In "Crone Music," her largest exhibition so far, Franco-British artist and filmmaker Beatrice Gibson presented two new films, I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead and Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs ("Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters"), in London’s Camden Arts Centre, along with many other side programs related to expanded cinema, poetry and music. As in her previous works, for which she received numerous accolades, including two Tiger awards for best short film at the International Rotterdam Film Festival, in her new films she explores the nature of communal work in the artistic process and the politics of friendship.
Usually shot on analogue film, her work was for this occasion transferred to digital and projected in two gallery spaces on impressive screens that occupied the whole wall of the galleries. The third gallery, whose interior was for this reason designed by Dominic Cullinan, an architect whose work focuses on educational projects and a creation of collaborative environments, featured a program of films curated by Gibson that included works by Leslie Thornton, Ana Vaz, Basma Alsharif, Mati Diop and Chantal Akerman. Gibson’s work is at the same time political and visually striking and this latest exhibition seems to be formed around two axes. The first one could be seen as a vertical line of the influences from the past, starting from Gertrude Stein, whose unrealized script formed a basis for Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs, and poets Eileen Myles and C. A. Conrad from I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead, to experimental musician Pauline Oliveros, whose music album from 1990 served as an inspiration for the exhibition’s title. The second axis is the horizontal one, of Gibson’s friends and colleagues, of the mutual stimuli that surround her in the present moment, and with whom she often collaborates, as in the case of the film club The Machine That Kills Bad People that she formed along with Erika Balsom, Ben Rivers and Maria Palacios Cruz for which they curate films at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and commission essays. In the point where those two axes touch each other, these two new films come to life as individual pieces that co-exist in companionship. For that reason, both of these works are films of a prominent contemporaneity whose rhythms balance between sensibility and rawness, silence and noise, movement and stillness while beautifully exploring femininity, motherhood, rights on civil disobedience and collective artistic engagement as a tool for political change.
NOTEBOOK: The first time I saw the exhibition, I wasn’t even aware of the interconnection between you as an artist and the community that surrounds you from which you draw inspiration as well, all that synergy that was taking place in the background. Only later I realized how many areas are intertwined and I’d like to ask you if you could talk more about your creative process? Do ideas first happen in solitude and then develop through conversations and collective work, or other way around?
BEATRICE GIBSON: It’s hard to talk about it in isolation because the two films were conceived at the same time, which actually was of great benefit to both of them, because there’s so many connections between them: it’s almost like the films are the two sisters, which is so nice. When Ben [Rivers] went to see the exhibition he said “They’re like the two sisters!” [Laughter] That was very sweet. I started thinking about both films in 2016. It was January, my daughter had just been born, Brexit, then Trump happened: that was when the world sort of started to fall apart. It all felt so out of the blue and it was so shocking. At the same time, there’s a certain vulnerability after you’ve had a baby because your hormones are all crazy. So world was collapsing, my biology was collapsing, and I just started reading a lot of poetry. The art world and the poetry world were having a kind of flirt together, so suddenly there was a lot of poetry in my landscape and that seemed like a healthier thing to do than refresh the Guardian every 30 seconds and freak out.
I was installing a show in Graz and I took a book with me of CAConrad’s poetry, and Krist Gruijthuijsen, my friend, curator of Grazer Kunstverein at the time, said, "oh I know CA, do you want to meet them?" They were teaching in Amsterdam at that moment and Krist suggested going to and talk to them, so I decided to do it! I knew I wanted to make a film around poetry, but I didn’t know what. I was very open-ended with CA and I told them I want to make a film and I knew that I wanted to work with two poets. They suggested inviting Eileen Myles and I thought that would be amazing. It ended with me taking a flight to New York have a conversation with both of them. It would have been really crazy not to film that, so I ended up making the trip into a little shoot. We filmed in Eileen’s apartment, on the eve Trump’s inauguration. CA does these amazing rituals as part of their practice. Eileen and CA devised this collective ritual and we filmed that in a quite documentary way but without synced sound. It was crucial that it was done without synced sound because if you put synced sound, it’s immediately something that you’re doing specifically for the camera and then you have to repeat it and connect everything in the edit. It becomes a performance, which neither of them wanted. So we sent the sound recordist off to Trump tower to see if there was anything interesting to record [laughs]. When I came back to London I had this material and I thought that I it wasn’t really expanded enough to be anything in itself, so I started looking at archival research around them and their own histories. They’ve both been very politically active, CA in ACT UP for example, Eileen within feminism, but then I sort of felt disconnected from the material. I asked myself “why am I making this film?”, they happen both to be queer, that was a coincidence, but why was I doing it. I spent a lot of time sort of agonizing about what to do and then one of my producers, Mason Leaver Yap, and my partner Nick Gordon both really pushed me towards making it more personal.
NOTEBOOK: How did you then connect that with Gertrude Stein, when did she come into the story?
GIBSON: Eileen mentions her at the beginning of I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead because we spoke about her a lot. At the time I already had in mind the second film Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs, which is based on a Stein script written in 1929. Stein is like everybody’s godmother. Eileen has an interesting relationship with her in particular, both of them write very much about themselves, their characters, autobiographically and very personally. It’s a very radical, feminist idea. So the idea to make it more personal was also a way to do justice to Stein and to Eileen’s poetry. More than just make a film about their poetry. I used their poetry as a method. I was trying to think about it in relation to how I would actually make the film. Once you go down that path, it’s so full of meaning because there’s so much more at stake in it, in a way. The reason that I was reading a lot of poetry at the time was because I was freaked out about the world and that’s quite rich material because everybody’s freaked out, it’s a universal thing. In a way it’s funny because you would think that if you go down a very private road that it would be some kind of insular, individualistic thing, but actually it ends up being very communal and collective because everybody is experiencing the same feelings as you are.
NOTEBOOK: I think that’s why the films resonate so well with an audience. Even though both of the films share certain similarities, I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead seems to be more expressive in its political engagement, whereas Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs feels warmer and slower. Do you think that is the motherhood aspect that made it feel like that?
GIBSON: Yes, and there is also Brazil. Ana [Vaz] is talking about Brazil and that was actually really important to me because in both of these films I’m trying to looking at motherhood not in the private, individual sense, not in a saccharine, middle-class way. It was important that it was more metaphorical. When you’re pregnant, you have another being inside you and it’s a pretty wild thing. As an experience and as a question of how to relate to otherness, it’s quite profound. To take that outside of your own nuclear family context and think about your relationship to others in general, that’s what’s crucial and what’s interesting politically.
NOTEBOOK: The films resonate with a possibility of a positive change, a sort of a constructive anger through the engagement with one’s community. They could be seen as explorations of a relationship between control and chaos. How important is improvisation in your work while preparing the film?
GIBSON: It’s definitely very important, and it manifests itself in different ways in each project. For example, the process that I just described to you is very improvised. In a wider sense, I didn’t know what film I was going to make was at the very beginning and the elements become apparent the more I go along and the more I struggle with the material. In a smaller sense, in Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Sœurs I went to Paris and two days before the shoot I discussed with Diocouda—the women who talks about the dream she had about a fried egg—that I wanted to come and talk about her pregnancy. We discussed talking about the dreams she had had and the possibility of writing a letter to her unborn, but it was completely open-ended: I didn’t see the letter she wrote until the day of the shoot. Diocouda was very funny because she said, "Oh, I have a very boring dream," and I told her "That’s not a boring dream, that’s a tripped out dream!" That was really fun, that spontaneous way of working.
NOTEBOOK: Even though there’s a sense of chance, the music and the rhythm of the work give it a coherent structure.
GIBSON: Yes, in I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead I use Pauline Oliveros’ music. She was a very radical figure in experimental modernist composition: her contemporaries were people like John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Robert Ashley. It was a very white, male avant-garde scene which really didn’t deal with feminism at all. She was a lesbian and had an explicitly feminist project and so I specifically chose her to work with her music in advance. The title of the exhibition is also from her album Crone Music. So I had that soundtrack already before I had the edit because I knew I wanted to use it. In a way it’s edited to that music, or the music becomes an excuse to make a cut. And for Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Sœurs Laurence Crane wrote a soundtrack especially for the film and that functioned in a similar way. The soundtracks become a kind of alibi for structure.
NOTEBOOK: And the film is after that born in the editing room?
GIBSON: I think so… Yeah, pretty much—I always try for that not to happen, but then that’s what happens, I can’t avoid it, but you know I’m very privileged to work in the art world, so what that affords me is time. I have the privilege of being able to sit with material. In a commercial context it’s different, here is the shoot, there is the edit, here is the film. I think that Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Sœurs is really testament to the benefit of having a bit of space to sit with things, because the two pregnancies for example, which make up the heart of the film, happened coincidentally, after we had already shot a lot of the Gertrude Stein material.
NOTEBOOK: You operate in the art world but also in the experimental film world. This work was made for an exhibition space but do you think that the films would lose part of its strength if they were showed outside of that context, at the festival for example?
GIBSON: I like existing in both worlds. In the cinema the film can get ripped out of its context, an audience gets the product, but unless there’s a small Q&A or some small nod to discursivity, you are basically left with only the end result. In the art world, on the other hand, you really get an opportunity to extrapolate the landscape in which the films were made and that’s why I enjoy it.
NOTEBOOK: The expanded part of the program then becomes almost equally important as the films?
GIBSON: Well, to go back to your first question, there are communities in both films. In I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead I’ve summoned the voices in my head, that I’ve been reading. The narration is made up of a landscape of female, feminist poets, both historical and contemporary, besides Eileen and CA, there’s also Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. I had this idea that I wanted to put all these voices in one place for my daughter, so it ends up as as a kind of love letter to her and spells out all these women she can call upon if she needs them at some point in her life, which is why it’s sort of emotional for me as well. That’s the bit that really gets me when I watch it. So this idea of community and making work together, for me goes against this predominantly male concept of the male genius who sits alone in his study and makes these brilliant things. That’s just not my experience. That idea of community can be subtle, be about the things I’m reading or the voices that I’m surrounded by in my head or be more explicit, like in Deux Soeurs where it’s actually my own community, i.e. is made up of my friends and colleagues. That’s why I decided to cast the Stein project with my own friends, it’s an extension of that idea. That’s also why I love making films, it’s when I’m making a film that I really get to experience a community. You feel so rich in that moment.
I think that one of the great things about the commercial, mainstream film industry is the fact that the crediting system is actually really explicit, in the art world that’s often not the case, you often have encounter quite elaborate productions without any credits at all, which is something I really don’t agree with. Labor should be named. I enjoy the fact that I’m not alone at my kitchen table. Because I have a small family it’s sometimes quite hard to get out and about and increasingly my work is becoming a way to focus on those friendships. The film club I started with Ben Rivers, Maria Palacios Cruz and Erika Balsom is an example. I want to watch films, I want to see my friends, I want to speak to my colleagues about films—I can’t do that, you know I have to go home, I have to feed my kids, there’s no time for all of that. So making it an explicit part of my working life, a formal thing, allows it to be something that I can really commit to. I’m really feeling so enlivened by those kinds of things at moment.
NOTEBOOK: And the collaborative aspect is also visible in the specially designed space for that part of the program.
GIBSON: I knew that I wanted to have an expanded program along with the exhibition so it was more of a question of how to present it in a way that made it visible or tangible. It’s not an installation, it’s purely a practical room, but it’s also very considered. I worked with my friend, the architect Dominic Cullinan, on the spatial design for that room. During our conversations I emphasized that I really didn’t want the room to appear to be an installation. Dom and I decided to ask the institution to design the room in the way that I make the films: i.e. begging and borrowing and stealing from your friends [laughs]. So, all the furniture in the room is borrowed from local institutions which was nice because it’s became an excuse for Camden to make connections with their neighbors. In the art world there’s a lot of talk about expanded cinema and what that means more specifically. For a lot of people in the last few years that has meant building specific environments for work be viewed in. In my case I’m interested in expanded cinema as a more discursive, less material thing; all the voices in your head, the friendships, all the relationships that go into making a work, how to make the community behind the film more apparent.
NOTEBOOK: You touched upon the idea of being contemporary and being in a contemporary moment, and your work definitely seems that way. I was wondering about how do you reflect upon the time when you starting working on the films, 2016 from this present, contemporary situation?
GIBSON: My daughter grew, we’re all still here, it’s all a bit worse, I don’t know—maybe it’s a bit worse, I don’t know. I guess there are certain proposals about how to deal with the contemporary moment evident in the two films: togetherness, for example feels like sensible way forward. I’m not sure that I really thought about that consciously at the beginning though, it kind of just happened as a result of making the work.
NOTEBOOK: Was that a reenactment of the final scene from Claire Denis’ Beau travail at the end of I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead? I thought that was beautiful, can you tell us more about the idea behind it?
GIBSON: Yeah it is, definitely, can’t you tell? I learned the whole dance! [Laughs.]. It was very spontaneous, I was in the process of making the film and, well, obviously that’s the best scene ever in the history of cinema, and I got really into and it and I was watching it and dancing to it and then one morning my son came in and caught me dancing. He thought it was amazing and got completely obsessed with it. So every morning for about three months he was like, "Mama, we have to do Denis Lavant!" and we’d all dance around the kitchen. I didn’t know how to end the movie and then all of a sudden I realized that’s what I had to do, I had to finish it like that! Also, it makes total sense in the context, because in the scene he is there with the gun and he’s going to kill himself and you don’t really know whether he’s dead or alive, it’s a death dance, it’s about totally letting go or total abandon. It’s a really interesting scene to perform for that reason. It was also really embarrassing because I am not a great dancer, so I made everyone leave, except for Ben [Rivers, director of photography] and the sound recordist. Also my son is only five years old, so after two takes he was hungry and bored [laughs]. So I knew I only really had one or two takes and that made it really intense. I had one chance and I had to fully go there and fully let go.
"Beatrice Gibson: Crone Music" runs January 18 – March 31, 2019 at London's Camden Arts Center.