The Power Plant

Knowledge Held in Suspense: A Conversation with Kerry Tribe

JUN 14 2012
by Rosemary Heather

Toronto-based writer Rosemary Heather spoke to Los Angeles-based artist Kerry Tribe during her solo exhibition Speak, Memory at The Power Plant (24 March – 3 June 2012).

This excerpt is part of a longer conversation, most of which took place in a taxi on the way to the Toronto airport. Heather notes, “Setting out to do this interview, I devised a theory of how to understand Tribe’s work. As often happens, however, our conversation overtook any hope I had of getting Tribe to commit to a particular hypothesis about her art practice – it defies easy encapsulation. This made talking to Tribe about her work much like the experience of engaging with it: the process is an end in itself.”

ROSEMARY HEATHER: One way that I thought of talking about your work is through the lens of Here & Elsewhere (2002). You remade a piece by Jean-Luc Godard, in which he interviews children by asking them metaphysical questions. Can I locate that as a framework for your work as a whole?

KERRY TRIBE: The idea of remaking something?

RH: Yes.

KT: I don’t know if I would think of it as remaking so much as returning. At UCLA when I was a graduate student I organized a series of screenings — a 24-hour unofficial film festival — because I discovered a little pocket of money in the graduate program that allowed me to rent some titles.

I had never seen Godard’s television series France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants (1977) and a friend recommended it, so I screened it. I just screened the first two episodes. I was really struck by what happened when this big father of avant-garde film and video (who was a Maoist and tough and rigorous and making images that were often difficult to look at) set out to interrogate this little girl and little boy about heavy political and philosophical issues. The little girl’s responses, which were down-to-earth and sometimes confused, were totally compelling to me. What was it about the presence of this little girl? There’s one point in the video where her face appears — her name is Camille Virolleaud — and over it is the word "Verité" in big letters. And I thought: There’s something accurate about that. We all want to identify with this simple, you might say, Cartesian subject position that says: Yes I know. I’m here. I only exist once. I walk through my life. I understand things or I don’t, even if we know better. I mean, even if feminism, psychoanalysis and critiques of capitalism tell us that this simple belief in one’s own self-identity, agency and autonomy is inadequate, it’s nevertheless compelling. I wasn’t so much interested in specifically remaking that Godard video, or in pointing directly back to it but rather in trying to see what would happen if some of those questions were asked again. At one point, Godard asked Camille about her room. It’s very bright and it’s clean, and who cleans her room? (I’m paraphrasing.) And she says something like either her mother or the housekeeper does it. And he asks, Well who pays your mother to do this? And she thinks probably nobody does. Do you think maybe The State should pay her? And, Is The State a man? Or a woman? And so on. It’s great stuff.

And these are questions that continue to be urgent. And yet in the end, it didn’t seem viable to do that in 2002. When I tried to work the explicitly political questions into the script it just fell flat. It was actually dreadful.

RH: Can you elaborate? What does your piece look like?

KT: It was the first time that I worked with any kind of crew at all. It was a small crew but I did have a director of photography and two camera operators. And I was experimenting with this camera move, the lateral tracking shot, where the camera looks forward but moves from side to side. I discovered that when you have two images that do that next to one another — Here & Elsewhere is a two-channel video projection in which the images touch in the middle — all sorts of interesting things start to happen. Spatially the world can seem to have fallen into the seam at the middle, or roll out of the left and into the right, or vice versa. Or things can be made to appear out of this impossible space between the images. And I realized that the distance between the camera and the subject would determine the sweet spot, in which you see a perfect kind of panorama that feels plentiful and complete. In other words, if the subject was too far away, you’d see it twice. And if the subject was too close, you wouldn’t see it at all. That discovery ended up being a thought-provoking metaphor for a kind of understanding of the world in general, where your perspective and relationship to it always determine what you’re going to see. And not just like the world in the documentary sense but also history and one’s own personal memory. The past is always understood in relation to the present from which we recollect it, and what’s remembered is determined by the place from which we look. I don’t know if that idea is present in the work for most viewers, but to me it was an interesting point of departure that continued through later projects.

RH: One thing that I wanted to clarify — because you said a lot of interesting things in there — you wanted a second chance at the project Godard initiated?

KT: I haven’t thought of it that way. It was more that I just felt inspired by this conversation he recorded thirty-some years earlier. I took some of my questions from Godard’s tape. I never transcribed it. I just watched it and I thought about which of the questions would work for what I was trying to do. I collaborated with Peter Wollen on framing the questions in a way that his daughter Audrey would understand. It was by pure coincidence that Peter got involved in the project and I think it ended up making the piece about something else.

I first interviewed dozens of young actors, child actors, who were not able to do what I was interested in doing. I didn’t give them a script, I just asked them these questions and they tried to answer. There was no gravity to their performances. They were terrifyingly perky. So, I thought, “I can’t do this project. The little girl I’m looking for isn’t out there.” Then my professor, Mary Kelly, said, “You know, this little girl Audrey Wollen is amazing and maybe you should talk to her mother, my friend Leslie Dick.” After talking with Audrey and Leslie extensively, Audrey got excited about the idea. She was extremely bright, and she really got it. Leslie said, “Well, how about having Audrey’s father [Peter Wollen] play the voice of the off-camera Godard character?” That hadn’t even crossed my mind. So that made the project more historically reflexive because Peter, as you probably know, wrote a lot about Godard. So that did, I think, shift the project. But, I never thought of it as a remake of Godard’s project. And also visually it’s completely, totally different. It was more just inspired by this thing that I watched that really moved me and I wanted to explore that feeling more.

RH: How old was the little girl you interviewed?

KT: Ten years old. Now she's in college.

ROSEMARY: Can you explain the title?

KT: It’s Here & Elsewhere (2002). Godard made a film called Ici et Ailleurs (1976) but it's a different work. I liked that this title was, among other things, a false lead: that it would point you to something adjacent. You’d go to Godard but you wouldn’t go to the right Godard. Anyway, Ici et Ailleurs is great, so if you end up there, watch it.

RH: Because of the Godard reference, you have a sense it was deliberate.

KT: Yeah. Deliberate confusion, I guess.

RH: Well, that makes it consistent with what Godard did, which was to create deliberate disjunctions.

KT: Yeah. Right.

RH: And that relates to the way his practice is predicated on the idea of critical distance and breaking the illusion. That’s why I wanted to locate your work as a whole in Godard, because you’re working in that tradition. But also there’s an assumption today, I think, that artists have abandoned the hope of breaking that illusion, so it’s a different project now.

KT: For me it’s important to strategically use visual pleasure, narrative pleasure and identification in order to explore some of these issues. Or maybe I’m just not ready to lose my audience. I’ve received criticism from members of the generation above mine, which is all about Brechtian ruptures and the strategic use of real time, that Here & Elsewhere makes Audrey too compelling to look at — as though we consume her by looking, as though we can have no critical distance. I would totally disagree. It’s enjoyable, in a critical sense, to feel oneself enjoying her “performance” as herself. We realize that she — and we — are operating in these different registers at once. That’s critical. The piece offers the rare pleasure of being so close to a child just beginning to sense her place in the world, and all the authenticity that implies. But the conversation that drives the piece forward — the theoretical questions Peter asks his daughter — undermine that kind of “plenitude.” Audrey struggles, she stammers, she refuses to pick between one or the other of an offered choice. And we find ourselves agreeing with her.

RH: You were criticized by an older generation, maybe for giving in too far…

KT: I think that’s what it was. In truth, it was only two people that said something but it made an impression because they’re two people that I respect.

I actually met and spoke with Camille, the little French girl, who’s all grown up now and is a couple of years older than me, before I started shooting with Audrey. I talked to Camille about her experience working with Godard and she told me it was awful. She was eight when she did it. She felt taken advantage of and exploited. She felt that she was made to look foolish. So I was very, very careful going into it with Audrey. And I still continue to have a relationship with Leslie, her mother. Actually I recently watched the piece with her and Audrey. It’s all good.

I think the criticism was less about Audrey being objectified as about the work not creating a particular kind of fractured distance or something. I love work that does that too, but what I’m most interested in is an experience where you know better and yet this knowledge is held in a kind of suspension. I have this video, the first video I ever exhibited, of actors auditioning to play members of my family, reading from transcriptions of actual interviews with my family. It was called The Audition Tapes. I made it in 1998 when I lived in New York and there’s one woman who starts crying in it and I never told her to cry. This actor just chose to do that. I was kind of moved and a little concerned for her well-being, and I sheepishly offered her a tissue. I thought that was interesting. Like, what is the minimum point of being compelled as a viewer to identify with the subject on the screen even though you know they’re acting? What does it take to suspend disbelief? So for example, in my new film, There Will Be \________ (2012), there are moments when the lead characters’ names change, because all of the dialogue they speak in that film is appropriated from existing films. So, at one point, the lead, when his body is discovered, he’s called “Lebowski.” And at another moment his lover becomes…

RH: Oh, because The Big Lebowski (1998) was shot in that mansion…

KT: Yeah, exactly. A detective comes in and goes “Oh, Lebowski on the right?” In the original it’s Jeff Bridges pointing to a photo of the other Lebowski on the wall at the mansion. So I used that line, and I didn’t have to use it, but I thought it’s nice to just remind people that these are not stable, coherent figures. Each is a kind of amalgam or composite of different Hollywood stories.

RH: Maybe you could just say a little bit more about this idea of “visual pleasure.” Maybe refer back to the text by Laura Mulvey “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1973).

KT: She was married to Peter Wollen, incidentally.

RH: Right. I’m interested in the way you engage that history, which also relates to Godard. It’s the very long tradition of trying to disrupt viewer identification. I’m interested in the way you engage with that and also how you depart from that.

KT: I guess I’m speaking in pretty loose terms about visual pleasure, not specifically questioning the ways that the image of the woman is fixed by the male gaze or something.

I guess I’m thinking in more of a conventional sense about the pleasure one gets through identification. There’s a lot of pleasure to be derived from the different modes of viewing and making film and, to my mind, I think it’s a great opportunity to engage with those kinds of pleasure rather than say we should put that pleasure aside in the service of doing something really radical. I think already when you step into a museum it is a tiny bit radical. It’s already outside. Personally I take comfort in working outside the larger commercial culture industry of, say, sports or gaming or selling products, or selling stars, whatever. Obviously that’s not my world at all. Maybe it can be almost more radical these days to walk into a museum and see something that passes so well as a conventional narrative or as a conventional documentary, but ends up making you second-guess the form. I do my best to take up these existing modes of representation and work within their conventions. If I had shot There Will Be\________ really crappily — shitty acting, half-assed costumes, obvious lighting (not that it would necessarily be a bad choice) — it certainly wouldn’t be about cinema in the way that it is now. So, you have to jump through those hoops, and it has to be more expensive, and you have to hire all these professional people, and work your ass off. The harder you work the more the labour seems to disappear in the final production. You walk in and you’re like “Oh this looks familiar.” It has to kind of look that way — then it’s the pleasure of discovering that everything that you’re hearing and seeing is actually totally constructed and comes from some other script of a film that you may well have seen but didn’t notice. That starts to be more potent. But it has to pass first, in order to do that work. You know what I’m saying?

A longer version of this interview is in the works. You can follow Rosemary Heather on Twitter @rosemheather for the update.

Rosemary Heather writes about art, the moving image and digital technology for numerous publications internationally, and works as an independent curator. She is based in Toronto.

Kerry Tribe participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1997–98 and received her MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2002. In 2010–11, her solo exhibition Dead Star Light toured to Arnolfini, Bristol; Modern Art Oxford; and the Camden Arts Centre, London. Tribe’s work has been included in recent group exhibitions at such venues as the Vancouver Art Gallery (2011), the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2011), Castello di Rivoli, Turin (2010), and the Generali Foundation, Vienna (2007), as well as in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, New York. Tribe’s work is represented by 1301PE, Los Angeles.