel to themselves. I create opportunities for myself and maybe the viewer to jump outside of themselves. So the two women in my current piece are, of course, myself. Both of them do things that remind me of myself - and of people I think I know. JR: Working as you do sampling mass media, where are the boundaries between being moved by your work and being moved by the original and memories of it? AC: What I feel about all art works is that the emotion pre-exists the context, so we are moved simultaneously by the ‘original’ content and the ‘new’ content. I hope that it evokes something in us that we can’t evoke without a little bit of help. That’s why I make art - because it helps me to be present. To be more in the world. Otherwise, I’d just check out. Jane Rowley is Co-curator of LOST AND FOUND: QUEERYING THE ARCHIVE. The interview is published in AFART #26, 2009
The following discussion between Cohene and the audience took place between the screening of Absolutely (2001, 10 minutes) and All Right (2003, 7 minutes). AC = Aleesa Cohene SB = Scott Birdwise AM = Audience Member AC: After making this piece, I started working professionally with many different artists, and started editing for Deirdre Bow Gift (??), a bit for Mike Hoolboom, and other artists in Toronto, and started getting a sense of my own voice and what I wanted to concentrate on, and at that point, decided to do a trilogy. The trilogy actually happened over a series of years, because what became really interesting for me was to start filing through footage and start categorizing it. I have a very obsessive part of my personality, so the mere act of watching it and categorizing it, listing and re-watching, categorizing, listing, became my obsession. And so hours and hours and hours of time went into What Came Before That, and then in 2002, I finished the first of the trilogy, which is called Alright, and again tied into some activist work I was doing around the immigration policies, or anti-immigration policies that were happening at the time. And then, that led to looking at, “Okay, so if this is my relationship to notions of nationalism, notions of the county, then what is our relationship to domestic settings, how do I parallel that with domestic settings, so then Ready to Cope came after that, and I used the same technique, the same sort of structure to make Supposed To, which is dealing with work, and so specifically, sort of the success of capitalism being the success of taking ourselves away from ourselves, away from individuality. That’s the three pieces you’ll see there, each is seven minutes, they show both as single channel works and as installation. Supposed To has won prizes at various festivals, and continue to show, which I like, curated different ways, but they are yet to be shown together, so an opportunity like this is great, because they’re being shown as I intended to. [applause] So, for the past year, I’ve been working on a departure from this kind of work, well, single channel work, you’ll see a new work is very similar, which is always funny, because I always think it’s going to be radically different, and then ends up being, people say “Oh, you’re doing the same thing again.” Anyway, I think it’s really different. AM: They’re wrong. AC: What was most important for me was to start developing characters out of this strategy of weaving together these mostly emotionally-driven narratives, and so, how can I do that by sectioning off characters. The way that I did it was by creating a three-channel installation, which I’ll show in sync, it’s 100% accurate sync, so you see it all running at once. What I’ve done to show it is presented a mock-up of the three-channel, so you’ll see three pictures in one screen, and how a viewer will experience that is probably going to be different every time it’s installed, and I have a few ideas about how I want it to be installed, but have not figured out the best strategy. I did a test at the end of a residency I was at in Holland, where three monitors, they’re called cube monitors in Europe, but here you would probably, they’re professional NTSC monitors, so they’re quite cube-like, and they stood on these structures that were the exact same dimensions, and were very close together in a gentle semi-circle, so you’re eyes not going too far from each of them, so you could sort of gaze between the three, and the three interact. It worked ok, I mean, I’ve learned through this process that I’m not too excited to show in galleries, so now I’m in trouble. AM: You’ll have no future as an artist. AC: Yeah, I mean, unique spaces, spaces that are right for the content is sort of what I’m hoping for, but of course that can sometimes be established by the right curation, so if there’s a show that’s sort of, you know, introduces it well, or accompanies it well, then I’ll let go. But again, you know, I was saying this to the folks at lunch, but there was like, I have this really intense need to control the first exhibition, and then afterwards, whatever, it can go wherever people want it to go, I’m happy for people to show it. So the idea behind Something Better is a family, my family, and it’s a father, child, mother, all made up of hundreds of fathers, mothers, and children. They’re in, the idea was at first that they were going to be in this massive fight, but then I realized through the process that fights in my house were mostly silent, and they’re the worst kind, and this one is silent as well, but there’s a few, well there’s talking too, but you’ll see, there’s a lot of strain, and this feeling stuckness, this feeling of defensiveness, and these positions, and then the child is trying to navigate between the two positions, while also establishing him/herself flipped between gender, sort of what the hell this is about. It shows also on a loop, so you have to, I’ll show you from beginning to the end, but you would have to imagine walking into a space and seeing it at any point, and then you’ll see that there’s a natural break, and there it will play again, so my thinking is the average viewer will see it at least one and a half times, I hope that they stay, but that’s it. Any anyone who has any thoughts about it, it’s brand new and hasn’t been exhibited yet, so, I had this test in Holland, but if anyone has any thoughts about how it should be seen or whatever, I feel pretty stuck to monitors, I don’t want it to be projected, but I feel like this is an opportunity for anyone to give me feedback, I’d really love that. AM: Thanks for showing it. The following discussion between Cohene, CFI Programming Assistant Scott Birdwise, and the audience took place after the screening. [Note: Minor excisions have been made, but the majority of the dialogue, including incomplete sentences and mannerisms native to speech, have been preserved]. SB: Well, what we’re going to do now – something we always do at Café Ex because of the intimacy of the space – is we’re going to open up the floor to any questions that you may have, any comments or anything, that you may have for Aleesa. AM: Oh oh oh! AC: Hey. AM: Hey, I’m so glad you’re here, because I love your work. I think you’re one of the most politically and technically engaging video artists working in Canada right now, which is amazing. But the question for you is related to your opening comment about autobiography and kind of working through yourself and your practice in terms of this notion of, I guess, found imagery and I’m wondering about, project to project, or in terms of the trilogy, like how you work in terms of assembling all this footage, and I guess it’s kind of a leading question, because I’m such an admirer of Hoolboom’s work, in terms of your working relationship with him as an editor, because with Hoolboom of course, starting around 1998 or ’99, he made this clear schism between actually shooting a lot of stuff, and then moving into more found appropriated imagery, and I think there’s a lot of that working within your work. I’ll leave that to the side, I’m more interested in your process in terms of how you develop these projects and how your acquiring of these images goes, your working through them. AC: It’s pretty simple, I mean I go, I chose my period of working because when I was young I had childhood insomnia, that’s what they called it, which meant that I didn’t sleep for weeks and so I had this ongoing, sort of tension with my parents because I couldn’t sleep. And eventually, I would just subvert the tension by sneaking into the room where the television was, turning on the television, and saw these movies. So I remember a lot of them, and they’re lesser known Hollywood movies that I like to work with, and so I chose this period of 1976 to 1986 because that was what was being aired in the late 70s early 80s, of when I was up late, sort of in this weird zone. That’s what makes it autobiographical, just that sort of zone, that nameless, even speechless area where I know what’s right and I know what’s true, and particularly related to sort of a political feeling, like I’ll have an analysis of something, and its analysis is so right in my mind, and I’ve worked it out, I could write a lot about it, but I just have this hopelessness about it, like, “so what?” And then I’ll make something, and that’s, the trilogy sort of came out of that position, like, this position, and I felt very passionate about this position, and then all of a sudden, it’d feel totally despondent, and then the work- AM: So, not to be totally reductive, but do you have a concept for a piece, and then you funnel it through your memory of seeing these types of films, like “Oh, that sequence would be great to mine from,” or is it more like your memory of seeing, whatever, Rosemary's Baby when you were eleven on CityTV that informs that fact, that informs the idea of the piece. AC: Yeah, I don’t know what happens first. I mean, I’m newly seeing them, because I’ll go to the video store, and I’m working all off of VHS, so I’ll go to the video store, I’ll rent thirty movies, I’ll have to have a conversation with the guy at the video store about why I’m renting these movies, of course he tells me something secretive about himself, I tell him nothing about myself, I take these movies home, I watch them in fast forward, and I start listing, I start listing things like hallways, doorways, windows, things that are just like beautiful metaphors for, maybe a meaning about myself, maybe a meaning of life, I watch these things tonight and I’m like, “Ooh, God, that’s why I put that in, oops.” Like, it’s little clues about myself and about the world. Now, everything is autobiographical, I believe, and the funny thing about Hoolboom and about, sort of, the people who I came to know to be my sort of forefathers, like Steve Reinke and Mike Hoolboom, is that all of them, in their own way, have given me a hard time about my voice. “Aleesa, where are you in your work?” and I’m like, “where’s your heart?” I mean, where am I in my work? Like, I mean, Steve actually asked me, “I don’t see your voice,” and I said, “Well, if you wrote a voiceover for my work, would I be in it?” It’s sort of this very interesting understanding of the self, and who I am today is fragmented and confused and mostly despondent and apathetic. You’ll see that in my work, it’s, the answer to your question is unfortunately very simple. I look, I find, I make. AM: But for me as an audience member, I’ve seen your work, except for a couple pieces, and one of the lovely kind of tensions every time I see the work is that I recognize that shit too, like it’s speaks to my head room. You know, middle class basement, CityTV watching experience too, so I’m negotiating that layer as well. It’s like, I also recognize these clips, I also recognize these things, but you’re using them in a different way, so it’s this really interesting thing where they’re part of my autobiography too, they’re part of my experience too. But they’re also part of yours, being presented to me, so I’m trying to work through you, your voice as an artist, but also how I respond to that. AC: Yeah, I mean I have a deep belief- AM: And I love that, that’s what’s so rich about the work, that’s totally why I respond to the works. AC: That’s great, I mean, I believe in togetherness, I believe that we are one. I mean, unfortunately, I’m painfully optimistic that you are no different than me, and I say unfortunately because sometimes I disappear in that, and maybe it’s a way to hide, I’m learning. But, because of that, I have no scruples about drawing from a collective memory, I have no, that’s sort of been an interesting parallel with Mike, because, I really didn’t know his work for a long time, and I actually haven’t edited for him too much, because I really, his editor, who is now passed away, was a friend of mine, and he, I wanted, that relationship to Mike was so special, that I really rejected anytime he’d ask me to do work, like “I’m really busy.” Then I’d call Mark, and be like “Mark, he needs more help,” and so, that’s how I navigated that. But at the same time, I came to know his work while working, and am now close with him. It’s weird, it’s just like, I remember when I made this installation, I didn’t show here, I did it, it was sort of a flop, I remember I used a clip that, the next day I had to edit with him, and he was using, he was editing that same clip, and I was just like, “I can’t even tell him, because he’ll think I stole it from him.” Like, he stole it from the same place I stole it from, but he’s going to think I stole it from him, so I can’t say anything, and then years later I told him, I mean I have to say something, and I showed him this work. He didn’t respond, but that to me is the core of my work, that this stuff is all of ours. AM (Chris Rohde): I have a quick question for you. AC: Yep. AM: I find it very interesting, what you’re saying about how a lot of these found footage clips relate to your personal autobiography, you know, your feelings about a particular political subject, and also to this idea of a kind of collective memory, something that many of us culturally experience, living in the generation that we do, living in the country that we do, and so forth. But I’m wondering, to what extent are you actually talking about the sources in your work. I mean, you know, when you show a clip from a given film, how much of it is actually talking about what’s going on in that film, about its representation of gender, or race, or politics, or whatever. I mean, to what extent are you analyzing the clip objectively? AC: Zero. [general laughter] AC: I’m not interested in the source. I mean, I feel it’s source is another source is another source is another source. AM: Right, but it has a trace, it has a presence there regardless, so I’m sure it must come to your conscious attention what’s going on in these clips. AC: I generally zone out into “Ooh, that’s beautiful, wow, his head is like, you know, there’s only an eighth of the frame that’s not his head, gorgeous, now I can position this guy.” It’s really just an aesthetic thing. I’ll line up shots according to geometry and colour and movement, and of course the music is driving that, that’s why I show the journey clip, because I’m really motivated by rhythm. So, it’s not that I, sometimes I feel I have to shut off that part of my brain, shut off the thinking part, and be like, “God, there’s no one of colour in my film.” But, instead, the sad part is that there’s no one of colour in these films, and therefore in mine. And there is a real lack of representation because that exists, and I’m not there either. All that I am is the editor of these things, and that’s all we all are. I would not ever reduce it to one thing, but I do think that there’s this interesting thing that happens around the source, that it’s an ongoing question, especially when I show my work more in Europe, because the sources are almost entirely unknown. Except for, maybe iconic figures, like William Hurt, and of course, someone will be like, “Oh my god, that’s William Hurt,” and then it takes over, because, it’s like, the know. And so, there’s this really interesting, things become conceptually interesting, the questions that I get when I travel in Europe is like, “Do you believe in extreme subjectivity, or, do you believe in sectional subjectivity?” I’m like, “I don’t know,” like, they’re translating right, as they’re saying it, and it’s so, sort of a, I guess it’s extreme, that’s what I come down to, that’s all we have, all I know about you is about me, so what can we do here. But, I don’t know, there’s, I’m less and less interested in the sources. AM: I see. AC: And I keep a record of them, because there’s always someone who asks me, like, “What is this? What is that?” and I never never never know the answer, but I always know I have a trace. AM: Yeah, well you mentioned earlier that you tend to try and choose less well-known sources that may not necessarily be as familiar, but have that unmistakable Hollywood look to them, like maybe a TV movie or something. Would you ever consider working with something very well-known, something everyone would recognize, and sort of bank off of the ideas that generates. Would you ever consider that in your work? AC: No, I don’t think so, I mean it’s not too interesting to me to use something that I don’t have a new experience with, a new meaning makes memories last. AM: I see. SB: I just want to make a comment, there might be a question inside of this, on the same tip that I think Chris was asking you. The Journey clip [a Youtube video of the 70s rock group], you showed it without, really, any irony, and I find with a lot of appropriated footage that a lot of artists use, they will stretch the irony, it’s even, a lot of the time, condescending to the source footage, right, they’re reappropriating it, so they’re putting it into new relationships, and often there is a kind of commentary on that, and a lot of the time it’s because the artist is supposing that they know more than the filmmaker of the previous source, so they’re editorializing it. I felt like with your work, especially the later stuff, that there, I didn’t feel any irony at all. If there was any work, I think the first one, where you were using more, the most politically, the most overt political stuff that there was some elements of- AC: That’s right. SB: -possibly, yeah. AC: I know, that’s, for the first, that’s what I hate about Absolutely, is that it’s a bit cheeky, and I was cheeky at the time. I don’t know, I embraced my earnestness soon after. I hate irony, and I hate kitsch, and I hate “for the sake of,” and sort of this, why do we move ourselves further from this world that we’re already so far from. And I use this stuff to bring you back to a place that I want to remember, that I want to understand better, and I feel like, if I just could remember how it felt not to sleep, I could sleep better tonight. If I could figure out that one night how I forgot to sleep, I could sleep again. I don’t know, there’s a sort of purity to, again, that found experience, that sort of, well, maybe it’s even, like seeing something and it being yours, you saw it. Talking about it ends up being cheesy, because it’s like well, it’s just really, just about looking for honesty and integrity, and who I am in this. And when I go, I really don’t like taking pictures, and I don’t like shooting my own footage, and I’m struggling with that, because people often criticizing me for not doing that, for not writing things down when they happen or whatever. I don’t know, maybe it’s something that will come. AM: I have the feeling, though, of moments documented, like sometimes I found myself being, “Oh, she must have, you know, had the camera” at that moment, or something. AC: Oh really? AM: Like, you came across as, maybe, an auteur, you’d always have a camera, and I was wondering if maybe you’d thrown in a few shots that you’d made. AC: No, never. AM: I noticed a sort of authenticity coming through. AC: Right, no, in the first piece, in Absolutely there’s footage that I shot when I was in Quebec City, and that stuff was mine. But other than that none of it is mine. AM: To one extent, you feel like you’ve made a narrative out of it, you know? Like a way of speaking, you seem like someone who wouldn’t want to narrativize, but I found I couldn’t stop looking at specific images and making my own narratives. AC: I’m sort of obsessed with that tension of narrative and, especially with this new piece as I, it’s like, all I do is polish my narrative about my life, of who I am, what I’m like, and about how someone else is, or whatever, when in fact I know that puts me farther from how I feel. And so, this new piece is really a tension between narrative, which you lose, because you’re watching all three, and feeling, which I hope you get, because it’s there, it is cohesive. But, each piece was cut separately, and then I re-cut it to match, so that things were dead on, so the doors open simultaneously, or something in one shots, one of the times, so that the narrative made sense as a trio. But, individually, if you watch each screen, like, the man doesn’t sit without having stood first. At one point, I brought all the characters into the bathroom, and I couldn’t get them out, because I didn’t have the footage, so there was five minutes down the drain. And I’m like, “Ooh, guess they’re not going to the bathroom, are they.” So instead, the woman went out to get groceries, and I had to, it’s this strain of tension between narrative and the stories that I tell myself, and my feelings, how far apart they are, and how more confused I am, the more, the better my story gets, and how more articulate I am and entertaining, and then I’m like, I go home and I’m like, because I know nothing. And the more grounded I am in how I feel, the less I have to say. AM: Aleesa, you said that in the installation, you had shown it, you did a trial run of it on monitors. Have you ever projected it? AC: No. AM: And the reason why I ask is that I find it interesting, I see it in two ways, that you’re containing the image, because you’re an editor and you’re used to containing the image. I would suggest that also, I think, that from what you say, you’re also trying to contain the narrative and this touches on a bit of what Christopher was talking about, in terms of the cinematic quality of the images, and I think it would be an interesting thing to see them blown up big, really big, like big. AM: Blow it up real good. AM: And three screens, so that they become really cinematic, so that they talk to each other within that cinematic framework- AM: Douglas Gordon-style. AM: Which is what they were originally intended to be seen as, all of these images. And I think it will escape your intention to some degree, but it will transform the images in another way thay may surprise you. I think. I mean, it will become a little bit about your cinematic nature, but that might also be interesting. AC: Yeah. I feel open, you know, right now, I’m like, because, I just finished the colour correction, and I’m like, “those colours need to stay exactly as planned!” Like, I will calibrate the monitors wherever it shows myself. I will pay for me to come to calibrate those monitors and keep them calibrated, but my attachments to these technical things that are not always that healthy. So I’m open, I’m open. SB: I was thinking about that idea, now that you, now that Penny mentions it, about blowing them up, because the source that you saw them on was televisual, these movies that were first cinematic, shown on big screens, then shown on CityTV, then rented on VHS, and, you mentioned this earlier, the idea of autobiography, they’re autobiographical or diaristic, and it would be interesting if you were then to blow them up, it’s like this weird production cycle, come back around, come back to the source. I wonder, because you were just talking about the nature of the image, would you want to clean it up, or, because they are on VHS, and then digitized, would they be all- AM: I just called out, and I wasn’t being facetious, do it Douglas Gordon-style, like have you ever seen 24-hour Psycho installed in a gallery? It’s fucking huge! I mean, he takes, it’s a 30-feet tall screen. So Penny’s onto something, like really, to present it massive, would actually be really amazing. Because, it would inform this notion of blowing up these really small Hollywood scenes. AM: But it would limit the number of spaces you could show it in. AM: Like Ottawa, which has no huge spaces. You could how it in Montreal. AM: I thought it would be interesting big as well, while I was watching it, because then you can look at other details that didn’t exist when it is so small you’re focusing on things that are moving, whereas when it’s big you can see little things, and I think that almost adds to the personal touch of it. You can inspect a little flower vase that’s in the background, a piece of glass or something. AC: Right. I think there’s something that does attract me to that, because I’ve always thought of what it would like as a sound piece, without the images. Like, actually Mike taught me that, he came in one time while I was cutting something, and he like, I was on one of those rolly chairs on Charles St., and he pushed my rolly chair so that I wasn’t facing the screen, and he pressed play, and he said “Now you like your work?” and I was like “No! It’s terrible!” And I recut it, and so this work was, that music was entirely mixed, by myself and a musician in Holland, and I like it, it is a sound piece unto itself. So, I’m starting to let go of the separateness that exists, and it would be interesting, because what I was attached to was like, the person, one person being able to view all three at once, and I don’t know if that’s ever true. So, yeah, it’s interesting to imagine it on three, because that’s how a space is built anyway, you walk in, you see three walls. AM: I was picturing it on one wall, but just one big wall. AC: Uh huh, like as a threesome. AM: Yeah. AM: I’d like it done three separate walls, because then it’s about the viewer as well, and you know if your viewers are actively engaging with it. Like, you’re physically responding to it, because you have to turn and see what’s- AC: Yeah. AM: It’s very cozy. AC: Yeah, no, I mean I want it to be separated somehow. Like, this is really, you see it, you get a sense, but- AM: I’m dealing with a similar sort of thing with a piece I’m doing, working with three images, but I’m really separating them, things are very peripheral, you kind of take them in, but your focus had to drift, like it has to be mobile, be mobilized. That might be interesting, things are peripheral- AM: You can have the wall turn. AM: -things register, but… AC: That would be very cool. That would be really Douglas Gordon. SB: If you saw them blown up really big, and you have such a personal investment in them, would you be bashful being around them? If they were blown up so big? AC: Um, I don’t know, my first thought is like, “As long as the projector’s good, no. If the projector’s bad, yes.” I mean, that’s the thing about, for me, it’s actually a technical question, I mean, there are very few projectors that I like the look of, I don’t want the images to sort of, bleach out in any way. Again, I’ve worked hours and hours and hours saturating these things to shit, and they look like candy when you see them on monitors, and they’re so sparkly, and they look, they’re colour-corrected to look as though they’re from one film, so I don’t care, I don’t know, somebody could tell me that’s not that important, but right now it feels important. I don’t know, that’s the thing, if I, again, if I saw it on, it might actually be the surface of how, it might be the type of wall that it’s on, like not a wall, but like on filmcore (?), or it might be just a matter of installing the right surface for it to be projected on, and then an ok projector might do the trick. But, I have, these are the opportunities I don’t have. I’m just sort of like sending out this, right, and “do you want to show it?” and then we negotiate. They say, “sorry, we have $300” and I’m like, alright, TVs it is, you know. AM: And older TVs have- AM: Yeah, low-end TVs... AC: Which I don’t mind, I don’t want plasma. I really don’t want it at all. I hate LCD screens, plasma screens. With this quality of footage, it needs, light needs to be into the surface, you need to see it with depth, so old TVs that cost nothing are better than… so, I don’t know. I keep saying, like, I don’t want it to be kitsch, like, to set up a living room, which would be really cheesy. So, I struggle with it, this new piece. AM: What is the legality of using that footage? AC: Well, there’s a long tradition of it, and it can’t be broadcast, which I have no problem with. And, any festival or gallery will show it. The only things that I’ve ever been concerned with is the music, and I’ve written to all the musicians with that I’ve sampled from, to ask them for permission, and have never received a response, so, you know, what can you do, I’m still, everyone’s using it all the time. These musicians are mostly electronic musicians, they’re sampling from other sources, and so on and so forth, it’s not, it’s probably why you don’t get a response, because they may not have the rights to their own stuff. Most of them are local, some of them are more well-known, but I’ve never ever received permission for any of it. I feel quite, yeah, I don’t have scruples about it. I never use any one else’s, in my later work, I don’t use any one else’s edit, and that’s sort of what stuck me to my rules, I have some rules now that I like to work by and that feel good and ground me, and one’s not using someone else’s edits. Other things like that, on this new piece I had rules, of only using one single person in a frame, so that you’d never see anyone else in the frame. And every new piece I make, I have a new set of dogma that I work with. AM: Does that come from a, does it serve a purpose, or is it on a whim? AC: It serves the purpose, when I first started conceiving of something, I write a lot, a lot of the writing’s sort of abstract, and the rules come out of that abstraction. So, if I’m making a character out of many characters, than the many have to be singular. Like, I don’t know, does that make sense? It made a lot of sense to me at the time, so I sort of was like, you attach yourself to something that makes sense, so that there’s a seamlessness between each cut. There is a fluidity between this multiplicity of people, to create this one feeling, or this complicated character, but a single thing. And I think you have to see that piece more than once, I don’t think it’s possible to get a sense of the characters seeing it once. And the rules, I’ve noticed, are things that I’m interested in at the time. You know, when I was making this, I was really struggling with my family, and really struggling with the lack of communication, and how their obligations would lead them. It felt like I was just walking through mud, just to understand, “what are you saying?” because it’s just so wrapped up in what they should be, myself included when I was in dialogue with them, anyway, so rules came out of that too. Like, the mother is never for herself, the father was only for himself, the kid had to turn a lot, things like that. SB: Well, we invite you all to stick around for a while, and just mingle, chat more with Aleesa, have a glass of wine if you like. Thank you. [applause]
No family situation is ever peachy perfect. Each has its own drama to sort out, whether it be living in a home that is always empty, caring for an ill-loved one, or having a brother who hogs the TV all day. We’ve all figured out that Leave it to Beaver was full of shit. But it still makes great material for an artist to work with. Last Thursday evening, Vancouver-born and Toronto-based artist Aleesa Cohene opened up her seventh video art installation, Something Better at Articule gallery. Her work has been screened at over two dozen film festivals around the world, including the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006. Much of Cohene’s art stems from social and political critique. She explains that the whole family dilemma reveals a larger issue we are all faced with. It all boils down to a universal activity that we just can’t seem to get right: communication. How she manages to get her message across is anything but a simple process. There are three screens – Mom on the right screen, Dad on the left, and kid in the middle. We see eight minutes of the characters interacting through the television screens. There’s a lot of action, a bit of dialogue, and music that Cohene pieced together herself to fit the melancholic mood perfectly. Most impressive is that she did everything with found footage, taking clips from lesser-known eighties films and rearranging them. Removing the clips from their usual context, Cohene places them into new situations to manifest the story she wants to tell. Within these eight minutes, the videos tell a story of Dad who is bored of playing house. So Mom kicks him out of their home. The situation leaves her utterly broken-hearted – blank stares, tears, worried facial expressions. Mom doesn’t understand what is wrong with Dad since the entire meaning of her existence revolves around her family. She wants to raise a family with Dad, provide her child with the skills to go out into the world and make his own family some day. Stuck in the middle of all this is the child. Cohene says that the “child is paralyzed because he is a product of these two extremes,” being stretched out like a Stretch Armstrong toy. The child suffers what we have all experienced at one point or another in our lives: questions like “Are you really my parents?” “What’s up with my body?” “And why is mom so sad?” According to Cohene, it’s impossible to ever fully understand someone else. There are always communication barriers. The screens are so close together; the characters are spatially close, but remain emotionally distant. With all the high-tech gadgets we’ve developed, we have the means to communicate better, but we still manage to be stuck in the same rut. The exhibition doesn’t overtly attempt to find a way out of the situation. “There is no desire for resolution,” explains Cohene. “The desire is just to feel.” But “there is hope sprinkled throughout,” she adds, and this hope is symbolized by the piano, the only focal point of daily life where we see these characters understand each other, and even love one another. Humans have developed alternative ways of communicating – dancing, bongo playing, different sex positions, painting. Each medium of communication can make up for what the others lack. This article was written by Veronica French for the MCGILL DAILY. Published on November 20, 2008.
The following text on the work of Aleesa Cohene’s Something Better, is a written collage of observations and descriptions from three different sources: Guillaume Mansour, Aleesa Cohene and myself.
Guillaume Mansour writes his text from a stream of conscious perspective as he first experiences the exhibition:
Something really strong comes out of this machine. Something very dramatic. But at the same time, Something Better is tremendously abstract. There is nothing to hang on to; however the images and their combinations are striking, and such is the play between questions and answers across the three screens. The whole thing is sentimental, full of maternal anxieties, children’s lost innocence, fathers’ guilt for never being present enough, reaction shots by long forgotten actresses.
An articifal nostalgia is generated by the collage process. All the shots are so closely linked with a given era which is fully assumed in its glorious moments as well as its shameful drifting, happily enough. The funny side creeps in and as we laugh, the works seems to breathe even more.
Some of the montages (be it linearly, on one screen, or on all three screens at the same time) suggest a fine fragmentation, outside of meaning; they are unique, like brief poems (small haikus). I felt like listening again to the montage once or twice, just to lose myself in the careful details. GM
When we first start to become involved with the work of Aleesa Cohene’s Something Better we see an arrangement of six opaque strips of colours running the length of the gallery walls. The strips take the whole of the wall from floor to ceiling. The multiple meanings of shapes and colours start to activate one’s imagination. Associations between flags, symbols and insignias fly by.
Opposite the wall of strips is a short text. A romantic poem, that appears to be taken out of context. The grammar and the familiarity of the phrases creates a sense that we have dropped in on a moment that has not stopped to exist or changed because we have entered the scene. We are the audience.
Behind the text, in a dark room where three monitors are playing found footage of characters from different films, we realize that our real-time viewing experience is one of the components of the various time-based occurrences. The film clips strike connotative or denotative meanings from our T.V. viewing childhood or youth. As we continue to watch the monitors we see that the compilation of footage collages a series of images to create multidimensional signifiers of mother, father and child.
Cohene’s type of collage emphasizes the expressions of the actors and the manner in which they perform various tasks. In the works of Christian Marclay or Douglas Gordon, the method of collaging film clips strikes different chords, in remixing what has already been recorded. Marclay’s work acts as an audio experience where socially recognizable images add to the at times discordant then melodious concoction of sounds.
Something Better offers us an opportunity to reflect on the types of characters that have been created to tell the stories of our lives. The artist seeks to involve our participation as viewers in the storytelling process. The painting of the gallery space with the text on the wall combined with the film clips places us in a different type of engagement as we experience the work. In the painted area we are in a real-time setting that is merged with the time-based work as we turn the corner. The tools used to tell the stories are the subjects and we become part of the unfolding of events.
We watch movies to feel something more than we allow ourselves to feel in our everyday lives. Recorded images and sounds double as mirrored echoes where we don’t have to look or listen to ourselves, we only have to be quiet and watch the screen. I think this is an everlasting power of cinema. It permits us to be who we want to be—free from responsibility and action. It releases us from guilt and shame. The more I pick through old movies the more I find a history of this psychological etiquette. My work aspires tounderstand why we live in a poverty of emotion and how it can change.
Aleesa speaks about her intentions and working process as an occurrence that happens in tandem. The watching offers the opportunity to edit what is seen into an alternative production. This act is perhaps a physical manifestation of our thinking process as we receive information. In this light the work becomes a message expressing that change and possibilities are always an option.
This text is part of a writing series by members of the gallery, reflecting on the works presented during ARTICULE’S . 2008- 2009 programming season. Natalie Olanick’s text has been produced for Aleesa Cohene’s exhibition Something Better, presented from November 14 to December 14, 2008, and is also available as a pdf on the gallery’s web site.
MH: Has every experience already been photographed? Is that why you use found footage? AC: Every experience and emotion cannot possibly be photographed, that's why I use found footage. The realms of experience and emotion are infinite, yet so many of us choose familiarity and stability over risk and the unknown. I'm fascinated by how much silence and suffocation there is in each human interaction. We watch movies to feel something more than we allow ourselves to feel in our everyday lives. Recorded images and sounds double as mirrored echoes where we don't have to look or listen to ourselves, we only have to be quiet and watch the screen. I think this is an everlasting power of cinema. It permits us to be who we want to be free from responsibility and action. It releases us from guilt and shame. The more I pick through old movies the more I find a history of this psychological etiquette. My work aspires to understand why we live in a poverty of emotion and how it can change. MH: So you feel that becoming like the pictures which surround us could make us more human? What a lovely idea. But don't movies also render us helpless and infantile? It's not my fault, it's not my problem-movie going equals actions without consequences and what could be more dangerous than that? Many sociologists, certainly censor boards and the governments they represent, are quick to point to the negative impact of movie going. Do you feel that its outpouring of feelings outweighs these disadvantages? AC: It's both these forces that attract me to using found footage. The tears that stream down my face when I watch A Birth Story coupled with the contention I feel for so many aspects of parenting, is a familiar disjunct of our technological times. Without the tears, despondency reigns, and I think that if anyone is going to change something they believe is wrong, they have to know how they feel about it first. We live in a society that mistakes cohesiveness for political action and sameness for power. Most movies (at their ideological core) perpetuate this. But I think the emotion we take away from movies overrides their plots. Perhaps that's why stories don't change and people do. MH: Some would argue that you are doing nothing creatively, you're not adding anything new, only parasitically taking what others have done and reshuffling them before signing the results. How would you respond to these criticisms? AC: I would argue that everything is made by reshuffling. A building is built based on parts of other buildings. Medicine is based on new combinations of chemicals. Nothing is without multiple origins. Origins can be hidden or exposed and I'm not interested in hiding what I edit. My creative tool is editing and without footage my art is not visible. MH: Can you describe your process of collecting pictures? Do you have a source archive from which your pictures are drawn, or are you continually on the hunt, looking out for another, better shot? AC: I have an archive of shots that I've been collecting for the past five years. I'm also always on the hunt. I try to stay ahead of a desperate hunt though, which always involves a shot that is too specific. I've decided that these shots don't exist, I only want them to. Instead, I have a system of collecting things in groups; people walking down hallways, climbing stairs, driving cars, sleeping, on the phone, taking a bath, running away, opening and closing doors and windows. Once I've grouped clips into thematic categories, I make sub groups of emotional categories. I find sound harder to divide this specifically so I organize it differently, such as: ambience and texture, sound effects, ethical assertions, emotional expressions, excuses, admittances, beliefs and anyone discussing truth. With each idea I focus on there are always other categories I created for the footage I find. Generally, though, I'm looking for moments before and after an event. Whether it's anxiousness, anticipation, denial, or relief, the emotions that frame actions are points of relation, they might be mine or yours. MH: Are there some shots that are so powerful, so moving, that you want to make a movie simply so this moment can be felt in the way you feel it? AC: Yes. These are also the shots I can't put into a category other than "favorites." They are moments that are layered with complex and multiple emotions. I often use them to structure a video. The first shot in Ready to Cope of the boy picking leaves off the bush is an example. He seems so sad and at the same time paralyzed by his sadness. In the original movie, he had just killed his brother when they were out hunting. His shock and grief is buried by guilt which is what I believe national security is based on. That's why I chose it to open Ready to Cope. MH: You spent a good while cutting Ready to Cope (7 minutes 2006), why so long? Were you looking for a new relation to your pictures, trying to get them to "make sense" in a different way? AC: Beginning in August 2005, I scheduled one day each week to edit Ready to Cope and Supposed To. However, I've found it impossible in my work life as an editor to predict the length of a project. The work that I was doing for money often bleeds into time for my own videos. Juggling this aside, I also encountered many other challenges with these pieces. My first intention was to concentrate on our cultural obsession with uniformity and homogeneity. Once I felt I had collected enough images and sounds and began a paper edit, I discovered that the underlying fear of these themes were far more interesting and pervasive especially with recent political debate regarding safety and security in Canada. It's clear to me that my own desire for order is very much grounded in a fear of chaos. Chaos breeds strictness and strictness privileges sameness. The same cycle exists in the hundreds of horror movies I went through; something disrupts or invades a clean house, a good relationship, a sweet family, a good intention. A desire for goodness is destined for disturbance. This then became my focus. How do we define goodness? How do we protect ourselves from impending doom? These difficult questions took a long time to build a narrative around, especially since many of their qualities are repressed and nuanced. MH: Is it necessary to arrive at new forms and new relationships in your own life before being able to apply them in your movies? AC: Yes. For the past seven years my work has been based on the questions: What do I believe? And what am I afraid of that makes me believe that? The answers to both questions always have something to do with the ideas I trust and the relationships I have. Lately I've experienced a rawness that is very new to me. I easily lose a sense of myself. I'm overwhelmed by anxiety and hesitation. I guess I feel like I'm fighting a lot of skepticism. I trust less people than I used to. I remember feeling something important going on inside me and sharing it with several people, looking for different perspectives and reactions. Now I barely want to talk about important personal things, as though they will change if they get out, as though I'll lose something. The examples I can think of are small and wouldn't make much sense to anyone else. The person that is closest to me right now is Tema, and she hates the word integrity. She understands it as a grandiose idea about Truth and Properness, something no one can live up to even though everyone tries. It's an archetypal vision of "rightness." A choice you make one day may seem like its full of integrity and another choice may negate that integrity. This contradiction is how we are human. The idea of integrity is a static unflinching notion but to be human is not. She says that the only beings that have integrity are animals. Her distaste exposes the conflict in ways that aren't possible on my own. We argue about it all the time; I feel the conflict is primarily within oneself, a grappling with an inner knowledge of right and wrong. She tries to determine what is most compassionate outside of her personal desires. She spends a lot of time with animals. When I was first being politicized in my early twenties, feminism and anti-oppression politics taught me to be an ally, to speak from my experience and to hear other people's opinions as their experience and to understand my privilege. It was my responsibility to identify my own prejudices and actions which perpetuate oppression. Dialogue and discussion are necessary to learn how to listen non-defensively and communicate respectfully if an anti-oppression practice is going to be successful. I realize now how deeply skeptical I am and how far apart experiences are from how they get told; how "owning" an experience invites comparisonism and often competition, and how often self reflection deepens oblivion. In moments I think I'm being straightforward, people seem confused. I've always thought of myself as overly sensitive but often get told I'm not sensitive enough. In the darkest part of this reality, tragedies are compared and compassion is measured accordingly. It feels as though theory and practice are colliding with one another, cancelling each other out. An insidious system of erasure resides at the base of the ideas I trust most. I see it in the world, in myself and in others. I remember a few days after the second levy broke in New Orleans I was at a bar with friends. People were discussing connections they had to people effected by the tragedy. One person talked about a woman she knows who was getting ready to leave New Orleans to go to school in San Francisco. She made it to San Francisco having lost all her possessions. She only had the clothes she was wearing and the items in the bag she was carrying. The person telling the story explained that she came from a fucked up home, "Her mother collects Barbie Dolls," she said. I got angry with her and asked why that meant her home was necessarily fucked up. The conversation died prematurely (as most conflicts do) but I still think about it. What bothers me most is that a sad situation cannot simply be sad, it needs to be punctuated by morality in the form of what I believe was understood in this case as feminism. Whether or not this woman's mother's Barbie collection was a source of abuse, neurosis, a hobby or art, it cannot define wrongness by itself. Nothing can. Like an anti-oppression framework, feminism is deeply committed to ideas about not generalizing feelings, thoughts or behaviors, and is therefore devoted to reconstructing and redefining power. Yet, I'm not sure most feminists or anti-oppression activists are personally committed to the same things. We want to tell a good story, to make people laugh, to be loved. We want things to set us apart and make us feel special. The woman telling the story wanted to hold an audience. For many reasons there's shame in these desires, causing us to hide and to value opinions over feelings. I know I've said many things just like the woman who told this story. Perhaps the reason it stayed with me is because it reminded me of ways I don't like myself. MH: Ready to Cope begins with a voice-over which asks, "In the history of Canada has there been a crisis this deep, this merciless?" Where did you find this quotation and what drew you to it? AC: I found this piece of audio in a documentary about farmer's rights in Canada from the early 80's. It was one of the first things I knew I needed to use. The woman speaking is passionate and honest. I was especially drawn to the idea of a "merciless" crisis providing a shell for the cyclic relationship between self protection, denial and national security issues. I'm interested in how drawn we are to wanting and needing mercy, when we so often can't give ourselves a break. I also knew that I wanted to establish the ideas in Ready to Cope within a frame. When something is named a crisis, there is often more tolerance for emotion, hysteria, speed (or immediacy) and even a kind of abstractness that is not acceptable in a "professional" environment. Ready to Cope contains all of these elements so announcing a crisis set an appropriate stage. MH: Your movie is framed by people taking the next step, in high heels and sneakers, inside and out. The effort of going on, of getting up over a paralyzing sense of malaise and anxiety, is everywhere palpable. Much of this dread is centered in homes where doors are ominously approached and hallways are the circulation system of unseen fears. Why have you placed the middle (class) home at the epicenter of these fears? AC: "The middle home" is an interesting way to look at it. For me, the home is where most of our unconscious fears are rooted and where we act through and against them. In a lot of my work it functions as a figurative source for the themes I address. As a child, it was in my own home where I first learnt to manipulate, to dwell in insecurities, and mostly to feel the depths of hopelessness and despair. I grew up feeling affected by everything; stuffed animals that had a bad look in their eyes, wallpaper patterns that moved at night, babysitters I hated the smell of, and fantasies of running away so I could be a different person. I would put on a dress that I hated, pack a bag and walk out the front door. I remember thinking that if I wore an ugly dress people would treat me differently and I could begin a new life. Nothing felt right though nothing was ever all that wrong. But "the middle home" is a place that is similarly represented by most movies. Unlike my own obscure memories of growing up, the collective home functions as a receptor for collective fears that we can attach to our personal experiences. A creepy shadow in the hallway reminds me of the shifting cloud patterns on the wallpaper in my childhood room. Only now I have an enemy. This same shadow reminds you of an early fear of yours, and in an instant we have a shared enemy. When I was developing ideas about safety and security for Ready to Cope I knew I had to disassemble why movies can scare us so profoundly. The connections to our early understandings of fear for which many of us have no explanations, illuminates why the same gestures and similar narratives can scare us infinitely. Movies provide us with pictures that we've been waiting to put content into and explanations we crave. Conscious or not, the fear we feel when watching movies must be a continuation of where it all began, but often stripped of its original uniqueness and sometimes capable of providing false and easy answers. In Ready to Cope I wanted to bring the obscurity of early experiences of fear back into a collective dread and anxiety. What if the creepy shadow is my own? What if I forgot to lock the door and the wind blew it open? I focused on the home in order to ask questions like these and to bring focus to our only true collective enemy: ourselves. MH: The home shrinks and bursts open until a body falls from the sky, lies on the grass, runs into woods. When images of home return they are seized with a new pressure and violence, they build until they break in a shatter storm of broken windows and dishes. You close the movie with a trio of shots: a woman puts it all away in her cupboards, a girl bends down, a sneaker leaves the room. It is a powerful ending, especially because the movie stops here. Why these three shots, why are you filled with so much hope? AC: At the end of Ready to Cope a woman is searching through all her cupboards. Looking for something but unable to find it. In the next shot a girl creeps down, and peers under a stall, knowing that something or someone is there. And yes, a man's sneakers leave (or enter) a room, and the movie ends. I never thought of this ending as hopeful but I suppose it is. I edited the video to reflect the idea that the fear we feel is a fear of ourselves. So I structured the last thirty seconds (three shots) of the video as a reprise of my thesis. The reprise begins with a frantic search (shot #1); a feeling of having lost or misplaced something can feel like you've lost a part of yourself. Then, from within (shot#2), you gather some courage and look one last time. Maybe it's the last place it could possibly be, maybe you hear a strange noise and know it's there. In the final shot, action is required, you must choose to enter or exit. I know that my translation of these images might not be communicated to the audience the same way I've explained it here. But like all my work I hope it's experienced in flux; as we experience things emotionally. Maybe this is why you feel like I'm hopeful. I think hope is only possible when you know things will change and that you can participate in the change. MH: The pictures your movies are drawn from are from other people's movies, from a "public record," so I'm wondering what your relation to your audience is. Once upon a time you were "equal," both spectators in a theatre, or video store patrons. But now you have taken portions of this shared understanding, this visible inheritance, and turned it to your own ends. Are you attempting to activate a new kind of spectatorship? Who are your movies for (only the usual suspects: those who attend art video fests for instance)? AC: I'm of two minds. On one hand, my relationship to my audience is strange. There is so little dialogue about video art (about so many things) and my work speaks to this. So I'm often confused by my audience. Who they are, who I want them to be, what they think, what I hope they think. This confused silence of mine and theirs feeds new ideas for new projects so it's sometimes hard to imagine anything different, any "new kind of spectatorship." On the other hand, I have a lot of fantasies about who my movies are for and where they could show. I feel like they are trailers for our problems. I think about what it would take to offer art as a public service. I imagine an advertisement: Feeling anxious? So are we. Watch this movie... If you feel worse, that's good. If you feel better, that's good. My divided perspective is probably why I make work in isolation, but most days I work as an editor with various community groups and other artists to produce videos they want to make. I haven't found a balance and I'm not sure if there is one. Supposed To MH: Supposed To (7 minutes 2006) has a feeling of barely controlled rage which is smoothed over by its sweet pop electronica and your assured montage. But I'm wondering if you could talk about the origin of this visceral anger-the movie feels like it wants to reach out of the monitor and choke me. Like your other work, this movie is made up of pictures made by others, why is it important to refract your feelings through others? Are you using found footage the way others would deploy actors and scripts? AC: When I first started thinking about and using found footage I was also reading a lot about psychoanalytic theories of projection. The idea that we attribute to others our undesirable thoughts and emotions became key for many personal and political questions. Found footage is the cultural source of an ingrained defense mechanism. Undesirable characteristics are not only being displaced onto other people but also onto animals, inanimate objects and social constructs. We create scapegoats in order to feel better. When I feel frustrated about something in my life I'll often hate the way a piece of furniture looks. I'll move it around the room hoping to like it better at a different angle, in a different spot. Editing of all sorts has become the manifestation of many of my feelings (anger included). Any time I dig for the root cause of a feeling, possibilities and combinations multiply. Nothing feels like it exists without its past and future relationships. The origins of my anger exist equally in my past and in movies I haven't seen yet. MH: Because you work with status quo pictures are you concerned that the many people who are never represented in movies (the working poor, immigrants, the elderly…) are similarly missing from your work? Does your work mimic the exclusions of mainstream media? AC: The images I choose are steeped in representational stereotypes. And the presentation of the work (as you've indicated) is exclusive and limited (video festivals and galleries). These realities weigh on me and at the same time push me to keep working. I'm always interested in what type of person is cast to play different emotions. There are so many hidden rules. When a horror movie deals with an "unknown phenomenon," the main character is usually a white woman with straight brown hair. If her hair is curly, then perhaps she's called the evil to her, and if she isn't white, well then she is the phenomenon itself. The racist, classist, sexist realities of these movies have been analyzed by many people and it's my hope to continue the discussion using the pictures themselves. MH: A young girl looks into a mirror, but when we see the answering shot it is a man's face that looks back at her. Throughout this movie you disperse subjectivity between genders and across different age groups. You ask us to unify these experiences, these bodies. I understood the climactic scene where a man crashes through a window as emblematic of this broken subjectivity. As a viewer my identification is asked to shuttle between the two poles of broken and whole. Supposed To is carefully structured, filled with rhyming gestures (a hand wipes the windshield of a car, other hands grip a steering wheel, a third shot shows yet another car on the road, though the montage makes it feel as if it's all the same car). Can you talk about the overall structure of Supposed To with its prelude of first steps, its attempted escape, the window crash, the telephone call and the return home. AC: Like all my videos, Supposed To is structured through intuition. I'll write scripts prior to editing; or elaborate paper edits to structure the argument I want to make, but it always changes during editing. Each shot has its own rhythm and each edit its own meter, so no matter what I want to say conceptually, I'm led primarily by mood. The montage produces a sequence of emotions; the struggle is for the emotions to say what I mean. Supposed To begins with a scene of a boy helping an old man take off his boots. The old man pushes the boy's bum with his foot to help him get the boot off. The scene is simultaneously sweet and creepy and acts as a prelude for an investigation about obligation and guilt. Following this is a series of feet taking steps through a field, up stairs, in hallways, outside a door. It is a collective arrival by people who, at least in my mind, have come to hear: "There's a whole machine that works because everyone does what they are supposed to. I found out I was supposed to be something I didn't like." From here the movie begins unraveling the complexity of work; a suitcase falls, a woman scrambles through her wallet and sees that her ID is gone, another woman falls into a pool, a man in a uniform collapses, shots of losing oneself are interwoven with people at work. A man sits at a table eating bananas in milk as another voice talks about working nine to five and how that "snuffs out eccentricities" and results in passive aggression. A woman vacuums. A girl looks into a mirror and sees someone else. This continues from person to person, each facing themselves in order to see another. People are shocked, confused and frustrated. This catalyzes a change and escape. A woman puts on her housecoat and another woman looks out the window. A young woman frantically gets into a van, people are packing, and a series of cars driving occurs. A boy sitting in a vehicle turns his head and says "Know what I did?" A shot of scattered clothes and broken glass follows. A woman is on the phone, she covers the receiver and says: "He broke a window." The escape has prompted a confession about something that hasn't happened, or at least doesn't seem wrong. The confession itself has caused a crime. A series of people fall through windows, and glass is scattered on various floors. A boy is running away. A man lies face down on the shore. The final scene begins with the phone ringing. A woman picks it up and hears a man's voice saying: "Time has come to put aside childish things..." Three more women are listening on the phone and one says "OK" in response. The man continues "Face up to who you are…" Three more woman listen. The man says "...suspicions of destiny...", "...surely you must be feeling it..." A woman answers, "Yes, I am." The voice continues, "We all have them..." and a boy on the phone answers, "Oh, OK." The man concludes: "...a deep, wordless knowledge." A woman looking in shock hangs up the phone followed by a series of hang-ups and a boy saying, "Did I do anything wrong?" Shots of a few people located outside houses appear and a woman says, "I thought it was all over." A woman enters a room and takes off her stockings, another woman drops her keys and the final woman drops her coat, returns to a bed, sits down, hesitates to pick up the phone and instead sits in silence and bows her head. I hope the end explains itself. For me, the scene is very dramatic and enters a new territory. Something I will develop more in new projects. ALL RIGHT MH: ALL RIGHT is a very unusual hybrid film: part found footage collage, part immigration polemic. Can you talk about you became involved with issues of displacement, borders and Canadian immigration? Why did you mix these concerns with found footage, how does the ‘other' footage figure/function in the movie? AC: The ideas in ALL RIGHT are based on experiences I had doing various types of activist work around new immigration policies and detainee issues after 9/11. I learned about a Toronto Immigrant Holding Centre which is a converted motel near the airport where refugees and immigrants were being held for long periods of time in poor conditions, behind razor wire, without information about why they are there. This detention centre was called the Celebrity Inn and is now called the Heritage Inn. It is a large place where people (mostly women and children) are brought directly from planes. Reena, my ex-girlfriend, worked with a group that made visits to the centre, played cards with some of the people and worked to get them the aid and information they needed. ALL RIGHT grew out of the reality that refugees and immigrants can be arrested or detained without criminal charges and held indefinitely once they arrive in Canada until they are granted citizenship. Once I started researching immigration issues in government sponsored footage I realized that we have been talking about the same issues in Canada for years. Many of the documentaries I searched through were made in the early 80's and still felt relevant in 2004. I believe that there is an unstated kind of racism in Canada. When I was in high school there were a lot of Asian immigrants from Hong Kong in my classes. They had been sent to Vancouver without their parents, many had houses and cars, that's where the parties were. My mother said the reason the women didn't come with their children is because they were afraid that their husbands wouldn't be faithful. She had no Asian friends, there was no way for her to know anything about the lives of these people, but this story made her feel more comfortable with them being "everywhere." Many referred to the new immigrants as the "Asian invasion." People said it freely without any shame, without any reference to their own immigrant history. When I was growing up, racism was never called racism, it was simply entitlement and maybe very complex fear. When I started thinking about the characteristics of this shameless racism, many images came to mind. I began looking for movie moments where people are confused, unable to see anything around them. There's a shot in ALL RIGHT showing a guy from his thighs down, he's on a gravel road and kicks a rock. It's so defeatist, it feels like a powerless, childish gesture. There's a woman wearing a dress searching through a grassy field. The drama of her action foreshadows the fact that she's not going to find whatever she's looking for. A woman turns a corner and runs down a hallway; without seeing who is chasing her or what she's running from she can only be running from herself. The movie opens with a boy bending down to kiss something, a creepy woman's voice says, "Feel it, it makes you strong." Her voice provides an emotional anthem for the piece, an emotional calling for the nationalism which the movie takes up later. A woman turns to a man in a car and asks him if he feels it and he responds, "I feel things as they come, come on." This concludes the anthem. He opens a door, another man walks through a door into a bedroom suspicious of something being under the covers. He tears off the covers and nothing is there. What stops people from feeling things as they come are suspicions. Then the song begins and the title comes up. We work to make things seem all right, but they never are because we're not present to how we really feel. These fears are also felt on a nation wide level. I took footage from a Canadian documentary called Who Gets In? and officer training movies from Immigration Canada. In one sequence we watch an interaction between an immigration officer and a woman who is applying to immigrate through the lens of emotional manipulation. They have this exchange. "Because you want to upgrade? Because you want to study computers? Well I'll tell you honestly, very honestly, I don't believe you." "Sir but…" "That's what I think. The new employment that you want to find in Canada I don't know what you're going to find in Canada. I'm meaning that I'm not sure that you know what you're going to find in Canada. Because you know nothing about Canada. I would not invest anything if I were you. You will not be going to Canada." What he uses to make a decision about her application is based on a judgment on what she knows or doesn't know about a country she's never been to. It's manipulative criteria. They're not having a conversation, he's telling her what he believes, and what she thinks. Based on his judgment of her he's decided that she's not eligible. When a real dialogue doesn't take place interaction is reduced to superficial impressions and racisms. Scenes like this helped explain to me why no one knows and even fewer care that a motel has been turned into a covert detention centre. MH: There is a striking shot where a blonde woman comforts a large naked man. Can you talk about the origin of this scene and why you included it in your movie? AC: This shot comes from one of my favorite movies, it's called Brainwash. It's about a woman (the blonde) who takes over a company using psychological tactics that break people down to their rawest emotional selves. The naked fat man is Buddy, who she asks to strip in front of a group of men and talks him through his childhood sexual abuse as the explanation for his weight. I keep thinking I'll use the whole scene, but tend to grab tiny bits from it for various projects. She manipulates the employees of the company under the guise of compassion and moral integrity. The shot that I use in ALL RIGHT occurs at the end of the scene. Buddy exposes himself, physically and emotionally as she encourages him to cry. He does and she hugs him. What stands out for me is the complication behind compassion and care. At the time, this scene felt a lot like what gets called "standard procedure" by the Canadian Immigration Department when it is really the excuse for arbitrary treatments. MH: Your new movies have just premiered at the Impakt Festival in the Netherlands. How was it? AC: Supposed To was a part of a program called "Survival of the Fittest," which carried this description: "The rat race of modern life makes ever greater demands on its participants. For the moment, there is no room for compassion with the less talented. What does stress do to people, how far can you go in your ambitions, and what will the future of our industrial society look like?" The Central Museum's auditorium is a black glass box that makes day feel like night. When you're inside the building you can see the outside darkened through the tinted glass, but when you're outside you can't see in. Supposed To screened second in the program. Following the first voice of an old man saying "Help me out with these boots would ya?" there was a loud noise. I thought something screwed up with a speaker, but when I looked over I saw a guy on the outside of the building with a hose spraying the side windows. The projectionist went over and banged his fist on the glass. The man didn't hear the banging and continued washing the window until the projectionist went outside to tell him to stop. The entire interaction was visible from inside the theatre and functioned as a replacement scene for the first three minutes of the video. When the screening was over, I took a train back to Amsterdam and thought about what had happened. In many ways, it was a perfect live scene for the movie. I've often wondered how I might want to integrate live components into my work. Maybe this is a beginning. Two men were trying to do their jobs and one conflicted with the other. Both men were angry and the audience was watching. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed for the window washer who was not only told to stop doing his job but was being watched by everyone inside without knowing. I was embarrassed for the projectionist who tried to tell the window washer to stop and in doing so became just as much a spectacle as the disruptive window washing. And I was really embarrassed for myself, as though I had planned the whole thing. This interview is a part of MIKE HOOLBOOM'S second volume of FRINGE FILM IN CANADA.
Queering Plunder presents recent video installations by five of this country’s most provocative and accomplished producers: Aleesa Cohene, Nelson Henricks, Dara Gellman and Leslie Peters (in collaboration) and Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay. Their four works on exhibition at the Dunlop Regional Art Gallery find connections in their unique capacity to challenge heteronormative narratives in music, cinema and language. Through their collective crush on found media, the artists remake and remix the materials they’ve appropriated, recontextualizing it to produce sophisticated, poetic and counterintuitive examinations of the intersections of popular media and a queer unconscious. It is at these intersections that we find the artists asking us to dispense with familiar understandings and move toward a new, queer kind of knowing. In Queering Plunder, organized for Queer City Cinema 2006, there are no same-sex kisses or coming out stories. In place of these tropes, we are presented instead with perspectives: rich in social and political critique, these works trace a powerful queer arc that speaks to the libratory absence of the familiar. As we engage with this work we find ourselves searching for something, trying to organize the fragments, waiting for answers, combing the landscape, sifting through the evidence and, though we are seduced by the momentum of this looking, we come up empty-handed. It is here that we recognize that the works deliberately embrace a kind of psychic instability so that in our failure to find - that is, our inability to locate an emblematic narrative, a predetermined order, an appropriate emotion, the right words - we are strangely satisfied and, somehow, free. These four video installations are difficult projects to stabilize within any existing discourse. Though the works have a certain rambunctiousness to them, they are thorough and calculated in their borrowings, swift in their reconstructions and strategic in their presentation. In Ready to Cope by Aleesa Cohene, one is quickly consumed by a profound sadness as each piece of the security blanket is pulled away. Children dominate an emotional trajectory that unites fragments from horror and science-fiction films, thrillers, self-help guides and motivational instruction videos. Alluding to a “deep wordless knowledge” . Ready to Cope is made from the moments before and after, when the plot is at an impasse and the dialogue is silenced, forming a new narrative of defensiveness and self-protection. In Dara Gellman and Leslie Peters’ projection, Impossible Landscapes, we are drawn helplessly into an irreducible image. Its magnificent proportions provoke notions of violence and ecstasy, and present us with a world where benevolence is suspect, and narratives both real and imagined are intertwined. In Lyric by Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, we share in the artist’s manic remixing of his own new pop narrative, using sound bites collected from 1000 love songs. His iPod heartbreak is as enduring as it is potentially infinite, his performance an exquisite corpse of emotions, his Libretto a new poetry of loss where everything gets started but nothing ever finished. And finally, in the dual projection Satellite, Nelson Henricks combines found footage and techno beats to question western societies’ ongoing obsession with science, technology and the future. With a dark signature wit, Henricks turns a society gone word-crazy on its metaphorical ear and leaves us with more questions than there could ever be answers. In a world where queer is a simultaneously empty and overflowing signifier and no longer easily definable, these works rely on found media in order to offer us a new way of thinking about the queer self and perhaps a new, culturally imperative, queer way of knowing. Queer in its strangeness, in its imperceptibility, and in its perversion of the knowledge project – are these pieces not, in some way, telling us it’s OK (if not absolutely necessary) to not know? And like the giddiness that threatens us on the edge of this idea, these works are irrepressible and unstoppable. The Queering Plunder exhibition ran from November 17, 2006 to January 14, 2007 at the DUNLOP ART GALLERY'S Central Gallery. The show was curated by DEIRDRE LOGUE.
This selection of works showcases remarkable single channel videos made by Canadians in recent years. The five selected works present a spectrum of creative strategies: endurance performance, appropriated footage, personal address to the camera and the incorporation of mechanisms of popular culture. Some works consist of a single take. Others contain hundreds of cuts. Often performing, shooting and editing the works themselves, the artists’ presence is undeniable in each piece; yet sometimes the artist is visible and sometimes he or she is craftily shrouded. Some enact characterizations, some perform choreographed gestures, some use their corporeal shell as a tool of measurement. But within the arc of this program, all works share one commonality. Each artist consciously positions his body within the structure of the video, right under the surface. With each work the artist’s place shifts, and with each work, their presence is distinctly experienced. Heather Keung’s Handstand presents us with the artist enacting a simple, yet difficult physical task. The set and performance are stripped down; she’s literally bare, her skin bathing in the afternoon sunlight. No props are visible - just the artist, a concrete sidewalk and a brick wall. The work she has assigned herself seems easy at first: holding a handstand as long as possible. Slowly, as time passes and holding the posture becomes more taxing, the effort becomes apparent on the artist’s face. Her physical faculties are being drawn upon quickly, used up before our eyes. The artist is distracted by a sound, looks sideways, then labours her head back to face us. A shaft of light appears against the brick wall: a cloud has passed. As these small, discrete moments occur, we become aware that the seconds are unfolding. Her abdominal muscles start to twitch with exertion and soon she rolls forward out of the pose, spent. Though Keung simply places herself within the frame, and performs, she is not a performance artist in this work. The performance act is a physical endurance and the aesthetic is sparse, creating a work that - for the artist - is modest but not simple. The work is a document of a performance by an artist: her body performing a feat of strength. worthless human by Jeremy Bailey also complicates the notion of performance by artists by introducing smoke and mirrors, then revealing the person behind. The work opens to a dark space inhabited by an ethereal, otherworldly being. Glowing in orange fire, this creature hovers within the frame, taunting us, the viewer. “Worthless human….you’re pathetic. I’ll eat your brains for breakfast!” it says in a deep, gravelly voice, twirling a weapon threateningly. The berating continues, but the image lightens and reveals a slender, lanky young man gripping a broom like a battleaxe. The layers of video effects over this image have been lifted and we see the artist, awkwardly twisting and turning in front of a green-screened studio wall. worthless human was inspired by Raza Ghyslain, a Canadian high school student unwittingly made famous for a video he made of himself imitating the Star Wars character Darth Maul in November 2002. Raza’s impromptu performance cassette was found by a fellow student, encoded to a digital format and uploaded to a peer-to-peer file-sharing network, making it one of the most downloaded videos worldwide. Known as the ‘Star Wars Kid’ in Canadian culture and international media, Raza was reported to have suffered much embarrassment as the entertainment value of the video came from the humour of his lack of grace and athletic prowess. In the case of worthless human, the audience is brought in to meet the artist within his own space – the studio. We see the artist thrashing ridiculously, kicking the air, and nearly smashing a chandelier with his 'weapon'. The man behind the curtain is revealed. The removal of the snazzy audio and video effects also unveils the tongue-in-cheek setup of Bailey’s video: pithy choreography and a seemingly slapdash set, lighting, and costume. In the position of the protagonist, Bailey also reveals himself - from mysterious, frightening being to denuded, dorky media artist. We’ve been graciously invited to Nerd-dom. Daniel Cockburn’s Metronome features the artist in the primary role on a bizarre personal quest: he tries to maintain a steady beat for an extended period of time. Pounding his chest at a regular pace, the artist attempts to make it through the day keeping cadence with this chosen rhythm of 144 beats per minute. The artist is driven to unlock the mysteries of order. He is aiming to discover what the lowest common denominator is for this beat, and all others that exist in our world. Tying his own performance to Hollywood cinema, Cockburn hypothesizes about the effects of devoted moviegoing on his psyche. He speculates that the visual and auditory rhythms of film have, over time, affected him adversely. Underlying this individual examination is a deep Canadian response to the unending flow of images from our southern neighbour, the United States of America. Above all, Metronome, is about oneself and one’s universe; it unravels that horrifying and very personal moment when one has a suspicion about the world and worries that he or she might be wrong, but worse, suspects that he or she is right. Cockburn addresses the unsavory yet very human task of questioning one’s own opinions. This all takes place on camera, with the artist in the position of protagonist, creating a very personal and vulnerable work. Patriotic is the first collaborative work by Canadian artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay and French artist Pascal Lievre. The artists tackle the language of anti-terrorism with humour and song by taking the infamous US-American Patriot Act address given by George W. Bush as their source. These historical words are set to the musical score of Canadian songstress Celine Dion’s "My Heart Will Go On" creating an equally disarming and alluring video. The artists, dressed in military gear, sing brightly about acceptable investigatory measures. Animated text blocks of Bush’s speech streak diagonally across the image, functioning like karaoke subtitles: the audience can sing along. The words and the performers seem to frame one another, mutually and equally commanding attention. Both Nemerofsky Ramsay and Lievre have a history of including themselves in their own works, and this first collaboration between them is a seductive combination of their styles. The marriage of Bush’s speech with Dion’s smash hit from the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic reveal poignant and frightening relationships between these two iconic expressions of popular culture. The artists' polished personae, with their array of bedazzled authoritarian uniforms, positions of salute, and supportive, confident expressions complete this cheeky propaganda video. Aleesa Cohene is a gatherer, a culler. With Ready to Cope she binds together many narratives, though unlike the other artists in this program, none are her own creation. She has gathered hundreds of images from cinema, self-help videos, and instructional tapes from the late seventies to the late eighties and assembled them into a collage of muted tones, pre-famous stars, and outdated hairstyles. As the story begins, there seems to be both one character and many. Building tension through archival and appropriated imagery such as shots of hands covering up ears and eyes, instructions on pill-taking, and a series of short bathtub scenes, Cohene reveals an underlying cinematic narrative of preparation and preparedness. We are pulled slowly into a series of shots of crowds looking skyward and people in freefall, their arms and legs flailing. This new use of old footage unsettlingly echoes the media’s images of the September 11th attacks. How much of this is her editing style and how much are we the audience, piecing this together? These snippets are all from different sources, yet by splicing them from their source, re-ordering them and adding a soundtrack, a familiar and painful visual narrative is referenced and marked upon by our collective filmic memory. We’re watching these fellow beings preparing for impact, and death. Does this reflect a Canadian desire to be ready to cope? Cohene’s use of music is important. She chooses grand tunes: notable contemporary post-rock sagas dramatically sweeping from quiet to loud. A booming crescendo of explosions darkly leads us to chilling finale - the shots for which may or may not be closing finale shots within their original context. This piece strikes a deep chord in our recent memories of crisis - yet all this source material has been repurposed and at least twenty years old. Cohene has chosen all found material from the decade after her birth in 1976. Using her own life as the criteria for selecting the source material she’s used, Ready to Cope assembles a pre-9-11 picture of security, leading us to ask the question, How has the way we see ‘terror’ changed since we were twenty years younger? How has the depiction of crisis shifted since the events of September 11th? Cohene uses her body as the measuring stick against which culture is metered and selected. Keung uses her body as a measurement of itself, of its own resources. Bailey debunks the myth of the performer through his choreography and editing. Cockburn asks earnest questions about himself and his world on camera. Nemerofsky Ramsay and Lievre employ their bodies, voices and video techniques to challenge western icons. In each case, the artist has positioned him or herself within the structure of their video. The use of the self as materia prima comes from Canadian video art’s long relationship to performance and considerations around the relationship of the human body to the camera. The use of the body in video art could seem outmoded, but these artists have created vignettes that have individual examinations, poignant opinions, provocative values, and personal challenges. And in using their own bodies, they have given a face to the contemporary Canadian psyche. Recent Canadian Video Shorts was presented by curator ALISSA FIRTH-EAGLAND as part of the Summer Light City Contemporary Art Festival by the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art at MUU GALLERY, Helsinki, Finland in 2006. The program featured new video works by artists Jeremy Bailey, Daniel Cockburn, Aleesa Cohene, Heather Keung, Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay & Pascal Lievre.
Aleesa Cohene is a young video artist based in Toronto who recently distributed her collected works (2001-06) on DVD. Her two newest works, Supposed To and Ready to Cope, will be screening on a cargo ship through the canals of Utrecht, the Netherlands, during Impakt Festival 2006. In Supposed To, as in all her work, Cohene seamlessly edits together found film footage (mostly American) from the seventies and eighties. The result is a kind of airtight passage where one whizzes by a multitude of scenarios and characters that make an eerie impression or ring some distant bell, and then quickly vanish. The editing technique suggests a kind of mind-control echo - that this vast bank of films we have watched growing up has deeply influenced our conscious and subconscious behaviour. A clear line running through Cohene’s work is that the body, (shown in almost all her selected clips) is the ultimate receptacle of ideology imposed on it. The body - shown here bursting out of windows, falling down, rummaging, waking up, stuffing itself with food, looking at its face in the mirror - is the strange, uncanny filter that exposes the truth of how we feel about our lives. In all her videos, the artist suggests that intuition and physical impulse will overrule any attempt to impose rational control. "There is a whole machine that works because everybody does what they’re supposed to," says a voiceover at the beginning of Supposed To. Supposed To begins with a young boy yanking off (with difficulty) a man’s cowboy boots and then glides into a shot of a woman’s legs scrambling over some falling sticks. It continues with shots of people walking on various grounds, cropped only to reveal the lower legs and feet. The technique sustains a kind of menacing tension; you don’t know where the video is going or who is taking us along. Rhythm is an important element, here; the images are cut precisely and elegantly to an electronic pop-music score (uncredited). Ready to Cope begins with a young boy dejectedly pulling at some tall plants, as the voiceover comes on: "In the history of Canada there hasn’t been a crisis this deep and this merciless." The disjunction of sound and image is unsettling. The video continues to portray the body-in-crisis in an unstable, unsafe environment (Cohene selects clips like a woman’s high-heeled shoe getting wedged into a crack, a woman snapping a pantyhose stocking, a person sliding down a muddy riverbank). The work builds in tension and aggression and expertly culminates in scenes of wind menacingly blowing through open windows and people scrambling away from some unknown threat. Both videos are charged with an apprehensive, critical energy. Cohene reveals the sensitivity of the body in a climate of fear, so relevant to our current moment. Aleesa Cohene’s work is distributed by V-Tape, in Toronto. This article by K.G. GUTTMAN was published in the Concordia University magazine “Les Fleurs du Mal”, “the video art issue” Vol 1 – no. 2.