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Landscape Plus: An Interview with Laida Lertxundi

The film artist discusses her interest in natural landscapes, sound and non-actors, her influences, and her new work, "Words, Planets".
Laida Lertxundi's Words, Planets (2018) shows June 13 - July 7 in London at LUX and June 21 - July 1 at Glasgow’s Tramway. There is also an opportunity to see some of Lertxundi’s earlier works, several of which are discussed below, at the University of Glasgow on July 19th, organized by LUX Scotland.
Over the last decade, Los Angeles-based artist Laida Lertxundi has created a varied body of work set in open landscapes and interior architectures, beautifully shot on 16mm film. Her chosen locations, primarily found in and around Los Angeles, come to life through dynamic combinations of ambient sound, interactions between non-actors, live music from collaborators, the reading of texts and more. One of the defining elements and achievements of Lertxundi's films is that sound is not just adjacent to the image—it is harmonious with it. As she states below: "Sound is everything." Furthermore, Lertxundi's interesting utilization of structural film techniques question and adapt experimental filmmaking's established processes and ideas, forging new formal strategies and confronting issues of representation. In her work, we see spirited portrayals of how our experiences, emotions and bodies resonate with spaces, be it intimately or transitionally. Ahead of bringing her latest film, Words, Planets, to the UK, Lertxundi discusses her interests in natural landscapes, diegetic sound, use of non-actors, structural exercises, as well as the various influences upon her work.

NOTEBOOK: For those who may be reading about your work for the first time—most of it is encapsulated within a practice you refer to as ‘Landscape Plus.’ Could you unpack the general elements of this?
LAIDA LERTXUNDI: The movies I make are shot primarily on 16mm film, in and around Los Angeles. I refer to this practice as Landscape Plus, which involves shooting in natural landscapes with non-actors and sound events, including live music, the reading of texts, and field recordings of the surroundings. I think of these performances, or actions as the ‘Plus,’ something unnatural is brought into the natural environment.
NOTEBOOK: My Tears Are Dry [2009] is a good example of your approach to sound: the drifts between the music on the cassette tape player, the guitar, and the ambient sound coming from outside. What are you usually seeking out in terms of sound, and how much of what you find informs the image and vice versa?
LERTXUNDI: Image and sound are conceived together. I am interested in the sounds of the world, I try to recreate the sounds of everyday life but not necessarily with a realist approach. The sounds and the editing of sounds come to the foreground. Everything: cars, music, micro events in the soundtrack like the sound of a coyote, distant footsteps, and sharp sync moments are recorded together. Sounds are intrinsic to the fabric of the image, seen and heard or coming from off screen, helping to make the world of the film more expansive. There is not much post-production sound in my films, lots of orchestrated live events. I record with a couple of different microphones at the same time and then and layer all the tracks. The shoot is like a document. When I sit to edit, I synchronize and re-create what happened in front of the camera. There is often camera sound and other “imperfections.” I like the sounds of each shot to be really rich in ambience, even in interior shots. I spend time recording sound on my own, at places I later return to and shoot with people on film. Sound is everything. 
My Tears Are Dry 
NOTEBOOK: In Cry When It Happens [2010] there’s a sense that a familiar Hollywoodian image—the motel—has been ruptured; its components thrown elsewhere. What were your concerns when utilizing the motel, it being a space that features heavily in traditional narrative representations of LA?
LERTXUNDI: I wanted to make a true Los Angeles film. Thom Andersen spoke about silly geography in Los Angeles Plays Itself [2003], the way the geography of the city doesn't matter in Hollywood films, it is distorted in favor of the advancement of plot. I shot this film in the Paradise Motel, close to downtown, you see City Hall reflected on it. I wanted someone that knows Los Angeles to know exactly where they are when they look at this shot. And if they don't know Los Angeles, well at least they know it is Los Angeles, and that is part of the subject of the film.
NOTEBOOK: Your friends work on and populate your films, and often engage in referencing the nature of filmmaking itself—there’s the sequence with the piano and the mirror in The Room Called Heaven [2012] for example. What is the general collaborative process with your films, and how do you achieve such natural appearances?
LERTXUNDI: As a general rule, I work with people that don’t want to be filmed. That resistance is interesting to me. If I can somehow capture something about their physical presence as it is, then the shot comes to life. I avoid people that want to perform—the camera picks up too much. I once had someone act too much with their hands while holding a piece of fruit and had to cut all those shots. I work in a Bressonian way, thinking of them as people, not characters. I shoot actions and variations many times until something unlocks. They have to be enjoying themselves. There is an X factor that makes things come to life; people, objects, their presence suddenly becomes so radiant, so full in front of the camera. It is a kind of cinema magic. I don’t know exactly how to make it happen, but I do know how to create the environment for it to be able to happen. My shooting is not very efficient. I shoot a lot trying to capture these moments, and I cut almost everything out.
The people who appear in my films are also the ones making the film that you are seeing. They are often not filmmakers themselves, and we do a basic run-through of the procedure of shooting sync sound and other practices. This enables a dynamic free from technical specialists and fixed roles. I often work with people I know but I also like to work with strangers, their mystery in front of the camera. They follow an action that I suggest, in their own time and their own body language. When I work with musicians they perform what they want to perform. In Vivir para Vivir / Live to Live [2015] I worked on a different level of collaboration with composer Tashi Wada and musician Ezra Buchla. 
NOTEBOOK: You were taught by Peggy Ahwesh whilst studying at Bard College. Her films often feature people playing themselves, and comfortably so. What was it like to have Ahwesh as a tutor, and what are some of your favorite moments from her body of work?
LERTXUNDI: Peggy had an air of casualness that was really appealing. The worst thing that something could be in her class was boring, and boring meant in the Situationist sense, of a waste of everyday life and freedom. She was into theory but not into academia. I guess she was an anarchist, against institutions whilst being in them, critical of all things. She laughed a lot and was really fun to talk to. I am a lover of her work in all its diversity, from The Star Eaters [2003] acting to the found footage and Morton Feldman’s sound in The Third Body [2007]. There are such memorable moments of feminist sensibility and humor, and there is so much pleasure for me in her work. The way Jennifer Montgomery talks to the camera in Martina's Playhouse [1989], the way an anthropologist tries to explain power relations in prehistory in From Romance to Ritual [1985], the way a woman is deciding whether to put up with a mansplainer at a bar in The Star Eaters… the sense of loss and grief in the non-essential female in She Puppet [2001]. Her curiosity extends through so many different types of formats, materials and ideas. Her films are so verbal. Mine aren’t. In some ways I feel that I started making films at Bard because I was having trouble speaking.
NOTEBOOK: Your practice is very much at home with 16mm filmmaking. What were some of the formative experiences you had with the format, and the reasons you have continually found it to be the best form of expression?
LERTXUNDI: Film has a body. I am into its materiality.
Peter Hutton was my teacher. He taught me how to shoot motion picture film. He showed me how to get to know places through filming them. I would shoot and shoot and shoot, like one learns to play music by practicing over and over again. I shot so much film with him, before, after and in the middle of working through ideas. This crystalized in me that making art is about an interaction between ideas and materials, something in that chemistry between your hands and your mind produces a film.
Filming can’t be objective, but it creates an index of a reality in front of the camera. It is a fiction that is a document. This tension is specific to film.
Vivir para Vivir / Live to Live
NOTEBOOK: In Vivir para Vivir / Live to Live, there’s a sense that the peripheries of film body and the corporeal body are converging. You show your own electrocardiogram, and the sound of a woman’s orgasm is literally printed onto film via an optical printer, as a sequence of blue and red frames. Could you tell us more about these processes?
LERTXUNDI: Vivir para Vivir / Live to Live looks for a new relationship between bodies and film and moves through translations between images and sounds. I went to the doctor and got an electrocardiogram made. Albert Ortega and I proceeded to record the sounds of a heartbeat with a contact microphone, and Tashi Wada composed a piece using the cardiogram as a score. We also recorded the sounds of a female orgasm, and Ezra Buchla turned those into synthesizer waves. Departing from Ezra’s sound, we took an image of a blue sky, and followed it with the red frames that are created as light bleeds into the camera as the roll of film is changed. We then created a pattern of blues and reds in the optical printer in response to the volume shifts in the sound. The orgasm is represented in both sound and image. The body’s vital rhythms and functions structure the timing of the film, becoming its pulse. I was interested in the way structuralism leaves the personal and the diarist out. How it seems that from the perspective of a male written film history you should choose to be either a formalist or a feminist. I was interested treating female pleasure and the female orgasm in a materialist manner to encounter the problem of the limits of representation. This also speaks of the memoir and documentary aspect of all films: how can we capture and represent experience? 
NOTEBOOK: When you introduced 025 Sunset Red [2016] at the Tate Modern in 2016, you mentioned that the film was partly in response to people referring to your work as auto-biographical. The film counters that misconception, but on your own terms. Could you say more about this project?
LERTXUNDI: By the time I started 025 Sunset Red, I felt a kind of assumption from people that my films were personal. It bothered me.
So I finally decided to try and make a personal film. I started thinking about my parents’ youth. Their politics burned in their chest. This passion was formally organized by the project of Communism. My dad was the secretary General of the Communist Party in the Basque Country. I wanted to make a portrait of them, a bit of who they were in their most utopian and idealistic state. I started digging through family photographs, and I kissed my partner on camera and used my menstrual blood as paint in the film, as well as using the 025 Sunset Red filter that titles it. I wanted to confront those two currents: feminism and formalism.
At the time, I ran into my percussionist friend, Corey Fogel. He asked me what I was working on and I said “I am making an abstract autobiography.” He said “isn't that all your films?” I replied, “no just this one…”
Words, Planets 
NOTEBOOK: Lastly, let's talk about your latest work, Words, Planets. How did this project develop?
LERTXUNDI: I have been teaching a version of a film course for about ten years that has gone through many permutations. It was originally called ‘Fiction and Allegory’ when I taught it at UCSD, and the most recent version at Art Center was called ‘Wild Nuns.’ It is a class in which we read short fiction from Spain and Latin America. The class begins by reading Raúl Ruiz’s essay “For a Shamanic Cinema,” which proposes a series of heterodox exercises to experiment with fictional space in cinema.
We began by making drawings from forms that the essay suggests, and then using those drawings as a script. His model proposes a kind of porous fiction in which references from past periods in history, histories from all over the world infiltrate the frame. I became interested in this way of working. I was aware of my own interest in formalism and was looking for different models for experimentation.
I was showing my films in a similar order in a Masters program I teach in Madrid, and my friend Carlos said, “Me gustan tus pelis nuevas, son bastardas / I like your new work, it is getting bastardized.” It is maybe hard to translate that comment exactly to convey why it is positive. Literally, a bastard is someone that is born and raised without a parent, originally a father. Perhaps that is what I was looking for in my films, how to break with a certain paternal film lineage. And so I got really interested in Raúl Ruiz, as well as female pleasure as a place from which to generate formal strategies.
Then I got pregnant. I started shooting a new film in 2017, titled Words, Planets. I made a cut in the summer and thought it was finished, but by the time I gave birth the transformation into motherhood evidenced the splitting of the psyche from one into two, the film got made again in a new way which doubled itself. It follows a series of formal propositions from Ruiz's essay “For a Shamanic Cinema” that I mentioned earlier. It is made with my students from the ‘Wild Nuns’ course.

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