Magical Transformations: A Conversation with Viviane Vagh Justine Gaunt July 2009 Special Dossiers, Spotlight on Viviane Vagh Issue 51 “There are lots of different identities in my genes”, says Viviane Vagh. We speak on the ’phone, she in Paris, me in Yorkshire, but either of us could be anywhere. Viviane has roots in Greece, Australia, France. “I spoke five languages until I was seven, consequently trying to find a word to express an emotion is sometimes difficult!” It’s true, in conversation Viviane often searches for words that evade her – perhaps they don’t exist, or perhaps they defy translation – and it is these moments of reaching, trying to find concepts that in the everyday may seem intangible, that she explores in her work. “Linguistically, there was no one rooted identity, and this resulted in confusion. So, as a child, I developed a visual memory. Being able to visualise became very important for me.” Consequently, early on, Vagh had a highly developed visual sense and a fundamental desire, a need for self-expression. Initially, she translated this into an acting career. “As an actress, finding words that people had written was good for me.” In retrospect, though, acting was only part of the process that would bring Vagh fulfilment as an artist. Perhaps the processes of channelling and interpreting the words and emotions of others led to a deeper understanding and acceptance of her identity (or identities). Practically, too, it provided Vagh with a strong training in theatricality, in dramatic awareness and a powerful choreographic sensibility. Vagh explored various forms – painting, writing, directing – each art providing a channel to express a different facet of the whole. By now Vagh had metamorphosed into an experimental filmmaker, living completely through her work, her vocation. Bringing to her work a highly developed æsthetic sensibility and great dramatic sensitivity, Vagh creates installation film, experimental-art film, arthouse film – call it what you will; it’s fully independent. “Experimental visual work is very expressive and can talk about more emotions”, says Vagh, it’s like a painter in front of his canvas doing exactly what he wants to do with whatever medium he chooses. For me it is a kind of stream of consciousness activity, an improvisation, an artisanal spontaneous impulse with a very personal structured form. Part of the joy of her work for Viviane is the independence of it. A brief period of writing proposals and submitting applications highlighted to her the prescriptiveness of funding in the Arts. In 1997 she made a ‘classic short film’. “The constraints were so big that I decided this was not the form that suited me”, she says, and it was at that point she made a conscious decision to go it alone. Having to get approval or tons of papers signed and authorisations ‘to create’ a film takes away so much creative energy and actually changes your creative approach. The fact that there is no pressure from a production company (what a concept – being your own producer!) or no money invested in you makes you feel very free to do what you want and go where you want! That is precisely what Vagh does. With camera (Super 8, 16mm or digital) in tow like a sketchbook or a notebook and pencil, she lets the image come to her, invites life’s narrative to show its face, rather than attempting to recreate the richness that is already there. It is a very inspiring experience, another way of being with the world and being open to its wonders. Also, I love having the possibility to develop my own films as I choose. This is amazing freedom and fun. The fact that we can edit directly with the filmstrip or digitally offers even more possibilities to explore and be independent in comparison to the cost and constraints of film making in the classic sense. No one can stop you from making a film! Take as much time as you want to make your film! No one pushing or judging! This creative state feels responsible and very cathartic […] The arthouse environment is a stimulating one for me, feeling a closeness to the audience and exchanging with them whenever possible, suits my motivation in experimental film making. And, while there are definite negatives to this process, Vagh has very definitely, very decisively chosen freedom over bureaucracy as her path. The other side of the coin of experimental film making is that you are never sure how many people will get to share your work, but sometimes I don’t show some of my films until years after they have been made. Some of my images have never been seen, this has been my choice, and I don’t think you can do that if you are not totally free. And obviously, that sense of freedom extends to Vagh’s ability to choose with whom to work and collaborate. There is a natural synergy with her husband, the musician Jonathan Levine. Says Vagh, The work I do with Jonathan for my films is a lot of fun and creative. The sharing here is bliss for me. Talk about sense of freedom! I ask him to write some music around this or that concept. I ask him to use these or those sounds. I don’t always have images to show, or sometimes do not even want to show them to him as he works better with his imagination if he doesn’t see the images. I tell him my idea and he explores it through his composition. Then we talk about it. Sometimes the piece he has written stays the way he has written it. Other times we work on the choice of rhythm, beat, choice of instruments, abstraction of it, composition of other sounds, my voice, superimposing the same composition with a delay creating an echo, or using parts of the piece in only one section and not in the rest. It is very experimental work I do with Jonathan for my experimental films! The pair also works collaboratively on installations and performances, and have written a musical comedy together. Thematically, as well as texturally, Viviane Vagh explores the rich seam of her own life’s experience to create something that reflects the universality of human experience. When I make a film, the theme is either something that I have been thinking about for a long time and have waited for the emotional intensity to be at its highest, I then ‘give birth to it’, like matter that has matured inside some part of myself. Or, it can be a spontaneous inspiration of a subject, which has caught my attention, or even better my eye and which I want to film or (re)trace. A moment that I want to fix on the film strip because it is beautiful, something special I know I can use again in a thematic or in the context of a film. It happens often also that some of my films are made because I just want to ‘play’ and feel the sensual pleasure and freedom of creativity, shooting, developing and editing my films and letting my intuition take over, experimenting and finding out what form appears as I go along. Layering, thematically, temporally and texturally, is characteristic of Vagh’s work: I often work with images that I have shot during the course of my life. It may be footage, which I shot in my teens with my dad’s Standard 8 or Super 8, or footage from a recent past, or present, which might have even been shot on the very same day in digital or film. I like mixing the different kinds of textures like a pallet, offering me freedom to work with. I find myself using images over and over again – this happens in almost all my films. These reoccurring images are usually easily recognisable from one film to another and are images I am emotionally attached to, either for what they represent symbolically or ones I just like and find beautiful or aggressive in their form and rhythm. I want the spectator to recognise this repetition, as though I were ‘stuck’ with those images or only had that footage to recompose with, like a kind of obsessive memory about something that keeps re-emerging from my psyche. Vagh creates layers by superimposing footage sequences or photograms one on top of the other. The effect is like being suspended in layers of history and experience. She says: This superimposing in coats is quite a long and sometimes laborious, frustrating process. The rhythms and colours, shapes and structure of the footage I use have to end up being exactly what I need to express an æsthetically harmonious or conflictual stratified ‘skin’ of moving plastic form, to express the visual effect I am specifically looking for. Sometimes in the experimentation I get an effect by chance I could probably have never thought of myself. In doing this, by focusing on her own process, I find that Vagh’s work also provides comment and insight into the artistic process – into the way in which an artist taps into a reflected collective consciousness. And so Vagh’s work is contradictory, freedom is its starting point, but a self-consciousness and awareness of process is equally important. She says, “I want to use as many contradictions as I can in my work, juxtaposing them as harmoniously as possible …” Subjectively, this makes her work very personal, in an objective sense though, there is a sensitive awareness of the contradictory nature of the human condition. For example, while there may be joy, there is also a strong melancholic feel to Vagh’s work. Melancholy is probably part of who I am. I think it comes from a meaning I am trying to grasp and cannot, something that is buried deep either inside or outside and that I have not dug out or fathomed as yet and maybe will never. This image is translated one way or another in my films and generally in all my work. I guess this state has been with me ever since I was a child – I remember so clearly trying to understand the meaning of the world around me. It could also come from the fact that I have always had a sense of time passing and things passing with time. This has caused me to be melancholic! … Magic in a way is melancholic. Viviane Vagh works in a very specifically feminine context. In the sense that her work explores very vividly the female experience. While her work is not feminist in the ‘militant in a group’, radical sense of the word, it unselfconsciously takes on the feminist mantle in a contemporary, individual, even post-modernist fashion. Vagh’s awareness, made apparent in her work, of the repression or the image that women are given, moreover the limits they give themselves due to surrounding pressures, and Vagh seeks to “express a quest in freedom for women in their self-expression”. She says, “I feel the way women have to fight to keep their freedom is exhausting and takes away the poetry and joy of life from them.” There is a powerful femininity to her work, a sort of unleashing that may work consciously or subliminally on an audience, that is about humanity, strength and, moreover, love. “For me, the moving image transforms the drama of life, whether happy or sad, and makes it bearable.” Annotated Filmography Free Women (2009) 9’, colour and B&W, sound, shot in 8mm, Super 8, 16mm and video, edited digitally. Screening format: Mini DV. “I want this film to be organic, feminine in the sense of its movement and its sensuality, rooted into all which nature offers the female body to find form and rhythm. The title of my film is a play on words to imply both states of being: free women and women yet to be freed from age-long discrimination. I have made this film as a portrait of my deepest emotions around this issue that has been a core subject in all my creative endeavours.” Now you see me, now you don’t (2007) 7’30, sound, shot in 16mm colour, edited digitally. Screening format: Mini DV. “A race against time to ‘capture’ and keep the trace of a face on the filmstrip of a young woman running to catch up with the sun as it is sinking.” Carnet de Voyage – Le Caire/Cairo (2006) 11’, sound, Super 8 colour, edited digitally. Screening format: Mini DV. “A journey back to a childhood place, an observation on the evolution of the city of Cairo, and the impact it has had on its population, on the women there and on myself. Notes taken by images, these are mingled with dreams and obsessively repeating sentences.” Ground Zero NY 2005 (2007-2008) 11’, sound, colour and B&W. Screening format: Mini DV (eventually 16mm). “Shot in Super 8 B&W as though I were witnessing another epoch, a world of ghosts, the traces superimpose and double on the filmstrip, the inhabitants of New York [shot in 9 images p/s] seem to be running towards the hope of a new world.” Soulsearching (2007) 6’, sound, Super 8, colour, B&W, edited digitally. Screening format: Mini DV. “Find one’s soul through memory and leave its trace on the filmstrip.” The World of Weimu Li (2006) 2’40, sound, digital, original support: Super 8 and silver black and white photos. Screening format: Mini DV. “My Chinese friend Weimu Li and myself found it necessary to create a new language to express our encounter through our art work. She and her black-and-white photographs, me and my films in black-and-white Super 8 film. So, I decided to film this poetic meeting in digital mixing our images on an original musical background in onomatopœias by Jonathan Levine.” Fidèles au R.D.V. (2006) “An experimental film especially created with the archives of amateur films of the Fête de l’Humanité since its beginning, for the event, Toiles d’Humanité, at the Fête de l’Humanité in the Paris suburbs.” Shadows and Light (2006) 5’30, sound, Super 8 and DV footage, B&W and colour. Screening format Mini DV (eventually 16mm). “Like a Dervish dance, a meditation through images of a child and of repetitive obsessional images of movements, like passionate brush strokes, playing with the mystery of light and shade on faces, forms and bodies, so as to speak about matter and the invisible appearing on the filmstrip.” Australia – My Family Christmas (2005-2006) 13’, sound, Super 8 colour. Screening format: Super 8. Can also be projected on multiple screens looped in Mini DV format. “A portrait of an ordinary family Christmas in Australia.” Super 8 experience – Paris-Beaubourg (2005) 5’30 Super 8, sound. Screening format: Mini DV. “Up and down the escalators in Beaubourg [the Centre Georges Pompidou], filming from the inside Paris on the outside in Super 8, a day of all seasons!” Tip Toe around town (2006) 7’15, Mini DV and Super 8, sound. Screening format: 16mm, B&W. “Rhythm of steps as metaphor of life cycles in the Parc Monsouris in the 14th district of Paris, a place where I love to walk and meditate with the seasons.” Series “Petite” (2000-2006) 9 short films, filming format Super 8, sound. Screening format: Mini DV. “The series Petite, like the pages of a diary exposing the strong themes of life, leads us by the hand. Now we see her as a child, now a teenager, now a mature woman, now an elderly women – a lineage of women. The films can be shown simultaneously in an installation on several screens [television or cinema of any or several formats] or they can be screened separately in a theatre.” Réponds-moi SVP (1997) 5’50, colour, sound. Screening format: 35mm. “A look at love and marriage by a group of women of all ages.” Videos Documentaries “A series of one-hour interviews of women, some well known, others less, after the age of 60, talking about their passion and activity for art, writing, politics.” 1996-1998 (Mini DV). “A series of interviews of women in Palestine and Israel where I went during the 2nd Intifada to interview women of all ages about their thoughts on the war between their two countries and the result of this in their lives and on their children.” (Mini DV). Work in Progress “For the past 20 years, I have shot a number of spontaneous Super 8 films around, either inner or outer journeys: seasons, countries (Greece, Egypt, China, Switzerland, France, Australia), moods, atmospheres (from my window, my place, my street, streets of Paris, parks, children, markets), building and destruction sites … I leave these images as they were filmed or use the footage over and over again as an obsessive leitmotiv of images in my edited films.” Installations Beachcombers A three-episode installation-performance (direct video, dancer, singer actor/poetess, live musician)/installation (vegetation and video projection of 3 videos of Australian nature). Created and conceived as a landscape and video installation for Glass Cube 37 Gallery Victoria, Australia, then for La Nuit Blanche Paris 07 + Fête de la Lumière Chartres 07 France and the final episode for Athens Video Arts Festival 09, Greece. “The central theme in this work is the ‘invisible feminine’ incarnated and made visible by the æsthetics of the piece and the performers (the dancer, singer, musician). A global work that I call Theatre of Ensembles.” Aurore A performance/installation for the Printemps des Poètes Paris France. “While I screen Aurore, my 16mm film, Aurore [the actress in the film] recites Racine in front of the screen wearing the same clothes as she does in the film.” La Lantern Magique Installation/performance for the Nuit Blanche Paris at the B.A.N.K. gallery 2005. “Super 8 films projected directly on an installation of a created lantern and chair [reminiscent of the 1920s] and a performer who incarnates a silent movie icon.” Melancholie D’un Jour Monograph exhibition, performance/installation (projected Super 8 films, installation of Super 8 cameras and projectors, exhibition of stills of the projected films printed on canvas 1meter x 1meter) and one video projector at the Bièvre Gallery, Paris 2005.