"At First Cozy, Became Transgressive": An Interview with Aleesa Cohene
By Brett Kashmere
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, LIKEseems 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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brett Kashmere is a Pittsburgh-based filmmaker, curator, and writer. He is also the founding editor and publisher of INCITE.