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Boundaries Overcome: An Interview with Manuela De Laborde

The Mexican artist discusses her practice and her journey to make her "first work of cinema," the short masterpiece "AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN."
Manuela De Laborde's short film AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN, which has played at the Toronto International Film Festival, won the Grand Prix at Zagreb's 25 FPS Festival, competed for the Tiger at Rotterdam, and will next screen at New Directors/New Films, is an utterly remarkably, vividly calm work that blends sculpture and filmmaking into a cosmic exploration of physical material transformed by the flatness of the cinema screen. Using ingenious objects made by De Laborde that variously resemble moon rocks, bones, and additional unidentifiable shapes, and by filming them against black backgrounds, awash in precise colored lighting and at different scales, these strange pieces loom or are dwarfed, come into or go out of focus and perceptibility. Sometimes the film feels like a kind of astronomic research report, tactile and scientific in its observation, even seemingly scanning or plunging deep the molecular makeup of these evocatively recognizable, yet alien shapes. At other times, the images and the objects they variously contemplate and inquire after are completely illegible and we no longer know if we’re looking up close or afar, if we’re studying a held object or if we’re indeed floating in space—or even if there is any object at all. This wonder was 25 minutes long and I wanted it to keep going on and on, forever studying its innumerable finds, the soundtrack of space static thrumming, and each object’s beguiling light-and-shadow energies always warping before us the subject of our curious vision.
Through email, Manuela De Laborde and I discussed her practice and her journey to make AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN, her "first work of cinema."

NOTEBOOK: You've done many works of moving image art before AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN, but you’ve said this film was your first work of cinema. How do you see this new piece as different from what came before?
MANUELA DE LABORDE: All throughout I was working on AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN. This work was the first one that responded to the cinema—or at least, the first conscious one. Medium-wise it’s certainly true—the only other film I finished in film was a one minute piece I made two years before. The other works that I did in the meantime, while working on AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN, were quicker to make and with a different attention—some feel like tests to me. Some a bit incomplete, others are less myself. Not all. It’s a gut thing: This is my first film, I feel.
NOTEBOOK: Because your video work spans a few years, I’m wondering how long AS WITHOUT took to make? It is interesting you say "responding to the cinema": what was it about film that called you "away" from your sculptural and installation work, asking for a response?
DE LABORDE: It took two years to make, but the studies and the knowledge that I would do a film took three years. The reason I say cinema is because of the studies too—nothing took me away from installation work per se, I loved it then and still do. But I wanted to pursue a second studies and then, without me knowing what I was getting myself into, I was shown all this theater tradition and experimental cinema world. I really had never seen any of it, or none that I could truly remember. Video art in that sense feels very different to me. The video work I did before was either research or more thought as video art or background for electronic music in particular, like the sun piece for London MEXFEST.
NOTEBOOK: Were there any of these works from the theater or experimental film world that particularly inspired AS WITHOUT?
DE LABORDE: The first film I ever saw—and I had a particularly strong relationship to it—was Betzy Bromberg’s Voluptuous Sleep Series. I saw this just around the same time that they told me she was my mentor at school. I had never sat down to see abstractions for that long, and experiencing for the first time what it was to be with something and also deeply with yourself in such a way. Then there are different films that in different ways where influences, some films were strong influences in how I didn't like them so much, some others not so much because of what they were about but because they revealed a filmic reaction than made me think—like Eaux d'Artifice, by Kenneth Anger, whose work I really like, where the blue tint and the water flicker created some unexpected red-magenta colors; also David Rimmer's Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper and Len Lye's Free Radicals.
Yet the films or artists that influenced me the most are: James Benning, perhaps the wider and most constant influence from his works, conversations with him and his understanding of the art world; Betzy as well, what I like the most is her image sensibility, her feel; Charlotte Pryce, her precision and editing; Ernie Gehr and Michael Snow, their sense of time and confidence towards the design and power of ideas; Harun Farocki's responsibility and capacity to respond, his elegance; Nathaniel Dorsky's writing, just in text because I have never had the chance to see his movies; same with Raúl Ruiz; Pat O'Neill’s early work, the graphicness of it, the flatness; Deborah Stratman, in every way, but what I always think from her works is the soft, unpretentious and clear way that they feel fair, like flowing executions (not as in killing but as in happenings), I think of her mastering; Then Speechless by Scott Stark triggers my mind a lot (the mix of aesthetics and contradictory bodily reactions); and Walter Ruttmann's Opus series, mostly seen without sound, are perhaps the main abstract films that I really, nearly frame by frame, looked into and love.
And then I think of my peers that were also big influences. Among them, Jackson McCoy's thesis, the way he shoots landscape; Kelman Duran's research of pine ridge reservation, I have a huge admiration towards his mind and artistic practice—I can’t wait to see the final result; Behrouz Rae's humor and political stand; and Christina Nguyen's dryness, precision and punkness. Of gallery work, just now quickly two works that come to mind that I watched over and over again are Pipilotti Rist’s Sip My Ocean and Peter Fischli and David Weiss's The Way Things Go.
NOTEBOOK: A focus I see in your gallery work as well as in your video sketches before AS WITHOUT is a fascination of scale. This seems to lead into the new film. At times we seem to be observing objects of mammoth, cosmic proportions: asteroids, moons, planets. But just as often we jump "within," to use a part of your title, to a microscopic or subatomic level. This interest seems to begin before this film project. Has it always been a theme of your practice?
DE LABORDE: Yes, I've thought about that and I think there are two ways—one wet and one dry—of seeing why that theme is there so often.  The personal, more emotional one and the other one; but both have a take on perception and took me to the same production.
The first one is that I think scale and all existential dilemmas go hand in hand. I believe that a lot of existential worries or pains come from an incapacity to befriend or understand our role or proportion to the rest, to have a hard time with fluctuating humors and with unbreakable boundaries—to doubt whether one can really sympathize or know the other. And how perhaps all that also got mixed up with the desire to overcome real boundaries and distances. My dissertation for my baccalaureate was about the sublime and melancholia and in the process of it I came to the conclusion that it all narrows down to the notion of boundary, that our body has a boundary that our mind does not—so we can dwell or imagine ourselves from a different perspective or at a different place.
This last bit takes me to the second thought, which is more about why I found myself constructing this scales within a visual practice. I think my approach to visual practice is super bound by knots of visual perception and points of view, and as soon as I decided to stop choosing just one and show several all these scale things started happening. One thing that is odd is that it became more about scale than distance, otherwise everything would look as is but suddenly closer. I think this has been present since I was tiny, my questions when I was little already pointed to worries like this. I have strong sight problems—maybe this too made me move the objects close and far to see better?
Manuela De Laborde as a child
NOTEBOOK: If one's existence—or perception of it—is transformed by the experience of scale, what is the audience of AS WITHOUT watching? As a cinema film—your first, as you say, film—it is meant to be seen big: on the big screen. These object that are the film's raw material, I assume they are small in real life, off-screen. Yet regardless of whether you are approaching them from afar or from up close, the film as a whole towers. Is it taking us to a new place, a new existence?
DE LABORDE: That's such a good and hard question. I don't think I can say what they are watching, but if I try to put myself into the seeing of it for the first time, I think that: since what is actually being seen is obscure, maybe then the brain realizes that that is not what is being shared (as in "what are these objects") and one starts perceiving something else, the other mind present, the decisions made behind it. I think this is fascinating about abstract work—one can have ‘direct’ dialogue with the human that made it in the process of questioning the work.
I think they, the stones, really are just props, stand-ins that propose something, like most things and like the main part of artworks, and propose in this case a sort of 'ideal' spaces, which is also a thoughtspace for me, a headspace. This is why, for me, it is not problematic that in real life they are small and simple, I never intended to hide this, and I find the construction of proposals better than trying to construct the real thing. I think they take you (mind-wise) to the same place, the thought of that thing.
The one element that contradicts this (as in the difference between the idea of it and the actual thing) is this “towers” aspect that you mention, the fact that it does take you somewhere, it is a mix of things that build something new, and that thing is felt when the film ends and I don't think I know what it is. I just found myself serving it. I mean, I noticed but I have no words for it.  I think of it a bit like this thing I read that said that once you look at something very critically and very up close it stops existing. It is like getting inside of it, or like it splits into different entities. I think that what comes across is a new existence by then hard to observe with distance. A book that I like a lot about how we relate is Martin Buber's I and Thou. While making the film I thought: If I just follow his view, reading and study the material with his thoughts, it will become something. I think that is what helped it tower and the audience gets to follow the film’s thinking.
NOTEBOOK: I want to pick at something you said earlier, which is the fact that you constructed the objects in your film. Are they all "Manu-made"? Why is it important that they are formed to your vision rather than, say, found by your vision out on the Earth? And is this difference as important for your audience, of your gallery work or this film, who see them but don't know their origin or material, as it so for you—who constructs and plays with them at all stages?
DE LABORDE: [Laughs] Yes, they are. I liked and still like finding objects too, but I think doing is essential for my own experience of the practice. I can openly say that I consciously created this work knowing it had to include and bring me back to making—and making with my hands. But also with found objects I felt they come with so many layers of information, world information, and I feel often self-conscious of direct commentary by using them. Some people are better at getting hold of the world, Benning for example is stunning at this. I only feel confident at holding parts, most of the time abstractions, or something that exists at that skin-thin level. I didn't want to rely on the camera optics to abstract from reality that specific point of view—I did start doing this, and I felt that most of the times when this is done I can still track down what is being distorted and somehow I started getting caught up with what an abstraction actually was. And there was not much to my interest around Santa Clarita, where I was living, so I got into drawing from memory about forms and things that felt abstract, parts of films, parts of things, textures, loops, joints, and then the drawings became sculptures, more object-like that would also provide new angles and make more realistic the textures I was looking at. For example, I was really caught up with the aesthetics—more than content—of the new nano electron microscopes, I sensed a new feeling and wondered if it would influence the arts, like when resin or plastic came into the industry...so I decided to do it myself—I didn't really nail it, but that was the powdery feel I was after.
That the objects were formed to my vision rather than found is a similar tension to forcing a perspective when cropping (e.g. from the beginning just doing shots that looked just like large landscapes and not revealing the objects)—I have a problem with this, I wish I didn't impose. But I don't think I am able to really be very objective. Experimental film in that way was a nice encouragement to allow myself to accept my subjective choices—some of them are so far fetched, nothing that can really be perceived when seeing it, but they totally shaped it.
Manuela De Laborde holding a sculpture used in her film AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN
NOTEBOOK: What are the objects made of? How do you make them, sculpt, color them?
DE LABORDE: They are made out of plaster. I used condoms to contain each and my hands to fix it in a shape. I then would break some, file them with sandpaper, interfere with the made shape so it responded to some of my study drawings. For the color I tried several things, like mixing pigment with the plaster (which always rendered pastel colors or would start splitting in tones when drying, the pigment probably lighter of grain would rise to the edges), but I mainly dipped in pretty dense watercolor. If they chip they are white inside.
NOTEBOOK: Do the objects in AS WITHOUT have a life outside of the film, or are they only contained within, a merging with the celluloid?
DE LABORDE: I think I can cancel their existence, but I have not exhibited them as works—I don't think I would, I only would do so as research or if the situation appears. In the meantime, they are wrapped in tissue paper and all together in a little box sort of portfolio size. I also think that what the film contains is not those objects either, their image and one that changes them so much that it can even be questioned if it is their image. It’s an altered documentation, the light and everything is so different that they look incredibly different in the flesh.
As Without So Within
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the difference between how they look as an image and how they look in the flesh, what was your experience like shooting on film? You made a petit celluloid haiku, one minute long, before this—but what was your approach and also impression of working with film on AS WITHOUT? Was there much trial and error? Based on your installation work and your description of sculpture making, I get the impression you enjoy touching, configuring—that the analog, the tactile is a pleasure, as is the process…
DE LABORDE: Yes, I made that haiku! I like that naming, while they are both about framing and about the materiality of film and optics, that first short film was somehow more of an accident, with the camera facing a sun which I had calculated, and failed… For AS WITHOUT, everything was more focused, pointed, decisions where conscious. And while, yes, there were some tests they were very few: I shot one with outdoor lighting and the sun flickering, it didn't work; and I did another one with hand processing that I also felt did not work. After that, I went straight into indoor and lab processing and the first dailies where the final footage used and manipulated. I was happy about this because I had used a 400’  roll of Vivid stock that was given to me and that doesn't get printed anymore; I really liked its translation of color.
My impression of working with film was great, all very new, but I love the interaction with the complex equipments and the shift in content that happens as soon as you look into the camera. Touching and handling is indispensable, I can't even construct an essay without printing, cutting paragraphs and organizing them in the floor—I depend in visual mapping and tangible moving around. For the edit of the film I printed thousand of thumbnails and moved them in a board. Only scrolling through footage does this weird exposure-erasure process in my mind and I can find myself hours later without reaching any order. It is necessity more than pleasure, but I am a big promoter of the idea of pleasure, I will choose things based on that, and I like it as a theme within work, the therapeutic-yet-light aspect of it is important to me. And the process is one of the most important if not the most important thing, there is where the most human aspect lies, the actions taken, the “story” drawn—the drawn idea.
NOTEBOOK: 400’ is quite short! Was that a self-imposed limitation? Did that force you to make certain decisions you hadn't thought about before, shot length for example? Your explanation of the editing is delightful—Did you approach the duration of the film the same way, the length of shots, the pacing of the whole piece?
DE LABORDE: Here are 3 diagrams of how I drew my thoughts around editing and how to look in and out, and mini-thumbnails for me to be able to see the edit in just one image:
I don't have any photos of my wall setup, where I would be able to move things around. I had many things like this, videos made of photos from online of textures and shapes that I liked going fast just to have a quick view of what their feel could be like in moving image.
I knew from the start that since there was no object, light, or camera movement that there was no animation but the grain—and that this I could loop and economize in film. I knew this before Betzy offered me that 400’ roll and hence was able to take it calmly. Keeping myself to something cheap while at the same time figuring out how to make something long and that required observation was my goal. The problem came by accepting to film every shot for very little film, so I was able to include many takes, around 70, and each of them gave way to new perspectives, new images. I wanted to make an observational piece, when for example you looked at each thing for 5 minutes or so. Doing the math this was looking like a day-long film, so in making my edit more reasonable I started shortening the shots again and again, and dismissing some after getting rid of so many became impossible. It was very constrictive. This is when I kept thinking and feeling this was a tight, anal film going out of control, a contradiction I had a hard time figuring out. And yes the length, although shorter than desired for each shot, was also chosen with odd rules, depending on my mood. Sometimes it was numbers, sometimes it was visual juxtaposition (if they created a new object over the light table, for example). In it there are many variations of how to approach the journey of one image, and since it was less a matter of preference than possibility and its effect I did a bunch of them, leaving each new exploration chronologically next to each other in the order the film played.
NOTEBOOK: Your edit becomes clearer to me, somewhat; yet as you imply, while there is something mathematical (or anal, even, as you put it) about the precision of the order and of the rhythm, there is something else there too, in its feeling. More voluptuous, nebulous. I think the irregular shapes of the objects, the mix of jagged with smooth, along with grain conjures this softness which both works with, against, and also imperceptibly within the final experience.
In Toronto, you spoke of two things: One was figuring out the editing as you went along, so that the earlier parts of the film in a way are edited differently—or the experience of editing them differed as you yourself went through the process. The second was that you said you wanted to treat the whole process like Montessori—or was it you wanted the audience to experience this sense?
DE LABORDE: Yes, the editing trajectory is the experience of editing somehow as is. So at the beginning I approached the study of the object in a way that changed with time. For example, at first the main shots (the baby shots of the mother shots) are pretty straight forward. They are expectable re-framings somehow, where such curve in such object demands to be framed and cropped from corner to corner. With time I started running out of these shots, but I had been looking and moving the material so much that other frames revealed themselves to be—they are like the framing where the subject is barely in the picture, like cropping a face only showing the ear in the lower corner. These are the shots that gave way to more blacks and texture. This came around the same time that I re-telecine the material to pass my old edit into higher res since I knew that I was going to shoot off the screen and the SD version was useless. So I made a 2K DPX file transfer, and in this I discovered an even greater definition in the zoom and a new register of grain, material that is included more in the film's second half. Getting more images from both re-translating and having higher res was the moment where I started panicking at the exponential growth of it, got frustrated and started piling them up too.
The Montessori comment was more from my perspective than the one viewing the work, although perhaps it also applies for them. I went to a Montessori school until the age of 12, and its approach was of translating concepts into tangible interactions with the hands that most of the time relied on poor materials. Like blocks of wood painted in color to understand percentage, or beads and the abacus to understand numbers and mathematic equations. Even learning the difference between a lake and an island was done with maquettes where the reliefs were done with plasticine and we poured water into them and saw for example, if the water surrounded the relief then an island was made. If the water kept itself inside surrounded by relief a lake was made. That simplicity and translation and reliance on hands on mundane materials is what I meant as my process.
NOTEBOOK: What's next for you? What are you working on now? Back to installations? More cinema-specific work?
DE LABORDE: The hardest questions of them all! In the immediate future I am taking part of a collective exhibition called 'Thank you for believing in me' that will take place early February during the Material Art Fair. We are all showing video work, I am still in the process of finalizing the title of the work, but it is a piece I started last year based on found footage of club life. I will also be giving a talk at the Mexican university ANAHUAC about my thesis film and my practice, it will be accompanied with a four week long exhibition showing some of the research and steps around it.
And in a longer future my most deep desire is, yes, somehow go back to installation work but also to work on another film, something that like the thesis gets done over a longer period of time—I like how the work becomes something unpredictable then. I want to work with film again, perhaps incorporating more the presence of digital material. I want to work around the idea of the threshold of the mediums and our different capacities of registering—in duration or as flash.
As Without So Within

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