MARYAM JAFRI IN CONVERSATION WITH KATHRIN BECKER
M.J.: In my earlier video works, I was not interested in autobiography but instead as using myself as a model in an exploration of subjectivity and individual identity on a practical level. When you start out, it’s often easiest to direct yourself and work with yourself. I was also very inspired by 1970s video art, which very much used the camera as a mirror to go into this kind of exploration of subjectivity.
K.B.: But although you were now talking about subjectivity, psychic states, this work wasn’t actually autobiographical; it wasn’t an exploration of your own self...
M.J.: No, not in that sense. In the videos, for example, they’re actually quite abstract; the characters are not given any names – father, mother, he, she. There’s no real narrative; it’s very often a very commonplace language, so that any viewer can plug in or identify with the little stories that are presented. They’re more like models.
K.B.: Generally speaking, how far does you own biography and origin have an influence on your work?
M.J.: That’s a good question. I think what happens is that because I’ve grown up and lived on three different continents, I feel that a lot of the ideas that are current now about the subjectivity or relativity of truth, or the way that one’s gender or cultural background affects the reading and hence writing of history or contemporary culture, these kinds of ideas I’ve experienced somehow just in the way I’ve moved around, from Pakistan to the US, and now in Europe. That’s how my biography is present, not in a literal way, but more in terms of strategy.
K.B.: For Costume Party, you decided to work with film and theatre actors from the Royal Danish Theatre. Why? Since you were saying in regard to the earlier works that it’s easier to direct yourself than another person...
M.J.: Well, what happened was is that I did a piece in between Called Entrance: Desire in 2003, where I worked with a couple of actors and also myself, and on a very simple, practical level I found IT very difficult to direct and act simultaneously. With Costume Party, because it was a whole panorama of 18 actors, I very much preferred to take on the role of director. In terms of actors coming from the theatre, I wanted stylised performances rather than the naturalistic or method acting common in film. The piece itself is quite over the top, both visually and in terms of script, so the acting just adds to this excess. And what I found, going back to your earlier question, was that it was actually extremely smooth and comfortable directing these other actors after having worked on myself as a performer. And a lot of the theatre actors very much enjoyed the project. It was quite interesting to work with them. The one conscious thing I had to do was to try not to direct them as the way I would play the role How much do you direct them, to what extent are you over-directing them? So that’s a balance that hopefully I’ve maintained.
K.B.: In Costume Party, the actors are from very different origins. You worked with Danes, Chileans, Turks, Swedes, Finns, and they all speak English through the entire film. Was the foreign accent something that you were interested in?
M.J.: Yes. You know what happens when people speak English with these different accents? It makes certain properties of language more dramatic, specifically that language is an external structure that comes with its own history, a history in which you as an individual are incorporated into. That also happens with your native tongue, your first language, but because it happens at such an early age it becomes very difficult to separate yourself from this structure.
And when you learn a second language, I think it becomes very clear that you are confronting a structure, an other structure. So, in a way it just emphasized what I think are certain properties of language and that are very much present in my earlier videos. In the earlier videos it’s also not a naturalistic style of acting, some people think it sounds like the characters are reading or reciting this text, that it’s being spoken through them. These are properties of language that I’m interested in.
In this piece, I really wanted to make it clear that English is not their first language, and that they are speaking it in very different ways. Aurally as well, you hear different melodies; that was interesting to work with.
K.B.: Another important feature of Costume Party is that it’s a three-screen installation. You’re constantly changing perspectives in the work, from the total view to fragments, splitting the fiction. Why did you decide to work with a three-screen installation for this particular piece?
M.J.: There are several reasons. One is that Costume Party presents a view across Western history, with eighteen characters dressed in costumes from different historical moments. It thus presents a panorama through time, and I think with the three screens you can present the whole panorama; you can represent spatially this travel through time.
K.B.: Was the main subject of your work, the subjectivity of history, another reason for taking three different perspectives in the work?
M.J.: Yes, definitely. I don’t want to overload the viewer with information in order to make it confusing but rather to reveal in the process of viewing that there’s always more than what can be consumed in one moment. Obviously, as you said, it connects to this idea that in constructing a narrative from a vast amount of material, things are left oft, and then the question is what is left out and why.
K.B.: So, now when you’re talking about the visual level we are talking about the change in perspectives, the nonlinearity of Costume Party in a sense. But when it comes to sound, there’s just one sound track. Does this soundtrack, contrary to the visuals, return a precise order to the work; does it return linearity to the story?
M.J.: It was a conscious decision to use one soundtrack, and again it’s this balance between not creating confusion, but creating complexity. And I think that between the sound and the image I’m hoping to achieve the right balance, so that the viewer is aware that there are different realities, different things going on, but at the same time there is some kind of narrative that the viewer can take away from the work.
K.B.: And the work is installed in such a way so that there’s a distance from one projection screen to the next, a gap. And these gaps sometimes function so that the actual action seems to extend into the gap. What is the function of this withdrawal?
M.J.: As an artist I consider one of my roles to be a researcher of contemporary reality, cultural narratives, and the like. But I also wanted to explore the specificity of the medium, the three-screen video installation, in this case. Often in classical cinema, directors used the off-screen space, and placed actions within in that the viewer could not see. In this sense, what happens outside the frame could be as significant as what happens inside the frame. For example, a murder takes place, but you don’t see the murder, the camera films people’s reactions instead.
I noticed that in contemporary video art installations, although you know there’s been a lot of theorization about how the space around the installation is a space for the viewer to move around it freely as a body, there’s been little theorization about what it means for the narrative arc of a video installation that you have these dead spaces. When you move from one screen to multiple screens, this off screen space in film is analogous to the space in between screens. If you can use it in film as part of the story, why not also in a video installation?
K.B.: When you are working with a three-projection screen, it’s less possible to channel the emotions or reactions of the viewer, since his or her focus is divided; his or her standpoint is much less firm. Do you consider this an important democratizing element in the work, keeping in mind historical subjectivity as an important question?
K.B.: Is this also where your work relates to theatrical traditions? Talking about Brecht, and his direct approaches, to the public, for instance, think of the Merman in Costume Party, when he is directly addressing the audience?
M.J.: When I was working on Costume Party, I was interested in using a language that goes between theatre, film and video. And as you said, at one point in a Brechtian turn the Merman breaks out of his mimetic role and directly addresses the audience. But even though it seems like he is talking to the audience, every time he says ‘you did this’, ‘you did that’, in the other two screens, the camera is moving and filming different characters, in synch with his speech. His words seem to direct the camera movements in the other two screens. If it were film or theatre, you could say it’s a Brechtian turn and it is, certainly, but there are two other screens, and it’s not clear whom he’s speaking to. The audience, the other characters, or something in between?
K.B.: Your work Siege of Khartoum, 1884, a series of photo-text collages that appropriates iconic images from the Iraq war invasion, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein, or the tearing down of a statue in a public square, and combines them with archival news texts from earlier points of history, taken from a newspaper archive, stemming from the period of the high imperialism, late 19th century, to the present day. This work is obviously critical towards the mass media and mass perception. How are the two works related to one another?
M.J.: There are certain very obvious differences, formal and visual. Siege of Khartoum, 1884 is a black and white, archival photo collage, which is very discursive, Costume Party is very visual, full colour, and obviously moving images, there’s a script, but it’s not very discursive, that is, going into history in terms of facts and figures or investigating specific events. But I see the two works as approaching the same theme from two different angles, and shedding light or circling around a certain issue in very different ways.
In Costume Party there’s a scene where a British soldier is talking to the woman dressed up in the tuxedo, and they are talking about wanting to leave the party, because they are feeling very contained or imprisoned in the room where the party takes place. They mention that in the world outside the party there are riots, and uprisings, and all kinds of things, but that they are safe inside. But it’s not clear whether the room is a safe place or a prison that contains them, it has elements of both. The viewers are likewise in a dark room watching the drama unfold.
But in the other room in the exhibition, I’ve installed the photo collages that represent interventions of particularly the British and the Americans, into foreign countries. The Siege of Khartoum, 1884 deals with wars, uprisings, riots and all sorts of disorder happening outside the borders of Europe and the West, so thematically it touches upon what the two women are discussing. So that’s one thing. The show hopefully calls into question the image of Western history presented in Costume Party by juxtaposing it with repressed episodes from the margins of empire.
K.B.: Considering ‘criticalness’ as a possibility of uncovering and scrutinizing the cultural situation, is criticality then a necessity in your understanding of contemporary art?
M.J.: As I said when I was working with Costume Party, I thought that one of the functions of contemporary artist was that of a researcher into whatever the exact area of that individual’s practice is. In my case, if you’re dealing with history and our imaginary relationship to it, at least for me I can’t help but think of Gramsci and his theories of hegemony, where he makes it very clear that hegemony is a form of consensus, the construction of common sense. But this consensus is sustained by violence, both psychic and physical violence, or the threat of violence. I think therefore if you start interrogating certain structures in society by asking why they look the way they do, then this implies an investigation into the nature of the violence that sustains them. And even in so-called everyday life you hear clichés like ‘history is written by the victors’.
K.B.: You chose a black actor for the figure of the Roman emperor. In Costume Party, and this refers to the debate about the Black Athena, as Michael Eng writes in his essay, which states that Africa is the actual cradle of Western civilization. This forms the subtext, a meaning beyond the spoken word. Are there more subtexts of this kind in Costume Party?
M.J.: Yes. There’s another one that’s quite similar. There’s a Victorian widow, and she’s of East Asian origin, that was a reference again to hidden histories. There was a great deal of immigration to the US and Canada from East Asia, China and the Pacific Rim especially around the late 19th century. The immigrants were key to the construction of the Pacific railroads and the mines.
Another subtext goes back to your question about multiple screens and multiple realities. For me, a multiple screen video installation works in the manner of a collage, because you have three screens, and as you said, you go from totals to fragments, so you are putting together multiple images, combining them and recombining them. When I was making the storyboard, I was very much thinking of collage. For example at one point on one screen you have the cowboy, on another screen the Victorian woman, and on the third screen the woman dressed in a man’s tuxedo. That is a reference to a common plot in Westerns, where you have this woman caught between the very manly cowboy and the more effeminate man from the East, from New York or Boston, who has money, but is often corrupt and decadent. So Costume Party also looks at the ways these costumes have been used in other films. But these are all really subtle, under the radar. I hope you don’t need to know that to enjoy the video.
Also significant is where the characters are standing. At one point you have the Roman emperor sitting next to the fetish guy and the eighteenth century dandy in velvet and lace, the one who look’s like he’s from Barry Lyndon or Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Visually again it’s a collage or juxtaposition representing three different facets of contemporary masculinity. Similarly in another scene, the Victorian woman is talking to the fetish guy, and they are sitting on what looks like maybe not a Freud couch, but something like that. That’s obviously dealing with sexuality and how its repression and expression are two sides of the same coin. At another time, the Emperor is standing next to the cowboy and the crusader. And with this little trinity, together, I’m representing three narrative strands that are very much present in the contemporary discourse of George W. Bush these days.
K.B.: Michael Eng also touches on that.
M.J.: Yes. So that’s where the collage element comes in. You can bring things together spatially, and then there’s montage that you always work with in a time-based medium, what shot follows what shot, in the editing. Costume Party works with both montage and collage, as a video installation would.
K.B.: Just as a last question, what are you working on right now?
M.J.: My new piece again is quite theatrical, working very much with clothes and costumes and the way they are containers of meaning or reference certain structures or functions in society. The new piece is actually very much inspired by Costume Party in visual terms, but in terms of content by the Siege of Khartoum, 1884, so it will be more discursive than Costume Party, but will have visually a very theatrical element to it, with actors...
K.B.: Will it then continue to explore this notion of masquerade?
M.J.: Yes, but it’s always about balance. In the new piece, the masquerade will be toned down. It will be looking at uniforms in everyday structures, police, legal, what have you, trying to understand the theatre of the everyday.
in: Catalog "Maryam Jafri. Costume Party: Colony + Native", ed. by Kathrin Becker (NBK), Revolver publishers, 2006