Interview by Victor Schagerlund
Published in March 2021
Why did you become an artist?
To a certain extent I had positive reinforcement as a child. I was always drawing a lot and had an identity in the family as “the artsy one”. There was a level of encouragement there.
Up until college I was doing pen drawings. That was my thing. But I was always interested in music, for example. I think part of me wanted to be multi-disciplinary even from a young age, but I didn’t really know you could be.
I was never that good academically, when people wanted me to write essays in school and stuff I just had so little to say. And I remember being at Sheffield Hallam and finally realising why you might write an essay. Oh, you can write about something you’re interested in, and I was like “Oh my god” and that really unlocked something.
Inert being, 2017 [as installed as part of Female Executioner, Gasworks, London]. Photograph by Andy Keate
It’s interesting that you say you didn’t like essays, because you’re so eloquent and language plays such a great role in your practice.
I care about language a lot. And actually, it’s funny because my A-levels were Art, Textiles and English Language. So despite doing all stuff with literature and things in my practice now, I didn’t study any of that. I studied language and I think that’s kind of relevant.
I remember getting really excited doing my A-level in English language finding out about the words “ameliorate” and “pejorative”. Ooh those are good words. That’s an interesting concept. That kind of enthusiasm for almost the taste of words, or the shape of words and language, that’s really kept going and flourished.
Figuring out a way to use that kind of attraction, its sense of shape, I think has a lot to do with Victoria Wood and Angels in America. Because I have been really into Victoria Wood from when I was a child and so much of her humour is about vocabulary. Let’s see if I can remember this one that I love:
“My husband turned me to me and he said: Saundra, what happened to the laughing fairy who could crochet a crinoline lady toilet roll holder while imitating Kiri Te Kanawa?”
The joke in that is just all the choice of words. She had a way of finding not just the humour in everyday language, but the efflorescence of it as well which really stuck with me.
And then yeah, I’ve been having a big moment again with Angels in America that Tony Kushner play, which I first saw when I was about 16 because there was an HBO adaption with Meryl Streep in on Channel 4. I remember watching it and being blown away.
So much of the phraseology in there filtered through to me as well. There’s a bit when the angel describes herself as “fluor, phosphor, lumen and candle”. I realised that I’ve written a song that was almost like that, based around candles.
Vocabulary has always been very important to me, but not necessarily through academia. It’s tended to be through other routes, and then I’ve found a place in academia to use it.
Yes, I wanted to ask you about your interest in French literature. I’m a massive Francophile and that’s how I first discovered your work. Where did that interest stem from? And what do you find pertinent about it?
It’s interesting because I don’t speak or read French. So everything, although I have worked with French literature numerous times, it’s always been through translations or sometimes even mistranslations.
I did a piece that became a chapbook for Ma bibliothèque, which is Sharon Kivland’s publishing project. I did a chapbook called GLAIRE. It’s a kind of automatically translated André de Lorde play that was first of all scanned in by an optical reader and then translated through Google translate. The reason I did that was because I wanted to read the play and I had no other way of reading it. But then I found that the automatic translation did really amazing things with the texts, both through the optical clarity reading and the translation, just made it really weird and kind of apt in a funny way. One of the things you get is a lot of misgendering because the translation of the gendering in French to non-gendered English means that you get tons of misgendering all the time, changing pronouns and stuff, and I was just “Oh there’s something here”.
French literature has come up a few times through the research that I do, which is scurrying into the archives and just being like “Oh there’s André Gide,” and then in the footnotes of an essay on Gide someone might mention someone else. And then someone mentions Rachilde and Monsieur Vénus, and so I follow the rabbit hole of research just online or on JSTOR.
I found my way to a lot of French literature through these little windy rivulets of research and I think it has to do with not being embedded in the discipline. I used to feel insecure about that. How can I make work about something if I don’t know the field well enough? Do I need more authority? Then I sat and thought about it for a while and was like, well, maybe what I can do is do things wrong. In my practice that is something I work with. It’s about missing out, about partialness and mistakes. Overreadings and overinterpretations. Gaps between translation and intention.
Adulteress, 2017. Film still.
Speaking of Rachilde, I was wondering if you could say a bit more about your video work Adulteress, which in a sense is a visualisation of the novel Monsieur Vénus.
Monsieur Vénus is a novel I love, but I also kind of hate it. When I first read it I was like “woah, I can’t do any work with this because it’s like… Unimpeachable.” But then I thought about it, and what it settled into was… the whole novel is so much about power, gendered power, class power, interpersonal power… The way I ended up approaching it was like “what if I think about that violence of that power on me as a reader?” One particular character seems like a trans person I can identify with, like a modern thing, and something else happens and it’s like bam that didn’t work. You thought you were getting some ancestry but then the book does something very cruel and incompatible.
Talking about that book was a way of trying to touch the past and relate to it, to some kind of precedent or context to understand yourself. You find this document, this cultural product, and when you try to read yourself into it, it hits you back. And in a way that relationship is similar to the relationships in the book. That whole exhibition was treating the book as the domineering presence and me as the submissive presence, so that you’re being dominated by your own reference and so that went into all the works. All the works in that show are named after quotes from the book, they’re kind of insults basically. “Adulteress” is one of them, “Inert being” another one, “Miserable wretch”, “Stone breaker”, “Wax figure”. All these kind of disparaging quotes from the book given as titles for the works.
Adulteress, 2017 [as installed as part of Female Executioner, Gasworks, London]. Photograph by Andy Keate.
In the film, Adulteress, that was kind of the place where I wanted a counter to that domination. The whole sequence that’s described is the moment when the character of Jacques becomes too feminine, although Raoule, his masculine aristocratic wife, has been fostering this femininity in him. It’s like he wants it too much. He takes it too seriously, slips away from her and goes to seduce the Baron, her friend.
I wanted to think about that moment as a kind of joy. Because in the novel that’s the only moment that Jacques really gets to embody something for his own sake- and then the book punishes it. It resolves with death and everything, but that moment of escape I found really moving, or something. The plan with the film was to dramatise that bit of it, the kind of off-screen bit. Because the book only talks about Raoule’s jealous rage. I wanted to adapt the cause of that jealousy, which is Jacques going to his sister’s house where he gets made up with these accomplices and gets beautified.
The scene was made with real friends, real loved ones you know, like John and Tom Turell, who filmed most of my film works, make up by Charlotte Percival, who is also playing Jacques’s sister, kind of. I wanted to do it in a way where it required the least demanding performance, so that it wasn’t a dramatisation. The extent of embodiment is the roles, like one person becomes feminised, one person does the feminisation, and beyond that there’s no expectation of ‘acting.’
It was very documentary. And then yeah, along the bottom of the screen you have this text, which is the English translation of the chapter in which Jacques’ transgression is described, from Raoule’s point of view. This just kind of rubs up against what’s on screen in this fractious way. That was what I hoped with it anyway. That you have these moments where it’s very happy and relaxed on screen, and then you have, as text, the narrative consequences of that relaxedness, that joy.
But also, it has this kind of wiggle room for something else. There’s room to stop reading. A big part of Adulteress was about that friction. I think about friction a lot. But I think with that body of work, particularly, it was so much about treating the book as a domineering partner almost. And finding the ways you slip away from them in form as well as content.
Ashley, 2020. Film still.
Thinking about friction and narratives, I was wondering if you could speak a bit about your latest film Ashley, which is a horror story. It’s interesting that you chose that genre, because horror is one of the few genres where we are expected to relate or identify with a female character. How did that work come about?
I’ve been cooking that up for a while. The genre of it, which is a particular kind of ghost story horror, of psychological horror, is a genre that has really been one of my favourites for a while. The woman under duress kind of horror I guess, which you can take back to Repulsion and Rosemary’s baby if you must. But for me, my favourites have always been the British and Irish folk horrors 70s 80s, 60s sometimes, that I got into watching with my friend Charlotte Percival.
Charlotte, who I used to live with in Sheffield, and our friends John and Tom, when we first started spending time together we watched those kinds of horror films. John and Tom have made a lot of them. They love that kitchen sink, Midlands Gothic kind of thing. And so, it had been something that was always in our shared language, I guess.
Ashley, 2020. Film still.
So I guess I’d been thinking I would like to be a bit more creatively involved with them, from the start, rather than bringing an idea to them that’s pretty fully formed, which is what I usually do. We have a deep collaborative relationship and a lot of trust. It’s a wonderful thing and I wanted to lean into it a bit more.
What really made it click was one episode of a particular series called West Country Tales from 1983. It was like half hour ghost stories, but it has this device where it’s narrated all the way through. I remember watching one of these with Charlotte expecting the narration to stop, that it would get into dialogue and the characters interacting, and it just never did. I remember thinking I would like to do a film in that form, because I love genres and I love form. And that’s another way of expressing constriction.
Ashley, 2020. Film still.
All my favourites have their foot in a very concrete gendered experience, I guess. A woman’s experience, explicitly. The thing I could do is continue that tradition by having the unique selling point of feminine experience be trans femininity. That being the thing that you work around and pull the horror out of. That became both a way I could make a film in that tradition, with a topic I can speak to intimately, that I have knowledge of, that I can talk about with subtlety, insight and complication, but also it’s a legitimising thing: “in the chain of horrible experiences of femininity here’s another that is just as valid.” A way of saying that trans women are women, basically.
Ashley, 2020. Film still.
If you like this why not read our interview with Robyn Nichol.
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